Sunday Commentary II: Rental Housing Needed As Well

Nishi-Gateway project proposes 600 to 700 units - can it be expanded?
Nishi-Gateway project proposes 600 to 700 units – can it be expanded?

Yesterday’s column on the Sterling Apartments proposal certainly generated a lot of discussion. However, some of that missed the point I was attempting to make.   I understand and agree that we need more rental housing in Davis.

At the same time, fixing one need while ignoring other needs does not necessarily push us forward. Changes in the law with regards to both AB 109 and Prop 47 mean more people who are substance abusers will be released into mandatory supervision, as opposed to custody in either the California prisons or the county jails. We are going to have a crisis of space for such individuals in our community and we have a facility that seems currently suited for such uses.

As I wrote yesterday, are we basically allowing a perfectly good facility, set up as a campus and group home, to be torn down to create apartments? I completely agree with those who believe that we need additional apartments. Frankly, I don’t understand the complaint about the density – if there is any place that can handle density, it is along the Fifth Street corridor.

But, rather, the complaint is that someone is going to have to spend millions in taxpayer money to create new facilities to handle the influx of people needing residential treatment in the wake of criminal justice reforms, and we have such a facility in our midst and we are about to allow it to be demolished without even a community discussion.

As I told one of the councilmembers this week, maybe at the end of the day the best use for this land is high-density apartments, but shouldn’t we bring the city, county and other stakeholders into the discussion first before we allow such a potentially valuable commodity to slip through our hands?

In other words, the purpose of the piece was to put the issue on the radar for discussion. We may end up concluding that this is the best use. For someone to say, “I urge the council members who read the Vanguard to completely ignore this discussion,” I think is being irresponsible.

Again, it is not to suggest we do not need rental housing – that I agree with perfectly. It is why I have pushed for discussions about the need to at least consider mixed-use housing at the innovation parks. It is why I have pushed for the university to look into high-density housing.

And it is why back in January I pushed again for high-density housing at Nishi. Right now Nishi calls for about 500 to 700 residential units. 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.

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.

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.

Poly Canyon Village on 30 acres houses 2600 students within a mixed use project.
Poly Canyon Village on 30 acres houses 2600 students within a mixed use project.

A possible model is the Poly Canyon Village development in San Luis Obispo. Built on 30 acres of land, it houses about 2700 students. It has nine four- and five-story buildings, 618 apartments, with a large plaza and open space. It has a number of dining and retail vendors.

Nishi could actually accommodate more than that since it is somewhat larger.

My point is not that there are right or wrong answers here. However, I think we need to at least ask the questions about current use at the Sterling Apartments site. And if we are serious about building more student apartments, then perhaps we need to push on the Nishi project, which is right next to campus to accommodate that.

The other point is that neither Nishi nor Sterling are going to fix the problem of rental housing by themselves. Perhaps the size could be increased for the two of them to take about 4000 students – that would certainly eat into the vacancy problem but it would not solve it, especially as the university continues to entertain notions for expansion.

Perhaps the city can work more with the university on how to plan for the influx of new students. In the meantime, if we are serious about the student rental problem, the place we need to focus on is Nishi as the next proposed housing project.

—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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31 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary II: Rental Housing Needed As Well”

  1. hpierce

    I’d think, David, that re-purposing an existing facility, to meet what you may correctly see as a community need, is a logical alternative to destroying existing infrastructure to create a resource for another pressing community need.

    That said, there is not another proposal on the table now, to meet either the vision you have articulated nor the need for rental residential housing.

    Maybe Nishi, but for a number of reasons, that’s “iffy” in my view.

  2. Frankly

    Most other communities having our geography would not have their underwear so tied up in a bunch over land use because they would simply note that we are SURROUNDED BY OPEN SPACE.

    We manufacture artifical conflict over city land use by excluding peripheral land use from the options.

    We are weird on this subject, and not in a good way.

    1. Don Shor

      we are SURROUNDED BY OPEN SPACE prime agricultural land

      due to the excellent land stewardship of the city residents and Yolo County, working with land trusts, to conserve this valuable asset.

