“Raising questions about the plan does not mean being against sustainable development or affordable housing.”
This Opinion article came out in the Times-Standard on December 8, 2021, very quickly after the “Draft Gateway Area Plan” was released to the public. The key points are:
- Do we really want Arcata’s population to increase by roughly 25% in the next few years?
- What will happen to all the businesses and jobs that will be rezoned or otherwise driven out of the area?
- Parking and traffic.
- Where are the city services to support this development going to come from?
- The plan touts sustainability as a core goal, but ignores at least one key issue: Sea-Level Rise.
Steve Railsback is an environmental engineer and ecologist specializing in modeling ecological systems, individual-based ecological modeling, and assessment of instream flow needs for river fish and ecosystems. He is an adjunct professor in the Mathematics Department and Environmental Systems Graduate program at Humboldt State University [Cal Poly Humboldt] and previously was on the research staff at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
OPINION : COMMENTARY
My Word | Take a serious look at Arcata’s proposed Gateway housing plan
By THE TIMES-STANDARD December 8, 2021
By Steve Railsback
Like most of us, I rarely follow my city’s planning activities. But when a friend brought Arcata’s new Gateway Area Plan to my attention it really woke me up — everyone in Arcata needs to learn about this plan and how it could change our town dramatically and quickly. (The plan is currently available from a link on the city website’s homepage, https://cityofarcata.org.) [Specific link, here.]
It calls for redeveloping much of the area west of downtown, between K and Q streets and from Samoa to Alliance, with high-density housing including multiple 8-story buildings. The plan envisions over 3500 new residential units — many, many times more units than required under the state’s affordable housing plan — and proposes a streamlined permitting process to reduce oversight and expedite construction.
Many goals of the Gateway Plan are admirable: promoting high-density, mixed-use, and mixed-income housing near downtown instead of sprawl. But the plan raises some very concerning questions.
Do we want to grow this quickly?
The first and foremost question is whether we really want Arcata’s population to increase by roughly 25% in the next few years. Growth may be inevitable, but growth of this magnitude and speed is not. Further, it is not at all clear that this magnitude of development is necessary for, or even likely to succeed at, making housing more affordable. For decades, transportation planners built more highways thinking they would solve traffic problems, but instead they just created more demand for highways. Massive development like the Gateway Plan proposes may just increase the population and thereby create more demand for housing, instead of making it more affordable.
What will happen to all the businesses and jobs?
Second, what will happen to all the businesses and jobs that will be rezoned or otherwise driven out of the area? These include professional offices, manufacturing, auto repair shops, wholesale suppliers, etc. that many of us depend on for jobs or services. Do we want to lose these? Where will they go?
Parking and Traffic
The third issue is parking and traffic. The plan talks about providing a “car-free lifestyle” and requires little off-street parking. But do we really think thousands of people will choose to live in Arcata without a car, and therefore be unable to recreate outdoors, shop in Eureka, or travel? Car-free living is great when there is mass transit to support it, but there is no practical way other than cars to travel within and out of Humboldt County. Parking is already difficult downtown; imagine it with thousands more cars on the streets.
City services and our Wastewater Treatment system
Next, where are the city services to support this development going to come from? Our building department is understaffed, the fire department is certainly not equipped for high-rise apartments, and the wastewater treatment system has struggled to meet its permit requirements already. How much will it cost all of us to provide these services?
And we’re ignoring Sea-Level Rise ?
Finally, the plan touts sustainability as a core goal, but ignores at least one key issue: sea-level rise. In conflict with the city’s draft sea-level rise policy, the plan builds the city toward, instead of away from, its lowest elevations. We have learned from Florida that one kind of proposed development — condominiums — is particularly incompatible with sea-level rise: condo associations inherently lack the incentive, funding, and expertise to adapt to slowing increasing risks.
Raising questions about the plan does not mean being against sustainable development or affordable housing.
Raising questions about the plan does not mean being against sustainable development or affordable housing. It can mean, though, that we think there are alternatives to this particular plan that need serious consideration — alternatives to the proposed rate and magnitude of growth, and to where and how we develop. Raising questions can mean that we’re not sure Arcata needs to, or wants to, rapidly become a much larger city. There are certainly opportunities for better use of the Gateway area, but also opportunities to develop housing elsewhere in town. And there certainly are ways to meet affordable housing requirements without such massive development.
If you are concerned…
If you are concerned, please quickly talk to businesses and homeowners in the affected area, look online for ways to get involved, communicate with the City Council, and use the city’s website to see the plan and learn about opportunities to influence it. The city’s schedule for approving the Gateway Area Plan is very rapid, with public events and key Planning Commission and City Council meetings in mid-December.
Steve Railsback is an environmental engineer and resident of Arcata.
[Sub-headings, bold, and color have been added to the original.]