Commission deadlocks on student apartments

If they could have, the room full of neighbors protesting a 176-unit, 648-bedroom student apartment complex would have rounded up the leaders of Sterling Housing and sent them straight back to Texas on the horse they rode in on.

Wearing matching anti-project tee-shirts, dozens of people who live near Highway 32 at West Eighth and West Lindo avenues collectively told the Chico Planning Commission that they knew the orchard next door would eventually be developed, but this project would be the worst possible use of the land.

“It’s being located in the wrong neighborhood,” said Anne Marie Robinson. “It could be located down by the university [and] it wouldn’t be bringing student housing into a family neighborhood.”

The roads can’t safely handle that many people, they said. Besides that, said neighbor Beverly Patrick, “I feel that they will go off [the property] to do their partying.”

After more than three hours, the commission on June 6 deadlocked 2-2 on whether to OK a General Plan amendment to rezone the property from light manufacturing and industrial uses to medium-density residential, which sends the decision to the City Council with no recommendation. Kirk Monfort and Ross Bradford supported the project; Jolene Francis and Vic Alvistur opposed it. Nancy Wolfe had a conflict of interest and Craig Sanders was absent.

The Sterling Housing team regrouped after the Planning Commission in January told them to revise their proposal to include some of the neighbors’ concerns about traffic, density and other issues. For a moment, it looked as if the delay would be a deal-breaker for the company, which has student apartments in 20 states and is adding 3,100 beds this fall alone. But company representative Craig Dickerson was back, along with President Jack Dinerstein. Jim Mann, a widely known Chico advocate for developers, had also been retained to help plead Sterling’s case.

Dickerson described a Shangri-La of a student apartment building, complete with a clubhouse, basketball courts, pool, spa, high-speed Internet hookups—even a police substation, although there are no plans to staff it. With all this, he said, there would no need for the students to wander the neighborhood and nearby Oak Way Park as residents fear. “We’ve got a product that’s very desirable to the students,” he said.

Commissioner Monfort, who ultimately ended up voting for the project, asked, “How do you prevent this from becoming a scene of rowdy engagements and riotous behavior? How do your lease agreements work? How do you control the tenants so this place doesn’t become a public nuisance?”

Dickerson replied that rule violations come with fines and eventual eviction. “Their parents are on the hook for the leases,” he added.

He noted that Sterling has compromised since its initial proposal by promising to limit tenants to one per bedroom and to scale back from three stories to two. It could even offer a private bus if city service could not be arranged.

Dinerstein countered newspaper reports in other cities stating that Sterling complexes are party centrals for students. A police chief was misquoted and reporters were mistaken, he said.

“It’s prettier than anything else in town,” said Dinerstein, who referred in passing to “Chico University.” And as for the college student tenants, “we’ll teach them how to respect the property. … We put over 15,000 young people to bed at night.”

But none of this assuaged the concerns of the audience members.

A representative from Union Pacific Railroad, Wayne Horiuchi, told the commission his company would not allow a bike path anywhere near its tracks, and to build student apartments so close to the lines was “bad public policy” to begin with. “Once you put students next to a railroad track, you’re going to have problems—I guarantee it,” he said.

Paul Persons, an attorney and former chairman of the Academic Senate at Chico State University, came forward to tell the commission, “We are planning to downsize our enrollment. … There’s no housing need to base this on.”

Perhaps the calmest argument of the evening came from Jane Dolan, who lives in the area but is also the 2nd District representative to the Butte County Board of Supervisors. She focused on the safety concerns on “what is physically really only a country highway.” Rather than “spot zoning,” she said, infrastructure like traffic lights, sidewalks and such should be dealt with long before a project of this scope is built.

A motion that would add conditions such as a bike path and a traffic light at Oak Way and Nord Avenue, plus bus service, couldn’t break the tie. The City Council is expected to hear the matter at its June 24 meeting.