Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Open Discussion on Population Planning - Citizens' Forum

For the last 18 months, I have been writing about zoning and density issues which are linked to the overall problem of growth and affordable housing in the city of Bellingham. My views are clear. I reject the city's approach to infill by default, i.e., allowing the proliferation of illegal rooming houses as a means of absorbing not only our huge student population but population growth in general.

To date, the overall conversation about this problem has largely been controlled by the city through its Planning Academies and its City Council meetings. Opportunities for the general public to come together on these issues are virtually non-existent.

A number of concerned citizens recently formed a group called the Citizens' Forum whose mission is: "to provide an opportunity for Bellingham Citizens to participate in open dialogue, to exchange ideas, and to debate important issues regarding the future growth of our community."

To that end, the group is hosting an open discussion on the subject "Why Should We Care About Population Planning?" on January 31st, from 10am to noon at the Fountain Community Church. (click on image to view flyer) I encourage all my readers to attend this discussion.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Zonemaven Meeting with WWU Officials

Back in September, I wrote to Dr. Bruce Shepard who had just assumed his post as President of WWU. (Read my original letter to him by clicking here). I made five recommendations to him, as follows:

-Plan for additional off-campus student housing through public-private partnerships with a zeal equal to that shown in seeking the same partnerships for the university’s waterfront projects.

-Raise the Campus Community Coalition [CCC] to the level of your office, rework and broaden its stated mission and provide it adequate funding.

-Stop the university’s advertising and support of rentals which violate the Bellingham City Code and warn students that to enter into such rental agreements might bring legal action.

-Work vigorously with the city for a landlord licensing program which will protect the health and welfare of students living off-campus.

-Amend the code of student behavior to include sanctions of illegal, off-campus behavior.

I also asked to meet with him to discuss each topic. Instead, he referred my letter to his staff (you can read a short account of that in the fifth paragraph of my blog entry of 20 December by clicking here) and I eventually met with Dr. Eileen Coughlin, Vice-President for Student Affairs and Academic Support and Mr. Ted Pratt, Dean of Students.

With respect to any expectation of additional university housing either on campus or off-campus, the answer I received during our meeting was essentially that there are no plans, although the university looks for expansion of some 2,000 students in the next decade. To be fair, some of these additional students will be attending classes in Everett (about 250 as I understand) but plans to attract about 500 additional students with the waterfront campus, AKA, Huxley-on-the-Bay, do not include any housing whatsoever. The “Build it, and they will come.” attitude (pardon me, Shoeless Joe Jackson, for the modified quote) has a price, which will not be born by the university but by the city and its neighborhoods as these young adults seek housing in a rental market plagued by scofflaw landlords and their illegal rooming houses.

Alas, I received no commitment with regard to moving the CCC to the level of the office of the president of the university, although Dr. Coughlin was not opposed to the concept. I remain convinced that it ought to be placed either in direct subordination to Dr. Shepard or under the new Vice President for University Relations, Mr. Steve Swan. Dr. Shepard indicated in a recent press release that “[Mr. Swan] is respected both on and off campus, and is particularly effective in the community…” We will see. Dr. Shepard went on to say that he was expanding the position responsibilities to include "presidential initiatives" as assigned. What better opportunity to send a new signal of increased cooperation with the community than to place the CCC within this important office.

With respect to the advertising for illegal rentals at the Viking Union, there are still some serious problem areas which I communicated to Dr. Coughlin. (See my blog on the advertising issue by clicking here) Ted Pratt and I agreed to work together, including Jim Schuster, Director of Viking Union Facilities, on the problem. Tangentially related, although not under the purview of either Mr. Pratt or Mr. Schuster, is the question of ads for illegal rooming houses in the student newspaper, the Western Front. I have not seen any such ads in the Western Front lately; however, this is may be more a function of it not being the rental season for students than being a change of policy at the Front.

With regard to landlord licensing, Dr. Coughlin stated that this was not a WWU issue with the City of Bellingham. Granted. I can understand that the university may not wish to enter into the debate on this specific city matter; however, I think there is an imperative for WWU to work with the city to ensure the safety and health of students in rental housing of any form, irrespective of the licensing issue. WWU support of a focus on inspections, especially of the now uncontrolled single family home rentals, would surely be within the purview of the university, inasmuch as the university now engages the city and its residents on student alcohol use. If you are interested in reading a fellow blogger’s take on the safety issue, click here. This is a nationwide problem. Tragedies can happen here.

I pointed out to Dr. Coughlin that other universities, such as WSU, Pullman have student codes which apply to off-campus behavior. (Click here to read that of WSU and here for that of WWU) She responded by saying that the situation at Pullman was different in that they had a number of fraternities and sororities located within the community. So I called WSU and had a nice chat by with Elaine Voss, the Director of Student Conduct in Pullman. She confirmed Dr. Coughlin’s assertion that the student code at WSU with respect to off-campus activity was, in part, the result of the large number of fraternities and sororities which are located off-campus although these organizations, at least at WSU, are in steeply declining membership. She also added that the code was structured as such since the student body was large compared to the permanent city population (18,000 vs. 9,000). Nevertheless, I suggested to Dr. Coughlin that a discussion of the off-campus reach of the present WWU code should be a topic at the Campus Community Coalition as much as for clarification of the current code as for dialogue on recommending any changes. I understood her reticence in the matter, however, the fact that the suggestion has arisen time and time again for years, points to a lacuna of some sort. Since the Bellingham police cannot deal with everything, it may be useful to identify and understand the perceptions of those who call for sanctions on student off-campus behavior.

Regrettably, Dr. Shepard declined to meet with me, a decision I find surprising given his much vaunted desire to connect with students, faculty and the public. (Click here for a flavor of that) Perhaps, if he reads this post, he may invite me for a chat.