        1. Don Shor

          In the past discussions we’ve identified the lands that would be suitable for development. Hence the proposal for developing near the hospital. Too bad that’s on hold, but maybe it could be used for housing some day.

  3. Matt Williams

    A possible model is the Poly Canyon Village development in San Luis Obispo. Built on 30 acres of land, it houses about 2700 students. It has nine four- and five-story buildings, 618 apartments, with a large plaza and open space. It has a number of dining and retail vendors.

    David’s description of Poly Canyon Village begs some interesting question vis-a-vis Nishi.

    The first of those questions has to do with the 618 apartments producing 2700 student beds.  That would seem to indicate that the “average” apartment there contains between 4 and 5 beds (possibly even between 4 and 5 bedrooms).   Is that correct?

    Given that the Nishi proposals to date have included 650 residential units (440 rental and 210 for sale), the second question is what the “average” number of beds and/or bedrooms will each residential unit support?

    1. hpierce

      In the sixties/seventies/early eighties, student apartments were 2 bedroom, one bath, and had four students in the unit.  Hence the need for a “pin-board” on the bedroom door to alert a roomie that their roomie had a ‘special guest’ present, and they shouldn’t come in unless they wanted to be a voyeur.

  4. Tia Will


    they would simply note that we are SURROUNDED BY OPEN SPACE.”

    I agree with you that this is a factual statement of our current situation. We interpret the significance of it very differently. I view the open space as an asset and potential for decision making by future generations. It appears to me that you see it as waste since you seem to believe that all assets should  be used for our immediate desires.

    1. Doby Fleeman


      Might you understand that your admirable and laudable concerns for future generations having the right to make their own decisions might be clouding your view in this particular conversation?  It does seem this particular conversation is devoted to legitimate needs/ obligations/responsibilities of the community and the university to have a much needed and long deferred discussion about how “we” intend to “accommodate the arrival of future generations of young learners (and preferably also tomorrow’s generation of young wage earners)”.   Or, would you advocate that both UC Davis stop growing its enrollment, and that the city stop growing is capacity to accommodate desirable, new technology employers?  In this regard, is the university building on its “farmlands” somehow “better” than the city developing on adjoining county farmland?

      Would you even be here in Davis if some “previous generation” had not had the foresight to make some allowance both to accommodate your place of residence as well as your place of employment?

      Alternatively, I guess we could just abdicate on the subject and leave our current mountains of unfunded debt, unkept roads and no place to house new, tax-paying, job-creating  businesses and their employees as our “legacy” for “future generations” to contend with.

      Just trying to understand your primary concerns on these thorny issues.




      1. Don Shor

        In this regard, is the university building on its “farmlands” somehow “better” than the city developing on adjoining county farmland?

        The university doesn’t have to build on its ‘farmlands’ to provide more housing. There are sites closer in to campus that could hold high-density dormitories; for example, right along Russell Blvd. UCD has plenty of space to develop without building further onto the ag soils that are more suitable for research fields and orchards.

      2. Tia Will


        I think that your questions are valid. What is important to me in terms of planning is balance. I do not like development in fits and starts. I do not like development that seems to be “crisis oriented” and reactive as opposed to proactive. I do not like development that is developer driven with little consideration about what is a good fit for the community as a whole What I would like would be clear short term, mid term and long term plans that develop in a gradual, sustained way rather than either no growth at all which I agree is not sustainable, but which also is not a “grow as fast as we can” approach that is all about financial gain without consideration of other values.

        What I do not think are valid are questions about “where would I be if someone had not made allowances for me ? This has two implications that I do not believe forward the discussion. The first, is that I have decided that now that I have mine, no one else should have theirs. My position could not be further from this since I actively support helping those in need with low cost and student housing. The second supposition here seems to be that Davis has the responsibility to grow for the sake of growth, and I do not believer this to be the case. In all systems, there is an end point at which more growth will be destructive rather than constructive. I am sure that we would probably define that point differently. But I believe it is either naive, or disingenuous to pretend that such a point does not exist.

