As NAU continues to grow under the mandates of the Arizona Board of Regents, and students can not find adequate accommodations on campus, many turn to an already saturated and expensive housing market in Flagstaff.
In response to the demand, private companies have seen the issue as an opportunity, buying up land and starting construction on multiple housing projects.
But with the Village at Aspen Place and the Grove already built and serving students, plus another five major housing developments directly in the pipeline, the issue of high-occupancy student housing has garnered more and more attention both for students at NAU and those local to the city of Flagstaff.
The situation recently came to a head in the debate over the construction of The Hub, a 664-bed facility planned for the historic Southside. On March 1, the Flagstaff City Council listened to presentations from the city staff, public and the developer of The Hub, Core Campus, before voting on the first phase of a rezoning proposal for that development.
These discussions have also highlighted a second problem, namely, the lack of knowledge about the city’s zoning codes. This is by no means unusual since, though important, zoning codes are a complex part of part of local government. Roger Eastman, a zoning code administrator for the city of Flagstaff, is not also surprised about the lack of knowledge.
“Zoning codes are typically complicated,” Eastman said. “We’ve streamlined ours, made it less complicated than it used to be, but there’s still a lot of standards and technical terms.”
So, first the basics: within the city of Flagstaff, there are two zoning types, standard zoning and transect zoning.
In standard city zoning, “Every property has some zone designation on it. Whether it’s residential, commercial, industrial, open space or public facility, it has a zone which then gives you a box of rules that tells you what you can do with that property,” Eastman said.
On the other hand, the rules transect zoning prescribes have more to do with the look, feel and density of the neighbourhood than what uses the buildings within it have. Flagstaff contains six transect zones which transition from “T6,” to “T1.” T6, the densest of the zones, is designed to emulate downtown Flagstaff, while T1 is a rural zone.
Transect zoning only applies to a small part of the city. These include “The downtown, North-end, Townsite, Southside and parts of Plaza Vieja,” Eastman said. “In those areas, a property owner can choose between building under either transect zoning or the standard city zoning, but cannot mix and match.”
In these areas, there are two layers of zoning, both of which are equally powerful and both have rules that must be followed. It simply depends on whether a property owner would like to build under standard zoning layer or the transect layer.
The developers of The Hub chose to build under transact zoning. This is what allows Core Campus to only provide parking spaces to 30 percent of the available beds.
This parking requirement, along with a few other aspects about The Hub, have turned much of the public against the increasing number of high-occupancy housing developments that are being built in the city. This has left many wondering what the mayor and the Flagstaff City Council is going to do about these developments.
“We’ve had a number of really big projects,” Eastman said. “The Standard, I think, was the first. We had the Aspen Heights Project and now The Hub. We had The Lofts, which is under construction, and obviously the Village at Aspen Place [and the Grove], all very, very big projects, and [they] started to raise questions.”
The city’s response was to create the Student Housing Action Plan (SHAP), which was supported by all the members of the City Council.
Charlie Silver was one of many members of the public who was involved in the SHAP process.
According to Silver, SHAP was the first step taken by city council towards an official plan to address student housing issues. The SHAP process was also based on a similar process adopted by Fort Collins in Colorado.
SHAP consisted of two groups, an internal working group composed mainly of city staff, the Flagstaff Police Department, county officials and an NAU representative, and an external working group of community members and some members of the internal working group who attended the community meetings.
The SHAP process took about five months, during which time the group met one to two times a month to discuss their vision for student-focused housing off campus. Silver also said the purpose of SHAP was to advise the Flagstaff City Council on what policy changes the city should make to address student housing.
“[We asked ourselves], what are the possible solutions to student housing, and then, what are the tools that could be used to implement them?” Silver said. “So we have the regional plan that within itself is really a guidance document, and then you have the zoning code that is the enabling document that supposedly puts that regional plan vision into practice.”
SHAP could recommend changes to both of these documents in addressing high occupancy housing.
On Oct. 27, 2015, Silver presented SHAP’s conclusions to the City Council. According to a document summarizing their recommendations, the city should create “protections for the unique character of historic neighborhoods and districts by providing area-specific recommendations, including: [the] exterior finish, materials, and [the] architecture of buildings [as well as the] relative height compared to surrounding buildings.”
The document also states that the city should look to improve public transportation systems within the city as this may lessen the effect such developments have on traffic and parking issues. In addition to this, the document states, there should be conditions added for the “protection of the character of historic neighborhoods and districts.”
SHAP is not the city’s plan, but rather serves as a group of recommendations that may be used to formulate a plan.
Sara Dechter, the comprehensive planning manager for the city, is heading the changes to the regional plan while Eastman handles the changes to zoning codes.
“We’ve just started the initial meetings with staff who needs to be involved,” Eastman said. He cited the need for many more questions to be answered before they get started, like “how are we going to do this, how are we going to manage the public outreach, what do we want [and] what are the outcomes were anticipating — we’ve got a lot of research to do — that’s where we are with it.”
Dechter is hoping that the process of creating an official city plan goes very quickly. Due to this, there will likely not be as much public participation as there was with the SHAP process. Otherwise it could take another whole year before a plan is even finalized.
But according to Eastman, there will be at least be some public input for the final plan on zoning.
“One of the things we are going to do, for example is, [for] people who’ve been outspoken on these projects in the past, [we will] contact them, get them involved, so we can go to council and say this is what the public wants and this is our response to it,” Eastman said.
Eastman wishes the process could be shorter, but is hoping the zoning process will take from six to nine months.
Whenever the plan finally reaches the council, its effectiveness may not be as great as previously anticipated.
One of the problems, Dechter pointed out, is that when approved, the plan would only apply to future developments while those already “in the pipe” would not be affected.
More important, is Arizona’s Proposition 207, a personal property rights law passed in 2006. For Eastman, Proposition 207 makes any meaningful changes to the zoning code that restrict building far more difficult.
As a result of Proposition 207, those who own property affected by a zoning change can demand compensation from the city. A landowner can only demand compensation if their property is directly affected and they feel they have lost money because of the change.
This compensation can come in a few ways. The city could simply pay the landowner for the difference. Using another type of compensation, the city could be forced to exempt that piece of property from the change in law altogether. This can be problematic, creating what Dechter called “a Swiss cheese effect” as holes of old zoning law appear within the newly changed zones.
In the end, it remains to be seen how effective Proposition 207 will be on any plan the city develops, and, in turn, how effective any plan will be on addressing the issue of high-occupancy student housing.