Houses in the Bayview neighborhood of Arcata. Photos by Bob Doran.
Story & photos by BOB DORAN
Editor's note: Journalists normally steer clear of activism. In this case, as you will see, Bob Doran embraced the role and proved himself an effective community organizer. Rather than not letting him write about the issue he was embroiled in -- the call most newspapers would have made -- we decided to do the opposite. What follows is an account that, while hardly disinterested, is in our view nonetheless journalistic.
IT BEGAN WITH A KNOCK AT THE DOOR on Leap Day, February 29. It was Thea Gast, one of Arcata's many former mayors, out canvassing for Measure G, the city's utility tax. Once I had assured her that I planned to vote for the tax, we shifted to small talk. She lives just a few blocks from my house and hadn't realized I was a neighbor. I explained that I had moved into Arcata fairly recently.
Then she asked a question. "Have you looked at Humboldt State's new Master Plan?" I had heard something about it, but admitted I didn't know the details. "The university has plans for this neighborhood," she warned me, suggesting that I take a look at the plan online.
It wasn't hard to find the HSU Master Plan Web site; it was a mere click away from HSU's main page. Finding the plan was a bit harder. There was some discussion of the planning process, but the Master Plan itself was not exactly there. Instead, there was a collection of documents with meeting notes and "presentations," PowerPoint slide shows turned into bulky digital files.
I downloaded something called "Master Plan Planning Backgrounds and Scenarios" and worked my way through pages full of photos and architectural drawings, all with scant text, apparently designed as prompts for a speaker.
There was no hint at what was planned for our neighborhood until slide No. 17, a map of the existing campus with "potential development sites" shown in yellow, acquisitions in blue. Large red arrows radiated outward from the center of the college grounds, reminiscent of those maps you see in history books showing the movement of troops during wartime. The most worrisome, an arrow that began at 14th Street, pointed at a large block of blue reaching into the residential area south of campus. My new home.
What they had in mind became apparent a few slides later: An architect's drawing depicted the neighborhood transformed into a "student residential village," with most of the 15-block area filled with apartment buildings "up to three stories high" accommodating "eight-10 students per house." My home and my next-door neighbors' homes were gone, replaced by what looked like a soccer field covering a section of C Street.
A later draft would identify the same drawing as a "campus residential village." I would learn that the area was chosen, in part, to satisfy city officials who want the university to take care of housing needs caused by proposed growth -- and not just the housing needs of students. The "village" would offer low-cost, high-density housing for incoming faculty and staff, allowing the university to recruit people who could not afford Arcata's soaring home prices.
This most recent revision of the Humboldt State University Master Plan began last October, around the time my wife, Amy, and I were finally getting settled in our new home in Arcata after living in McKinleyville for 20 years.
We were able to buy what seemed the ideal place with help from my mom, who moved into the mother-in-law unit in back. It was within walking distance of town, important since my mother does not drive, and the proximity to the campus made it easy for her to enroll in the university's low-cost Over-60 Program. At the age of 83 she became a student at HSU, my alma mater.
We found that we weren't just moving into a house, we were moving into an established neighborhood. Our next-door neighbors, Serge Scherbatskoy and Renee Menge, welcomed us with open arms. Tom Simon, who lives behind us, baked us an apple pie. A potluck at Scherbatskoy and Menge's over the holidays gave us the chance to meet more of our neighbors.
When I discovered the university's plan, I printed out one of the maps and the architect's drawing of the "residential village" and shared them with the people on our block.
Most knew nothing about the revision of the Master Plan; some knew a little. Menge, who serves on the city of Arcata's Design Review Commission, said that converting this area into high-density housing was not at all in line with Arcata's General Plan. She mentioned that we are included in something called the "Bayview Neighborhood Conservation Area," a portion of the city's plan designed to "assure that new construction, modifications or alterations of noteworthy structuresare harmonious with the existing character of the neighborhood."
Everyone agreed we had to do something to let the university know we were not going to let our neighborhood be transformed, even if it wasn't going to happen overnight.
A call to the university's public relations branch steered me to Master Plan point man Bob Schulz, head of plant operations, recently renamed "facilities management." I arranged a meeting.
