One could easily mistake the current debate over the Witham Oaks land in Northwest Corvallis as simple. There are only so many moving parts and they all seem to be pretty apparent, but you can also say the same for a Rubik’s Cube.
Here are the basic pieces: social needs in terms of Corvallis’ tight rental housing inventory versus a neighborhood’s livability, as well as habitat protection versus overarching environmental outcomes. This is starting to sound not so simple, after all.
At the center of the debate, Campus Crest, a Charlotte, N.C. development firm, is looking to build an apartment complex on a portion of the 95-acre property at the northeast corner of Harrison and Walnut, where it could house up to 900 students. The Friends of Witham Oaks and a number of other Corvallisites are saying, wait, not so fast….
This particular stretch of forested wetlands, including a paved walkway frequented by some Corvallisites, has experienced a long history of failed proposals to see the land used for anything other than open space. Benton County voters had rebuffed property annexation seven times since 1978, although this finally changed in 2004, when for the eighth time the property had come up for an annexation, voters passed it.
By the time 2007 rolled around the Corvallis City Council approved a plan to build low-density family development Legend Homes was set to build 221 homes on 58 acres and leave 37 acres of open space. A year later, after an economic recession shook the nation, Legend Homes fell into bankruptcy. One of their debtors, US Bank, secured interest and assumed ownership of the land. Then in 2010 the land was put up for auction at $4.3 million, but there were no bidders to be found. US Bank subsequently sold the land to SA Group Properties Inc., which put the property on the market for $3 million, and eventually accepted an offer from Campus Crest.
Though they haven’t purchased the land officially as of yet, the closing would occur shortly after receipt of the required approval for the project they plan to build.
Friends of Witham Oaks, a non-profit organization, attempted to raise money through donations to buy the land and preserve it as open space, but was unable to raise enough in time.
The Campus Crest Proposal
As Campus Crest Vice President of Development Alex Eyssen put it, Corvallis showed a real need for more student housing.
“We’ve watched the market in Corvallis for several years and it’s clear that there’s strong demand for additional housing,” Eyssen said. “The vacancy rates are extremely low. You’ve got a growing university and a student rental market that has expanded into all areas of the community.”
Eyssen said that the Conceptual and Detailed development plan on the table calls for a 296-unit apartment complex. The breakdown is 60-two bedroom units, 164-three bedroom units and 72-four bedroom units. There are also various types of garden-style townhouse buildings. Each bedroom is single occupancy.
Campus Crest has proposed using 25 acres of the Witham Oaks land for its complex, leaving the additional 70 acres dedicated to open space. It’s also been reported that 15 acres of the land will be donated to the city, with Campus Crest responsible for maintaining it for five years.
“Our plan really brings in the footprint and creates more open space, so it’s a very prudent development of this parcel. It allows for additional housing options and puts students closer to campus than some other housing options,” Eyssen commented.
Like many other Campus Crest developments across the country, this complex would be named The Grove.
Having enough room to house up to 900 OSU students should cut down on the number of students who are forced to commute to campus from Albany, Lebanon and surrounding communities; a net environmental and social benefit.
The proposed complex is about a mile from campus and proposes the inclusion of a bicycle repair station; it is imaginable that many would-be residents would choose walking and biking to campus instead of driving.
Also, our city’s current vacancy rate is far below the 4 to 7 % range that city housing specialist Bob Loewen considers balanced. Loewen is tasked with keeping track of the city’s approximately 13,100 rental units and he pegs our current rate at 3.7% and it was even worse a month ago at 2.75%. In short, we need the housing, especially for prospective renters.
Using a smaller footprint, the Campus Crest development leaves more open space than previous developers proposals have included.
Some residents in and around the Witham Hill neighborhood have opposed the Campus Crest project since the beginning, preferring to keep the land as open space in order to preserve the wetlands and associated ecosystem. In public testimonies, other Corvallisites have raised concerns about the development causing an increase in neighborhood pollution, parking, noise and traffic, as well as putting bicyclist and pedestrian safety at risk.
It has also been pointed out that Campus Crest has a mixed record, for instance, incidents and complaints from tenants who have lived at The Grove locations in Columbia, Missouri, Denton, Texas and Orono, Maine have shown up in media reports over the last three years. More yet, Campus Crest has not always responded in ways that are assuring.
In 2011, a deck railing attached to an outside balcony collapsed, leaving three North Texas tenants hospitalized. A Denton city council member blamed the incident on a lack of careful inspection during construction.
Campus Crest spokeswoman Chassity Brown said that the railing involved in the incident was “decorative” and a “non-weight bearing structure,” which was “not designed to support the weight of three grown adults.” This may lead people to wonder why the balcony was even accessible in the first place.
