No Love for Hub in Flag

You enrolled at Northern Arizona University because you love Flagstaff—the mountains, the people, the charm. You may have lived on campus and are now ready to move into town. Affordable housing is hard to find—why not check out the Hub? But before you do, you might want to know the story behind it, and what the word Hub means today in Flagstaff. 

t5hub from milton.jpg

The Hub dominates the view as you head north into Flagstaff on Milton Avenue, completely blocking the view of historic downtown Flagstaff, it's steeples, cupolas and historic hotel signs, as well as the familiar and iconic Mount Elden. A private, gated, luxury dormitory, it is many times larger than any other building in central Flagstaff. Private dorms are not unique to Flagstaff, and increasingly they’re being built in university towns around the country. Universities would rather spend on academics or on academic buildings than on student housing, and as a result student housing has been relegated to the market. And the market has responded, with huge, privately owned dormitories becoming a lucrative investment.

But when large private dormitories like the Hub are built in existing historic neighborhoods that are often situated around an established university, as in Flagstaff, Tempe and Tucson, the record shows that they eventually replace those neighborhoods with clones of themselves. That’s why so many Flagstaff citizens fought the Hub with their donated time, effort, and money.

A Little History

The area east of Milton and between the railroad tracks and NAU is known as Southside. This part of town was settled starting over a hundred years ago by Flagstaff’s Mexican American, African American, and Basque families, who worked for the lumberyards, the railroad, and the ranches and who owned the small local businesses that served Southside neighborhoods. Some of the oldest churches, schools, and markets in Flagstaff are in Southside.

These working-class people weren’t generally the most politically influential, however, and over the years many decisions were made that compromised the neighborhoods’ value—decisions made with neither the involvement nor the consent of Southside residents. These decisions included the up-zoning of residential lots to commercial and the rerouting of the Rio de Flag drainage through Southside, making it prone to flooding. Flagstaff is only now beginning to reconsider these earlier decisions and their impact on these important historical neighborhoods, which today are populated by a diverse mix of working-class families, NAU students, and small businesses.

Mike’s Pike, where the Hub is located, used to be how old Route 66 came through Flagstaff, crossing the railroad tracks at San Francisco Street, turning west onto Phoenix Avenue, bearing left onto Mike’s Pike, passing the historical Our Lady of Guadalupe church, coming out onto Milton at Five Points, and continuing west on historic Route 66. The iconic motel signs you still see today along that route are the original advertisements to weary “Mother Road” travelers. Historically, Mike’s Pike was also a nexus for railroad activity, both railroad workers and passengers traveling the east-west corridor.

The adaptive reuse of the best old buildings on old Route 66, in harmony with the scale of the surrounding neighborhood, with its abundance of walkable amenities, was welcomed by both locals and visitors.

A few years ago, when creative small-business entrepreneurs opened Mother Road Brewery, Pizzicletta, and the Revolutions bike shop in the repurposed laundry building at the corner of Mike’s Pike and Phoenix, and the Toasted Owl restaurant in a renovated former residence across the street, it marked the beginning of an exciting revitalization of a historically vibrant area. The adaptive reuse of the best old buildings on old Route 66, in harmony with the scale of the surrounding neighborhood, with its abundance of walkable amenities, was welcomed by both locals and visitors. The land the Hub developers purchased was seen as a good place for residential and commercial redevelopment—but never at the overwhelming scale of the Hub.

What Went Wrong

Plans for the Hub were first made public in 2015 by Chicago-based Core Campus, Inc. (known now as Core Spaces), along with their Chicago-based architect, John Myefski, and their zoning attorney, Lindsay Schube, of the influential Phoenix law firm Gammage & Burnham. The Hub quickly became a topic of conversation and concern, not only in the immediate neighborhood, but throughout the city. While multi-housing redevelopment in that location was anticipated by residents, citizens overwhelmingly considered this project to be far too large for the scale of the historical streets and residences and businesses around it. Efforts by citizens to shift the developer toward a more compatible, humane scale were fruitless, as developers like Core Campus use a formula that will yield the highest return on their investment.

Citizens came out by the hundreds over a period of two years, in multiple public meetings, to speak out against the proposed development—first at Planning and Zoning Commission hearings, then at Flagstaff City Council hearings, then at a Board of Adjustment hearing, and finally in Coconino County Superior Court. Citizen angst over the Hub was well-covered by local media. In brief, the main argument was not development per se—the need for housing was acknowledged by all, and Southside has always been friendly to its student population. The opposition to the project was based on its massive scale and the fact that a gated community housing over six hundred students was being plopped right into the heart of a historical neighborhood that was undergoing a renaissance that fit the scale and style of the historic pattern. There was also enormous concern about the traffic and parking problems that would be brought to bear on one of Flagstaff’s tightest neighborhoods, where one-way streets and frequent railroad crossings make this a highly congested scene for car traffic and on-street parking.

The Hub, at over 300,000 square feet, is ten times larger than the largest buildings around it in Southside, and fully six times larger the largest buildings in downtown Flagstaff.

