Flagstaff torn over student housing, impact on infrastructure

The mountain town that Northern Arizona University calls home is bursting at the seams. Housing costs are on a tear, parking is at a premium and locals protest new housing developments, even as the university expects to see the student population continue to balloon.

By Keely Damara

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Northern Arizona University’s enrollment at its Flagstaff campus has grown by 42 percent in the past ten years, and the roughly 22,000 Lumberjacks make up almost a third of the relatively small mountain town’s residents.

The growth has strained traffic infrastructure and housing capacity, and rental prices are among the highest in the state and are rising sharply. With the Arizona Board of Regents aiming to increase enrollment by another 15 percent by 2025, city leaders and neighborhood activists are faced with accommodating even more students.

NAU administrators have also struggled to accommodate the growth, having to turn away students seeking on-campus housing in 2013, but NAU President Rita Cheng has consistently emphasized a pro-growth agenda as the only option.

“We cannot afford not to (grow),” Cheng said during the 2017 Campus Forum. “NAU is not growing just for the sake of growth itself. We are responding to business owners who recognize that our programs create a better-trained workforce for a vibrant economy. We are responding to those who know that every 1,500 new students at NAU equate to an additional $30 million in Arizona’s economy and a more informed citizenry.”

Some residents have protested large, off-campus student housing projects near NAU over the effect they’ll have on the surrounding community. Unhappy locals have recited their complaints at city council and High Occupancy Housing Task Force meetings, ranging from a fear they will drive down existing home values to not matching the character of the city to obstructing views and increasing traffic without providing enough parking.

The Flagstaff City Council has committed to supporting the development of affordable housing for renter and buyers as one of its top priorities for the next two years. Councilmember Celia Barotz said plans for high-occupancy housing need to target the workforce, not just students.

Even with all of the new development of single- and multi-family housing, Barotz said, much of it is out of reach for the average Flagstaff worker.

“We’re seeing very little affordable housing, since the city can only incentivize developers to include affordable housing but we cannot require it,” Barotz said. “Even with the current city council’s commitment to increasing the supply by working with low income tax credit developers, I anticipate we’ll still have a significant shortage of affordable housing for the foreseeable future.”

Renting in Flagstaff is expensive. According to figures compiled by the city and posted on its website, the average cost of renting a two-bedroom apartment in 2015 was $1,021 a month, almost 12 percent more than the state average of $913 a month.

High rents make Flagstaff the 11th most expensive city for renters in Arizona, according to real estate tracking firm Zillow.

Every city or town in Arizona with more expensive rent, like Scottsdale and Sedona, has a higher per capita income than Flagstaff.

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Flagstaff also is considerably more expensive than the state’s other college communities, Phoenix, Tucson and Tempe.

That distinction has worsened in recent years. While statewide rental prices have increased by about 10 percent over the past five years, according to Zillow’s rental data, in Flagstaff they’ve increased by 25 percent, with more volatile fluctuations than the state or other cities.

John Stigmon, CEO for the Economic Collaborative of Northern Arizona, is conducting a study on workforce housing for the city and Coconino County to be completed by the end of the summer. During a May 2016 city council meeting, he said the housing market is being squeezed from the “top,” by second home buyers, and from the “bottom,” by the student housing demand. He said a recent study indicated second homes account for 24 percent of the houses in Flagstaff and a growing student population is creating more demand for affordable rentals.

“The university houses about eight or nine thousand of those students,” said Stigmon “But that leaves another ten thousand that gobble up our housing market.”

NAU ranks in the top one percent of colleges and universities nationwide in the number of on-campus beds available to students, according to a survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics.

In April, the Arizona Board of Regents approved the construction of NAU’s Honors College Living and Learning Community, which will add more than 600 beds. The residence hall will be one of thirteen freshman and twelve upper-division halls, among them three luxury dormitories managed by a Texas-based student housing developer that manages over 200 communities across the United States.