A few days later we settled in on either side of Schulz' desk in the recently remodeled Feuerwerker house. A licensed architect, he took over as director of facilities management at Humboldt State University about two years ago, replacing Ken Combs. It wasn't an easy time to step into the job. The university was embroiled in a battle with the city over the proposed Behavioral and Social Sciences building. With guidance from newly hired HSU President Rollin Richmond [photo below right] , the building was moved to a slightly different location and redesigned to reduce its visibility.
"We moved it in part to generate improved relations with the city of Arcata and the neighbors," said Schulz, admitting that the battle was rough. "I was kind of startled at the level of vitriol that some community members pointed at the university. I was startled at how many names I've heard Ken Combs called."
The last time the HSU Master Plan was overhauled was 1990. That plan showed a major extension of the campus' boundary east of campus with residential complexes and other buildings integrated into the woods, a carryover from the 1970 plan. "That was a potential acquisition of forest real estate," Schulz explained, property owned by the McDowell family. The idea was ultimately abandoned.
Schulz recalled a recent exchange between one of the university's architects, Susan Painter, and a student over the earlier expansion plan. The student, Schulz said, "was pretty adamant that trees are precious resources [and] asked, `Why in the world was the university talking about building in the forest?'
"Susan, probably trying to be witty, said, `You've got neighbors to the south, and frankly nobody speaks for the trees.' The student looked at her kind of fiercely and said, `They do on this campus.'
"And I think that's a true statement," Schulz said. "I think it's fair to say we have a consensus opinion, certainly among our students, that tearing down that second-growth redwood forest as a way of developing new buildings is not what they want to see."
Schulz made clear that the "campus residential village" would be intended primarily for faculty and staff, although "there could [also] be graduate students or married students with families; we won't prohibit anyone from being in there.
"The whole idea is to develop substantially more housing opportunities very, very close to the campus, instead of everybody having to get in a car to drive to campus."
He emphasized that the university had no intention of seizing the neighborhood through condemnation. "The idea is, as people are interested in selling their property -- willing sellers, we would buy individual properties as they come on the market. We're not talking about taking it from anybody, not talking about eminent domain."
At the same time, he acknowledged that the university's vision for the neighborhood was not sharply focused.
"Instead of these being single-family houses, what they become is structures that look like single-family houses, but have three, four or more units inside of them. They could be condominiums; they could be for ownership, they could be apartment style. We don't know. I want to be honest, [this development] has no more thought than what you're seeing in the block diagram for the addition for the library."
In the days that followed I would discuss these ill-concieved plans with my neighbors, especially with Scherbatskoy and Menge. We knew we had to do something to get our neighborhood off the plan, but what?
Advice came unexpectedly while I was working on an unrelated story for the Journal. Talking with Randall O'Toole of the Oregon-based Thoreau Institute, who came here for a forum on the local retail economy, I asked about his background as a community activist. He told me the story of his battle against a redevelopment plan in his Portland neighborhood. Working with his neighbors, he successfully fought a government plan to replace his residential neighborhood with high-density low-income housing.
How did they do it? They put together a simple leaflet describing the impact of the plan and invited those concerned to a neighborhood meeting. The show of unity that followed was effective enough to halt the plan, at least in his part of town.
A leaflet and a meeting? That shouldn't be too hard to pull together. After a sidewalk conference with Scherbatskoy and Menge, it was decided that they would contact Arcata City Councilmember Connie Stewart and see if she could make arrangements for us to use the D Street Neighborhood Center, right around the corner, for the first meeting of a group we dubbed the Bayview Neighborhood Alliance. Stewart got us the hall for a meeting to take place just over a week away on a Monday night.
I spent a Sunday afternoon working on the leaflet, a one-page affair illustrated with a drawing of the expanded campus on the front; the architect's sketch of the proposed "village" filled the inside. I printed out a first draft, took it next door and edited it with Scherbatskoy -- who by the way is the owner of Brio Breadworks -- over a glass of wine. After juggling some graphics and rewriting some of the text, we were ready to print -- and then to blanket the neighborhood with an invitation to gather and "speak your mind."
Distribution was split with three other families; Amy and I would cover the four-block area closest to campus. Going door-to-door on a Wednesday afternoon, we found just a few people at home. Alma Vincent, a silver-haired elderly woman, set aside her needlework to talk with us briefly about the university's prior Master Plan, the one that called for extending into the woods east of campus. "Back then they talked about only coming as far as 14th Street. They might have to cut a tree, but that's better than taking my house."
