In 2008, a diverse group of residents appointed by the city council back in 2007 approved the General Plan Housing Element Update with a list of 37 potential housing sites. In their ranking, they listed the Nishi Property with UC Davis access only at No.17 and the Nishi site with access via Olive Drive a bit lower, at No.25.
They cited poor vehicular access and potential impact on Richards Blvd as a reason, but they also recommended that access via UC Davis “must be explored fully before any consideration of this option.”
Given that, it is somewhat surprising that the two equal-weight alternatives as the primary project to be analyzed in the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) were: “The preferred project alternative with full ped/bike/vehicle access from both west Olive Drive and the UC Davis campus; and an alternative with access from west Olive Drive only.”
There is no mention in the staff report of why the General Plan Housing Element Recommendations, that were approved by the Steering Committee and then the city council, have changed. Maybe there is a good reason for this, and hopefully staff can explain it when the council meets on Tuesday.
We have not seen any traffic studies and, when I met with the developer last year, they had yet to do any. However, anecdotally and from observation, I am concerned that adding to vehicular traffic on Richards Blvd will be problematic.
I am heartened that the city is undertaking a study and plan ultimately to revise the I-80 interchange, but we have to do more to deal with traffic flow issues under the Richards underpass. Voters, of course, rejected a plan to widen Richards – which I don’t think is the answer anyway.
However, despite serious concerns about traffic flow onto Richards Blvd, overall I think Nishi is the right location to develop. That question is really how we should go about doing this. In September 2013, I suggested a radical idea of land swap where we put student housing onto Nishi which would go to UC Davis, and Solano Park would become the innovation center.
My thought today is along similar lines, but without the land swap. Right now the current proposal calls for about 500 to 700 residential units on Nishi. What I think makes a lot more sense is going up to 2000 units.
Ideally, we would have either no cars at all or only access on the university side, as the Housing Element called for back in 2008. There is some question as to whether we can legally prohibit cars. But by eliminating cars, we can better utilize 200,000 feet of parking space which currently would allow 500 cars to be stored on site.
There is a sizable student population that does not have vehicles. Moreover, the university is looking at more overseas students, and those students mainly do not bring cars to town.
The location is ideal for such a facility – again, if legal. The students would be adjacent to the university and be able to easily walk or bike to class. Moreover, it is a short walk from Nishi to the Davis Downtown. We could even make the area a bit more self-sustained with a small-sized grocery store among the retail that is being planned for the property as it is.
We can be innovative with how we design this housing by putting retail on the ground level and student housing above – a mix of small stores, some restaurants, perhaps a satellite post office and some cafés could make this a very attractive location.
By going up to 2000 units, we can start making a dent in the student housing problem. High density student housing can be a solution to the other problem we discussed this week – housing in Davis.
As we noted with regard to the mayor’s speech, one of the problems he cited was the decline in the 25 to 45 demographic – the families with small children enrolled in our schools.
One idea that we have put forward would be for UC Davis to find ways to house more students, which would open up rental housing in town for families and older residents. That might open up housing stock currently utilized by student populations – who might be better served by living closer to campus.
While we wait for more housing to open up at West Village, Nishi expanding up to 2000 units can take a large number of students who are currently renting homes in Davis and put them next to campus. That would then free up housing units in the city for families or help to dis-incentivize absentee housing ownership in the core of town.
If we find ourselves unable to prohibit vehicle ownership in Nishi, perhaps we can find ways around that – either by incentivizing residents who do not own or drive cars. At the very least, we can restrict access by car to the university, which would prevent the further congestion of Richards Blvd.
People will undoubtedly come up with lists of reasons why this proposal could never work. A few responses to that. First, I think Nishi is an amazing opportunity but we have to understand that the property has limitations that were cited back in 2008 by both the Steering Committee and the council. The biggest is the access and circulation issue.
Second, given the strengths of Nishi, I think it is a waste of opportunity to shoot so low as to have only 500 to 700 units.
Third, we need to think outside of the box. Perhaps 2000 units is not the way to go; perhaps there are other cool and innovative ways to deal with the weaknesses of the property while enhancing the strengths.
My call here is not that we need to approve this specific proposal, but that we think outside of the box and use this opportunity to address serious problems facing our community while developing this property to its fullest extent.
—David M. Greenwald reporting