By Keely Damara for Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting
Northern Arizona University’s enrollment at its Flagstaff campus has grown by 42 percent in the past ten years, and the roughly 22,000 Lumberjacks make up almost a third of the relatively small mountain town’s residents.
The growth has strained traffic infrastructure and housing capacity, and rental prices are among the highest in the state and are rising sharply. With the Arizona Board of Regents aiming to increase enrollment by another 15 percent by 2025, city leaders and neighborhood activists are faced with accommodating even more students.
NAU administrators have also struggled to accommodate the growth, having to turn away students seeking on-campus housing in 2013, but NAU President Rita Cheng has consistently emphasized a pro-growth agenda as the only option.
“We cannot afford not to (grow),” Cheng said during the 2017 Campus Forum. “NAU is not growing just for the sake of growth itself. We are responding to business owners who recognize that our programs create a better-trained workforce for a vibrant economy. We are responding to those who know that every 1,500 new students at NAU equate to an additional $30M in Arizona’s economy and a more informed citizenry.”
Some residents have protested large, off-campus student housing projects near NAU over the effect they’ll have on the surrounding community. Unhappy locals have recited their complaints at city council and High Occupancy Housing Task Force meetings, ranging from a fear they will drive down existing home values to not matching the character of the city to obstructing views and increasing traffic without providing enough parking.
The Flagstaff City Council has committed to supporting the development of affordable housing for renter and buyers as one of its top priorities for the next two years. Councilmember Celia Barotz said plans for high-occupancy housing need to target the workforce, not just students.
Even with all of the new development of single- and multifamily housing, Barotz said, much of it is out of reach for the average Flagstaff worker.
The average cost of renting a two-bedroom apartment in 2015 was $1,021 a month, almost 12 percent more than the state average of $913 a month.
High rents make Flagstaff the 11th most expensive city for renters in Arizona, according to real estate tracking firm Zillow.
Every city or town in Arizona with more expensive rent, like Scottsdale and Sedona, has a higher per capita income than Flagstaff.
Flagstaff also is considerably more expensive than the state’s other college communities, Phoenix, Tucson and Tempe.
That distinction has worsened in recent years. While statewide rental prices have increased by about 10 percent over the past five years, in Flagstaff they’ve increased by 25 percent, with more volatile fluctuations than the state or other cities.
John Stigmon, CEO for the Economic Collaborative of Northern Arizona, is conducting a study on workforce housing for the city and Coconino County to be completed by the end of the summer. During a May 2016 city council meeting, he said the housing market is being squeezed from the “top,” by second home buyers, and from the “bottom,” by the student housing demand. He said a recent study indicated second homes account for 24 percent of the houses in Flagstaff and a growing student population is creating more demand for affordable rentals.
In April, the Arizona Board of Regents approved the construction of NAU’s Honors College Living and Learning Community, which will add more than 600 beds. The residence hall will be one of thirteen freshman and twelve upper-division halls, among them three luxury dormitories managed by a Texas-based student housing developer that manages more than 200 communities across the United States.
In Fall 2017, NAU will offer nearly 10,000 on-campus beds to students following the completion of SkyView, a partnership between NAU and American Campus Communities.
Although the university had to turn away students seeking housing in 2013, every student who applied for on-campus housing by the priority deadline for the 2016-2017 school year was given the opportunity live on campus, NAU spokeswoman Kim Ott said.
Barotz lamented what she described as inadequate coordination between the city and the university on the topic of growth.
Construction crews have already started on the The Hub, a five-story, mixed-use housing development from Austin-based Core Spaces that will tower over the historic neighborhood just north of campus. But it has become an emblem of the struggle between locals and developers.
Local activists’ legal maneuvers forced changes to the design, and a zoning lawsuit delayed, and threatened to entirely prevent, the construction of the building. The planned luxury student apartments don’t match the character of the neighborhood, they say, and the students living there will overrun what is now a relatively quiet section of town.
In April a Superior Court judge cleared the final hurdle for The Hub, giving developers a green light to begin construction. Activists who had hoped to stop the development say the approval may also give developers the idea that zoning rules intended to promote construction that fits the neighborhood can be sidestepped or ignored altogether.
Marie Jones, Stand Up! For Flagstaff’s chairwoman, said the council’s decision to approve The Hub was a mistake. While the guidelines for building within transect zones are vague, she said, the intent of the transect zones in the 2011 Downtown Regulating Plan is clear: structures must fit the established character of the neighborhood. The Hub, which will loom over nearby single-story homes and small businesses, doesn’t meet this standard, she said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Marie Jones, of Stand Up! For Flagstaff, said the Flagstaff City Council’s decision to approve The Hub was a mistake, and has been corrected to indicate that Jones was referring to the city planning department’s decision regarding The Hub.
Three other student housing projects near campus are in various stages of development.
- Fremont Station, west of campus and nearing completion this summer, has already leased most of its 814 beds for Fall 2017.
- The Standard, which drew public criticism in 2014 after the developer proposed displacing residents from a mobile home park a few blocks north of campus to make space for luxury student apartments, is slowly moving forward despite a $24M dispute between the developer, Landmark Properties, and the city. The city engineer said the out-of-state developer had to pay for improvements to a nearby intersection, roadway and bike paths before the project would be approved. Landmark filed a notice of claim stating the city was using them to make public improvements at Landmark’s expense.
- Mill Town, a joint project between the city, Arizona Department of Transportation and Vintage Partners, will be built on the west side of Milton Road, just west of south campus. Roads nearby will be extended and interconnected to accommodate new traffic.
Flagstaff is surrounded by National Forest land and borders the Navajo reservation, limiting the ability to accommodate a growing population with urban sprawl.
A plan laying out growth goals for 2030, approved by the Flagstaff City Council in 2014, identifies land constraints as a major hurdle to future growth. More than three-quarters of the land in Flagstaff and nearby incorporated areas is National Forest, and only 14 percent is privately owned.
Sustainable communities are compact and walkable, the plan explains. Mixed-use land keeps residential neighborhoods close to commercial districts, preserves open spaces and invites investment in public transportation. Density is encouraged in some areas, in order to preserve open spaces in others.
In 2011, the city council approved the Downtown Regulating Plan, which introduced Transect, or transitional, zoning with the aim of creating a more cohesive look to the structures being built in the core of the city and surrounding neighborhoods.
Transect zoning allows developers to build structures that have both residential and commercial purposes, without having to strictly comply with the traditional zoning for either of those categories. Buildings that use transect zoning might be required to have building materials, porches or entrances that match the look and style of neighboring buildings. They must also preserve a certain portion of the overall lot footprint for open space or landscaping. City planning staff must approve plans for proposed developments, ensuring that projects adhere to the zoning code.
The biggest challenge to the city is ensuring road infrastructure can continue to support the growing population and the estimated five million visitors each year, Barotz said.
Read more at Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting.