In closing the chapter on Trackside now, someone asked a good question: what should someone do next time, that might be more successful? By way of answering that I go through what I see as the key defining moments and I’m not sure, given the dynamics of the housing crisis and council preferences, that there was going to be another outcome.
A key point to understand is that the developers made a very critical mistake early – two of them: first they came out with a preposterous six-story building and second they failed to do proper outreach to the neighborhood.
That really poisoned the well with the neighbors, and that is understandable. However, I think, because of that, the neighbors treated this as an adversarial process that continued after the much more reasonable four-story building proposal.
When Kemble Pope first met with me early in 2015 about the project, I suggested that three to four stories seemed reasonable. I was horrified to see a six-story proposal come out, and do not believe that
served anyone well.
Some have suggested that having an outlandish first proposal allowed the developers to come back with four and get four. But I’m not so sure. By going with six, they created a much more contentious process than necessary, it prolonged the planning process perhaps by as much as a year (which added to costs, no doubt) and I think ultimately they may have gotten four anyway, with a much better and more collaborative process.
I do think the neighbors made some mistakes. I think they were too contentious with their rhetoric. I’ve made this point before, but if you look at the amount of energy expended and time and effort, I’m not sure what they ultimately got out of it.
Ultimately, for better or for worse, this came down to three or four stories. As Don Shor put it in his comment addressing the same question: “This became a conflict between competing values of community goals and needs. I suspect every council member is on record somewhere as advocating for greater densification and acknowledging our severe housing shortage. That was put up against conserving the character of a neighborhood.”
In the end, what is the difference between three stories and four stories? As Don Shor put and I agree, “For the person living next door, it makes a big difference. But once it became a binary choice between those conflicting values, one side has to lose.”
A point that was made to me later is that the entire debate over three versus four stories is a bit misplaced. The term “story” itself has no defined meaning in terms of height. And it was pointed out to me that means that a three-story building could have been 45 feet in height. If that is the case, this building is only 47 and 1/2 feet to the roof and 50 and 1/2 feet to the very top. So you are talking about maybe a five-foot difference between a conforming and a “non-conforming” building.
From the council’s perspective then, this was a very contentious battle over very little difference in the real impacts on the neighborhood. And when forced to choose between competing values, they sided with the applicant.
One mistake made by the neighbors here was putting up their counter-proposal at three stories. I hate to say that, because I think from most aspects that was the right thing to do – they wanted to show that they were willing to accept a building, just not that building and a larger footprint, but one not as large as the one offered by the developers.
However, by moving it to three stories, it cut out the possibility of realistic further negotiations. And so, from a strategic standpoint, they needed to propose two stories and hope to compromise at three, rather than three hoping the council would side with them.
In the end I don’t know that there was much the neighbors could have done to change the outcome, but here are my suggestions:
First, they needed to take the higher ground in this debate. Whether you want to call it a rhetorical gap or what, the language coming from the neighbors didn’t help. The idea that “Davis was losing its soul” or that we were throwing out the design guidelines was over the top and not helpful.
While this is hard to do, the neighbors, in the face of what they perceived as arrogance from the developer, initially should have had the response that they were going to be the bigger people.
Second, I think the neighbors should have stopped with the design guidelines argument. Instead of arguing that the project was throwing out the guidelines, they should have argued that the city’s CASP (Core Area Specific Plan) is outdated and we need to update it and delay the project until we can create the new guidelines – so that we don’t end up with a patchwork of developments in the core area.
Third, the point I would have raised over and over again is that this project is just providing for 27 units. That’s not going to make a dent in the housing crisis. It is also not addressing the greatest need for housing in this community. In fact, I wonder how far you have to drop, it is not addressing student housing, it is not addressing housing for families either single or multi-family homes, it might be addressing “work force” housing – but on the upper end of the scale. Having that debate over needs might have been helpful and would have forced the city to look into what kinds of housing we need going forward.
Fourth, the neighbors should have figured out how to best mitigate the impacts of four stories and attempted to address those.
Part of the problem I think they ended up with was no room for negotiations. The council was willing to send Hyatt House back for conflict resolution and it worked. Here, the neighbors I feel forced the council into making a choice between more housing and the neighborhood character – and Robb Davis and other councilmembers actually rejected the impact on the neighborhood.
And while some have criticized Robb Davis, here is the problem that the neighbors had – I went to some of the homes that back right against the alley and I can clearly see how especially a six-story building directly impacted those folks. I didn’t get a real chance to see how it would impact them at four stories, with the highest portions set back a good distance from the alley.
But for the life of me, I don’t really understand the impacts on those who are not living at the SW quadrant of I Street. Even at six stories, it is not clear that anyone to the north of Fourth Street or to the east of I Street would even see the six-story building, let alone the four-story building.
You start getting into subjective and nebulous impacts when you talk about growth pressures and traffic in the alleyway.
In the end, the council was locked into a binary choice and I think that was the biggest shortcoming in the neighbors’ ultimate strategy – they were picking between 27 and 15 units, three or four stories, and maybe as little as five feet in height.
Ultimately, I think that the dynamics were tilted away from the neighbors and I think, if that is a concern, then you are going to have to think about how to handle additional housing needs because our choices are clear – more density inside the community or the willingness to build outward. Something has to give, and with Trackside that meant four stories rather than three – but also rather than six.
As I said earlier this week, once the developers went down to four stories, they were really in driver’s seat – but I don’t agree that is because they started at six. I think if they had come out with four immediately, it would have been a far smoother process.
—David M. Greenwald reporting