Changing the Character of Davis From Within

smart-growth.jpgVoters have overwhelmingly voted down the last two peripheral projects in Davis.  Meanwhile, they overwhelming voted to retain Measure J which requires a vote for the city to be able to develop land outside of the current boundaries as well as to change zoning from agricultural to urban uses.

At the same time, planners and environmentalists have pushed for new developments to be denser, more compact and located closer to the core of town.  The reasons for this vary between a principle of protecting farm land and open space, while at the same time expressing concerns about commuting during a time of high fuel prices and the need to convert from fossil fuel use and single-occupancy vehicles to more environmentally sustainable forms of transportation.

The real estate collapse and economic downturn have taken growth issues off the front pages.  However, quietly, a battle is brewing.  It is one that will play out over a number of years and that will ultimately decide the character of our community.

The question is, in the absence of peripheral growth, does that mean community needs to redevelop in core areas of town to produce new and more dense housing units?

Indeed, included in the list of principles is, “Encourage increased densities in Davis to facilitate greater affordability without sprawl.  Study such dwellings as row houses, townhouses, second story apartments over businesses, and second dwelling units.”

All of these implicitly would come into play in the core of town.

What is interesting is that they figure to pit those who oppose peripheral growth and support New Urban polices against those residing in the affected core areas.

Over the longer term and during a time of better economics, this new pressure to develop in the core may change Davis’ politics, pitting the periphery against the core in terms of where to develop.

Already we have seen this starting to play out in the innocuous sounding B-Street visioning process which, in fact, authorizes the destruction of single-family flats and other units, converting into multilevel and multifamily buildings.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg.  We can move north from the core to see potential profound impacts of these new policies.

Old North Davis sees prospective projects at the Davis Joint Unified School District Headquarters, on Sweetbriar Drive and at the Civic Center Fields sites.

Those three sites are either contained within the current Old North neighborhood or lie right on its boundaries.

Estimates suggest these projects could add something between 80 and 140 residential units.

And, unlike a lot of other projects, these three are very viable and possible.  The District has expressed the interest to move their facilities and sell the property.

Given the facts that the current neighborhood consists of about 200 units, these developments have the potential to nearly double the density and increase the size of the population.

The result is a lot of growth near the core of town, which New Urbanists love, but profoundly changing the character of the neighborhood and changing the traffic flows on 5th Street, which is struggling as it is.

The council will take up the issue of Davis’ housing needs, that we discussed two weeks ago, but the discussion was shelved due to an impacted council agenda.

The housing needs assessment will put added pressure on places like the core, due to the impossibility of building on the periphery.

The report, as we described two weeks ago, looks at Davis’ current housing stock and the housing needs of the community, projected from changing demographics.

Staff identifies what they call “gaps” in the range of housing types. 

There is a lack of lower income and smaller housing, both for sale and for rent.  There is also a lack of higher density condos, and they argue that the potential for accessory dwelling units is not being realized.

Writes city staff, “Innovative development forms which promote sustainability, link to nature, social interaction, community building, pedestrian-orientation, transit-orientation and New Urbanist principles” are also lacking.

Staff goes on to identify possible reasons for the gaps in housing types, including the fact that there are few large subdivisions being developed, thus “we are not seeing a wide mix of housing types on any one site” as the range of options are limited on smaller infill sites.

Current land use policies encourage large expensive houses, as they offset land costs and development impact fees.  Moreover, “Large expensive houses are encouraged to subsidize affordable housing requirements.”

While staff may argue that they are not making recommendations on growth, they show their bias here in arguing that the current land use policies are to blame and that we would need less affordable housing requirements and larger subdivisions in order to obtain the range of housing to fill the future needs of the Davis population.

The new policies will add pressure to core neighborhoods like Old North Davis.  Indeed, the blame is squarely placed on land use policies, developers and also the neighborhoods themselves.

Staff writes, “Housing types are often determined by the context and neighborhood concerns, encouraging a continuation of existing surrounding housing types. Higher density mid-rise condos would be of concern on infill sites surrounded by lower density housing. Concerns include the increased traffic of high density developments on existing streets.  Financing can be difficult to obtain for new, innovative housing types.”

Developers are blamed as well, however: “Resistance of some developers to the marketability of higher density and cluster projects with homeowners associations (HOAs) to maintain open space, landscaping and buildings [sic]. HOAs can maintain common open space [that] can offset the loss of private open space in relation to the density of the project.”

Staff suggests that some of these gaps can be filled “with enhanced infill development” but warn that “infill development can be faced with multiple barriers.”