        1. Don Shor

          The university has been adding 600+ students a year since the Chancellor announced her 2020 Initiative in 2010. The growth is occurring and the consequences are already here.

  5. Don Shor

    In other words, the purpose of the piece was to put the issue on the radar for discussion. We may end up concluding that this is the best use. For someone to say, “I urge the council members who read the Vanguard to completely ignore this discussion,” I think is being irresponsible.

    Neither the city of Davis, nor any private developer, has any obligation to provide housing assistance to people who are being releaded on ‘mandatory supervision’. I would put housing for homeless people higher on the list of social needs, and that encompasses a lot of people who are not lawbreakers. I don’t know why you’ve decided to inject the criminal reform situation into the Davis housing debates, but you haven’t provided any data, any actual iteration of the demand, any actual demonstration of this purported need for specific types of housing in particular places.

    I can certainly provide you with objective data about the actual need for specific types of housing in Davis for particular demographics: we need rental housing for students, young adults, and lower-income workers. We need about 8 – 10,000 beds. We need an apartment vacancy rate higher than 0.3%. 5% would be great, but even 3% would be a reasonable target.

    So don’t call me irresponsible until you put up some numbers to back up your assertions. I see you pushing an agenda without evidence. I have provided, countless times, the actual data about our rental housing situation. And as I’ve been doing that over the last five years or so, it’s only gotten worse.
    It would be incredibly irresponsible for the city council to impede the development of this rental housing unit. If they do it in furtherance of your ill-defined agenda, then you are irresponsible. Calling for ‘discussion’ usually just delays things. That costs young adults money and further harms the working poor.

  6. tj


    Trouble is, the surrounding streets cannot handle more traffic.  Pole Line Road is very congested most of the day, also 8th Street.  The Cannery will add more traffic as will the development on 8th Street.

    The north side of 5th is all nice residential housing of one type or another.  Putting in housing for the homeless or for parolees is not compatible at all.

    Until a couple of years ago, when the city cleaned up and cleared away overgrown landscaping, there were small homeless camps in the bushes along 5th Street and in the greenbelt opposite the police station, and lots of pilfering/theft in the neighborhood.

    1. Matt Williams

      Trouble is, the surrounding streets cannot handle more traffic.

      tj, one of the beauties of not automatically providing an automobile parking space with each apartment bedroom, and charging an incremental monthly parking space rental of between $300 and $500, is that the student rental market that the project applicant is targeting is not likely to see value in that $3600 to $6000 a year increase in their annual college education costs … especially when they can avoid that cost by simply not having a car. A reduction in the number of cars means a reduction in the amount of automobile traffic on those surrounding streets that you and many other Davis residents believe cannot handle more traffic.

      Those students who choose not to have a car will either bicycle to the campus or take UNITRANS. If the same solution were implemented at Nishi, you could add “walk to campus” as a third option.

      1. tj

        614 parking spaces seems like a lot of cars and related vehicle traffic.  This is the number of parking spaces the developer believes will be needed.

        1. hpierce

          Yeah… even if the students get to campus by bike/walk/transit, they’ll have cars for weekends, etc.  This will be a project for well-heeled students.  The clue is in the BR/bathroom ratio.

          The other clue is the cost to raze the site, THEN build the housing. These units, even the “affordable” ones will come at a premium.

        2. Matt Williams

          Agreed tj, and according to their presentation Wednesday night, their 614 estimate was based on Davis-specific history that indicated that a 0.77 ratio of spaces to bedrooms was what our bicycle supporting community has experienced.

  7. TrueBlueDevil

    It often seems like some / much of the university lands sits fallow. Am I mistaken?

    Are there any plans for more housing in West Village.

    I agree with David’s proposal for some large-scale housing with no cars – we are the bike capital of the US! Parking garages costs lots of money, and if we build close enough to campus, biking, walking, and buses work just fine. I used to walk from both closer locations as well as Covell (probably too far for some). Done right, this should help to keep the rental costs down a bit. If a student is so wedded to their vehicle, they can live elsewhere.

