‘Put up a parking lot’
Plans to demolish 10 homes in College Park rankle nearby residents
As that classic Joni Mitchell song goes, “Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you got/Till it’s gone/They paved paradise/To put up a parking lot.”
The College Park neighborhood in Chico, bordered on the north by West Sacramento Avenue and the east by Warner Street, may not quite be paradise. But the houses there, many of them built in the 1940s and ’50s, have been home to countless residents over the years, while the university has sprung up around them. Those homes have been slowly acquired by Chico State in an effort to put in a parking lot—technically a garage—plus another dorm structure. And despite a few holdout homeowners, it appears the university is moving forward with a plan to demolish 10 homes and replace them with temporary gravel parking.
A California Environmental Quality Act draft initial study/mitigated negative declaration was completed last month and is currently in the public comment period, which ends Nov. 30. Some residents of the nearby Mansion Park neighborhood are concerned that the community wasn’t given ample opportunity to weigh in. The university counters that it’s complied with the law when it comes to public notice and that it’s merely following through on a plan that’s been in the works for over 20 years.
“The major thing for me is the communication and the respect for neighborhoods and neighbors,” said Jann Reed, a Mansion Park resident since 1987. “I think this plan that they have, if we’d had a community meeting and they’d been able to describe this to us, maybe I’d be OK with it. But as I read it, it sounds horrible. There are existing homes and they’re going to tear down houses next to them, leaving occupied homes standing.”
That is, indeed, the plan. The university currently owns 12 homes in the neighborhood, which spans about four blocks going south from West Sacramento Avenue, according to Mike Guzzi, executive director of facilities at Chico State. Of the 12, 10 are on the chopping block. They are not all next to each other, meaning when they are torn down, about eight occupied homes will be left standing, some of them destined to become the lone house on the block.
“The homes that we own will be demolished because they are a safety hazard,” Guzzi explained. “We are making it safer for [the neighbors].”
They are a hazard because they are unoccupied, which attracts vandalism, vagrancy and crime, Guzzi said.
But there’s more to the story, according to Reed.
“It seems to me the university has been a bad property owner,” she said during a visit to Brice Avenue, where one of the homes scheduled for demolition stands across from a fenced-in parking lot where a home used to stand. “They had a responsibility to maintain those homes.”
When asked if the university created the safety hazard by buying the houses and leaving them vacant, Guzzi said simply, “I see your point there. That’s why we’re trying to address the situation and have them demolished.”
The fate of College Park seems to have been sealed decades ago with the finalization of Chico State’s master plan, which calls for the acquisition of the homes there as they become available and the building of a parking structure and student housing in their place. In 2013, three homes that had been bought by the university were demolished and replaced with gravel parking lots, offering a prime example of what is to come with the current project.
“It’s not that this is coming as a big surprise,” said John Whitehead, also a resident of the Mansion Park neighborhood. “It’s the way they’re doing it.”
Whitehead and Reed suspect that the plan to demolish homes in a hodgepodge manner is a way to force the rest of the homeowners to sell their properties. They aren’t the only ones concerned about the project. In 2005, when the master plan environmental impact report was published, the city of Chico requested further information about the displacement of residents and how the homes would be acquired. The response: “The University intends to acquire these houses through the voluntary cooperation of the homeowners; however, in the event that the property owners are unwilling to sell the property, the University could use the power of eminent domain.”
Guzzi said he has not heard the term “eminent domain” used in current talks of the College Park neighborhood. He added that it’s his office’s intention to keep neighbors apprised of the situation. “We are doing everything we can to make sure we are discussing these things with the neighborhood.”