Proposed five-story residence and dining hall has university’s neighbors wondering why they weren’t consulted
Doris Meriam is 87 years old, says she’s still in good shape but doesn’t move quite as fast as she once did, and certainly sounds plenty feisty on the phone. She lives on Citrus Avenue, in the historic Mansion Park neighborhood immediately north of Chico State University.
Her tidy house is directly across the street from the Lassen and Shasta residence halls on campus. She’s been there since 1960, and she’s not happy with the changes she’s seen over the years—and not timid about saying so.
“I have a little carport on the alley in back, and the kids use it to smoke pot, have sex, all kinds of things they didn’t use to do,” she said. “I live in a house, but I feel like I live in a prison, with all the students here.”
Mind you, she loves the university and is deeply connected to it. Meriam Library, after all, is named after her late husband, Ted, a former Chico mayor and civic leader who once served on the state university’s Board of Trustees. And her kids went to school at Chico State.
But she thinks it’s growing too fast and getting too large. She’s especially irked by the new $52 million residence hall and dining center set to be built next year just on the other side of Lassen and Shasta halls, next to Whitney Hall. The five-story, 112,000-square-foot structure will house 228 people and provide meals for all campus dorm residents.
“I’m against it,” she said firmly. “I think it’s being built in a space that’s too small.” She also worries about increased traffic in her neighborhood, as well as the dust and noise the construction will generate.
“They’re going to use piledrivers,” she continued angrily. “Do you know what those things do? It’s gonna shake, rattle and roll here. I’m going to have cracks all over my house.”
Doris Meriam isn’t alone in her concerns about the new facility. Others in her neighborhood, including School Board member Jann Reed, also fear that the facility isn’t compatible with the neighborhood.
Reed, like several others, is particularly concerned about the placement and design of the new building. Its front faces south, inward toward the campus, and its back is to Legion Avenue, the Chico High School playing fields across the street, and the adjacent Mansion Park neighborhood.
“It’s so unfriendly,” Reed said. “What you’re looking at is this big, five-story wall. And it’s set back from the street only seven feet. They say they’re going to plant trees there, but that’s not enough room for trees.”
The most frustrating part of the situation, she says, is the feeling the neighbors got that there was little or nothing they could do to affect the process. By the time they learned about the project, it was pretty much a done deal.
On Sept. 10, the neighbors met with university officials to go over the plans, but they soon realized the meeting was informational only and that in fact the CSU Board of Trustees would be voting on the building just nine days later, at the Sept. 19 meeting.
That didn’t sit well with Doris Meriam: “I blew my stack.” She said she got no sense, “none at all,” that anything she said would make any difference.
Another attendee from the neighborhood, Lee Laney, echoed her comments. “We felt absolutely shut out and that our concerns were for naught.”
Members of the neighborhood have been meeting with university officials for more than a year to resolve issues resulting from their proximity to the campus—in particular, concerns about the proposed new natural-history museum, amplified noise from campus concerts, and late-night fireworks during Chico Outlaws games at Nettleton Stadium.
As Reed noted, “We’ve tried to keep it under the radar, not taking our complaints public. We’ve tried and tried to work together, and every time we end up with the short end of the deal.”
Bob Fortino, another resident of the neighborhood, said much of the frustration was the result of being led to think they would have a role in the process and then discovering they would have no impact.
As Laney put it, “We like our neighborhood, and we expect some degree of hubbub, but we’d really like the university to work with us.”
Space-wise, Chico State is one of the most impacted campuses in the CSU system. Although it’s surrounded on all sides by developed land, it’s committed to growing at the rate of 1.5 percent per year. That may not seem like much, but in 20 years it would add some 6,000 students to the current 16,500, for a total of 24,500.
To lessen the impact on the larger community, President Paul Zingg wants to get more students living on campus. But right now he doesn’t have the beds. His goal is to go from the current 1,900 beds to 3,000 in a few years. That means building more dorms.
One advantage Chico State has is that it’s a sovereign entity not accountable to the city. It doesn’t have to follow city codes—hence the 7-foot setback, when the city requires 20 feet—and it does its own environmental studies of its own plans.
It is held accountable in the court of public opinion, however, and because it desires good town-gown relations, it has backed off on some projects. At one time, for example, it was going to raze the historic “Language Houses” on West Third Street to make way for a parking structure but backed off when met with an outcry.
Architecturally, it has not always presented itself well to the community. The Performing Arts Center, for example, offers its block-long brick back to anybody going down Second Street, and the main entry to the campus, the corner of West First and Salem streets, is almost stunningly nondescript.
But more recently the university has tried to work more cooperatively with the community, said Joe Wills, director of public affairs. He cited Warner Street, which the university at one point wanted to reroute behind the playing fields but instead left in place and redesigned—quite nicely, as it turned out—in response to community concerns.
Joel Trenalone, the interim director of the Facilities Planning department at the university and the man who’s been shepherding the new dorm building through the process, agreed that in the past the university hasn’t worked very closely with the community, but said today there is more concern with town-gown relations and greater desire to be a good neighbor.
The reality, however, is that the university is a city within the city, so it has its own design needs. It’s an art to create a sense of distinctiveness, he said, while also presenting a warm face to the larger community.
The university now looks at Second Street as its “front,” the “face” it presents to the public. Recent buildings such as the new student union and Student Services Center were designed much differently than the Performing Arts Center, with doors and windows on the Second Street side that are welcoming, Trenalone noted. And the university has plans to redesign Taylor Hall and the entrance at First and Salem, making it much more attractive.
The new dorm and dining hall building, in contrast, was designed to face inward, toward the campus, since that was the direction from which most people would approach it, Trenalone said. And, indeed, it has a pedestrian-friendly courtyard that is very attractive. However, because it contains a dining facility, it needs a loading dock and areas for refuse storage, and they will go in the back, along Legion Avenue.
Across the street, he pointed out, is a fenced playing field. The nearest house is 375 feet away. “The university wouldn’t have designed it this way if it weren’t across from the high school field,” Trenalone said.
Nevertheless, it will be the back of a tall building close to the sidewalk, and Mansion Park residents don’t much like it, nor the way it was pushed through.
As Doris Meriam put it, “If they had come to us first, we might have been a little more cooperative.”