It is 9 AM on a weekday in Davis, and a newcomer driving on Richards Blvd. northbound past Kaiser may be unsuspecting of what they are about to encounter. The roadway looks mostly clear as they head up the overpass that takes them over I-80, but that’s about to change. As they get over the summit of the overpass, the landscape shifts and suddenly the vehicle has to hit the brakes as the traffic is completely stopped.
What they see is a long line of traffic either stopped or moving at a snail’s pace. There is another line of traffic attempting to merge onto Richards from the westbound I-80 Richards Blvd. North exit. There is another line looking to make a left turn from West Olive Drive and another line looking to make a right turn from East Olive Drive.
It is to this existing congestion that the city is potentially looking to add a Hotel Conference Center on the site where Caffé Italia and the University Park Inn reside, and, of course, there is Nishi.
The Housing Element Steering Committee (HESC), when it studied this issue starting in 2007, recognized the problems of circulation on the Nishi site and the impacted conditions of Richards Blvd., and recommended, first, a UC Davis-only access followed by a dual access consideration.
But when the city’s plans for an EIR came out, it turned out that the UC Davis-only option is off the table, while even a dual option is uncertain. The city is studying as equal weight alternatives the dual option as well as a new possibility – an Olive Drive-only access option.
Bob Segar, assistant vice chancellor for campus planning, spoke at last week’s council meeting and the campus would not even commit to the dual option at that time.
“For the roadway plan to be fully analyzed, it has to be in the context of our future growth as well as potential future growth at Nishi. Those scenarios would get fully developed this spring.”
“At least for implementation of it, it would require an approval and I think it does require being part of the growth plan,” he said.
Mr. Segar said they run these processes locally in terms of the long range development plan and environmental impact reports, but ultimately the Regents are the agency that makes the call. The long range development plan is the closest thing that the university has to a city general plan, he explained.
Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis said he was mainly concerned about the undercrossing, explaining, “In my view that connectivity piece is a huge piece of this from our side.”
What Bob Segar told the council implies that we may soon be locked into this approach. He explained to the council at the meeting, “We did a very high level first pass of the traffic implications of the connection/no connection but really now that there’s a preferred alternative, that can go the next level of detail of traffic analysis as you prepare for the environmental impact report.”
The question that I tried to raise numerous times last week is how we got from the HESC recommending either a UC Davis-only option, or a dual option as the less preferred alternative, to a situation where the latter is best case scenario?
The Vanguard got no official response from City of Davis Community Development Director Mike Webb. However, the Vanguard has learned that UC Davis is opposed to such an option, and therefore, at this point, it is off the table.
However, last February, Prakash Pinto in a presentation characterized the University-Downtown Gateway District as a “collaboration between city, county, university and property owners.” Mr. Pinto talked about how this process, which looks to develop not only 45 acres on Nishi, but 42 acres on Solano Park, creates an integrated land use map between the city and university.
Mr. Pinto talked about the need to “foster partnerships” and called it “a regional project.” He stressed “the continued shared integration of City and UC Davis economic development strategies.”
Mr. Pinto continued, “The university and the city can really move together toward a unified goal of how companies and jobs and housing can actually be placed on this site.”
He listed the goals as strengthening campus and community connections, creating a new gateway to Davis as well creating a district that has a balance of residential and employment which meets the growing needs of the university and the city.
Nishi provides the university with key amenities – housing and innovation space which can serve as incubator sites for university-related research, and private venture spinoffs of that university research.
UC Davis stands to benefit greatly from this development. It has a need for additional student housing – the Vanguard has actually suggested looking at greater density on the site. The university is expanding its research push and wants to become a center for research and innovation in the 21st century and Nishi, while a small piece of that puzzle, is key land next to the university.
At the same time, there are challenges with the site, in terms of circulation and access. UC Davis has the ability to alleviate some of those concerns by helping with circulation issues.
However, UC Davis has a greater responsibility than that. The traffic going through the Richards underpass – 85 to 90 percent of that, during peak hours, is not headed to the Davis downtown. Instead, most of that traffic is turning left onto 1st Street and entering the university at A Street, or is turning right onto B Street, then heading north and entering the campus on Russell Blvd. and parking in the parking garage on the north side of campus.
Therefore, the largest impact on Richards Blvd. is already the university.
Can we improve Richards Blvd.? Fifteen to 20 years ago, the city voters turned down the option to widen the Richards underpass. Part of the problem there is that, while the traffic flow through the underpass is a problem, the downtown streets are single-lane and we likely would have shifted the choke point from the underpass to downtown streets.
The city is looking at the Gateway project and potential arch as one plank of improving traffic flow. The city has recently applied for a grant to improve the freeway interchange. But that is still years off, and most likely will not deal with the overall congestion problem.
Therefore, from our perspective, the university benefits, and is seeking to further benefit, from an economic development agreement with the city. The university greatly contributes to the traffic flow problems through Richards and if they want to add to that traffic – as a project at Nishi undoubtedly will – they need to take the lead on finding remedies. That includes traffic circulation solutions, from finding access to Nishi through campus as well as finding ways to reroute traffic that goes through Richards to campus from the east and the north sides of campus.
Nishi represents a great opportunity for both the city and UC Davis. But circulation issues are big, and are only going to get bigger. UC Davis needs to be a partner in the solution. We have presented some innovative ideas and there are probably more that can be developed – but we have to be willing to have this discussion and find out what UC Davis is willing to do, to do their part in this.
—David M. Greenwald reporting