On Sunday, in case you missed it, the Vanguard finally took a position on Paso Fino. The critical issue from our perspective was Don Shor’s assessment of the impact on the Canary Island Pines. Based on that, we believe that the developers should take the staff recommendation of Plan D or a modification thereof. They could also look at a configuration of eight units that takes into account Mr. Shor’s recommendation for small lot sizes on the eastern side of the proposed development.
The criticism of the development on this property has largely focused on two issues: one, the city’s lack of policy guidelines for the sale or transfer of publicly held greenbelt lands and, two, the city’s policies for retaining mature trees.
In this discussion, I would like to address the city’s broader policy on housing and infill. A few days ago the local paper summarized some of the concerns that the developers have expressed to the Vanguard, as well: “On the developers’ side, they wonder if the city actually is serious about preventing urban sprawl and focusing on its policies of infill development, or if local politicians will bend to the will of what they see as a sophisticated Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) campaign. They wonder why developers must go through the same fights again and again to build infill development in Davis?”
The discussion has often focused on the “capricious” and “arbitrary” nature of development in Davis. While that is certainly a concern, at least for some, there is a bigger picture here and I will focus my discussion on the prevention of urban sprawl and the policies of infill development.
As we noted a few days ago, even absent the controls of Measure R, infill development in Davis is largely problematic. The problem that you face is that of change of circumstances. The point is easily illustrated with an example. If I buy a home in a neighborhood that is completely built out, I go in knowing what the environment is.
However, if I purchase a home next to a huge open space, an open space that we use to walk the dogs or play with the kids, and then a developer comes along and wants to develop it, that represents a change of circumstances. It is an impact on the neighborhood.
So, as we look to build housing through infill, we will continue to run into these sorts of problems. We are going to end up putting in more density than perhaps the neighbors want, soaking up the spaces that they previously utilized for leisure and recreation, and taking away the trees that provide shade, aesthetics and atmosphere.
The more pro-development crowd will argue, well, if we are going to preclude peripheral housing through onerous Measure R requirements then we need to have liberal policies for infill and densification.
My response to that is not necessarily. At Paso Fino we are talking about six, eight, or in one plan with four ADUs, 12 units. To be quite frank, the difference between six and 12 units is not going to do anything to prevent urban sprawl. It just won’t.
And while we can pack more infill in and densify, at the end of the day, the housing situation is not going to change very much. There were things we could have done to build more housing. We could have increased the density at Cannery Park, where we settled for about 600 units. We could increase the number of multifamily and high density units at Nishi if we can figure out how to deal with traffic impacts.
Finally, we could look at urban housing and mixed use at the innovation parks, but everyone is concerned that housing at the parks will doom the project.
The bottom line is that, unless we look toward increased density on the larger parcels of land, we are essentially nickel and diming at the expense of the neighbors and lowering their quality of life. People are not going to take that lying down, they have savvy and resources to fight these projects and, if they have a strong enough case, they may well prevail. And even if they do not prevail, they can delay.
My point here is not to take sides in this fight. It is only to argue that a six to 12 unit infill project is not going to make a huge difference to the city in terms of housing needs and, therefore, we ought to make sure we do right by the people who have invested their life savings into these homes.
The other point I would make is that, once again, we are operating in an ad hoc fashion. We are engaging in development by piecemeal.
We don’t have a General Plan update to guide an overall vision. We ought to be able to identify our goals for housing – how many, where do we put them, how densely do we pack them?
We don’t have a recent policy for trees, density, neighborhood impacts – we need to identify places for infill and recommend densities for those, and processes to deal with issues like trees and greenbelts.
Are we ever going to develop on the periphery? If so, where, how much and when?
We may not reach consensus as a community on these issues. For years, the council would bounce back and force between slow growthers and real slow growthers. But at least we would have the parameters laid out for the discussion.
As one poster wrote, “I don’t particularly have a dog in this fight, but I am deeply concerned about the unwieldy process that is developing, in which the loudest voices and not necessarily the majority of citizens get their way, and where some city policies are totally ignored in favor of some new standard devised by a small group of angry citizens. This does not bode well for the future, especially with the innovation parks coming along soon. I think the City Council and city staff need to do some deep soul searching here, and think through how to develop a much fairer process.”
I think that’s right. We need a fair process even if we do not ultimately agree on what the solution should look like.
But one thing I know, whether Paso Fino comes in with six or eight units, the problem of sprawl and development will remain.
—David M. Greenwald reporting