In Fall 2017, NAU will offer nearly 10,000 on-campus beds to students following the completion of SkyView, a partnership between NAU and American Campus Communities.

Fall enrollment for the Flagstaff campus has steadily increased by nearly 950 students a year since 2012. If the student population continues to grow at a similar pace, Fall 2017 will see more than 13,000 students living off-campus if the on-campus student housing reaches full capacity.

Although the university had to turn away students seeking housing in 2013, every student who applied for on-campus housing by the priority deadline for the 2016-2017 school year was given the opportunity live on campus, NAU spokeswoman Kim Ott said. For the past two decades, even when there was a surplus of on-campus housing, Ott said the majority of sophomores, juniors and seniors have chosen to live off-campus even when they were guaranteed on-campus housing, because of “amenities, cost and restrictive university policies and supervision.”

As of April 2, all three of American Campus Communities’ housing options were filled for Fall 2017. Priority was given to juniors, seniors and grad students who applied by Nov. 23 of last year.

Ott said the university has been working with the city over the past year on the High Occupancy Housing Task Force, and administrators and staff participated in numerous community forums and meetings. NAU also contributed to the collection of housing data for “Peer Cities,” evaluating market data and developer trend data from comparable cities across the country with similar housing issues.

In October 2016, the City of Flagstaff and NAU created a jointly funded, full-time position to help improve the relationship between the community and students living off-campus. However, less than a year later the position is vacant, after Karissa Morgan left the position of Off-Campus Life and Neighborhood Liaison in mid-May.

Flagstaff City Councilmember Barotz lamented what she described as inadequate coordination between the city and the university on the topic of growth.

“We have not had very many meaningful — meaningful is a critical word — conversations­ with the university leadership about growth impacts and enrollment increase impacts on the city,” she said.

Construction crews have already started on the The Hub, a five-story, mixed-use housing development from Austin-based Core Spaces that will tower over the historic neighborhood just north of campus. But it has become an emblem of the struggle between locals and developers.

Local activists’ legal maneuvers forced changes to the design, and a zoning lawsuit delayed, and threatened to entirely prevent, the construction of the building. The planned luxury student apartments don’t match the character of the neighborhood, they say, and the students living there will overrun what is now a relatively quiet section of town.

The company’s website boasts luxury amenities for the “next-level” 198 units (591 bedrooms): “resort-style pool with cascading hot tub,” climbing wall, sauna, tanning salons, firepits, indoor and outdoor game rooms, a fitness facility, 50-inch (or optional 60-inch) smart TVs in every unit, bluetooth speaker showerheards, quartz countertops and stainless steel appliances.

At street level, The Hub will have retail spaces that rent for about twice what nearby retail space costs.

The building will offer 223 parking spaces in a surface-level garage situated in the interior of the building. This works out to about one space for every three bedrooms, which Core Space’s website notes is six more spaces than required by city zoning code.

In April a Superior Court judge cleared the final hurdle for The Hub, giving developers a green light to begin construction. Activists who had hoped to stop the development say the approval may also give developers the idea that zoning rules intended to promote construction that fits the neighborhood can be sidestepped or ignored altogether.

Activists then protested the reconfigured building design, saying the plans still didn’t comply with the applicable zoning for the area. Coconino County Superior Court Judge James Marner finally sided with the developer on the zoning matter in April, saying the city’s “transect zoning,” which was passed in 2011 by Flagstaff City Council to promote higher density housing and which Core Spaces used for the building, is in some sections ambiguous and contradictory, but that the plans should ultimately be allowed. Initially, neighborhood activists protested Core Spaces’ rezoning request, which would have allowed retail space along Mike’s Pike and additional stories. Although the majority of the council initially supported the request, property owners near the development petitioned, forcing Core Spaces to draft new plans without retail space along Mike’s Pike and fewer stories in some areas.