Vincent's next-door neighbor, Hollyanne Iska, told us that she had lived in her house for 52 years. "Alma moved in the year before me," she said, explaining that both their houses were built for them by Scotty Rylander, whose son Roy lives in the house next to Alma's. When it came to the Master Plan she seemed resigned. "It's the university. They do whatever they want," she said, asking with a shrug, "What can we do?" Amy responded with passion, "We can at least stand up and tell them what we think. That's why we're having this meeting. If we stand together we're stronger."
A testy meeting
When the day came for the meeting at the Neighborhood Center, March 22, Iska was the first to walk in the door, aside from the organizers. She immediately gravitated to two tables in the back where Winnie Trump [photo at right] , a retired schoolteacher, was setting up a display of photos she shot of around 100 individual Bayview homes, all mounted on poster board. Trump has lived on D Street with her husband, Dan, since 1960. They saw the freeway expansion take all the houses on the other side of D. They also successfully fought a university plan in the '70s that called for replacing their block with a parking lot. Trump and Iska swapped stories as they got to know each other for the first time after living just blocks apart for more than four decades.
The crowd swelled as 7 p.m. approached. By the time Scherbatskoy and I began introductions at 7:15 there were 70 people in the hall, a few of them city officials, but predominantly neighbors who saw the flier and wanted to learn more about the plan. We were thrilled at the turnout.
We had invited Schulz to give his PowerPoint presentation. [photo below left] He worked his way through explanations about why increasing the number of students to 12,000 (from the current 7,000) is important for the university to "remain relevant." He then provided details of several expansion "scenarios" with differing arrangements of new buildings and parking structures. It took him a while to get to the real issue, the one thing all the proposed scenarios had in common: the university's long-range plan for the Bayview neighborhood. As before, he readily admitted that the details on how the plan might work were not really thought out. "This is just a quick sketch by the architects," he said defensively, referring to the drawing of the village.
"I've had a lot of questions," he continued, "about how ownership will happen, how development will happen, what are the numbers. I don't have the answers to any of those questions."
He explained that development might follow "the Santa Cruz model," as in "a dense, beach-town type community."
"You mean like Isla Vista?" an audience member interjected, making reference to what is perhaps California's most notorious high-density university housing project, adjacent to the University of California Santa Barbara campus. The remark elicited laughter from the crowd, but not from Schulz, who tried to put the presentation back on track. But a question about high-rise student housing again put him on the defensive. "This is not student housing," he insisted. "We're talking about providing 2,000 additional beds for students on campus, but this [village] is not that."
My wife, Amy, said assertively. "We really don't care whether it's student housing or who's going to live there. You're talking about bulldozing our houses. We don't care if it's for staff. This is our neighborhood. These are our homes."
As he continued, the crowd peppered him with questions. Who will decide if this plan will go forward? Schulz explained that it is ultimately up to the California State University Board of Trustees. But before that, he added, plan approval is up to HSU's president: Rollin Richmond.
"You say it's up to the trustees," someone said in the front row. "What do they need to hear to know that this neighborhood is not available to the university?" The crowd applauded, then Scherbatskoy stood up to ask what would prove to be the key question. "How closely is this bundled with the Master Plan?" he wanted to know. "Can you separate it from the Master Plan and deal with this [housing] issue separately?"
Schulz conceded that that was possible. "We could actually say we're not concerned with housing in Arcata, but we've been told by the city that we probably should be concerned about housing in the city of Arcata."
Returning to the issue of the campus expanding into Arcata's residential districts, Schulz contended that it was something that began when the college came to town in 1913. "For its entire existence the campus has been expanding through the footprint of Arcata because there's no other place to go."
More questions and comments followed. Not one person spoke in favor the village plan. After a break we turned the floor over to Stewart, of the City Council, and Larry Oetker from Arcata's planning department.
Oetker spoke about the Arcata General Plan: 2020, a document finalized two years ago that foresees a much different future for Bayview. "This [campus village] concept was never included or envisioned with any of the city's plans," Oetker said. "The city plans are to retain this neighborhood as it is, as a residential low-density neighborhood. No documents that I have seen show any conversion of this into a high-density, three-story neighborhood."