Residents’ concern cannot be overstated. The Hub, at over 300,000 square feet, is ten times larger than the largest buildings around it in Southside, and fully six times larger the largest buildings in downtown Flagstaff. People questioned how it could happen that Flagstaff’s zoning regulations could allow such an obviously incompatible structure more in keeping with downtown Tempe to be approved at this sensitive location. Flagstaff city planners responded by saying that existing building standards provided them with no avenue by which to deny the developer’s plans. This argument played out all the way to Superior Court, with individuals from the community raising money to hire a committed local legal team to fight a well-funded developer. When the judge made his decision, it did not rest on whether the Hub was compatible or incompatible—it centered on the fact that the existing zoning code was ambiguous. And because of this ambiguity, the judge allowed construction of the Hub to move forward.

How Did It Happen?

The Core Campus team, including their Gammage & Burhnam attorneys and architect John Myefski, had done their homework.

In 2011, Flagstaff adopted a new zoning code that added to nearly all the central historical downtown and surrounding neighborhoods an overlay based on New Urbanist principles, in which established and respected building forms and land-use patterns are inventoried and encoded in order to preserve a community’s sense of place. The intent of the new code was to protect Flagstaff’s mountain village character so beloved by residents—the very thing that makes it a popular tourist destination and economic asset. The areas covered by the overlay are commercial streets in the downtown and main-street zones, and their surrounding medium- and high-density residential neighborhoods characterized by single-family homes, townhouses, and apartments. With population growth considered inevitable, the overlay would allow these medium- to high-density historical patterns to continue, with anticipated infill projects.

When this code was adopted, Flagstaff, like the rest of the country, had been experiencing the real-estate crash that began in 2007-08. No new building of any substance was on the horizon, and so the new code was never tested by real projects. In retrospect, perhaps hypothetical potential scenarios should have been devised to put the code through its paces to help reveal its deficiencies. It was not, though, and when real-estate money started to move again, the Flagstaff market became ripe for the picking.

This fear factor was used effectively by Core Campus and their lawyers and was even invoked by Flagstaff’s own legal staff to caution the Planning and Zoning Commission, the Flagstaff City Council, and the Board of Adjustment.

Complicating the issue was Arizona’s Proposition 207, which passed in 2007. A so-called private property protection act, it gave a property owners the right to sue the government if new regulations affected their property values. Though there have been no significant lawsuits filed under this law to date, Prop 207 introduced a significant fear factor: cities and towns in Arizona that wanted to adopt updated zoning regulations were fearful that they would be sued by doing so. This fear factor was used effectively by Core Campus and their lawyers and was even invoked by Flagstaff’s own legal staff to caution the Planning and Zoning Commission, the Flagstaff City Council, and the Board of Adjustment. It was the stick used by Grady Gammage, Jr., the name partner of the law firm representing the Hub, to attempt to prod the Flagstaff City Council to the desired conclusion. Ironically, Gammage himself had been an outspoken opponent of Prop 207 when it was on the state ballot. His opposition to it then did not keep him from using it to his client’s advantage later, once it became law.

It emerged during the course of public debate that in its initial meetings with the City of Flagstaff, the developer was able to establish what it considered its property “rights”—before they even owned the land, let alone had a building design. City planning and legal staff, possibly feeling obliged to stick with what they had already agreed to, and no doubt feeling the fear factor invoked by Gammage et al., decided to support the developer’s interpretation of the Flagstaff zoning code in their arguments before the Board of Adjustment and Superior Court. Allowing an out-of-state developer to essentially dictate Flagstaff zoning set up an adversarial situation between Flagstaff residents and city staff, with citizens feeling betrayed and staff feeling attacked.

There were several arguments used to rationalize the Hub’s compatibility with the neighborhood. Advocates for the developer’s plan saw it as inevitable progress, using the circular argument that it was compatible not with what is there now, but with what could be there in the future, once it was built—suggesting a new vision of a Southside featuring more large student housing complexes instead of the small neighborhoods that are there now.

An abrubt design change marks where the zone changes from Neighborhood to Main Street.

An abrubt design change marks where the zone changes from Neighborhood to Main Street.

Neither were Flagstaff residents who fought the Hub persuaded that it was compatible by virtue of its design. In an attempt to blend in with the local architecture, architect John Myefski’s plans included veneers of brick and stone, derived from much smaller local vernacular, but applied over his building’s much larger surfaces—a design rationale that would put shingles on the Pentagon to make it fit in with the single-family homes that surround it in its Arlington, Virginia, location. An abrupt and noticeable roof style and height change from three to five stories marks the imaginary line where the zoning changes from a neighborhood zone to a main-street zone. It remains to be seen whether this platypus of a building will be proudly highlighted to potential clients on the Myefski Architects website.

Gammage & Burhnam attorney Lindsay Schube stressed in public meetings and before the Planning and Zoning Commission and the Flagstaff City Council that her client “loved” the character of Flagstaff and wanted to “be part of” the community. But the record shows, and citizens noted, that Core Campus in fact often sells their Hub-brand properties built around the country shortly upon completion. And sure enough, in the fall of 2017, when construction was less than halfway complete, Core Campus sold its Flagstaff Hub to American Campus Communities, Inc., which claims to be “the nation’s largest developer, owner, and manager of high-quality student housing apartment communities.” The actual transfer presumably will take place after construction of the Hub is completed in the fall of 2018.