Marie Jones, Stand Up! For Flagstaff’s chairwoman, said the city planning department’s decision to approve The Hub was a mistake. While the guidelines for building within transect zones are vague, she said, the intent of the transect zones in the 2011 Downtown Regulating Plan is clear: structures must fit the established character of the neighborhood. The Hub, which will loom over nearby single-story homes and small businesses, doesn’t meet this standard, she said.

Despite the Coconino County Superior Court’s decision, Jones said Stand Up! For Flagstaff intends to hold city councilmembers to their stated goal of reworking the regional plan and zoning code to better reflect what the community desires.

“This is very important to us that it not be the other way around,” said Jones. “That we are not changing the intent to match the standard, but changing the standards to match the intent.”

Three other student housing projects near campus are in various stages of development.

Flagstaff is surrounded by National Forest land and borders the Navajo reservation, limiting the ability to accommodate a growing population with urban sprawl.

A plan laying out growth goals for 2030, approved by the Flagstaff City Council in 2014, identifies land constraints as a major hurdle to future growth. More than three-quarters of the land in Flagstaff and nearby incorporated areas is National Forest, and only 14 percent is privately owned.

Sustainable communities are compact and walkable, the plan explains. Mixed-use land keeps residential neighborhoods close to commercial districts, preserves open spaces and invites investment in public transportation. Density is encouraged in some areas, in order to preserve open spaces in others.

In 2011, the city council approved the Downtown Regulating Plan, which introduced Transect, or transitional, zoning with the aim of creating a more cohesive look to the structures being built in the core of the city and surrounding neighborhoods. Transect zoning allows developers to build structures that have both residential and commercial purposes, without having to strictly comply with the traditional zoning for either of those categories. Buildings that use transect zoning might be required to have building materials, porches or entrances that match the look and style of neighboring buildings. They must also preserve a certain portion of the overall lot footprint for open space or landscaping. City planning staff must approve plans for proposed developments, ensuring that projects adhere to the zoning code.

Councilmember Barotz acknowledges the city is struggling to regulate new growth that relies on the plans drafted years ago.

“We didn’t necessarily see the appetite for all of the development at that time,” Barotz said. “So now we’re seeing the plan and the code being implemented in ways that we haven’t seen before because there is so much demand.”

The biggest challenge to the city is ensuring road infrastructure can continue to support the growing population and the estimated five million visitors each year, Barotz said.

“We cannot make decisions and implement them quick enough to improve the existing situation quickly,” Barotz said. “So I think the leadership at lots of different entities at different levels acknowledges that we have problems.”

Parking is also a challenge as the city grows. The city is installing parking kiosks downtown by the end of the summer at marked curbside spaces and the Lumberyard Brewing Company and Phoenix Avenue lots, charging vehicles by the hour to discourage use by those not shopping or working at nearby businesses. Employees and business owners can apply for a monthly permit to park in designated areas for 45 dollars a month. After the roll-out of the parking management system downtown, the city plans to open up the street permit option to nearby neighborhoods if they choose to opt-in.

Erin Stam, NAU’s Parking Services manager, said the university offers adequate parking for faculty, staff and students. Last year, she said, the number of vacant spots averaged more than 100 per day. Between 2008 and 2014, permit sales decreased despite an increase in student enrollment, which she attributes to improvements in the campus shuttle service. Permit sales increased to just over 8,000 last year, which is about a hundred shy of the number of available parking spots in 2016.

Year Spaces Permits sold
2010 8,611 8,249
2013 9,140 7,473
2016 8,294 8,153

NAU has replaced some parking lots with new construction since 2010, but with the addition of new multi-level parking garages, overall capacity is roughly 8,300.

The introduction of the Mountain Link in 2011 — a route connecting downtown, NAU and Woodlands Village — temporarily eased traffic congestion, Flagstaff Metropolitan Planning Organization Manager David Wessel said, but he said traffic around campus is increasing.

