Chico Heritage Association speaks out about construction of a four-story parking structure amidst century-old houses
Walking down tree-lined West Third Street is like taking a walk through history. Many of the houses here, between Normal Avenue and Hazel Street, were built in the early part of the last century (and some even earlier). They’re part of what’s called the South Campus Historic District.
By December 2012, however, those who gaze up at the stately Sapp Hall or the simpler Sierra Hall will also view a behemoth behind them—a four-story parking garage.
There is little doubt that Chico State is in need of more student parking. In fact, it has the lowest ratio of parking spaces to students and employees in the California State University system. That’s why plans for it were approved by the Board of Trustees despite the fact it was voted down by a 76 percent margin in a recent student advisory measure. Downtown business owners have long called for more university parking to handle the large number of student vehicles they say take up potential shoppers’ spaces.
The real issue here doesn’t seem to be why the garage is being built, but where it’s being built. The structure will be located right behind three historic houses that are in the South Campus Historic District and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. They’re some of the oldest structures associated with Chico State.
Chico Heritage Association President John Gallardo feels strongly about the impending structure, referring to it as a “modern monster.” The structure, he said, will overshadow Sapp Hall, a big, beautiful Italianate-style home built in 1884 on the corner of Third and Normal that now is home to the Office of Alumni and Parent Relations. The house is the oldest Chico State structure as well as “one of the most beloved structures in Chico,” Gallardo said.
The other historic houses that will be overshadowed are Sierra Hall, home to University Public Events, and the vacant Anna Barney House, which sits between Sapp and Sierra on West Third Street. The small, white house once belonged to Anna Barney, an English professor, a published playwright and poet, and founder of Chico State’s creative writing and drama programs following her arrival in 1919. The rapidly deteriorating house is listed on the Chico Heritage Association’s List of Endangered Historical Resources, but for now the university’s plans for its preservation remain uncertain.
Mike Magliari, a history professor at Chico State and a member of the association, made it clear that the group hopes that everything possible is done in advance to “avoid any adverse physical, visual, or aesthetic impacts on the structures themselves, or on the historic neighborhood.”
The association missed the public-comment period on the environmental-impact report, which came out at the same time as the report for Taylor II, the new arts and humanities building. The CHA was so busy addressing the latter project’s impact on John Pugh’s mural Academe that it didn’t have time to concentrate on the parking structure’s proximity to the historic neighborhood.
One of the items of contention—and the reason Gallardo got interested in the project in the first place—is the short distance between the building and the historic houses, which at its closest point will be just 10 feet, reports Lori Hoffman, vice president for business and finance at the university. In addition, the back side of the structure will effectively be facing the historic neighborhood, Magliari said.
“Most of the aesthetic amenities seem to be oriented toward Second Street, toward campus,” he said. “There will be a challenge in dealing tastefully with that backside. It will be very interesting to see what they come up with in the final design.”
University officials aren’t worried about the affect the parking structure will have on the neighborhood. In fact, they argue that they’ve worked hard to create an architectural plan that will be visually appealing. In particular, they point to a courtyard-style walkway surrounding the structure, including areas for plants and trees.
“The three university properties adjacent to the parking structure will be protected through a plaza and a walkway between them and the structure,” Chico State President Paul Zingg wrote in an e-mail.
The courtyard-style walkway will actually be 32 feet at its widest point and 10 feet at its narrowest point, Hoffman explained in an e-mail.
“The [city] building code would have allowed for a 3-foot setback but because of this desire to create a meandering pathway between the offices and the parking structure we created more space between the two,” she said.
The environmental-impact report prepared for the structure concludes that it will have a “less than significant impact” on the surrounding neighborhood, and will require no mitigation measures. It says that the structure will be “contextually consistent and architecturally compatible with surrounding campus buildings to the north,” and “construction of the proposed project would not adversely affect the aesthetics of the campus or surrounding areas.”
In addition to creating 359 parking spaces, the structure will also house offices and the University Police Department, which will vacate their temporary headquarters across the street to prepare for the construction of Taylor II. There will also be many sustainable features, including a row of solar panels on the top level.
Demolition and site work of the Second and Normal parking garage will start this August, and the lot will be closed for one academic year. Construction is planned to begin this September, and the entire structure should be complete and open by September 2012.
That’s not the end of this story, however. What might come as a surprise to some readers is that the university’s Master Plan includes yet another parking garage along Second Street, to be located either just east of the current project on a city lot or just west, at the corner of Second and Hazel streets, on another current Chico State parking lot. This means that the row of residential historic houses behind the latter, known as the Language Houses, could also be overshadowed someday.
These houses were once owned by Chico State’s Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures. Ironically, the university let the houses rot and fade away with the intention that they would one day be turned into a parking lot. But the state Legislature stepped in to save them in the 1990s, and they were sold to Wayne Cook, owner of the Hotel Diamond, who refurbished them and now rents them to students.
“I think the parking structure is a favorable thing to do, but I’d hate to see it come down right behind the Language Houses,” Cook said.
Magliari and the Chico Heritage Association will be taking a hard look at how the university proceeds with the current structure, as it will set a precedent for any future structure near the Language Houses.
“We’re watching the final design taking place to see how that develops,” Magliari said. “Whatever happens will be looked at for a future garage behind the Language Houses.”