Orem residents hope a referendum vote will stop a planned student-housing development

(Courtesy PEG Development) Architectural rendering of the proposed Palos Verdes apartment complex in Orem.

Orem • With more than 37,000 students, Utah Valley University is the state’s largest institution of higher education.

Yet despite its size, the Orem campus has no university-owned dormitories or on-campus apartments, which administrators say has created a growing need for housing with relatively little supply.

“It’s a huge unmet demand,” said Cameron Martin, UVU’s vice president for university relations. “We have a lot of students who can’t find the housing that they’re interested in.”

A team of private developers hopes to step into that housing gap by building a new student-oriented, five-story apartment complex adjacent to the main UVU campus. The project, known as Palos Verdes, will house more than 1,600 residents in four buildings, with an adjacent parking garage for up to 1,300 cars.

But not all of UVU’s Orem neighbors support the plan or the February decision by the Orem City Council to rezone the area for high-density housing. A group of residents has launched a petition drive aimed at overturning the council’s vote through a referendum.

(Courtesy of Woodbory Corp.) A map of Orem shows the proposed location for a high-density student housing complex near Utah Valley University. The proposal has drawn criticism from nearby residents, who are seeking a referendum on the project.

Murray Low, vice chairman of the Southwest Orem Neighborhood Association, said the city is being overwhelmed by apartment complexes. He acknowledged a need for housing UVU students, but said projects like Palos Verdes are going too far too fast without consideration of nearby neighborhoods.

“UVU is a commuter campus,” Low said Wednesday. “We want to continue being a commuter campus.”

Low and other residents have launched the “Let Orem Vote” campaign. They question the vehicle traffic Palos Verdes project could add to an already congested area and what they see as a proliferation of high-density housing in Orem.

In a statement, Low criticized city leaders for engaging in what appear to be backdoor dealings with developers at the expense of residents. Developers purchased the land for Palos Verdes before the area was rezoned, and Low said such an investment would have been “extremely foolish” without guarantees from council members.

”It’s obvious that the whole thing was a done deal from the beginning,” Low said. “What we have here is governance through pay-to-play rather than through citizen input.”

But Taylor Woodbury, chief operating officer of Woodbury Corp., said his company and partner PEG Development had no such assurances city leaders would sign off on their plans.

The developers negotiated sales with the previous landowners, and Woodbury said the Palos Verdes proposal went through multiple designs to accommodate feedback from Orem residents and city officials.

“It’s unfortunate that it’s been construed so negatively,” Woodbury said. “This was anything but a foregone conclusion this project was going to move forward.”

The land in question is near 1000 South and 400 West in Orem, due west of Lakeridge Junior High School. The area is essentially surrounded by the UVU campus, and Martin said it had long been eyed by school administrators as a potential site for university-related development.

“You’re not going to put in more single-family homes there,” Martin said. “It really only has a logical use to service the institution in some meaningful way.”

Martin said it is cost prohibitive for UVU to build its own housing, and doing so would likely result in a dramatic increase in tuition costs for all students. A better option, he said, is for the university to partner with private builders to provide housing.

And because Palos Verdes will not be university-owned, Martin said, it will generate property tax revenue for Orem and be subject to city oversight.

“We want to be good neighbors,” Martin said. “We also have a responsibility to meeting the needs of our students.”

Woodbury said the goal is to open the apartments in time for the 2019-20 academic year. It’s a tight construction schedule, he said, one that will include road improvements and traffic signals that Woodbury Corp. and PEG Development will pay for.

But if the zoning change is delayed by a referendum vote, Woodbury said, that timeline will be delayed by at least one academic year.

“There’s no way to make the fall 2019 if we don’t start in May,” he said.

Outgoing Orem City Recorder Donna Weaver said petitioners must gather a minimum 6,741 signatures by April 13 to trigger a public vote on the zoning change. Her office has also instructed the Let Orem Vote campaign to exceed that number by 20 percent — to total of 8,000 signatures — to account for the potential disqualification of some names.

The group’s petition currently calls for the vote to be held next year, in 2019, when Orem is scheduled to have its next municipal elections. But if successful, Weaver said, it’s possible the zoning question could be submitted to the county for the November 2018 ballot.

Let Orem Vote organizers said Wednesday they are close to 6,000 signatures with more than two weeks remaining until the April 13 deadline.

Woodbury said some of the opposition to Palos Verdes is likely tied to the broader issue of high-density housing. But the public vote would be specific to a project that has the potential of relieving vehicle traffic by placing 1,600 students a stone’s throw from their classes.

“It’s really unfortunate and really, frankly, quite counterproductive to block a project that could be such a benefit to the community,” he said, “under the guise of blocking all high-density housing projects in the city.”

And if the referendum is successful, Martin and Woodbury said the most likely scenario is that UVU would take over ownership of the property. Martin said over the long term that might lead to construction of a new university building, and short term, would likely see construction of a campus parking lot that would draw more vehicles to the area.

“A parking lot is a magnet for cars,” Martin said. “We build big buildings, and we don’t think that would be conducive to a neighborhood experience.”

Low said either a parking lot or university building would be preferable to an apartment complex. The bulk of campus activity occurs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. between fall and spring, he said, compared to apartment residents who would be present “24-7-365.”

“Right now we live in a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde neighborhood,” Low said. “When school is in, our neighborhood is a mess.”