Meriam Park

Mega-project gets city’s blessing

Artist’s rendering of the town square at Meriam Park

Artist’s rendering of the town square at Meriam Park

Meriam Park got a lot of love at the Chico City Council Tuesday night (June 19).

“What we’ve got here is the kind of village I lived in in Europe,” local resident Alan Gair told six councilmembers, a mid-size crowd and the cable-TV audience.

“This project is the first one that’s come through since the ‘94 general plan that carries forth as many goals and principles as I’ve seen,” said Butte Environmental Council’s Barbara Vlamis, a member of that general plan task force.

“This is the future of Chico and a model for the country,” Chico State sustainability chief Scott McNall declared.

Eleven other speakers sang Meriam Park’s praises, with just three voices of dissent. That ratio matched sentiment on the council, which gave the 272-acre development the kick-start it needed with a series of 5-1 votes.

With Larry Wahl dissenting and Mary Flynn absent, the council approved the environmental-impact report; added a special mixed-use designation (SMU) to the general plan and a traditional neighborhood development zoning district (TND) to the municipal code; rezoned some properties in the project area, along Bruce Road between 20th Street and Highway 32; and signed off—with a one-sentence addition OK’d by Wahl—on a development agreement between the city and New Urban Builders.

Meriam Park will comprise homes, shops and offices in a walkable neighborhood of new-urbanist design (the style of nearby Doe Mill Neighborhood, in which Councilman Scott Gruendl owns a home). NUB envisions 2,300 to 2,600 residences, including single- and multi-family units; 240,000 square feet of retail space, and 460,000 square feet of office/commercial space.

The live-shop-work mix pleased the council majority.

“We’re facing huge population growth ahead of us—we’re going to need an extra 10,000 homes,” said Vice Mayor Ann Schwab, dreading the prospect of urban sprawl or subdivisions on farmland and foothills. Meriam Park is “well thought-out; it’s something that brings character to Chico, and the community can be proud of it.”

Mayor Andy Holcombe and fellow progressives Gruendl and Tom Nickell agreed.

So did Steve Bertagna, who noted “the times, they are a-changin’ … things are going to change even more, and I know this gives us the choices we need.”

His fellow conservative did not agree.

Wahl decried the housing density—"this would be great in a big city or as a small town…. We’re asked to take what’s normally in 1,700 acres and jam it into 210 acres.” He called the parallel codes “favoritism” and “social engineering.” He branded the project “totally out of character for traditional Chico” and said he would oppose the entire project, though he approved a side motion requiring biannual reviews and a sentence added to the development agreement instructing the developer to work with Butte County Association of Governments on public transportation.

Gruendl and Schwab expressed concerns about air-quality mitigation, the plan for parks in the project and whether Humboldt Road should remain open through wetlands. Those were among the issues raised by three residents, the most vehement being Juanita Sumner.

Striding to the lectern after NUB’s John Anderson and 11 supportive speakers, Sumner branded the traditional-neighborhood concept “a rainbow; you can’t put your hands around it—it’s all speculation.” As an example, she said she didn’t choose her dentist based on proximity to her home, casting doubt on the sustainable premise of walkability.

“These subdivisions are approved for the RDA money, property tax, sales tax” from new businesses and new Chicoans, she added. “This is not about what we who live here need.” She delivered one final salvo—"For affordable housing, Andy, I’d demand they build it up front"—then stalked up the aisle out of the chamber.

The Meriam Park proceedings lasted three hours (not including break time), so official business continued past 11 p.m.

After hearing from the Tobacco Action Group and the American Lung Association, the council instructed the city attorney to draft an ordinance banning smokeless-tobacco giveaways in bars.

Wahl, again, was the lone dissenter, adopting a paternal tone in stating that bar patrons “make the choice to go there, and they can make the choice not to accept it. The city of Chico is not your mom and dad.”

Bertagna, again, joined the majority. Though he normally opposes tight restrictions on businesses, he confessed he took up tobacco chewing only after a friend gave him a dip, so “I have no problem supporting this.”

The sextet unanimously certified the results of public balloting regarding the Ceres/Highland Neighborhood Park (a proposed landscaping and lighting district resoundingly failed). They also agreed to have the Internal Affairs Committee evaluate a proposal by Nickell, a retiring CHP officer, to recover the cost of damages from intoxicated people who cause them.

In the Redevelopment Agency session that followed, the council (minus Holcombe, a housing-rights lawyer, who disqualified himself) unanimously allocated $125,000 for initial studies on the proposed Bidwell Park Apartments. The 38-unit complex would displace the Pear Grove mobile-home park sandwiched by Eighth and Ninth streets near Highway 99. Nickell in particular supports the project, which would put affordable housing on the “blighted” site where he’s made drug arrests.

That vote came at 11:33. The last meeting of the month could have run past midnight if not for Flynn’s absence.

The City Council was scheduled to consider whether to hear an appeal over the cell-phone tower proposed at the Elks Lodge. The Planning Commission deadlocked, thus failing to approve the project, and the council failed to approve an appeal hearing at the May 16 meeting held without Flynn. The 3-1 decision fell one vote short of the four needed to approve an appeal. Bertagna and Nickell remain disqualified on the matter, so rather than risk a reprise, the rehearing got postponed until July 17.