At its last meeting, the Auburn City Council extended the city moratorium on new student housing primarily to give the public, Planning Commission and council the chance to comment on and vet recommended changes to city regulations that could help curb the proliferation of private dormitories and academic detached dwelling units in the city.
That process was expected to be completed by the end of the original moratorium on Wednesday, but was upended by the Stay at Home health orders enacted in response to the Covid-19 outbreak. The extended moratorium runs through Aug. 25 unless it is terminated by council action beforehand.
A memo sent from City Manager Jim Buston to the council outlines some of the proposed changes, which city staff have worked on for the past several months.
One proposed recommendation would change the density allowance in the Urban Neighborhood – West district, where private dorms are permitted by right and a number of large student-housing projects are currently under construction or planned. Current development and design standards allow 255 bedrooms per acre in UN-W. The urban neighborhood districts and density allowances were created and adopted in 2016 as a result of the Downtown Master Plan process, which eliminated the University Service District, prohibited private dormitories in the Urban Core and incentivized private dorms in UN-W with greater height and density allowances.
"I think it was successful," said Planning Director Forrest Cotten. "I think maybe it was too successful. I would certainly acknowledge, and I think most people would say, that we got what we asked for but we probably got more than we thought quicker than we thought.
"For me, if there's a desire to sort of change this trend or take another approach, I think certainly that's some of the lower-hanging fruit — is to look at that density allowance and perhaps make some adjustment to it so that it doesn't result, perhaps, in the type of development, intensity and maxing out of building height that we've seen largely with what's come in over there post-2016 DMP implementation."
City staff are also recommending improved development and design standards for the Urban Core and Urban Neighborhood districts. The Downtown Design Review Committee worked on those recommendations at multiple meetings before the pandemic hit, but will need to continue their efforts once in-person meetings resume, which Cotten expects to happen "pretty soon."
"As far as the development and design standards go, we were really starting to hit a pretty good stride with the DDRC on a lot of that stuff when Covid hit us," he said. "And with the nuances of dealing with architecture and requirements, it has to be visual."
Cotten said he thinks the recommendations that come out of the DDRC will provide more flexibility while also providing more regulatory structure so that it limits those projects that have been perceived as undesirable visually and architecturally.
"It's hard for me to think that it won't make some of those development decisions more deliberate because I can't help but think that it's going to cause developers to have to be more thoughtful and I think, most likely, for it to be more expensive for what actually gets built."
Another recommendation would prohibit ADDUs in some zoning districts where the use is currently allowed.
"I think the development standards are working pretty well, but one thing ... that concerns me is a lot of things we did through the DMP was to really try to rein some of that purpose-built student housing product close to campus because the further it goes out the more it starts, quite frankly, compromising the integrity of some of our more existing internal neighborhoods. And by doing so, not only does it disrupt the neighborhood fabric, but there's no doubt that the economics driving student housing is economics that's unaffordable for just about any other demographic. Leasing by the bed, you can do the numbers and see no traditional family is going to go over to Harper Avenue and rent one of those cottages that are configured for students already and on top of that pay $3,200 or $3,500 a month."
Cotten added that the city did want to see incremental density increase and a greater diversity of housing supply along the Harper Avenue corridor, which underwent a focus area study by the Planning Department and Planning Commission.
"That area has a lot of potential, but just even in the past year or so when I go in there, what I see a lot of what's actually being done is the ADDUs being built. That's an area we were really hoping, perhaps, that could redevelop incrementally but to get — perhaps that would be an area that would really suit a demographic that's not students but likes the idea of being close to town, close to things and getting into a product that they could afford. I'm not sure we've really realized that to date."
Other recommended changes outlined in the memo include limiting wood-framed construction to three or four stories above grade and creating an incentive program to reduce the inventory and lower the density of multi-family units in the city.
"Taller residential structures would be permissible but construction would be out of concrete and steel components rather than wood," the memo stated.