Why Flagstaff Fought the Hub

As opposition to the Hub grew, it wasn’t hard for concerned citizens to find examples around the country of how such large, privately owned dormitories were destroying older university neighborhoods, such as those in Tempe and Tucson—both much larger cities than Flagstaff.

Imagine a building like the Hub, larger by orders of magnitude than anything around it, filled with over six hundred temporary residents under twenty-two, appearing in a neighborhood consisting mostly of single-family and multi-family homes and small local businesses. Ask yourself how long it will take for the owners of those homes to see their neighborhood disappearing and thus make the difficult decision to sell—most likely to another developer of student housing waiting in the wings to snatch it up. Living next to a huge dormitory is not very desirable. Some would argue that the property values of those homes go up precisely because they can be torn down to build more big dormitories. But where in Flagstaff can those sellers go to find another neighborhood they can afford, and with the qualities they treasure? What if these were the homes and neighborhoods their grandfathers built, as is often the case in Southside? What about the loss of viable historical neighborhoods to the city as a whole, and the intrinsic character they contribute to its flavor? It was clear to Flagstaff citizens that the Hub would begin a chain of events that eventually would eliminate this neighborhood and its legacy and replace it with what would essentially be an extension of campus—the very argument put forth by the Hub’s proponents when they said that the building was compatible not with what is there now, but with what could be there in the future.

Flagstaff citizens could see a destructive progression of events unfolding, and so they rallied to fight the Hub.

The Big Picture about Student Housing

Is the Hub affordable housing? How do rents at the Hub compare with campus housing or other off-campus rents?

According to collegefactual.com, the per-bed rent on the NAU campus is about $5,150/bed/year, and the cost of living off campus is equal or less than on-campus.

The base rents for luxury accommodations at the Hub are noticeably higher than that estimate:
$ 8,400/bed/year in a 4 or 5 bedroom unit
$ 9,600/bed/year in a 3 bedroom unit
$ 9,720/bed/year in a 2 bedroom unit
$12,480/bed/year in a 1 bedroom unit
The highest rent is $15,600 for a 1 bedroom penthouse.

Parking is an extra cost either on or off-campus.
Prices listed don’t include food either for NAU or the HUB.

Housing is considered affordable if it doesn't exceed 30% of total income.

There is a shortage of affordable housing in Flagstaff for families and working people as well as students who have to or want to live off-campus. This problem is compounded by the rapid growth NAU with no growth cap planned. Leadership at NAU doesn't want to build more student housing to accommodate that growth because they don't want to be left with empty rooms if enrollment declines. The result is an even greater housing shortage for NAU students in Flagstaff—and an opportunity for developers to fill the need.

Students typically decide to live off-campus either because on-campus housing is unavailable or by choice. Many students feel ready to transition to adulthood, to learn to live independently in a real community. Living in a place like the Hub, however, is not at all like living in a neighborhood; it is still living in a dormitory, but without university regulations. Dorms, whether on- or off-campus, are temporary student-only housing—very unlike the inclusive, multigenerational, established historical neighborhood that is Southside, where many students already live. It would be hard to argue against the need off campus student housing projects, which some students and their parents might prefer to the apartments, garage apartments, and shared houses typical of Flagstaff neighborhoods. And as the high-occupancy housing report recently adopted by the City of Flagstaff notes, the community is not in principle against this type of housing—just not in neighborhoods.

From the community’s perspective, there is a big difference between students living beside them in twos and threes, and in a massive cluster of six hundred. Residents don’t want private dormitories to replace their beloved, traditional neighborhoods. Residents passionately protect the city’s unique qualities and eschew the “big box” approach to life, including housing. At the same time, neighborhoods in Flagstaff have always welcomed students and celebrated the liveliness they contribute. Their children are, in fact, many of those students. In turn, healthy neighborhoods help adolescents transition into responsible adults.

What the Hub Taught Flagstaff

Flagstaff citizens who opposed the Hub, despite their numbers and their commitment, were unable to stop the Hub developers from realizing their highly profitable project. But they were able to accomplish significant changes: their efforts reduced the number of Hub residents by 10 percent; reduced the height on the neighborhood side by two stories; and called the city’s traffic and parking regulations into question for review. Even more significantly, the Hub became the number-one issue in the 2016 Flagstaff City Council elections. The three incumbent candidates who supported the Hub were ousted, and candidates who reflected the community’s position against the type of development the Hub represented were elected. The face of the new City Council almost completely changed overnight, and their first action was to address ambiguities that subverted the wishes of residents and permitted the intrusion of this outsize, out-of-character building in an area of historical value to Flagstaff. As a result of the election, there are new ordinances that unequivocally would not allow another Hub in Flagstaff’s historical center.

Meanwhile, for Flagstaff citizens and their elected officials, the Hub represents the profit motives of outside developers with no stake in the community, and a powerful visual reminder about the importance of remaining vigilant about the place they cherish.

Here is a complete list of articles and editorials in the local Flagstaff press.