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Initiative Pits Housing Against Parking in Eureka 

Arkley continues multi-pronged effort to thwart city housing plan

click to enlarge A local initiative effort seeks to effectively block Eureka's plans to convert municipal parking lots into affordable housing.

Photo by Thadeus Greenson

A local initiative effort seeks to effectively block Eureka's plans to convert municipal parking lots into affordable housing.

Robin P. Arkley II's parking lot war against the city of Eureka has moved into a new phase.

An outspoken critic of the city's plan to convert downtown municipal parking lots into affordable housing developments, Arkley is attacking the city on multiple fronts, through two lawsuits challenging the city's plans and threats to move his Security National Servicing Corp.'s headquarters out of the city. And last week, through a spokesperson, the Arkley-led "Housing for All and Downtown Vitality" campaign began collecting signatures for a ballot measure that aims to upend the city's parking lot plans and overhaul the city's housing element.

While proponents of the initiative say it would result in a better housing plan, one that enables the city to provide "hundreds of units" of affordable housing while protecting commerce downtown, others argue it would simply block the city's current plans in favor of one unlikely to come to fruition, while at the same time invalidating the city's housing element, putting a variety of funding streams in jeopardy.

The initiative needs about 1,600 valid signatures from registered voters within city limits to put it before the Eureka City Council, which could then decide to approve it outright or put it before city voters.

If passed, the measure would primarily do two things: rezone 8.5 acres of property in the city to accommodate housing development and preserve downtown parking by prohibiting development of any of the city-owned lots that does not both retain the existing number of parking spaces and provide off-street parking for residents.

In a press release, initiative co-signer Michelle Costantine pushed back on the notion that the changes would scuttle the city's parking-lots-to-housing plans.

"There is much information about the initiative we would like to correct," she said in the release. "This is genuinely about housing for all and does not prevent the development of the downtown parking lots."

But others question whether any new development would be feasible with the proposed parking requirements. A letter signed by more than 100 residents, including Fourth District Humboldt County Supervisor Natalie Arroyo, Eureka Mayor Kim Bergel and immediate past Mayor Susan Seaman, among other notable names, charges the parking requirement "functionally" makes "housing construction impossible on these sites."

As an example, take the lots at Third and H streets behind the Lost Coast Brewery, which the city has approved to be transformed into the Eureka Regional Transit and Housing (EaRTH) Center, a $30 million project that would transform the site into a regional transportation hub with ground-level retail space and 31 apartment units on upper floors. If passed, the initiative would require the development to include the more than 70 parking spaces currently available in the lot, as well as parking to accommodate the development's approximately 100 new residents, which would likely require at least a two-floor parking garage to be incorporated into the building plans.

It's noteworthy that the initiative was rewritten to specifically exclude the two city-owned lots at Fifth and D streets, and Sixth and L streets that the city recently entered into a contract with the Wiyot Tribe-led Dishgamu Humboldt Community Land Trust to develop into more than 90 housing units.

"Our revised initiative provides that those two lots will be exempt from the ballot measure as long as the Wiyot Tribe owns them," initiative co-signer Mike Munson said in a press release. "We support their efforts in building affordable housing in an environmentally friendly manner while protecting their heritage and keeping that work local."

Wiyot Tribal Administrator Michelle Vassell said the tribe did not request and wasn't consulted about the carve out in the initiative, which it has yet to take an official stance on.

While initiative proponents argue it would not prohibit development in the downtown lots, they point to its rezoning of 8.5 acres on the shuttered Jacobs Middle School campus to accommodate housing as the cornerstone of its plan to create "hundreds" of new units, provide stable family housing and increase property values. But what the initiative fails to make clear is that the school site, which closed in 1982, is still owned by Eureka City Schools, which has declared it surplus property and is negotiating to sell it to the California Highway Patrol, which held a neighborhood meeting last month to gather community input on those plans.

"At this point, we're still in active negotiations," CHP spokesperson Matt Harvey told the Journal, adding the community was "generally very supportive" after hearing an overview of the agency's headquarters relocation project.

Asked whether initiative proponents have received any assurances that Eureka City Schools would be willing to seemingly reverse course and sell the property to a housing developer, their spokesperson Gail Rymer said it "would be best" for Eureka City Schools administration to discuss the property. (Journal emails went unreturned.) Rymer then said the initiative would simply give the district the "option to sell for housing development."

Eureka City Manager Miles Slattery told the Journal the city was actively negotiating with the district for a couple of years, with an eye toward a multi-use project that would allow the city to relocate its corporation yard while also building housing and potentially a recreation center. Slattery said the city had 6 or 8 acres of the property appraised, and the estimated value came back at $800,000. The district balked at that price, Slattery said, so he then asked an appraiser to revalue all 14 acres of the property under a Residential-medium density zoning — the most valuable in the city — and the hypothetical appraisal came back at $2.8 million.

Slattery said the city then offered that, as well as a commitment to allow the school district to continue using the sports field on the property in perpetuity, but was rebuffed by the district, which he said indicated it would not accept anything less than $4 million. After that, Slattery said the city moved on.

While there are real questions whether the initiative's passage would lead to development of the Jacobs Middle School site, Slattery said what it could do is instantly put the city out of conformance with its housing element — a state-required development roadmap cities must update regularly. The city's current housing element, Slattery said, includes the 200 units of affordable housing planned to be built through the parking lot plan and, if those come off the table, the state Housing and Community Development Department could deem it out of compliance, jeopardizing matching state and federal housing funds and other grant opportunities.

Arkley, who's made national headlines recently as ProPublica's reporting of U.S. Supreme Court justices failing to disclose valuable gifts has included revelations that Arkley gifted both Justice Samuel Alito and late Justice Antonin Scalia stays at a luxury fishing lodge he used to own, has vociferously opposed Eureka's parking-lots-to-housing plans since it was announced. In 2021, Arkley called the plans "crazy" and accused the city of sneaking them through. Then, after reportedly being unable to reach a deal with the city to preserve a lot near his company's headquarters via a property swap (as several other business owners have done to allow the city to meet housing development goals while preserving parking near downtown), things boiled over in an angry meeting between Arkley and city officials late last year, as reported by the Lost Coast Outpost.

Then, in April, Rymer sent out a press release on Security National letterhead announcing that "a number of downtown Eureka businessowners and residents" were filing a lawsuit alleging the city had violated environmental regulations in approving the developments plans. Security National Properties sent out another release the following month saying the group dubbed "Citizens for a Better Eureka" had filed a second lawsuit on the same grounds. Then came the Housing for All initiative.

In his regular appearances on the local radio station KINS' Talk Shop program, Arkley has alternately cast the need for downtown parking lots as a safety issue for his employees and as of vital importance to downtown businesses. For its part, when approving the plans, the city cited a 2021 parking survey showing abundant available spaces in its business districts.

But in his July appearance on Talk Shop, Arkley doubled down, casting the parking lot battle as a canary-in-the-coal-mine moment, one that could bring the political left and right coalescing around a single issue, saying, "people are tired of it," and that he could have 100 plaintiffs in the lawsuits.

"I mean, ramming it down the business district's throat? That's a pretty big canary," he said. "How do you go downtown when there's no parking anymore?"

If that day should come to pass, if the lawsuits and initiative have failed and construction crews begin to mobilize on those city lots, Rymer indicated Arkley won't hang around to see it. Security National, she said, has purchased property outside city limits and is prepared to relocate should the city's plans move forward.

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or [email protected].

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Thadeus Greenson

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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