Council Acknowledges Details Need to Be Worked Out on Core Elements: Traffic, Sustainability and Labor
With most of the council wanting to send the message of approval for the project, and none of the council having strong concerns about going forward, the council unanimously passed a motion that approves the project but has staff come back with some recommendations – in particular, dealing with the traffic issue.
The motion was to pass the staff recommendation for the project, with the additional request to return for the second reading and to come back with an outline of further details and recommendations about what is to be included in the traffic management plan, to make recommendations on sustainability and to encourage meetings and discussion between the applicant and the labor union, UNITE HERE.
The motion reflects a number of concerns that were raised by the public on issues of the traffic analysis and sustainability, as well as wages.
The council heard various concerns from a variety of people in the community.
Former City Councilmember Michael Harrington raised the issue of planning process, stating, “I think we have a situation here where the city staff is recommending the use of a ‘neg dec’ to avoid a full CEQA analysis and I think that the facts and law are against that process.”
He added, “I think that the weaknesses in the traffic report and the fact that the historic resources were not really evaluated, I think that that places you out of the ‘neg dec’ status and I believe that if you continue this and look at it some more, you’d have a good project.”
Alan Pryor, continuing on his line from his guest column in the Vanguard, stated, “I think there are many problems with this project that we really have to work through.”
He said, “For one, the traffic analysis was deficient in that it relied on unjustifiably low pre-existing baseline traffic counts taken by humans only over a two-hour period last year. I certainly don’t think you can say that’s representative.”
He further stated that this is compounded by under-counting or underestimating the number of vehicles that would come to the facility during maximum occupancy events. He argued that they do not have near enough parking to handle that.
Chris Granger from Cool Davis expressed concern about the sustainability, suggesting that we have not developed a Davis-based Climate Action Analysis that includes our emission goals alongside the information provided in this project’s table – which she did call the best presentation of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) that we have seen on projects recently.
She suggested including an EPA figure on cost per metric ton of GHG, which would help determine the cost of this project, “thus looking at what real mitigation might look like in terms of dollars.” She said this would allow us to work with developers to determine how we get to net-zero in the future when we get new construction or renovation.
Francisco Garcia, one of the representatives from UNITE HERE, has worked in the food service industry for 20 years. “I’ve seen the difference between non-union jobs with minimum wage and the good union job I have today.”
He explained, “All we’re asking for is workers at this future Embassy Suite have the right to choose. We just want the owner to agree to not run a campaign of intimidation against them and to respect the majority choice of whether to have a union or not.” He said he was not asking the council to vote yes or no on the project, just to think about the employees to ensure they have labor peace.
Michael Bisch from Davis Downtown noted that he first read about this project in the newspaper four years ago. He noted that he had a lot of respect for the stakeholders who spoke and does not think concerns should be dismissed, “but by the same token there are stakeholders that have participated in this project for many years, asked critical questions, had those answered and still support the project. I do not think that support for the project by those stakeholders should be dismissed out of hand either.”
He said that “there is no doubt that there is market need, not only for the conference facility but also for these rooms that are going to be developed.” Studies show the need for greater number of rooms and more diversity of type.
Clearly, the biggest question before the council was the traffic impact and how to separate the currently impacted roadway of Richards Boulevard from the new impacts that this project might bring.
There were also some key misperceptions. Several commenters were concerned that a system of valet parking would mean more traffic impact, as the people would have to drive in and the valet would drive the car offsite to park, multiplying the traffic impact. Instead, the project spokespeople explained that the valet parking would enable them to pack in up to 50 percent more vehicles at the onsite parking facility.
They would also create policies to discourage people from using their vehicles during their stay – instead, encouraging them to walk downtown or use buses or bikes to get around.
Still, the council was not satisfied with the current state of traffic analysis. Councilmember Brett Lee said, “There are probably things we can do to address the existing situation which would then allow for the project applicants’ very modest increase in traffic to be less problematic.”
He continued, “Before we approve a project at this specific location, it just seems that it would be reasonable to take another week or two to work out some of these concerns specific to the traffic aspect.” He added, “My view is really just another week or two I think would give us all a little more comfort… because what we don’t want is the public to see traffic jams in the area and immediately assume it’s because of the project.”
Councilmember Rochelle Swanson agreed, adding, “We all know there are some existing problems, how do we make it clear what’s existing and what would be part of this project.” She added that there may have to be some fine-tuning here, everything will not be solved with this one project.
Robb Davis said, “I don’t want the idea of going to another commission to slow this down.” He added, “I think we have a rigorous traffic study and, as bad as this area is, what we’re hearing is that the marginal impact of this project is not huge.”
On the issue of labor, Harriet Steiner, the city attorney, made it clear that council could not give conditional approval on any sort of labor agreement. However, the council made it clear it was an issue they were concerned about and part of the motion would urge the owners to talk with union representatives.
Mayor Dan Wolk stated, “I found what has been said very compelling.” He continued, “The issue of poverty and income inequality are major issues, not just in our state and region, but locally.”
Mayor Wolk made it clear that “all the folks are asking for is the card-check neutrality, the ability to organize. We cannot condition this project tonight on requiring the applicant (to negotiate), but we can send a strong signal.”
“It seems very reasonable to me,” he said. “I’m very supportive of the project but I am very cognizant of the concerns that are being brought up about what the workers are going to earn. These are some of the lowest paid jobs in our society – and we as a council need to be cognizant of that.”
The project representative addressed this issue head on. He said, “I think the applicant team has a lot of sensitivity to that issue. I think Ashok (Patel) and his family also pride themselves on their record as an employer.”
He didn’t dispute concerns raised, but said that “they apply to other hotels.” He then got out of the general and to the specifics of the record of Ashok Patel and his company. “He has a long history in this community. None of his employees get paid minimum wage. His lead house cleaner gets paid $13.50. They have a health care plan with Kaiser that their employees are part of.”
“Those are the facts,” he said. “That’s not to take away from anything that the folks from UNITE HERE said.”
He would also add that, on the issue of the ability to organize, Mr. Patel would honor the wishes of his employees, and if they wished to unionize, he would allow them to do so.
The council was not necessarily aligned on how to proceed. Councilmember Lee suggested they postpone the vote and deal with mitigation issues on Olive and vote on the project after that.
Robb Davis pushed in the other direction, along with Rochelle Swanson. The mayor pro tem said that we are approving this project. He said that the issues are not about the applicant, but rather about the preexisting conditions.
Both City Manager Dirk Brazil and Planning Director Mike Webb warned the council that their hope to return to this issue in a few weeks may be too aggressive, but in the worst case scenario they may have to defer the second reading by a couple of weeks, not a couple of months.
Robb Davis summed it up: “The reason I want to do it tonight is because I think we all agree that we want to support the project and it’s on the agenda tonight. I want to move past it. I want to do it right and I think we’ve sent a clear message to staff about our expectations about what we need before our second reading.” He added, “There’s no one up here saying it’s a bad project, it’s not even close.”
The vote was unanimous and staff will come back with more recommendations on Richard Blvd. and traffic impacts.
—David M. Greenwald reporting