Wednesday, May 28, 2008

WWU Dormitory Expansion Plan - Yawn!

An alert reader provide me with the meeting notice (at left – click on image to enlarge) concerning the proposed building of an annex to Buchanan Towers dormitory on the campus of Western Washington University. In an earlier post to this blog, I reported to my readers the then “indefinite” plan to build one new dormitory on the WWU campus. Since no other proposal has come before the Board of Trustees recently (You can check their meeting agenda and minutes at their site by clicking here.), this must be THE plan for “additional” dormitory space.

Here is a quote from the minutes of the 14 December 2007 board meeting: “George Pierce, Vice President of Business and Financial Affairs, introduced Tim Wynn, Director of Facilities Management; Rick Benner, Executive Director of Facilities Planning and Development; Ed Simpson, Acting Assistant Director for Design and Construction; and Bob Schmidt, Project Manager. Benner provided the Board a brief history of the project to add 100 to 200 beds into the residence hall system. Following a feasibility study, it was decided to add a five story addition to Buchannan Towers and the university is now ready to move into the project design and construction administration phase. Benner presented a recommended project design for the addition including renovations to Buchanan Towers. The total project cost is $18M and occupancy is scheduled for Fall 2010.”

These are the plans for new housing from a university which is desperately seeking (with your tax dollars) expansion of Huxley College at the waterfront to the tune of 500 additional students. Even at the maximum of 200 beds, this dorm appendage will not even house half of the students thus attracted. Maybe if WWU springs a few extra dollars for bunk beds it can double the capacity. Creative solutions might also involve the adoption of “hot cots” wherein every 8 hours each bed is turned over to another student, thus tripling its capacity. Huxley students might find this environmentally appealing. You will recall that the institution just spent almost 2.5 times $18million for a new academic building so the trend is clear – Bellingham neighborhoods will have to suck up the overflow students into non-existent housing unless, of course, you make more rooming houses from those single family homes on your street.

One might also legitimately ask the manner in which the university will accommodate the several hundred vehicles which will certainly accompany the 100-200 students. One of my readers informed me that about ten years ago the citizens of Bellingham pushed the site, now to be occupied by the dorm expansion, as an excellent spot for a multi-story parking garage. That never came to be.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

An Interesting Discovery at Western Washington University.

A previous blog entry (click here to read it) spoke to advertising in the Western Front in which a local property management firm placed an ad for homes with 2 to 5 bedrooms within easy walk of WWU. Speaking with some WWU students the other day, I found several who were planning to move in groups of 5 into single family homes in the York Neighborhood. They expressed surprised when I apprised them of the zoning regulations prohibiting such rentals.

This should not shock those who might take a casual stroll through the Viking Union, as I did last week. There, next to the US post office annex, was a bulletin board with housing rental offers (each bearing the approval of the relevant office of the Viking Union) of single family homes most of which expressly stated that the rentals were available for 4-6 persons. A particular ad even provided a per person rate. One home was at 21st and Mills, another on James St. in the York Neighborhood, yet another on Racine St. and finally one on 34th St where, by the bye, a homeowner recently received a lower home valuation by the assessor’s office due to the proliferation of illegal rooming houses on that street.

So, here we have an office within WWU which is approving the posting of ads from landlords who are clearly violating the Bellingham Municipal Code. (Check the WWU on-line ad list yourself by clicking here. Then click on List Your Rental Unit or Room [for listing agents] and then click on View Rental List) Why is the university allowing the posting of such ads? Our least expectation is that WWU would ensure that it does not become involved in activities which have a propensity to support scofflaw landlords. The university could also post notices with the text of the city’s law and declare it highly recommends not entering into rental situations which are clearly code violations. No wonder then that the students profess ignorance of city laws when the university gives its tacit approval. Perhaps the Mayor could pen a note to the WWU hierarchy asking that they cease involvement in such advertising.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Planning Academy II - A Follow-up

