Student-housing proposal draws controversy | #6 Most Viewed

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This article was originally published Feb. 4, 2013. Read more recent news on this development here.

By Evan Marczynski
The Bellingham Business Journal

When Charles Perry laid out his company’s plan to build a housing development that could bring hundreds of new college residents to Bellingham’s Puget Neighborhood, he faced a tough crowd.

Perry, managing partner for Ambling University Development Group, based in Valdosta, Ga., shared the proposal to an audience of about 120 people in the cafeteria of Carl Cozier Elementary School in early January.

Most attendees weren’t happy.

Jim Legally, who lives in the nearby Samish Neighborhood, was one of them.

“I’ve had it up to here with living around students,” Legally said. “I don’t want them living around me.”

Ambling wants to build a 164-unit complex, called University Ridge, with an estimated development cost of about $30 million. It will consist of four apartment buildings and a detached clubhouse. Residence buildings’ height will vary between four and five stories.

According to a project proposal released by Ambling, the complex will be able to house approximately 576 tenants.

The development will be built on a steep and heavily wooded, 11.5-acre piece of land roughly three miles from Western Washington University, and bordered by Consolidation Avenue, Puget and Nevada streets. It will have a total building area of nearly 230,000 square feet.

University Ridge will be laid out along a winding roadway with parking spaces set on either side, according to the project’s conceptual drawings. A main entrance off Consolidation Avenue will lead to the complex’s clubhouse.

Perry said his company would like to have the development built and ready for tenants to move in by the start of the 2014 fall academic quarter.

Despite the fact that Ambling uses “university” in the project’s name and that most of its tenants will likely come from WWU, the school has no official connection or involvement with the housing development, said Steve Swan, WWU’s vice president for university relations.

Construction of University Ridge will be done by Exxel Pacific of Bellingham. Civil engineering and surveying will be completed by Jepson Engineering, also of Bellingham.

Glen Peterson of Humphreys & Partners Architects of Seattle will handle the building and landscape design.

Peterson said the property will be styled to mesh with the topography and character of the surrounding neighborhood.

University Ridge will feature two and four-bedroom units, all fully furnished. Monthly rents include all utilities except electricity, according to the project proposal.

Perry said rents will be between $550-650 per person, with variances based on a unit’s size and added features such as balconies or patios.

The complex will also likely include a variety of amenities such as a fitness center, theater, bike racks and outdoor grilling areas, according to the proposal.

Neighbors opposed

Residents in opposition speak of ongoing problems with college-age residents already in the neighborhood. They say they are tired of rowdy late-night parties, garbage thrown in streets and front lawns, and heavy street traffic that comes with rental properties sometimes housing four or more people each.

“It’s been a hot topic in Bellingham for years,” said Mary Chaney, president of the Puget Neighborhood Association, of her neighbors’ issues living near students and other younger residents.

Ambling insists that life in one of its student-housing properties is not a free-for-all. Among other company rules, all tenants must pass criminal background checks, they must adhere to the behavioral codes-of-conduct established by their colleges, and Ambling limits the number of guests tenants can invite for visits.

Tamara Finan, a regional vice president with Ambling and a former property manager, said excessive noise and unruly behavior are not tolerated in the company’s student-housing developments, which are staffed by on-site managers.

“We run a very strict, controlled environment, as much as possible,” she said.

Ambling is among the leading national firms in the private student-housing industry. The company has built 55 student-housing projects in the U.S. since its founding in 1997. It also develops on-campus university housing and dining halls, among other projects.

Almost all of the company’s development is based on the East Coast, primarily in the South. University Ridge in Bellingham will be Ambling’s first project in the Pacific Northwest.

Perry said his company picked Bellingham due in part to a strong market potential it sees inside the college town of roughly 80,000 residents. He said Ambling learned of the market from a person familiar with the Bellingham area—someone Perry has declined to name.

In the zone

Opponents of the project worry that with denser residential development, their neighborhood’s character will be more difficult to keep intact. Bellingham’s Puget Neighborhood is dominated by single-family housing, and many residents want it to stay that way.

Yet University Ridge will sit on land zoned by the city to be used for apartment buildings or other large, multi-family developments.

Perry said he understood the backlash. Whenever projects are slated for land adjacent to low-density development, he said, opposition is not uncommon.

“I understand when you have an immediately contiguous tract of land with different uses, particularly one that is of higher density, you’re going to have opposition,” he said.

Kathy Bell, a planner with the city of Bellingham, said the development site has been designated for multifamily use for as long as she can remember. For many who live near the site, Bell said it’s important to remember their homes are also on land zoned for denser use.

“I’m really trying to educate people and inform them that zoning is really important to consider,” Bell said.

What’s next? 

Chaney hopes Ambling’s developers will listen to residents’ comments on the University Ridge proposal, and be open to making changes to their plans, including possibly reducing the height of the buildings or creating landscaping buffers between the student apartments and other homes in the area.

Perry said his company is already working with neighborhood leaders to find solutions to some of the major concerns, including issues with increased street traffic.

The project is still in its initial stages. But Perry said his company would like to start construction by June of this year.

Bell said Ambling has not yet submitted a land-use application to the city. But the company has filed a variance application that will establish the height of the buildings Ambling wants to place adjacent to Puget Street, which is on the east border of the development site.

Once city officials review the application to ensure its completeness, they will issue a public notice and schedule a hearing regarding the allowable height variance of the complex’s buildings. During that hearing, public comments related to the buildings’ height will be allowed, Bell said.

As the process moves forward, residents will also have chances to make comments on other aspects of the development.

State law requires the city to accept written comments, Bell said. And if the city’s planning director or the chair of the planning commission decides an additional hearing is necessary, one can be scheduled, she said.

Based on the sheer number of people who showed up to the developers’ meeting at Cozier Elementary in January, Bell, who spoke during the meeting, suggested the city will likely schedule such a hearing.

Yet for some residents, any concessions or changes made by Ambling might be lacking, no matter what.

For Chaney, the fact that the University Ridge property is zoned for denser residential development means her neighbors might just have to accept that the apartments will be built.

“Realistically something can and will go in there,” Chaney said. “Is this [project] a good fit? I’m not quite sure.”

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