“At 40,000 vehicles per day, Milton (Road) between Route 66 and Butler is close to capacity,” Wessel said in an email. “So, it will be challenging to get more cars through there.”

A ballot initiative passed about ten years ago has also made it difficult for the city government to regulate new development.

In 2006, Arizona voters approved Proposition 207, which requires local governments to compensate private property owners if new regulations result in a decrease of their property value. Prop. 207 now looms over policy decisions, limiting the ability of city governments to implement new land use regulations through fear of being held financially liable for damages.

Brian Kulina, Zoning Code Manager for the city of Flagstaff said it’s difficult to change land use code because of Prop. 207, known as the Private Property Rights Act. The voter-approved measure requires cities to compensate any property owner for any loss of value if the city changes any zoning or land use regulations in a way that could have a negative impact on a private property’s value.

Critics of Prop 207, which was almost entirely funded by an out-of-state advocacy group, said city governments would be forced to make decisions on how land should be used based on whether they could afford lawsuits by changing zoning regulations. Proponents argued that the measure would protect private property owners from governments taking their land for private interests and regulations that could harm their property value.

There have been two Prop. 207 lawsuits filed against Flagstaff, both of which were thrown out by courts because of technicalities. The first lawsuit filed in 2007 was dismissed because the property owners failed to notify all of the parties involved and a later appeal was dismissed due to the claim being submitted in a name other than the property owner. The second suit, in 2010, was dismissed because the lawsuit was filed more than three years after the zoning change that the developer claimed negatively affected their property value.

However, the threat of lawsuits may hinder the city government’s ability to address the future needs of the community through land use regulation, Barotz said. There are workarounds, like creating optional overlay zoning like the Downtown Regulating Plan that creates incentives for choosing to develop mixed-use buildings with materials and design that match the neighborhood while reserving a portion of the land for open space or landscaping.

“The challenge for the city is, how do we address problems without incurring liability?” Barotz said. “But the other piece of Prop. 207 is it’s really, more than anything, a risk equation.”

Dechter said down-zoning, like reducing the maximum height of buildings in a zone, isn’t impossible under Prop. 207 — it is just financially risky to the city. City staff have to consider if a lawsuit is worth the time and money, or if a settlement is a better option to avoid more legal fees and the possibility of a more costly court decision in favor of the property owner. She said the city could consider giving waivers to property owners who don’t want to use the down-zoning in order to avoid expensive legal battles — but that tactic could make the rezoning a toothless endeavor.

“Even if we change the zoning and we have to give out a thousand waivers, did we really get what we wanted?” Dechter said.

Councilmember Barotz said Prop. 207 has complicated the city’s options in addressing community concern about the compatibility of high occupancy student housing developments in the neighborhoods surrounding campus. However, she said the city council is committed to finding solutions.

“City council and city staff are certainly very well aware of Prop. 207 and what it means in the context of trying to address concerns by residents in Flagstaff about the changing character of our community,” said Barotz. “And we’re trying to navigate this in a way that is good for the taxpayers and good for the community.”

The Flagstaff City Council also faces community opposition to its recent decision to develop affordable housing near Schultz Pass and Fort Valley roads. The scenic area is one of three parcels of city-owned land that city staff identified during a June 27 work session as possible locations to develop affordable housing.

Despite vocal opposition to the development from some members of the community at meetings, online forums and by email that cited obstruction of views and preservation of open space, the majority of city council voted to include the Schultz Pass parcel in the request.

“In considering the compromise of this parcel, one must also consider the impact on the heartbeat of Flagstaff,” wrote Flagstaff resident Catherine Weidinger in an online forum on the city’s website. “And the deep connection to nature that so many of its residents feel.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Marie Jones, of Stand Up! For Flagstaff, said the Flagstaff City Council’s decision to approve The Hub was a mistake, and has been corrected to indicate that Jones was referring to the city planning department’s decision regarding The Hub.

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