One of my readers questioned my previous blog entry entitled “WWU Where Are You – Not at the Planning Academy.” (Click here to read this entry.) He wrote The goal (for the city) is to get buy-in [and] not discuss new ideas or even how to avoid the same problem in the future.” I replied that, if it is buy-in that is the stated purpose, then why have architects, builders, real estate agents, etc. been invited to attend? What is it that they have to “buy into” when it comes to neighborhood character and infill? They make money building and selling. If one follows the logic of inviting these ‘stakeholders” WWU is an extremely huge “stakeholder” in town and a source of solutions for infill. Perhaps they can get rid of those student parking lots and build some dorms for some of those 8,000 students looking for rentals each year. That would be a great sledge hammer for the “tool box”. Right now, the WWU solution is to rent blocks of apartment units and re-rent them to students as off-campus housing. How will this aid infill? WWU should be at the table to answer.

Furthermore, the city is diverting the attention of the public with this academy. Once all these cutesy little infill tools are rubber stamped by the Academy (which I believe is the agenda for the city government), they will be codified at which time the demand to make them real will outweigh the desire for the neighborhoods to keep them at bay. The more Tim Stewart says that the neighborhoods will control this infill, the less confidence I have in the outcome. He stated during the first planning session that the city is good at setting policy but not implementing policy, which, in my book, includes enforcement. That should tell you something. Remember, these are the same folks who have not enforced current codes for decades. Can we believe they will have the political will to enforce future codes having to do with carriage houses, cottages and town homes any more than they enforce single family zoning codes? And just what is in this “tool box” to roll back the years of neglect and chaotic infill by illegal rooming house-ification? If you build on bad policy you get more bad policy.

Monday, May 12, 2008

WWU Where Are You? Not At The Planning Academy.

Over the last week I have been reviewing the “results” of the first session of the Planning Academy II. (Click here to review the on-line materials.) Unfortunately, the second session had already taken place by the time the video and some materials from the first session were made available to the general public. In scanning the list of participants, I searched in vain for representatives (called stakeholders by the Academy) from Western’s management. I did find two “planning students” from WWU were on the list. Since there was no attendance roster from the meeting, I cannot assume that they were, in fact, there. In any event, are we to believe that they represent the university administration? If not, where is the university management? Where are the representatives of the largest employer in the city? Where are the responsible parties of a public institution which brings over 12,000 people to the city each year, 8,000 of whom seek housing? Does this picture not seem bizarre?

Call a meeting on waterfront development and you will hear the stampede of university management as they carom down the stairs of Old Main to ensure a seat at that table. My advice to Mayor Pike is to go to the university and find a few high level managers (if they have not already decided to flee the sinking ship), grab them by the ears and drag them to the next Academy meeting so that we can hear their ideas on infill problems created by the student body. It is also time that the Mayor tells WWU (and the incoming president) that, in order to participate in the waterfront development, it will have to participate enthusiastically and wholly in community development.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Western Front Inaccuracies Noted by Campus Community Coalition

I received the following comment from Lara Welker after I published several blog entries related to Western Front (the WWU student newspaper) articles on the Campus Community Coalition’s Let’s Talk Forums and on zoning and student responsibilities. (Click here and here to read those blog entries) Ms. Welker speaks to several inaccuracies in these Western Front pieces in a letter directed to the editors of the Western Front.

“I regret the inaccurate information printed in the Western Front about the Let's Talk Forum, and sent the following letter to the Editors:

Dear Western Front Editors:
I would like to make a clarification regarding the Let's Talk Forums coming up on May 15. Two recent pieces in the Western Front were inaccurate and misleading about the purpose of this event.

First, the Opinion article "Students Can Be Responsible Neighbors" (5/5/08) stated, "The ["Rule of Three"] ordinance has causes so much commotion, the Western's Campus Community Coalition is holding a discussion for community members and students to discuss the consequences of housing in Bellingham."

