A contested proposal for a privately run student-housing project in a residential neighborhood about three miles from Western Washington University has received approval from Bellingham’s hearing examiner, but with several conditions that could alter some of the developer’s original plans.
Dawn Sturwold, the city’s hearing examiner, approved a land-use application for the project in a 66-page decision issued on Wednesday, Oct. 23.
Known as University Ridge, and proposed by Ambling University Development Group of Valdosta, Ga., the project would be built on a heavily wooded, 11-acre plot of land inside Bellingham’s Puget Neighborhood, on a site bordered by Consolidation Avenue, Puget Street and Nevada Street.
University Ridge has been ardently opposed by many nearby residents, who have raised concerns in public comments to the city and during a public hearing on Sept. 11, 2013, over potential harm to the surrounding neighborhoods’ safety, noise levels, traffic, parking availability and overall residential character.
Ambling had originally proposed a 164-unit, four-building complex (with a detached clubhouse) capable of housing approximately 576 tenants inside shared four-bedroom “suites.” Initial plans put the project’s estimated valuation at about $30 million, according to Charles Perry, managing partner for Ambling.
In her decision, Sturwold approved a scaled-back version of the proposal, allowing up to 528 bedrooms within a maximum of 176 dwelling units. Each unit would be limited to no more than three bedrooms each, which would allow University Ridge to be reconfigured into traditional apartments should its intended purpose prove unfeasible in the future, Sturwold wrote.
Ambling’s project team had also sought an exemption on a 35-foot municipal height limit for the two buildings planned on the east portion of the University Ridge site, which is at a higher elevation and closer to Puget Street. Developers wanted permission for those buildings to be up to 58 feet tall.
Sturwold granted this variance request, but wrote that the buildings must not rise higher than the current elevation of Puget Street’s center line.
Glen Peterson, a Seattle-based architect handling University Ridge’s building and landscape design, said during the Sept. 11 public hearing that the height variance was necessary in order to create a design the development team felt would be better suited for the site.
He also said that negative impacts of the buildings’ greater height on the homes above the property on Puget Street could be minimized due to the steep incline of the site, which slopes downward from east to west. Sturwold’s decision indicated that the existing grade for the two easterly buildings sits about 50 feet below the level of Puget Street.
Sturwold is also requiring Ambling to employ around-the-clock, on-site professional management at University Ridge, and it must establish lease agreements with tenants that include zero-tolerance policies for unacceptable behavior.
Added strain on the surrounding neighborhoods’ traffic flow has been a major point of contention to those opposed to the University Ridge project, many who want upgrades to surrounding streets and intersections. An April 2013 study and a follow-up analysis done in September both found that while University Ridge would increase traffic levels on nearby streets, the existing infrastructure would still function within acceptable levels.
As a measure to mitigate the added traffic, Sturwold wrote that Ambling must provide shuttle service for its residents to the nearby Lincoln Creek Park and Ride, Western Washington University’s campus and downtown Bellingham.
Both Ambling’s plans and city staff recommendations to the hearing examiner assume that the number of University Ridge residents relying on shuttles or Whatcom Transportation Authority buses would minimize added traffic impacts, a premise that opponents of the project have not agreed with.
Bellingham city planners will spend the next several weeks reviewing the hearing examiner’s decision, said Jeff Thomas, director of the city’s planning and community development department.
Ambling will have to obtain city building permits and a critical-areas permit, due to the geologically hazardous areas that exist on the site as well as a needed buffer from a wetland to the north, before starting construction. Developers will also need to provide an updated transportation concurrency certificate, which will map out routes University Ridge residents will likely take when traveling to and from the property.
Under state law, appeals of the hearing examiner’s decision can be filed within 21 days in Whatcom County Superior Court.
While acknowledging neighboring residents’ concerns on tenant behavior, Ambling’s directors have said, in public documents and in prior interviews, that its student-housing properties are run with strict controls.
Tenants in Ambling’s student-housing developments are required to pass criminal background checks, and they must agree to adhere to the behavioral codes of conduct established by their universities.
The company has built more than 50 student-housing projects in the U.S. since its founding in 1997. Nearly all of those properties are located on the East Coast, primarily in the South.
But Bellingham residents opposed to the University Ridge project are not convinced that the company will be able to keep control over the nearly 500 tenants that might end up living there.
Opponents also worry over how they will cope with a residential development out of character with the other properties in their neighborhoods, which are in an area dominated by single-family homes.
The land that University Ridge would be built on is zoned for denser, multi-family residential development.
The board of directors for the Puget Neighborhood Association wrote a letter in June addressed to Kathy Bell, a Bellingham city planner, that covered a wide range of concerns that it says are shared by neighbors, including that the neighborhood as a whole “finds that this development, as currently proposed, creates an impact on to our community that will deprive our current residents of continued rights and privileges to the continued enjoyment of their property.”
Joseph Carpenter, president of the nearby Samish Neighborhood Association, said during the Sept. 11 public hearing that he and his neighbors have expected denser development in the area for some time. They are not all generally opposed to new projects, either, he added.
But if development must come, residents deserve assurances that the city will provide appropriate upgrades to traffic and other infrastructure improvements, Carpenter said.
“I’m very concerned about the precedent that this sets in our neighborhood and in Puget,” he said.
Download Sturwold’s decision here: University Ridge decision.
More documents related to the project are available on the city’s website.
Evan Marczynski, staff reporter for The Bellingham Business Journal, can be reached at 360-647-8805, Ext. 5052, or firstname.lastname@example.org.