That same year, a University of Missouri student moved out of her apartment the same day she moved in, citing that her front door didn’t shut all the way, even when locked, and her stove didn’t work. Parents and other tenants complained about sawdust everywhere, scratched furniture, paint splatters and maladjusted cabinets. In this case, the company spokeswoman didn’t return calls to comment about the complaints.
Similar complaints were made in 2013 by tenants at The Grove townhouses near the University of Maine. Residents claimed on move-in day there was leftover construction debris everywhere and some appliances didn’t work properly.
Where We Are Now?
In this case, the zoning of the land had to be changed to allow the construction of a student housing complex. Friends of Witham Oaks have not taken a stand against Campus Crest in particular, but do have an issue with the zoning change of the land from low-density to medium-high density.
According to Kevin Young, Corvallis Planning Division Manager, “The 95 acre property is currently zoned for 57.7 acres of Low Density Residential development and 36.9 acres of Open Space – Agricultural land,” he said.
“The proposed change would reduce the “development footprint”, but would increase the allowed intensity of development within that area, with a change in zoning to allow 24.6 acres of Medium-High Density Residential and 70 acres of Open Space – Conservation land.”
The Corvallis City Council came to a preliminary decision a couple of weeks ago to approve the Comprehensive Plan Amendment and Zone Change, in a close 5 to 4 vote. Campus Crest needed the zoning change to get approved, but according to Young there is still a long way to go before this process will be completed.
Young said that the Corvallis City Council has not made a decision on the Planned Development or Subdivision components of the application yet. They have referred the question of conditions of approval that should be applied to the Planned Development and Subdivision to the Planning Commission.
The Commission met on Jan. 29 and put together a set of recommended conditions and development-related concerns of approval, which will be considered by the City Council in a public hearing to be held on Tuesday, Feb. 18.
“At the public hearing, the City Council will allow for public testimony on the subject of the Planning Commission’s recommended conditions of approval, and on the general topic of what would be appropriate conditions of approval to apply to the Planned Development and Subdivision,” Young said. “Once that testimony is heard, the City Council will close the hearing and deliberate and make a preliminary decision regarding the Planned Development and Subdivision. Once they have done that, staff will prepare formal findings for adoption by the City Council at a later meeting, which will be the point at which the official decision will be made.”
Young also mentioned that if the development is approved after the city council process, there will be a 21-day period during which appeals can be made to the Oregon Land Use of Appeals (LUBA). If none are made, which seems doubtful given all the public testimony against the development, the applicant would be able to submit for development permits. If an appeal(s) is indeed made, the applicant would have to wait for LUBA to reach a decision, and it could eventually be sent to the Oregon Court of Appeals.
No one from the Corvallis City Council wishes to comment on the record while their decision is still pending.
Eyssen and Campus Crest ideally would like to have The Grove open in time for the fall of 2016 academic school year, but until a definitive conclusion is reached, we all know this is far from a done deal.
The Tuesday, Feb. 18 hearing is at 6:30 p.m., Downtown Fire Station, 400 NW Harrison.
By Patrick Fancher
The 2.2% Solution… Why We Support The Bulldozer, Sorta
Corvallis has long valued being a compact city, which has many environmental positives, not only regionally but globally. Beyond combating sprawl, this strategy has netted Corvallisites many compelling open spaces on the city’s outskirts. For instance, the likes of Chip Ross, Bald Hill and Fitton-Green, with their richly treed canopies and sweeping vistas.
It is difficult to see the Witham Oaks property the same way. It is closer in and eminently walkable and bikeable to campus, so even with valid habitat concerns for the property, the development will almost certainly realize net environmental benefits regionally as goes reduced sprawl and car trips. Notably, the currently proposed development leaves over 73% of the land as open space, far more than prior proposals.
And then there are the social implications — the Campus Crest proposal would increase our rental housing stock by 2.2% and if those units came on the market today our vacancy rate would move to a number city and other experts view as balanced, 5.8%.
At the Corvalla Apartments, where new ownership is evicting residents in an attempt for a piece of the new Corvallis up-market pie, tenant Nicole Navarro can tell you what the current 3.7% vacancy rate means, “A lot of people don’t have anywhere to go” and, “Most of the people from the first round of evictions are still homeless. A few of them are staying in hotels or with friends, hopping from place to place.”
A final caveat, there does seem to be cause for concern over practices at Campus Crest. Certainly inspectors and prospective tenants should be mindful and even wary. But also, we would challenge Campus Crest, if you get the approvals, if you build it… will you offer the quality construction and tenant care that makes us do a positive double-take? Let’s hope so.