Conversation on Nishi Goes Both Ways

The discoloration is still where the old highway used to go - between the red lines- and aligned with Old Davis Road on campus.  The Nishi homesite now on South side of interstate.
The discoloration is where the old highway used to go – between the red lines – and aligned with Old Davis Road on campus. The Nishi homesite is now on the south side of the interstate.

In the past week, the Vanguard was asked to invite the public to join the conversation on Nishi, which we were happy to do. At the same time, the discussion goes both ways and, this weekend, UC Davis Professor Emeritus Robert Thayer offered a more critical analysis of the project.

He writes, “The land in question is a dagger-shaped site sandwiched between an eight-lane, elevated freeway on the south and a vital local, regional and national railroad right of way on the north. In terms of location, the site is ideal; it is adjacent to the UC Davis campus, near the downtown core and the train station, and close to freeway access. Although it may be the noisiest of all possible Davis land parcels, it is conveniently located within walking distance of many city and university amenities.”

At the same time, as we have often noted ourselves, the property suffers from circulation and access issues. Robert Thayer argues, “The site is severely constricted. Currently, the site has only a single, private on-grade access across the railroad tracks, which is inappropriate for further use. There is also a potential narrow vehicular access point at the eastern end of the site near a curve in the western section of Olive Drive via Richards Boulevard, across the bicycle path from south Davis into the UCD campus.”

He writes that development will depend nearly entirely “on whether the entire Olive-Drive/Richards entrance to the city (and the Nishi site) can be totally re-designed, and if adequate vehicular, bicycle, and pedestrian access underneath the railroad tracks from the city and UCD campus at one, if not two, additional westerly points, can be accomplished.”

“From a circulation and access standpoint, the barriers are formidable,” he writes. The railroad entities, he argues, “are also difficult institutions with which to negotiate, particularly when it comes to right-of-way crossings. In the case of the Nishi property, connections from UCD and the city grid must be made along the north (railroad) edge of the site, especially toward the western end of that edge to facilitate access to and from the University. This means that vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians must have off-grade crossings of the railroad tracks, most likely running underneath the rail lines.”

To accommodate the densities that developers and the city envision for the project, “on-grade crossings of the tracks are extremely dangerous and do not stand a chance of winning approval from rail authorities. With dozens of passenger trains and many freight trains per day, including increasing numbers carrying volatile crude petroleum, on-grade crossings of the tracks are simply out of the question. This will be difficult to negotiate.”

He continues, “Asking Union Pacific for one or two major right-of-way easements under their tracks to the Nishi site while simultaneously demanding of them slower crude oil train speeds, thicker and safer tank cars, or entirely different routes for oil shipments, and while planning massively dense urban development directly adjacent to the tracks, is indeed an awkward and ticklish undertaking.”

Professor Thayer continues, “Yet without vehicular, bicycle, and pedestrian under-crossings of the rail lines, whatever land uses ultimately contained on the site would be isolated from the city and campus.”

Adding to this difficulty is the thorny access point at Olive Drive where he notes the traffic congestion: “Already an overstressed exit from the freeway into Davis and the campus, the existing Olive Drive-Richards intersection with adjacent over- and underpasses, and the accompanying Interstate on- and off- ramps would not be able to stand the addition of the kinds of densities being considered for the Nishi property. Major surgery, re-routing, expansion, and coordination of the many modes and directions of travel must be accomplished to this most important ‘Front Door’ to the city if this project were to go forward. Furthermore, such improvements would need to be made prior to the Nishi development, not during or afterwards.”

Robert Thayer writes, “Envision for a moment the very successful Dutch Brothers coffee stop (Confession: I am a customer) and the current traffic jams it creates on Olive Drive, near Richards Boulevard. Now imagine hundreds of additional trips per day on Olive Drive and consider what that may do to traffic congestion and access to the long-established businesses located on West Olive Drive. The potential for circulation conflicts at that major intersection implied by the Nishi project simply boggles the mind.”

He continues, arguing, “These circulation barriers are deal-breakers; they make the former discussions over access to and from the Cannery Project seem like a walk in the park.”

He argues, “It makes no sense for us to ‘have a conversation’ about land uses or types of housing or businesses for Nishi when the circulation problems potentially strangle the site. Let’s fix Olive Drive and get the deals signed with Union Pacific first, then talk about what happens on site. And if the project does go forward, it would make no sense to build any of the Nishi site’s potentially dense development until these critical access points, including a reconfigured Olive Drive/Richards/I-80/City of Davis entrance improvement, are already in place.”

“In the recent Cannery project, circulation got short shrift. City of Davis residents do not need more steamrollering of projects by the University or circulation cave-ins by the Davis City Council without a vote of the people. If the thorny access issues can be resolved for the Nishi property first, this project may make sense. If not, there are plenty of less intensive land uses to be considered that would not require such a high degree of circulation, connection, and access,” he concludes. “Community gardens, anyone?”

—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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15 Comments

  1. Jim Frame

    Asking Union Pacific for one or two major right-of-way easements under their tracks to the Nishi site while simultaneously demanding of them slower crude oil train speeds, thicker and safer tank cars, or entirely different routes for oil shipments, and while planning massively dense urban development directly adjacent to the tracks, is indeed an awkward and ticklish undertaking.

