‘OK, build it’

Neighbors pound Sterling, but student apartment complex is a go

EDIFICE COMPLEX People who live where a large student apartment complex can now be built packed a June 24 Chico City Council meeting to urge members to vote against the decision. Comments at the podium and among the audience ranged from well-thought-out to snarky.

EDIFICE COMPLEX People who live where a large student apartment complex can now be built packed a June 24 Chico City Council meeting to urge members to vote against the decision. Comments at the podium and among the audience ranged from well-thought-out to snarky.

Photo by Tom Angel

New zoo? Several speakers at the City Council meeting made reference to “The Zoo,” fearing that Sterling Housing’s development could mimic scenes prevalent at that student apartment complex years ago. “The Zoo” was the nickname for the Sierra West Apartment complex, which was the site of boisterous parties until the reins were tightened under new management.

After nearly five hours of emotional testimony punctuated by both hissing and applause from a roomful of opposition, the Chico City Council approved a zoning change that paves the way for a new—and controversial—student apartment complex.

The vote at a special June 24 meeting was 4-2 to amend the General Plan and allow for the 176-unit, 648-bedroom complex on the east side of Highway 32 between West Eighth and West Lindo avenues. The 20-acre parcel was rezoned from light industrial to residential, allowing Houston-based Sterling Student Housing to move ahead.

The council tacked on a long list of conditions that are usually unheard of in projects proposed by local developers, including substantial road improvements, adding two traffic signals, providing security on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, constructing a Class I bike path and providing a shuttle service to ferry students the two miles to and from the Chico State campus.

For Councilmember Dan Nguyen-Tan, who joined Maureen Kirk in voting against the project, it came down to guidance from the League of California Cities that, when it comes to zoning changes, the burden of proof is on the applicant.

“My position has vacillated somewhere between the Armageddon described by the neighbors and the idyllic Club Med describe by the owners,” Nguyen-Tan said.

Then he added, “My reasonable doubt is still there.”

Other councilmembers said they believed the project was appropriate, and that there is likely no other way to get the infrastructure improvements Sterling will help pay for. Councilmember Coleen Jarvis joined Rick Keene, Larry Wahl and Steve Bertagna and voted “yes.”

Mayor Dan Herbert didn’t participate in the meeting, deciding that he has a conflict of interest because he works for Sheraton Real Estate Management, a property management firm that deals in student rentals.

Jarvis, who provided the swing vote, later said the process, though long and grueling—it went before the Planning Commission three times—is an example of how growth should proceed in Chico.

“We can really do good planning, can reach good results if people are willing to compromise,” she said. “My goal was to increase our inventory of housing and improve traffic along 32.”

Jarvis acknowledged that at this point she is probably not very popular with the neighbors—including Butte County Supervisor Jane Dolan—who packed the council chambers to show their opposition.

Growth decisions, she said, “have to be made based on the whole community, not neighborhood by neighborhood.”

During the course of the meeting neighborhood resident after resident spoke, telling the council the complex, and the students it would bring, would result in traffic accidents, noise, train wrecks, lower property values and more.

Councilmembers Coleen Jarvis, Dan Nguyen-Tan and Rick Keene listen to testimony.

Photo by Tom Angel

Jack Dinerstein, Sterling’s president, flew in from Texas—for at least the second time—to promote the project. “I’ve been through every unit in Chico. This will be, physically, the nicest property in Chico,” he said. “We have a huge investment in this.”

There will be on-site managers, a leasing agent and maintenance people—"adults,” Sterling representative Craig Dickerson called them—to enforce the rules against excessive guests, noise and so on and fine or evict residents for repeat offenses. Residents’ co-signers, usually parents, are on the hook for rent regardless.

Those speaking against the project ranged from Wayne Horiuchi, of Union Pacific Railroad, who envisioned carnage, noise complaints and lawsuits if the project were allowed so close to the tracks, to Dolan, the 2nd District supervisor, who called the project “spot zoning” that ignored the transit and other infrastructure needs along the Highway 32 corridor.

The company offered to “donate” $25,000 to the city, hoping Chico could extend its bus service to cover the complex. But if it doesn’t, Sterling will use the money to buy a van and provide a shuttle of its own. Mitigating air quality and traffic impacts is one of the conditions outlined in the development agreement. (Also, the traffic signals are contingent on CalTrans allowing them.)

Another bone of contention was the inclusion in the project of a police substation—but no one to staff it. Dickerson said that usually Sterling has a security officer who lives on the property, but that’s illegal in California.

Dinerstein brushed aside neighbors’ concerns, based on newspaper articles and conversations with police from other cities, that Sterling developments become “party central.” He said there was a problem in Ames, Iowa, because students were pulling the fire alarms for fun, but otherwise accusations of trouble are “not true.”

Karen Shuller, who lives in the neighborhood and has been a leading opponent, tallied police-logged calls to Sterling complexes, including one in College Station, Texas, where there were as many as 468 a year, most for loud parties and music. “Does the above information sound like zero tolerance?” she asked.

While Dickerson boasted that Sterling’s complexes, with their high-speed Internet access, game rooms and full basketball courts, are built on “a concept of self-containment and self-sufficiency whereby the need … of city services and facilities is limited,” at least one speaker said that philosophy goes against everything the university is trying to do to get students to congregate on campus. Attorney Paul Persons, who stressed that he was speaking for the Nord Avenue Homeowners Association but not in his role as former chairman of Chico State’s Academic Senate, said, “We want students involved on our campus. We want them there on Saturdays and Sundays. We want them there in the evenings. … Isolating these people and trying to keep them in that area is not a good idea.”

But Bobby Armstrong, the Associated Students commissioner of community affairs, said, “I think this will benefit the students.”

Dan Ostrander, who in March lost a bid for the Republican nomination to the state Assembly against Councilmember Rick Keene, also surfaced, saying that he’s been in the college rental business since 1969, and all this project would do is create vacancies in existing properties, which would then deteriorate for lack of maintenance and turn into “student ghettos.”

That incited a barb from Councilmember Larry Wahl, who snapped, “What you’re asking us to do here essentially is to withhold approval of this so the competition is not too intense for you, and I think that’s deplorable coming from somebody who claims to be a free-market person.”

The opponents in the audience—a few of whom had shot out bitter comments about councilmembers and the applicants during the meeting—started streaming out as soon as the vote was taken, leaving Dickerson and Dinerstein sitting alone at the front of the room. They didn’t say if any of the conditions could be deal-breakers for the company, though it would fall apart if the company was unable to secure access and right-of-way rights for the bike path.

The issue has proven to be one of city’s most controversial of late, as opponents of the project were suddenly let in on the fact that developers—gasp!—contribute money to local politicians’ campaigns. Keene got $1,000 from Sterling, as did Bertagna.

Sterling Housing has been trying since last winter to get the project approved and has compromised both in the size of the buildings—three stories, not two—and the project’s density, limiting occupancy to one person per bedroom.

The Planning Commission deadlocked 2-2 at its June 6 meeting, which is why the decision went before the council.

After city staff members write up the conditions, the council will finalize its vote as part of the consent agenda at its meetings on July 2 and July 16.