Vancouver council mulls exception for apartments

$30 million VHA project spurs traffic concerns for some

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

Published:

 
photoClick to enlarge

A $30 million Vancouver Housing Authority apartment complex for east Vancouver could be scrapped unless the city council makes an exception to density rules, and at least three councilors have expressed concerns about adding traffic to Southeast First Street.

The VHA's proposed 152-unit development was approved by city staff on the condition the council OKs the density exception.

Despite doubts, the council on July 15 voted 6-1 to hold a public hearing on a development agreement that would allow the density exception.

The hearing will be at the council's next meeting at 7 p.m. Monday.

Councilor Jack Burkman said he worries denying the VHA project might send a dangerous message to others wishing to do business with the city.

By denying a density exception allowed under state law for low-income housing developed by a housing authority, the council would be substituting personal judgment for the judgment of professional engineers who did a traffic study, he said.

"That is a really dangerous precedent," Burkman said. It sends a message that even if a project gets a green light by city planners, councilors will make "a personal interpretation of what is traffic," he added.

Councilor Jeanne Harris, who lives south of the proposed development and was the lone "no" vote on advancing the project, took Burkman's comment personally.

"I would ask you to not include the characterization that this is about personal feelings on individual projects," Harris told him.

As a legislative body, the council can question a development agreement, she said.

Under current city density rules, the VHA could build a maximum 108 units. Since the VHA has to construct a section of Southeast 166th Avenue to reach the site, Executive Director Roy Johnson said the development needs 44 additional units to make the project pencil out.

Harris said she had a "gut feeling" that the project would put too much stress on an area where the city has fallen behind on infrastructure.

"I'm not making any personal judgements, and I don't plan to scare anybody away from doing business in Vancouver," Harris said.

Councilor Jeanne Stewart also questioned the project, which would include studio apartments and one, two and three-bedroom units.

Stewart asked how many parking spaces were included. For apartment complexes, the city uses a multiplier of 1.5 to determine the minimum amount of required spaces. The VHA plans 231 spaces, three more than the minimum.

Stewart worried that wouldn't be enough "if somebody has a roommate or a spouse or an occupant otherwise than the renter," and that too much traffic would be added to Southeast First Street, a concern shared by Councilor Bill Turlay.

People turning left onto First Street from 166th Avenue, "will be waiting there for hours," Turlay said. He said he has problems turning left onto First Street when leaving a shopping complex anchored by Parkrose Hardware.

Turlay also questioned fire access, but assistant City Attorney Linda Marousek said traffic impacts and fire access were considered as part of the standard review.

Staff relied on a study that included projected traffic from the VHA complex and another planned complex, and traffic counts didn't trigger a requirement for adding a traffic light at what would be a T intersection at First Street and 166th Avenue. The light would be just east of the four-way intersection of First Street and 164th Avenue.

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt said if the council ends up denying the project, it will be a de facto development moratorium on Southeast First Street.

The street has been added to the wait list in the city's capital improvement program, but there's no money right now, Leavitt said.

Had the VHA pursued a 108-unit project and not needed a density exception, the complex wouldn't have been brought to the council's attention, Leavitt added.

"What concerns me is we are expressing doubt in the studies that have been provided," Leavitt said. "Is it in our purview to say we don't believe the engineers' studies?"

Marousek said nearby property owners were notified of the project and no appeals were filed.

Harris said she doesn't recall getting a notification, but she lives in a gated development of rental townhouses.

Only property owners are required to be notified, said City Manager Eric Holmes. Whether the landlord passes that information to renters would be up to the property owner.

Delay means forfeited grant

During the July 15 meeting, Johnson told the council if the project doesn't win approval by the end of August, the VHA will have to forfeit a $1 million grant from the state commerce department. That shortfall would doom the project, he said.

The project's other funding sources are the federal government, city of Vancouver and the housing authority. The VHA plans to spend $9 million, the most equity it has ever put into a project. That's a reality partially driven by fewer funding sources, Johnson said.

The VHA's money for the 152-unit complex came from proceeds from the sale of other property, Johnson said.

The VHA bought the 7.95-acre property in June 2010 for $1.1 million. It had once been the site of a golf driving range, then was going to be used for townhouses. When that project failed, another developer bought it, but the land went into foreclosure.

"This is a growth area," Johnson said. "We are able to establish a location that can stay affordable and be close to new jobs."

He said 75 percent of the units would be reserved for those who earn 60 percent or less than the area annual median income. For a family of four, the median is $67,900, so qualifying families would earn $40,740 or less. Remaining units would be rent-stabilized and based on average local monthly rents.

Troy Drawz, director of development for the VHA, said the agency rarely asks the city council to use a state law allowing for density exceptions for public housing.

"We try to request it sparingly, but we've given up a lot of land to provide a road," Drawz said.

Both Johnson and Drawz said they understand the council's concern about traffic in the area, but with the exception of building a stretch of 166th Avenue, nothing supports the VHA needing to provide additional infrastructure.

During the July 15 meeting, Harris expressed frustration that when she's southbound on 164th Avenue, she needs to turn left onto Southeast Sixth Street, which dead-ends, then go back north on 164th Avenue and turn right onto Fifth Street, which is unimproved, to get home.

But that issue can't be tied to VHA's project, councilors were told by Marousek. The city does plan to extend Sixth Street, but it will be up to future developments to build it.

"The city's ability to require off-site improvements is related to the impact of the project," Marousek said. "As you are well aware, the extent to which we can impose off-site impacts is limited by the United States Constitution," she continued. "I'm going to trust the traffic engineer."

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.