Corvallis is changing, and not everybody is happy about it.
A big part of the change has been driven by the steady growth of enrollment at Oregon State University, which hit a record 25,000 this fall and has been projected to climb as high as 35,000 by 2025.
That growth has rapidly outstripped the capacity of the local rental housing market, pushing vacancy rates below 1 percent, driving up rents and forcing renters to seek housing in neighboring communities.
But for many Corvallis residents, the cure for the housing crunch may be worse than the disease. Three major student housing developments proposed this year — The Grove at Witham Oaks, 7th Street Station and the Harrison Apartments — have drawn a barrage of criticism from locals who worry that their city’s small town livability is being lost to the university’s relentless expansion.
Louise Marquering, part of a citizen group formed to preserve the Witham Oaks property, went before the City Council in October to plead for a coordinated approach to managing the coming wave of development projects.
“This isn’t just one thing,” Marquering said. “It’s the entire community.”
Founded as Oregon Agricultural College in 1868, Oregon State University has been an important part of Corvallis’ identity almost from the beginning.
But the college town feel that attracted many people in the first place has been gradually eroding for years as successive waves of students have spread farther into the neighborhoods around campus like ripples through a pond.
In a pattern that has come to be repeated many times, owner-occupied homes have been converted to rentals or torn down to make room for apartments as college students displace families and young professionals.
Townhouse-style apartments have come to symbolize this trend.
Rows of attached units, typically three stories tall, have sprouted in the neighborhoods around campus in recent years. They frequently have five bedrooms — the maximum number of unrelated adults allowed in a single residence under city code — and command rents of $500 to $700 a month per bedroom.
The combination of density and income potential makes student townhouses an attractive proposition for developers of smaller lots. But they’ve also become a target for complaints from disgruntled neighbors.
“When we moved in, all the houses on our block were owner-occupied, and that has changed — (now) half of them are rentals,” said Charlyn Ellis, a member of the Chintimini Neighborhood Association, who has lived in the 500 block of Northwest 21st Street for 15 years.
“We have the hideous townhouses all over the place. We’re kind of surrounded by them.”
The structures’ design virtually guarantees that only college students will want to rent them, Ellis said, and seems to encourage a hard-partying lifestyle, with many tenants turning their garages into “party bays.”
On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights during the school year, she said, the festivities get started about 10:30 p.m. and continue till around 2 in the morning, with groups of loud, drunken young people moving from party to party and disturbing the neighbors.
“The university needs to build housing on campus,” Ellis said. “I’m not talking 250 beds. I’m talking thousands.”
That may be easier said than done. While close to 80 percent of freshmen live in the dorms, older students show a preference for off-campus living.
That creates an opportunity for private developers, who see significant profit potential in off-campus housing aimed at student renters. The three major apartment complexes currently in the pipeline would add 469 units with 1,370 bedrooms.
While that would certainly do something to ease the downward pressure on historically low vacancy rates, it’s causing pushback from nearby homeowners who view the developments as a further attack on their embattled neighborhoods.
Jim Munford has lived in the 600 block of Northwest 28th Street, in the heart of the Chintimini neighborhood and just a few blocks from the site of the proposed Harrison Apartments, since 1985.
He’s seen the character of the area steadily change as more students have moved in, leading to conflicts over noise, traffic and, above all, parking. The streets around his home are lined with cars from overcrowded rental housing or students who drive in from outlying districts and park off-campus to avoid the fees.
He worries that if the Planning Commission approves plans for the Harrison Apartments — which was originally proposed with 270 beds and only 179 parking spots — the situation will only get worse, despite the developers’ assurances that many student renters will leave their cars at home.
(Late last week, the developers of the Harrison Apartments said they were revising their plans with an eye toward easing the parking issues.)
“There’s going to be 100 more beds than there are parking spaces, and that’s going to spill over into the already congested neighborhoods on both sides of Harrison,” Munford said.
“Parking is just overwhelming us.”
The parking issue has become a flashpoint in the town vs. gown debate consuming Corvallis, in part because of a wrinkle in the city’s land development code.
Chapter 4.1.30 of the code spells out off-street parking requirements for new development.
For a single-family residence, zero lot line house or manufactured home, the minimum requirement is two spaces.
For a duplex, townhouse or apartment complex, the requirement is one space per one-bedroom unit, 1½ spaces per two-bedroom unit or 2½ spaces for each units with three or more bedrooms.
The code also allows for standardized reductions in some of those parking requirements if the development has extra bicycle parking or is on a public transit line.
Opponents of student townhouse and apartment development argue that while those numbers might make sense for families with one or two cars, a five-bedroom rental with five students will generally have five cars.
And all those cars, they say, have to park somewhere.
But city planning officials counter that the code — driven in part by the state transportation planning rule — is designed to curb excessive use of automobiles. The idea is to improve community livability by imposing some limits on parking lots and other impervious surfaces that encroach on green space and divert polluted runoff into the city’s wastewater treatment system.
“If you adopt a standard where there’s one space per bedroom, there’s going to be a lot of unintended consequences,” Kevin Young, a senior planner with the city, told the Gazette-Times.
There are other ways to address the parking issue, added Community Development Director Ken Gibb, and developing a menu of effective options will be among the first orders of business for the recently formed city-OSU steering committee.
One of the steps under consideration is an expansion of the city’s parking district program, which sells a limited number of parking permits to residents within the district boundaries. On-street parking without a permit is restricted to two hours between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday-Friday.
Other possibilities include park-and-ride lots with shuttle buses to get students from their cars to their classrooms and back.
“We’re doing best practices research to see what other cities have done,” Gibb said. “Codes as they pertain to student housing will be part of that.”
Parking, noise and other campus-area livability issues are a top priority for Ward 2 City Councilor Roen Hogg, whose district includes downtown and the historic neighborhoods south of OSU.
“When I got on the City Council a year ago, that was the No. 1 issue for my ward,” Hogg said.
“A lot of those people have lived here for 20 years or 30 years and have seen the neighborhood degrade around them, so it’s not a case of people who should have known better.”
The council has made addressing the issues arising from the university’s rapid growth one of its four main goals, and Hogg has high hopes for the Corvallis-OSU steering committee.
“I think we’re kind of at a tipping point where things could go one way or the other way,” Hogg said. “My hope with the streering committee is that we’ll be able to make things better than they are now.”
But it would be a mistake, Hogg added, to suggest that the way to ease the city’s current growing pains is to rein in Oregon State or blame students for everything that’s wrong with Corvallis.
“We need to try to get beyond this false sense that there’s a split between the university and the rest of town because I think the university adds tremendously to our community, both economically and culturally,” he said.
“Nothing ever stays the same. You can always look back at the good old days, but life is about change,” he added. “We just need to have some way to manage the change.”