Stewart talked about how she sees the university as something akin to a second city adjacent to Arcata -- while the two sometimes have different needs and goals, it's important for them to learn to work together.
She introduced Alex Stillman -- another former Arcata mayor -- who suggested that since the Bayview neighborhood has a number of historic homes, residents might try to get the area placed on the Historic Register -- a designation that would provide greater protections than the current Neighborhood Conservation Area.
As we walked out into the night, I talked with a few of my neighbors. The common feeling was that the meeting was a success: People knew more about the university's plans, and while no one assumed we had changed Schulz's mind, at least he was aware of the resistance growing in our neighborhood. With a rising sense of empowerment, we agreed to keep fighting.
Coming to a head
The next Sunday, March 28, a dozen of us met at Scherbatskoy and Menge's to hammer out a battle plan. Someone had already turned the dozens of information forms we collected at our first meeting into the beginnings of a database with names, addresses, e-mails and phone numbers. Someone else agreed to look up ownership details on all the other houses in our area to show that there are far more owner-occupants than absentee landlords.
Mark Wheetley [photo at right] , who lives down the street from us, suggested that the city and the university go through a process, in partnership with the community, to look into public and private sector opportunities for expansion. He pointed to a possible site for off-campus housing in the Northtown area just over the pedestrian bridge, where deteriorating high-density housing like Humboldt Greens could be redeveloped. He said there was also undeveloped land near campus like the Franke property, a former mill site below Arcata High, or another old mill site on the other side of the St. Louis Road bridge.
Suzanne and Ned Forsyth [in photo at left], who live two doors down the street, shared their idea for something they called "The Charm Offensive," essentially a letter-writing campaign with each household drafting a personal note to President Richmond so that he will "think of our neighborhood as unique homes filled with families leading meaningful lives, instead of as real estate."
Meanwhile, Stewart was drafting another sort of letter, one to President Richmond to be presented at the City Council's next meeting and signed by the mayor. It asked that Bayview be removed from the Master Plan while inviting the university to work with the city to explore options for addressing housing issues in some other way.
Expectations were high as we headed into another tumultuous week. On Friday, April 2, Trump called to say that a small meeting she had arranged with Schulz was getting bigger. The entire Bayview neighborhood was invited to talk with members of the university's Master Plan Committee the following Wednesday. As soon as we hung up, I sent out an e-mail announcement, which led to a new subgroup producing another flier, this time delivered to an even wider area.
On Monday, April 5, Connie Stewart and Ann King Smith, an Arcata planning commissioner who also happens to own a home in Bayview, met with Richmond. They were rebuffed when they asked him to reconsider plans for the Bayview neighborhood. Nonetheless, at its regular meeting two days later, the Arcata City Council was to discuss Stewart's letter formally urging Richmond to remove the Bayview neighborhood from the HSU Master Plan.
By chance or perhaps by design we had two significant meetings at exactly the same time. We were torn, not sure which was more important. We needed to let others on the Master Plan Committee, besides Schulz, know how we felt, but we also wanted to make sure the city was on our side. Scherbatskoy and Menge favored a bold stance at city hall, in part for the press, perhaps picketing as Richmond entered the building with signs saying "Stop HSU's Land Grab!"
Then, just a few hours before the council meeting, Stewart met with Richmond again -- he had changed his position. We were off the plan.
What changed his mind? Perhaps it was the charming -- but forceful -- letter hand-delivered by Trump Wednesday morning. She reiterated her opposition from the point of view of a retiree, emphasizing the "positive neighborhood atmosphere" and the potential impact on families and on the value of everyone's homes.
Before the 7 p.m. council meeting I put together a bouquet of flowers from Amy's garden and Menge's, presenting it to President Richmond just before he announced that the housing plan for Bayview was off the Master Plan "for the time being." The crowd applauded. Connie cried tears of joy. Bayview residents, myself included, walked away elated.
But we didn't walk home. Instead we sped up to the campus where members of the Master Plan Committee were meeting with over 100 other Bayview residents. Some were learning for the first time about the university's plans. Schulz was delivering his slide show as if nothing had changed. Ironically, when we walked in the door he had reached the slide showing the so-called campus residential village. Hands shot up and he was pelted with questions. Hadn't we just heard that the village plan was off the table?