    I wouldn’t think so. I imagine that UPRR would dearly love to extinguish the at-grade crossing that currently serves the property in order to reduce its liability exposure, and would gladly swap it for one or more safe underground crossings. Managing the design and construction of the latter would entail tedious and bureaucratic interaction with the railroad, but that’s the case with anything involving a behemoth the size of UPRR.

    As for the tar sands oil trains dustup, that’s a mosquito for the railroad PR and legal staff to play with. I wouldn’t expect the issue to interfere with the Nishi crossings at all.

    I do agree with the author’s concerns about Olive Drive, though.

      1. Davis Progressive

        yeah, really dumb to move a worthless line out of town, stop clogging up towns with slow trains stopping in the tracks and opening up prime space for development – what in the heaven’s are we thinking?

      2. Mark West

        I don’t see it as stupid to consider doing it, but agree it would be stupid to expect it to happen in our lifetime. No reason not to plan for it as long as we have a 50 year plus time horizon for implementation.

  2. Dave Hart

    I labored through the Nishi questionnaire about a week ago with the various configurations and I must have sounded like someone with an agenda because of my comments regarding access. The developers present various alternatives that excite the imagination. The Nishi property could become a really great addition to both the city and UC Davis but only if the access problem is adequately addressed. It is not adequately addressed in any of their proposed alternatives as presented in the survey. A helpful tool is to bring up Google Earth and “helicopter” the Nishi property from various angles and imagine being out there as a visitor to campus or a Davis resident. If a major goal of development is to integrate this parcel into the UC Davis and city of Davis communities, a goal I wholeheartedly support, the immediately glaring omission in ALL of the alternatives is access.

    There is a proposed Modern Art Museum on the UC campus near the Mondavi Center that cries out for connection to the various residential and business tenants envisioned in the development plans. A pedestrian/bike connection down by the Mondavi Center would greatly enhance the mutual values envisioned. I feel it is a glaring omission. If Olive Drive access is the only way in and out by auto and the Shovel Arch bike path is the only way in and out for pedestrians and cyclists, the entire property becomes a giant cul-de-sac that will seem or feel inaccessible to most of the UCD campus and “out of the way” to most Davis residents. I think of the many out-of-towners who attend Mondavi events who might also visit attractions on the Nishi property if the two are connected in a more friendly way.

    1. South of Davis

      Dave wrote:

      > There is a proposed Modern Art Museum on the UC campus near the Mondavi Center 

      It looks like the museum is past the “proposed” stage:

      “March 2014 The University of California, Davis, will celebrate groundbreaking today for the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art — a museum decades in the making that will be dedicated to art education for students of all ages, exhibiting the university’s impressive legacy of achievement in the arts, and creating participatory art experiences. ”

      http://news.ucdavis.edu/search/news_detail.lasso?id=10831

  3. Alan Miller

    Since this is one of those confounding, “Let’s reprint an Enterprise piece by putting the whole thing in quotes”, I will equally confoundingly reprint my comment in the Enterprise (not in quotes) below:

    The purpose of this verbose letter somewhat eluded me until the end, when it seemed the author believed the circulation issues are unsolvable and therefore Nishi should not be developed. The paragraphs of talking about the railroad and the need for circulation are purposeless: the developer is local and he and the City are well aware of these issues and working of them and how they fit into the whole of the area. For example, they are already working with the railroad on an under-crossing, and they intend to reconfigure the Richards/Olive/I-80 circulation pattern in such a way that it may open up land along the freeway and detour some traffic for UCD away from downtown. As well, the bike path is planned to go under the Olive Drive extension to Nishi, to the point that the PG&E lines were pre-lowered to allow for this. Yes, it’s complex, but I doubt unsolvable. I personally spend a fair amount of money on businesses on South Olive. There may be some relocations, but there is no plan to simply wipe out the area. As change goes, I am impressed with the Gateway plans so far for improved bike/ped access and the thoughtfulness being put into this project. When there seems to be a real effort at community involvement and solving real local issues, I am much more supportive than when an outside company comes in and simply does the minimum that it takes to appear to appease difficult Davis.

    1. Don Shor

      they intend to reconfigure the Richards/Olive/I-80 circulation pattern in such a way that it may open up land along the freeway and detour some traffic for UCD away from downtown.

      Presently a lot of traffic goes through Richards to the campus. If this gives an alternative route and gets some campus traffic out of the tunnel, it will make the current situation better, not worse.

      1. Davis Progressive

        i don’t think traffic is going to turn left onto olive and drive through nishi to get to campus. but your point is right, the solution is somewhat different and that is for uc davis to route traffic through old davis rather than through town.

        1. Miwok

          Even with years of progress, new buildings, thousands of more students, and parking garages, UC Davis has only seen fit to put in a traffic circle and keep two lanes in and out on Old Davis road..

  4. Alan Miller

    Yes. I was personally opposed to the Olive extension until I sat down with some of the planners and understood what they were intending here. It’s a challenge, but I think it can be done.

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