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SOU plan concerns neighbors

Southern Oregon University's 10-year master plan took a beating Tuesday from the school's neighbors, who especially objected to its proposed "faculty village," saying it would destroy the residential character near the west side of the campus.

At a hearing before the Ashland Planning Commission, 26 neighbors signed up to speak, putting the master plan on the slow track and dimming the university's thrust for more affordable housing for faculty and students.

The commission ran out of time to vote on the plan and will take it up again at its Aug. 11 meeting, when those who didn't have a chance to comment can do so.

"I'm definitely opposed to this much housing. It takes away from the community," said neighbor and former city planning commissioner Marilyn Briggs. "You lose the mix. It becomes a ghetto. A town needs the taxes and the interface; isolating faculty seems totally the wrong way to go, and when I saw pictures of the faculty housing, it brought to mind the White City barracks."

The university had held public hearings on the master plan in the past year, but neighbors complained they were not consulted for their opinions. Neighbors said the school and community needed to get on the same page about the big step of building 20 to 30 faculty housing units, each with four townhouses, on Ashland and Henry streets, west of Mountain Avenue.

"It's out of scale. It should fit in the existing neighborhood and not dwarf it," said nearby resident David Schieber.

Corita Culmer, who lives on Henry Street, told planning commissioners, "The thought of looking out my living room window at multi-story monstrosities leaves me cold. It would destroy the neighborhood."

The university, she added, already has a supply of residential housing it has purchased over the years and should not ask "struggling" taxpayers to buy more.

"It's not a good use of tax dollars. Housing should be 25 to 30 percent of gross income," she said, "and if it's more than that in expensive Ashland, the university should make up the difference with stipends for faculty."

"We, the taxpayers, are hurting," Culmer said, adding that SOU should do all it can to lessen urban impacts on the community organic garden that lies in the middle of the proposed faculty village.

Neighbor Mary Margaret Modesitt said, "It's not a good idea; it doesn't make sense."

City Community Development Director Bill Molnar countered arguments of neighbors by saying that, just because the city approves SOU's master plan, it doesn't give the school free hand to proceed with all construction in the plan.

Molnar recommended SOU be subject to the conditional-use permit process because the proposed faculty housing varies so much from the single-family housing around it.

"All projects should still be subject to the city site review process," said Molnar.

The master plan also proposes four large new dormitories opposite McNeal Pavilion, a step that would shift hundreds of students from the Cascade dorms to below Siskiyou Boulevard, significantly increasing pedestrian traffic on the arterial.

Molnar said that before any construction moves forward, the university must come up with a satisfactory traffic-safety plan. In the past year, following the death of a student in a crosswalk, SOU greatly increased lights and signs along the boulevard.

Master plan author Eric Ridenour of SERA Architects in Portland told the commission the community garden — which at one point in the planning process was suggested for relocation to the north side of campus to make room for faculty housing — would remain where it is.

A long-lost creek, named Beach Creek, will be "daylighted" or brought up above the surface during the so-called 2020 Plan, Ridenour added.

Culmer said the "housing scheme" would affect the community garden, which is "a microcosm of a wildland-urban interface, essentially a riparian marshland in miniature that can be used as an outdoor, year-round classroom for students in biology and ecology."