    Thank you for the picture of the SLO development, but it also shows some small problems I have with modern building. It’s cold, and the plazas go unused. Add some large communal balconies (like North / South Hall), include the needed wifi, and modest amenities.

    Does the campus have any plans for more apartments in West Village?

    1. Don Shor

      I agree with David’s proposal for some large-scale housing with no cars

      Those would be dormitories, and are more likely on campus. Hopefully UC will build some more dorms. I’d guess most developers would shy away from car-free housing because they consider it less marketable.

    2. Topcat

      It often seems like some / much of the university lands sits fallow. Am I mistaken?

      I wonder what the plans are for the Orchard Park site?  It seems like that site could accommodate a lot of housing and it’s closer to campus so that the students can walk and bike.

      1. hpierce

        Good question… have no answers… as I recall, Orchard Park was married student housing, and was more apartments than ‘dorms’.  I could easily be corrected.

        In my opinion, given the location, is a perfect site for housing, and more density than it had.  But not TOO much density.

  8. Don Shor

    So at this point I’m a little mystified by the haphazard housing discussion that has taken place on the Vanguard in the last couple of days.

    Poly Canyon Village is dormitory housing built by the university to house its freshman class, with availability to continuing students only after the freshmen priority signup period. It was undoubtedly expensive to build. I expect it is expensive to live there. Overall it looks a lot like UCD’s West Village development, on a bigger scale.

    Nishi is intended to provide space for startup businesses, some condominiums, some student-oriented housing units. A little bit of everything, with the proximity to campus being the primary benefit. Trying to meet several clearly expressed community needs on a tight location: business sites, some housing.

    It is not a dorm. It is not being built by the university with public funds; it is intended to make a profit and is being built with privately-risked dollars.

    So to persistently suggest that it should be car-less, built higher density, is to basically demand or suggest that the Nishi developers should build dormitories. No. The university should build dormitories. Private developers should build market-appropriate housing.

    Now we have a developer willing to build a large, much-needed apartment complex on Fifth Street. Suddenly we need housing for criminals and addicts. Suddenly that is a priority. We should delay a clear and needed project because we need to discuss these other things.

    David, do you have a clearly defined set of principles that you feel should guide housing policy in Davis? From my vantage, as one who has had young adults trying to find housing here and has seen first-hand the impact of our rental situation on my employees, those principles are not apparent.  

    1. Matt Williams

      Those are all good points, ones that are not necessarily “either/or” but quite possibly “both/and” depending on the will of the community and the will-ingness of the project applicants.

      With that said, the Dinerstein Companies representatives were very clear that their student housing subsidiary, Sterling University Housing, the “largest builder and developer of off-campus student housing in the country” was the lead entity for the proposed project, and that according to the Staff Report, “The development is designed with students in mind as the target population, but would not be restricted to students.”

      Isn’t that a de-facto description of a dormitory?

      1. hpierce

        Maybe now, but a dormitory historically was a place to sleep, study, and if you “got lucky”, …  It had a dining commons, not access to a kitchen,  and you bathed and did other necessary stuff in a common bathroom that you shared, maybe, with 30 others. This ain’t no dormitory.

        These are pretty high-end apartments, where each bedroom has its own bath.  I never lived in that upscale an apartment.

        Hell, never lived in a house that had one bathroom per bedroom!  And never needed to…

        These apartments are designed for one person per bedroom… unless you “get lucky”…


        1. Matt Williams

          I agree hpierce, and I can’t help but wonder whether we can doo beter than this first pass proposal, given the rental residences crisis that Davis has been experiencing over the past decade.

    2. TrueBlueDevil

      Good points, spot on. I do still like the concept of larger-size dorms (not 2 stories), without cars … keep costs down, emphasize our bike-friendly environment. Play that up. I believe many parents would also appreciate that approach. … and lose the industrial / boring / cold architecture, if that’s what we call it.

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