The purpose of the "Living Together in Bellingham" Let's Talk Forums is to discuss the issues that come up when students and long-term community members are neighbors, understand different perspectives on these issues, and consider how we can we help each other be great neighbors and community members. Housing is a facet of this conversation, but it is inaccurate to say that Let's Talk is to discuss "the consequences of housing in Bellingham." In addition, these discussions have been held regularly for several years now, and were not prompted by the more recent "commotion" about the ordinance.

Secondly, the title of Harte Onewein's article "Forums Address 'Rule of Three issue" (5/6/08) is inaccurate. While the sentence, "....the "Let's Talk" discussion sessions ...will focus on issues arising from students living off campus" is true, the rest of the article is really about the "Rule of Three" issue. So not only is the title simply incorrect, combining the two issues into one article is very misleading.

The issues these two pieces address have long histories and are very, very complex. I caution your staff and you as editors against oversimplification.

I would appreciate it if you would publish a correction so that students and other readers have correct information about the Let's Talk forum. We invite everyone to participate on Thursday, May 15, with one session at 4pm and another at 7pm in Viking Union 565. For more information, please contact Lara Welker, Campus Community Coalition Coordinator at 650-6863 or

For those who are interested in learning more about the "Rule of Three," I believe the campus ACLA club is planning a session on this for May 20. I encourage you to contact them for more information.

Thank you.
Lara Welker
WWU-Bellingham Campus Community Coalition
Prevention and Wellness Services"

I encourage members of the community to attend the Let's Talk forums next week.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

WWU Article on Let's Talk Forum

On May 6th the Western Front published an article by Harte Onewein entitled “Forums address 'rule of 3' issue.” You can read the article by clicking here. The article began by promoting the next Let's Talk forum at WWU on May 15th in Viking Union Room 565 from 4-5:30 and from 7-8:30. I sent the following letter to the editor of the Western Front to bring some balance to an article which I thought was one-sided.

"[...] First of all, I am gratified to see that the Western Front is giving more visibility to the Let’s Talk Forums. I have attended most of these gatherings and, at times, have been dismayed at the poor turnout. I will be at the sessions on the 15th of May and encourage WWU students to attend.

I also am a firm believer in keeping a balanced approach to the subject as described in the article. The title refers to a Bellingham Municipal Code 20.08.020 which defines a single family for purposed of zoning, i.e., controlling density. I disagree with City Council Member Weiss and Attorney Lukoff’s statements as provided to the article’s author.

Mr. Weiss is looking to change a law which has been on the books for decades but has not been enforced in spite of many complaints about illegal rooming houses, which are the result of having more than three unrelated persons living in the same single family home. It seems aberrant to me that one would want to change a law that has not been tested in court. If a court has not ruled on the statute, what is the basis for changing the code? Mayor Dan Pike said that he would enforce the law, if elected mayor but, after dozens of years of inaction, the city council becomes interested in fiddling with the statute thus confounding the issue. This is called pushing the rope up the hill.

Mr. Lukoff, on the other hand, has declared that the law is illegal because of a Revised Code of Washington portion that one cannot discriminate in real estate transactions on the basis of sex, religion, etc. He proffers an example of gay couples not being able to share a home, however, his reasoning is specious. Gay couples in Washington can form a domestic partnership which creates a legal entity akin to a family. Perhaps two or more gay couples cannot share a home in Bellingham but neither can two or more married couples. As for Mr. Lukoff’s statement, “If you can’t discriminate against everyone then you can’t discriminate against anyone. That’s how the law works.”, I find this logic peculiar in that governments do create discriminatory laws, to wit affirmative action and selective service, for the perceived common weal. Mr. Lukoff has also failed to inform the writer of this article that similar zoning codes have been upheld in various jurisdictions throughout the country as a means to control density.

Mr. Lukoff has presented himself as an attorney who specializes in landlord-tenant relations. I have asked Mr. Lukoff on many occasions, through [this] blog ..., whether he represents the tenants or the landlords, as it makes a difference in judging his opinion on the zoning regulations and in placing his remarks in context. He has, to date, not responded."

