One of the more curious issues in the Nishi debate is the notion that the Nishi project underutilizes its space. Matt Williams, for example, in a column on the Vanguard, acknowledges, “We have a serious housing problem in Davis.” He argues, “The Nishi developers proposing 2,200 student beds when they could be proposing between 5,200 and 7,000 student beds (leaving 3,000 students without available housing/shelter) is a massive waste of an opportunity.”
From his view, he writes, “5,200 less people driving to Davis. Problem appropriately mitigated… 2,200 less people driving to Davis. Problem sub-optimally mitigated.”
In yesterday’s column, I suggested that Matt Williams is allowing the perfect to endanger the good, and he responded that this is more like allowing the quest for the good to endanger the mediocre.
To bolster his evidence, he cites statements from all five of the councilmembers who at various times have acknowledged less than full satisfaction with the current Nishi proposal.
For example, Lucas Frerichs stated, “I think still I think Nishi 1.0 was superior in many ways particularly vis-a-vis smart growth principles, higher density, mixed use, both residential commercial and R&D spaces, nearly 30,0000 square feet previously proposed, the mixture of rental and for-sale housing.”
Robb Davis said, “I liked Nishi 1.0 better because it was a broader project that met more community needs.”
There is no disputing that, from a number of aspects, the Measure A version of Nishi was preferable to the Measure J version of Nishi. I will also point out that neither iteration were my preferred project. As I have published numerous times here, I would have preferred the UC Davis Village version of the project, akin to the USC Village. There, high density student housing was joined by large square footage of retail space on a property that at 15 acres is about one-third of the size of Nishi.
Matt Williams and others are absolutely correct to argue that we could have had a project that did more.
The problem with that argument is you can always argue that a project can be better, more denser, or do more. But to make that argument is to ignore a lot of reality. The first reality is that after the last Nishi project lost narrowly at the polls, the developers had to decide what to do next. No one had put a project back on the ballot but also no project had come as close as the Nishi one to passing.
In order to get it on the ballot, they would incur significant additional costs. That made them risk averse. They attempted to figure out what went wrong and fix it.
They made the decision, for example, to avoid the traffic debate by putting all of the access on the UC Davis side rather than through Olive Drive. The result of that dictated changes to the project. It meant that they did not believe a commercial project would be viable. They also eliminated the for-sale housing that might dictate the need for Olive Drive access.
They added an affordable component, the lack of which was a huge contributor to the downfall of the 2016 Measure J.
Finally, to address air quality concerns, they eliminated long-term residency that would have occurred in the for-sale homes as well as the commercial component. That meant that any exposure to air quality problems would be short-term.
Should they have made it more dense? Possibly. But while it is true that they might have been able to complete the additional study quickly, six months is probably optimistic for getting an EIR done and the analysis ready. Realistically, they were looking at having to have the EIR done and the project ready by July. I think that would have been pretty tight to then get it on the ballot for November. That says nothing of the additional cost to do that.
In the end, I do not, however, believe the timeline and the cost should have driven this process.
The bigger issue is community need and I don’t necessarily agree with Matt Williams that we needed 5000 to 7000 beds at Nishi at this time. I would argue that the addition of at least 2200 beds is far more important than fighting for an additional 3000 to 5000 on top of that. It is a basic math issue.
We have a severe housing crisis, but one of the things I have supported in this process is a mixed approach to solving that housing. Part of that solution is housing on campus. The university has stepped up over the last two years. First they would not commit to a specific number of beds, then it was 6200, then 8500, now it is over 9000 new beds.
In short, while the community continues to push for 50 percent housing on campus, the university is committing to 48 percent.
Our view has been we need an additional 10,000 beds to get the university to the place where it needs to be. For awhile it looked like a lot of those beds were going to have to be off campus. At the time when the university was committing to 6200 beds, it looked like the city would have to provide about 3800 of them just to keep up with increased enrollment. Between Sterling, Lincoln40, Plaza 2555, and Nishi – it appeared there were going to be just over 4000 beds.
In other words, with Nishi and the rest of the new student housing, we would barely reach the 10,000 mark. And 10,000 itself was no magic number. It barely accounted for new enrollment growth.
However, with the university agreeing to go to 9000 rather than 6200 new beds, we are now looking at 13,000 rather than 10,000 new beds. That is enough to accommodate enrollment growth over the next decade and possibly get us to the goal of 5 percent vacancy.
So to Matt’s argument that 2200 is good but 5000 to 7000 is better – that is no longer as clear. We would be talking about 16,000 to 18,000 beds. Over the next ten years, that’s probably more than we need.
One point on which I have strongly disagreed with the slow-growth side of the aisle is the city being willing to build beds has not alleviated the pressure on the university to build on-campus housing. If anything, it has put the city in a far stronger position to demand that the university build more housing on campus because the campus can no longer tell the city it’s being hypocritical.
However, with 16,000 to 18,000 new beds, it seems likely that the university would probably not expand their housing beyond the initial 5000 beds they are immediately planning to build in 2020.
On the other hand, we still do need the 2200 beds. Nishi provides us with the possibility of alleviating the tight rental market and filling the immediate needs of affordable student housing – housing that is currently lacking anywhere in the local market.
However, the marginal benefit of going from 2200 to 5000 or even 7000 is neither worth the delay nor the risk. We are much better off with the certainty of 2200 than holding out hope that, if we vote down Nishi, the developer comes back for a third time, and with a more dense project. If anything, a third bite is likely to produce less not more.
That is the final point I will make here. There are those who believe that the Measure R process results in better projects than without it. The reality is that five councilmembers all agree that Nishi, as voted down in 2016, was the better project. And not only them, but Matt Williams and Colin Walsh – opponents of the current proposal – both appear to agree with that view.
That means the Measure R process has not led to a better project, but rather a worse project. What it has produced is planning a project they think can pass rather than a project that is ideal for the needs of the community.
What the voters have to decide is whether some housing at Nishi is better than no housing at Nishi. While it is speculation that a no vote would result in ultimately no housing there, it is a wing and a prayer to home that a no vote will result in a better project. It certainly didn’t this time.
—David M. Greenwald reporting