At that point President Richmond entered the room and repeated some of the speech he had delivered to the council, but with a few variations. He admonished those of us who had led the opposition to the plan, saying that we had overreacted. He restated his promise to "take away this irritant," but this time he seemed to say that he would remove Bayview from the Master Plan only if we could find him some alternative place for a housing development.
Schulz, who apparently did not agree with Richmond's decision to alter the plan, did not back down. Despite the seemingly good news from Richmond, the mood turned ugly, with someone accusing Schulz of arrogance for not taking the community more into account. There were those who spoke of working together to solve a common problem, a lack of low-cost housing, but many of us left wondering what might happen next. Were we really off the plan? Was the battle over? We weren't sure.
One thing was clear. The sweetness and light story that ran in the Times-Standard Thursday morning under the headline, "Neighborhood acquisition nixed from HSU plan" told only part of the story.
I called President Richmond's office that day and arranged an appointment that afternoon. I began by telling him I was still wondering just what it was I had heard the night before. I wasn't sure if our neighborhood really was off the HSU Master Plan.
His response, "You heard that, for the time being, the university is going to try to find an alternative way to accommodate the housing needs of the university over the next few decades by working with the city of Arcata and possibly some developers -- we're a fan of working with local people -- to see if we can find other alternative areas within the Arcata region that will satisfy our needs for somewhere in the region of 100 to 150 residences, to satisfy what we think will be the turnover in faculty within the next decade."
While describing the plan to extend HSU's campus boundary southward as "a natural idea" he emphasized that "this suggestion came from our master planners; it didn't come from somebody in the university -- it certainly didn't come from me. All that I said to them was that I worry about housing; we have to do something in the long term to meet the housing needs of our faculty."
Did the university recognize the potential for resistance from the neighborhood? "Sure. It's always difficult to predict how people are going to respond to plans. If we proposed to come in there with bulldozers and bulldoze all those houses and build high-rise apartments, I would understand [your resistance] completely, but what we proposed to do was to slowly acquire houses as they came on the market, at fair market values, and use that land as ways to provide housing for faculty and staff."
He conceded that other sites for housing were "not systematically explored," adding, "We are going to do that now. We're going to work hard at it. I would like to see the city and the university work much more closely together in ways that I think will benefit both the city and the university."
What happens next? The Master Plan Committee's timetable calls for finalizing a plan by May 6, when a draft will be presented at a public forum at the Arcata Community Center. Is that enough time to come up with some new plan for housing? Or is off-campus housing off the table for now?
"I will be straight with you guys -- I'm hopeful," Richmond said. "In fact, Connie Stewart and I have arranged a meeting to explore some of these possibilities locally. I think that the odds of coming to a solution soon are quite good at this point. And with the cooperation of the City Council my guess is that we'll have an answer in a month."
"I'm not interested in having a battle [in front of the] trustees, or with you and your colleagues in this community. I'd rather that we get down there [before the trustees] and agree that this [university] is an important institution for California and especially for this area. We would all like to see it prosper and we'd like to see it fit in with this community.
"If we can't solve [the housing problem] within a relatively short period of time, then I think that we need to sit down and say, `All right, can we move forward with the Master Plan without a housing component?' And the answer to that is probably yes. Should we? Probably not.
"But, I'm convinced that the city and the community will work together with us to help us [find] a solution, whether it happens six months from now or three months from now. So yes, I am perfectly willing to go forward with a Master Plan that doesn't have a housing component. But we still need to solve the problem -- and it is as much your problem as it is our problem."
So it seemed we had won this battle after all -- at least "for the time being." As I set about the arduous task of retelling the story, an e-mail came from Suzanne Forsyth, initiator of the charm offensive. She had seen President Richmond on the TV news repeating his complaint that we had overreacted. I dare say it hurt her feelings.
"Somehow HSU never did get that we are not only concerned about ourselves and our life spans here, but about the future look and character of Arcata," she wrote.
"They still don't understand that replacing unique neighborhoods with uniform villages is not going to be any better of an idea in 10 or 15 years than it is now. I hope you say something about that in your article -- that we are not just thinking about what's good for our own particular selves and homes, but what's good for Arcata and hence, I would say, for HSU.
"And wasn't that a nice day in the sun yesterday!" she added.
Yes, it was.
© Copyright 2004, North Coast Journal, Inc.