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Western Front Editorial Speaks to Zoning and Student Responsibility

The student newspaper at WWU, the Western Front, ran an editorial on May 5th regarding students being responsible neighbors. You can read the article in its entirety by clicking here. I sent the members of their editorial staff, Jeff Richards, Shana Keen, and Lisa Hust, the following email in response:

"I just read your editorial piece entitled “Students can be responsible neighbors.” Although I agree with some of the points, I think you have made some unwarranted assumptions and several errors of fact.

First of all, you state “This ordinance, often called the rule of three, has been intended to prevent mostly students from living together because of complaints of parking issues, litter and noise.” This interpretation is, regrettably, widespread but has no basis except in anecdote. The single family zoning definition is in place to control neighborhood density. It is also a tool for neighborhoods so they can plan for the future. If there is no control over density, then planning is meaningless. If you can not define the terms in your plan, i.e., zoning types, then you are talking gibberish.

This brings me to your second statement, “The arguments for this law are that the students living with two unrelated people will have more cars, be more noisy and cause more litter.” This is a misconstruction. The arguments for the law have to do with the reasons I laid out in my previous paragraph. Although more students living in a house may bring about more noise, cars and litter, so might any home with an unruly family. The issues of density and bad behavior are separate issues.

“The rule of three law is just absurd and discriminating toward college students.” Similar zoning ordinances have been upheld by the courts in other jurisdictions throughout the country. Although the code may appear absurd, courts have ruled that cities have the right to control densities through zoning ordinances which read much the same as those in Bellingham. Although college students may be affected, the law applies across the board and is not aimed at students specifically.

“We should not make discriminating laws but search for solutions to problems associated with extra vehicles, litter and noise complaints.” This is true; however, it does not deal with the issue of zoning categories. My question to you as an editorial staff is, “How do you propose the city define single family zones within the city?” Lest you forget, when a few months ago the city attempted enforcement of parking regulations near the university, there was a great hue and cry from the students about their cars being ticketed. You can not have it both ways.

As for discrimination in law making, it is done all the time for many reasons, most of which have to do with the common weal. If you read our single family zoning definition, you will find that it does exempt several categories of persons who have been identified as protected groups by state or federal statutes.

If you are not yet familiar with my Zonemaven blog, […], I encourage you to read it. I would also be very happy to meet with your editorial staff at any time to discuss these issues.

By the way, my wife and I have entertained hundreds of students in our home over the past 6 years at dinners and BBQs. I work at all football, soccer, and basketball games at WWU. I enjoy the presence of students and appreciate their enthusiasm.

I look forward to hearing from you."

Thursday, May 1, 2008

We Are Underwhelmed

A recent Western Front (the student voice of WWU) article reported, “Overcrowding and an overwhelming demand for student housing required Western's University Residences to lease 45 bedrooms in the New York Apartment for the 2008-2009 school year, forcing many current residents to move due to increasing costs.” You can read the article in its entirety by clicking here. Given that the university can house only about 3,900 students in its existing dormitories, it is difficult to understand the manner in which the increase of 45 units will appreciably affect the status quo. If this action on the part of WWU merely displaces students, who already comprise the bulk of New York Apartment renters, the net effect on total available units hovers near zero. The main problem still remains, that is, adequate housing for the other 8,000 or more students who are thrown into the rental maw each year. In attempting to save money, these young folks make the economically viable choice to rent as a group, whence springs many an illegal rooming house. Add to the equation students from Whatcom Community College and the Bellingham Technical College, not to mention other young wage earners and low-income families, and the rental rates rise due to the competition. Yet the focus (not to mention funds) of the university is in ensuring that, as the musical chairs game we call waterfront development continues, it will have a chair to sit on as the music stops. No matter that thousands of students each year play musical chairs in their quest to find adequate, safe and healthy housing. “And the band played on…”