Instead, the city staff suggests that the city proactively plan and zone sites based on a community vision for infill, consider basic “pre-entitlements” for desired Core are infill, set development impact fees to encourage infill and discourage sprawl, reduce or delay development impact fees until the developer sees positive cash flow, while finally facilitating the development review and construction of accessory dwelling units to a greater extent.

The staff seems to recognize the move away from new development on the periphery, but that will come at a great cost as city interests bump into the interests of existing neighborhoods.

Staff ultimately seeks amendment to the council’s direction with, “The intent of the amended resolution is to expand upon the intent of the original resolution to: provide for the diverse housing needs of the community; reflect changing demographics and anticipated demands for housing types; encourage general housing types on sites that may be considered for housing development; and establish planning and design expectations for housing developments.”

This clearly puts the issue of new growth back into the core and onto the backs of existing neighbors.

As trends of development, as well as land use policies, make development on the city’s periphery unlikely in the next twenty years, we need to begin to appreciate the impact of the character of our community.

I want to stress here that this is somewhat a matter of one’s sense of values.  There are probably three major schools of thought here.  First, the New Urbanists who support development and densification in the core.  Second, the neighbors and residents in the core who oppose densification near their neighborhoods.  And third, the slow- to no-growthers who feel we do not need to grow anyway, so let us leave the current neighborhoods undisturbed.

I am decidedly not taking a position here, only trying to demonstrate the natural consequences of current policies.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Rifkin

    [i]”Old North Davis sees prospective projects at the Davis Joint Unified School District Headquarters, on [b]Sweetbriar Drive[/b] and at the Civic Center Fields sites.”[/i]

    Re: Sweet Briar–which is two words and is a Lane, not a Drive–you are only talking about one modest lot, right up against the railroad tracks. I don’t know who owns it or if the owner has any plans for developing that lot. There have been issues of soil toxicity in that area in the past (with regard to the laundry facility next door), so maybe that is a consideration. That said, I don’t think residential housing makes sense for the Sweet Briar Lane site. I would think ground floor retail and perhaps second story office is more appropriate, there.

    Re: Civic Center Park. I know the idea of turning it into housing is floating around out there. However, it’s well less than half-baked. I don’t think it will ever happen. It’s a lousy idea. That area of town lacks open space compared with the rest of the city. Filling in the one park with a large grassy field in central Davis (other than Central Park, which is smaller and crowded with people from all over town) would be a shame.

    Re: 526 B Street. If the school district does not need that large parcel, redeveloping it as a housing site makes sense to me. Where it bumps up against Old North bungalows, the new housing there should be low rise. But along most of B Street and 5th Street and part of C Street, a 3 or 4 story apartment building–I would like it to be used for off-campus dorms–would fit. It would increase the vibrancy of downtown. And (with dorms) it would house students a walkable and bikeable distance from campus.

  2. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]While staff may argue that they are not making recommendations on growth, they show their bias here in arguing that the current land use policies are to blame and that we would need less affordable housing requirements and larger subdivisions in order to obtain the range of housing to fill the future needs of the Davis population.[/quote]

    I’m not following your logic here. City staff is just stating the obvious – under current policy, it favors larger subdivisions to accommodate the affordable housing requirements, which doesn’t seem to comport with the city’s new direction of densification/infill. All city staff is pointing out is the contradiction, and the need for a change in policy towards densification, if that is what the city desires. I don’t quite understand the animosity towards city staff here…

    Personally, I think the densification idea is awful. I sat at the most recent SACOG forum in Davis, and clearly SACOG is pushing this model of densification. The idea is to push more and more gov’t functions onto HOAs; densify to keep the costs of transportation infrastructure down as much as possible. But the fact of the matter is Davis will eventually run out of infill land, and peripheral development is inevitable.

    Secondly, a lot of people would like a bit of property to allow their kids to play in the yard. Wildhorse Ranch is a perfect example of what densification gets you – overpriced homes with no yards, so that kids have to play in common areas far down the block/street away from mom’s watchful eyes. When kids are toddlers, this is unacceptable. Essentially the model of densification is calling for tenement living – yuck! If I had my way, every house would have a minimum requirement of a certain amount of yard. Just my personal view…

  3. E Roberts Musser

    And one more thought. The idea of pushing gov’t functions onto autonomous HOAs is a very dangerous one. The abuses that take place in HOAs are legendary, from embezzlement of HOA funds, to improper foreclosures, to getting rid of those who don’t speak English or are elderly, to being fined for speaking your mind. There is no freedom of speech in an HOA as you know the concept. You can be fined for leaving your trash can out two hours too long, or for having a dead potted plant on your porch. Worse yet, your assessment check can be placed in a drawer by management, then a claim can be made that you didn’t pay, and foreclosure proceedings instituted. Think about that…

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