Sterling apartments: round two

Sterling Student Housing, the Houston-based company that wants to build a large apartment complex between Nord Avenue and the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks just south of Eighth Avenue, is back with a scaled-down version of its original plan.

With its first proposal, for 320 three- and four-bedroom units on 20 acres in a three-story structure, Sterling ran into a buzz saw of opposition from neighbors. Their objections ranged from the sheer size of the project to anticipated traffic problems to student residents overwhelming and forever changing the nature of the neighborhood.

To build the complex, Sterling needs to get the land use zoning changed from industrial to residential. The first project needed a change to high-density residential, which allows 14 to 22 units per acre. The Chico Planning Commission ended up siding with the neighbors and rejected the project. But Sterling, which has built more than 30 such projects in college towns across the country, has already poured more than $100,000 into this project and therefore is not ready to walk away just yet—though its representatives initially indicated they would drop the project if they had to go back before the Planning Commission.

Now, with its more-modest plans, Sterling will be back before the commission June 6 to ask to rezone the property to medium residential to build 176 units on 20 acres, for a total of 645 bedrooms. Medium residential allows for four to 14 units per acre.

Planning Director Kim Seidler said if the rezone is granted but then for some reason Sterling drops out of sight, a single-family-residential developer could conceivably come in and build as few as four units per acre on the property, which, if it goes residential, he said, should be of at least medium to high density.

To stop this from happening, Seidler said, if the project were approved a “development agreement” would be attached and “runs with the property, regardless of who owns it.”

“It’s similar to a zoning order,” Seidler added. “We just don’t do many in Chico.”

Currently the property is part of some 80 acres of orchards that lies between Nord and the railroad tracks. Two parties own the land, but the Bettencourt Family Trust holds the deed to the 20 acres Sterling wants.

Sterling spokesperson Craig Dickerson said his company has done “significant reworking to minimize the impact on the neighborhood.”

“I met with the neighbors, and they expressed very specific concerns about the project,” he said.

Dickerson said he met with one of the leaders of the neighborhood opposition, Mary Brownell, whose back yard butts up against the 20 acres.

“She said, ‘I’m going to have students looking into my back yard with a three-story,” Dickerson said, “and she probably would have. So we changed to a two-story and moved that part back 60 feet.”

But Brownell, who helped organize opposition the first time around, said that even with those changes the residents living in the apartments will still be too close for comfort.

Brownell, anticipating the irony of her particular situation, quickly added, “We are not ‘not in our backyard’ people. Actually, we really have some deep traffic and public-safety concerns.”

Among those concerns, she said, are the children who walk to and from Emma Wilson Elementary School and the fact that, although studies indicate the additional vehicles added to the streets by new apartments will not significantly affect intersections at peak hours, students’ schedules “don’t follow peak hours.”

The traffic study released in April, she said, was in part conducted on a Friday, when “only 58 percent of the students have class.”

Brownell and her neighbors have done their homework and say that, even though they won last time out, they were not well organized. This time, they promise, they will be.

Dickerson argues the city needs such housing and Sterling is the company to provide it.

"This isn’t our first entry," he said. "We are experienced and know how to manage these. We have one in Davis that just got initial approval. This is not a mom and pop operation. We’ll have professional property managers there at all times, including four or five students who work for the property manager and two to three maintenance people. We can’t afford not to maintain these properties."