Manhattan Tuesday took the first step toward conducting a housing market analysis, approved funds for increased costs related to the planned middle school recreation centers and residents showed up in numbers to support the updated bicycle and pedestrian systems plan.
Bicycle and Pedestrian Systems Plan
Community members filled the Manhattan City Commission chamber not only to support an updated bicycle and pedestrian systems plan, but to urge commissioners to follow through with it.
The plan updates a circa-1998 predecessor, laying out potential future projects to improve biking and walking around Manhattan. The plan prioritizes projects to be initiated over a 20 year period including installing wayfinding signage on trails and expanding bicycle parking possibilities, finishing the final 6 miles of the Linear Trail loop and creating divided bicycle lanes and two-way cycle tracks.
Projects will be prioritized using a matrix that accounts for equity, safety, connectivity, demand, need and financial feasibility. Based on these factors, projects are divided into four categories of prioritization: Do Now, Do If, Do When and Long Term.
Chad Moreau of Bike Walk MHK said during public comment that the proposed plan is solid, but so was the prior one and they don’t want the plan to be a symbolic gesture that isn’t implemented.
“We are here this evening to prevent another 20 years wasted,” says Moreau. “We are here this evening to prevent another poor funding follow-through on a good plan.”
Andrew Elliot also urged that the commission keep equity at the forefront of the issue and be wary of letting the plan be viewed and implemented through a lens of privilege. He further said the community is owed transparency in the data informing the city’s matrix and transparency in decisions behind project prioritization.
“There is too great a disparity among the members of this community to not know what the specific driving forces of decisions are and the impact of potential change is too broad to leave in the hands of a select few voices to weigh in on,” says Elliot. “The last thing we want to find are false conflicts of interest between the voice of privilege on one hand and the voice of equity on the other.”
Mayor Pro Tempore Wynn Butler pushed back on the idea that the city hasn’t followed through on the past plan, saying they prioritize sidewalk improvements and trail connectors in infrastructure projects whenever feasible.
“It’s the ideal state, and we’re going to try to get there,” says Butler. “But that doesn’t mean somebody can just write a check for $10 million and make it happen tomorrow.”
The cost for all identified projects comes in at an estimated price tag of $250,000. Administrative staff hope to reduce that number by drawing in additional grant money.
Manhattan will seek consultants to analyze the suitability of housing in and around Manhattan, narrowly receiving commission approval Tuesday. Butler and Commissioner Mark Hatesohl opposed.
The study was included in the 2020 budget with funding up to $95,000 available and is the first such study conducted in the community since the year 2000. The study had previously been discussed earlier this month.
Administrative staff envision a process with significant public outreach that will highlight housing suitability issues in the community and identify actionable policy solutions to by gathering objective data on the market. The study will specifically focus on households that earn up to 150 percent of the federal poverty line, and staff says they intend to use the findings to create projections to better anticipate housing and infrastructure growth needs.
“We have to recognize what the problem is because everybody keeps telling us we have a housing problem,” says Mayor Usha Reddi. “And that’s what this housing study is going to do.”
During the meeting, commissioners questioned whether the data will actually connect to solutions. Commissioner Hatesohl also expressed concerns that the study would result in millions of dollars in projects being identified as the solution.
Butler reiterated concerns that the volume of data would make the study less useful, also questioning whether the results would be anything the city could do anything with.
Assistant Community Development Director Chad Bunger says the goal is to end with an actionable plan and that while many different groups have debated the extent of issues in the community and proposed potential solutions, without a comprehensive study it’s hard to identify which anecdotes represent reality and how far to take certain solutions.
“Where would it make the most sense to revitalize a neighborhood? I don’t know that,” says Bunger. “I don’t know how much we have to incentivize to revitalize those areas — the purpose of this study is to get those numbers.”
He says in a resource-scarce system, having hard data to back up their solutions will allow them to engage in more precise strategies addressing housing needs. Additionally, Bunger says a professional consultant from outside the community with experience facilitating such a study will be able to do so quicker than city staff and avoid any potential bias due to their outsider status.
“There’s no doubt there’s amazing folks in this community that if we got in a room, we could hammer through it,” says Bunger. “But it’s not going to […] come without a whole lot of angst and issues.”
That said, officials still hope to have regular engagement with the community to identify issues and solutions. Part of the plan involves the creation of a housing advisory board made up of students, retirees, university officials and other stakeholders to provide input on various elements of the study.
Commissioner Linda Morse says since she joined the commission, there’s been a “steady drum beat of need to address affordable housing.” She also noted that affordable housing were prominent among identified needs in the preliminary results of the recent Riley County Community Needs Assessment.
“I hope that we write the scope well enough that we get some substantive answers.”
During public comment, Donna Schenck-Hamlin, who was involved in the grant-funded Community Solutions to Affordable Housing study, urged that the analysis not overlook aging and special needs populations and that it focus on qualitative needs rather than just on the number of units needed to accommodate population projections.
Commissioner Aaron Estabrook echoed those sentiments, saying it’s “ridiculous” that there’s been a 20 year gap between studies and questioning what potential efficiency gains were lost in that time.
“The housing stock that we have is more geared towards the previous generations’ needs and maybe not so much as the current or the next generations’ needs,” says Estabrook. “This is an important part of that process of gaining the tools, the data to make sure that we’re in the right place, we’re heading in the right direction.”
Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jason Smith expressed his organization’s support for the study. He says the study will provide good data for private sector developers to use to steer their investment decisions and debunk false perceptions about the current state of the market.
“When we have so much conflicting data, we have so many decisions that are being made right now on anecdotes and speculation, we think it’s important to have real data.”
In his comments, Smith noted that Manhattan’s rents were 9 percent lower than the national average while wages were 23 percent below the average. Hatesohl says that points toward a wage issue rather than an issue with the cost of housing.
“Raising wages is a more proactive thing than trying to drive down the housing costs,” Hatesohl said. “It would be easier if we could figure out some way to attract more businesses and drive wages up — that’s the better long-term solution.”
The cost of the study — up to a maximum of $95,000 — would be split four ways. Up to $59,375 will be drawn from the economic development fund and up to $11,875 apiece will be sourced from the water, wastewater and stormwater enterprise funds. Butler reiterated his opposition to the split, saying he’d have been more supportive if the funds were solely coming from EcoDevo. Butler has led a call to halt use of utility dollars for projects not strictly utility-focused.
A projected timeline has deadlines for submissions falling on March 27. From their a selection committee will review submissions and interview candidates. If everything goes according to plan, the commission could vote on a contract in July. The study would be complete by December 2021.
Manhattan is responsible for about $100,000 of more than $250,000 in additional costs related to construction of the new middle school recreation centers.
The City Commission Tuesday voted to approve the change order, increasing the total cost of the project to $17,289,000. The increased price tag is related to multiple projects that were identified as necessary after the centers’ final design was completed.
“We additional sidewalks, we have a fire lane that’s on the back side of the property that comes up to the back side of both recreation centers,” says Deputy City Manager Jason Hilgers. “Just a number of improvements we’d like to see made to the site to make it more accessible and safe.”
Though costs have risen, Hilgers says the voter-approved sales tax that is funding the project has performed so well that they have enough cushion to handle the increase. Manhattan forecasts collecting $2.75 million per year from the tax, and in the first year along broke $3 million in revenue.
The commission also voted to transfer the rec. center property to USD383 after the centers are constructed rather than before as previously planned. Staff says that platting the property would be easier once construction is done, and that the property transfer would be more smooth if it were platted.