An architect's drawing of a recent iteration of Killefer Square shows a six-story dormitory building next to the historic Killefer School. The Old Towne Preservation Association opposes the project. 

By Olivia Harden

Orange’s Design Review Committee sent the developer of a 354-bed private student dormitory project back to the drawing board once again, arguing the proposed six-story building would tower over the historic Killefer School and neighboring homes.

Western States Housing Development Co., an Alta Loma-based developer, proposed an 81-unit apartment-style student housing development on the 1.82-acre Killefer School campus. The Killefer Square project site, 541 N. Lemon St., is home to the federally protected Killefer School, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2015.

The Killefer School was listed on the National Register due to the efforts of the Old Towne Preservation Association. Prior to its listing, the Orange Unified School District planned to sell the property to the Olsen Company, which proposed building homes on the site. Olsen backed out after the state issued the historic designation.

Last year, Western States Housing proposed a two- and three-story dormitory project. This initial design was controversial because of its density and height.

View in review

In August, the design review committee suggested that the developer tweak its design so the public can continue to enjoy the historic view of the schoolhouse from Lemon Street. The previous iteration almost entirely blocked this view.

At that time, committee member Robert Imboden suggested the view could be preserved by increasing the height and density of the project.

In response, on Oct. 5, the developer proposed a six-story, 54-foot building with a view corridor of playing fields, landscaped areas, and a ramp for accessing a two-level underground parking lot. Brian Lochrie, a spokesman for the developer, said an environmental impact report will be prepared once the project parameters have been defined through the design review committee’s deliberation.

“After their last meeting with the design review committee, four additional changes were requested,” Lochrie said. “Those changes have been made, and the project was resubmitted for consideration.”
Don’t look now

Under the revised plan, a portion of the courtyard-facing rear elevation of the school will be visible from North Lemon Street on the west side of the property. The view corridor is flanked by three-story buildings that are oriented east-west on the property, parallel to the east-west wings of the school. The buildings are 48 feet from the rear of the school and approximately 30 feet tall.

The six-story building is proposed for the northwest corner of the property, which is adjacent to Richland Continuation High School.

Western States said the project would exclusively house Chapman University students. The development could relieve Chapman’s housing shortage, spurred by the increase in student enrollment and the lack of available student dorms, according to the developer. 
While the development would be marketed to Chapman students, the university is not involved in seeking approval, Chapman spokeswoman Mary Platt said. “There seems to be some confusion among community members, since the developer has said it is aiming its finished project at Chapman student rentals,” Platt noted.

A dent in rent

The proposal may run into legal headwinds, considering federal anti-discrimination laws under the Fair Housing Act.

Robert Solomon, a clinical professor of law who specializes in community development at UC Irvine, said he is not aware of any private developments, without university partnerships, that limit rental housing to students.

“Without the school connection, limitation to students may be discriminatory against a variety of groups, based on age, marital status and, depending on the school demographics, race, national origin, military status or others,” Solomon said.

The developer argues it needs to maintain the density, 354 beds, to make a profit while being respectful to the surrounding neighborhood. It plans to spend millions of dollars to preserve the 1931 schoolhouse.

The density must be maintained for the $5-million land purchase price to be financially feasible, but doesn’t comply with federal standards for national historic districts, said Jeff Frankel, preservation chair for the Old Towne Preservation Association.

“We’re receptive to buildings that are subordinate to the historic building, meaning two stories or less,” Frankel said. “I don’t know whether or not the [design review] committee will approve it otherwise.”

Orange Design Review Committee rejects six-story building proposed for Killefer School site

Courtesy of Old Towne Preservation Association