My View: Why is Mace Developer Leading on Housing?

Mixed-use-housing

When the city of Davis in May of 2014 issued its Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI), one of the guiding attributes was “Acknowledgement of community’s current desire for no residential to be included.” The decision was based on extensive discussions in the community and the widespread belief by many that the inclusion of housing would change the terms of discussion and undermine the possibility of the project gaining Measure R approval.

At the same time, the city has made the decision to include a mixed-use alternative to meet mitigation requirements as a way to reduce vehicle trips and mitigate VMT (vehicle mile traveled) and GHG (greenhouse gas) impacts. While the Vanguard has taken the position that we should at least have a community discussion as to whether having townhouses and rental units near the tech park where people who work in the park can live without having to get into their vehicles to commute, most still believe that it would be a mistake to include a housing component.

Given these widespread concerns, it is stunning that the communications firm for the developer would not only mention, but lead with the analysis of the mitigating impact of a mixed-use component.

The developer’s press release leads with a title: “Mace Ranch Innovation Center Report Concludes Housing Alternative Reduces Environmental Impacts.” It states, “A draft environmental analysis released today on the proposed Mace Ranch Innovation Center in Davis concludes that incorporating live-work housing into the project reduces its greenhouse gas and traffic impacts.”

They continue, “Among the EIR’s key findings on a project alternative that includes on-site housing: A 13 percent overall reduction in vehicular trips, with a 35 percent reduction during the morning commute period and a 32 percent reduction during the evening commute period.  A reduction in daily vehicle miles traveled of more than 25 percent. A reduction in annual greenhouse gas emissions.”

They conclude, “Based on these findings, the study determines that the project alternative with housing is environmentally superior to the innovation center without housing.”

By running the press release to emphasize housing, the developer has made that the issue and the topic of discussion. Instead of running the main findings on traffic impacts and standard mitigation measures, which would probably accomplish the same if not better than the mixed-use component, the developer has thrown the third rail of Davis politics – housing – headlong into the debate.

Immediately, the Davis Enterprise picked up on the theme running the article as “Mace center more green with housing.” Dave Ryan writes, “The Mace Innovation Center developers have been careful to point out to growth-averse Davis voters that the center would not include any housing, but that all changed Thursday.”

“An environmental review looked at the incorporation of 850 units of high-density live-work housing, finding that is the most environmentally superior version of the development if anything is to be built on the site. The project is proposed for 212 acres east of Mace Boulevard just north of Interstate 80,” they write. “The draft environmental impact report said there would be less driving by employees if housing was included in the project, and therefore lower greenhouse gas emissions for Davis and the region.”

In effect, by doing this, they have sunk their own battleship, thrusting the issue that most people believe can sink the project into the limelight rather than downplaying it.

This is no accidental strategy. But it is a puzzling one, because the DEIR (draft environmental impact report) was really not that outrageously harmful to their project.

As the transmittal letter notes, “The DEIR identifies adverse environmental impacts that may result from development of the project. It also concludes that most of the identified impacts can be mitigated by specific actions called mitigation measures.”

There are some impacts that cannot be mitigated, but as the developer notes, “This is not an unusual outcome. Given the size and scope of this project, this list is relatively modest. Virtually all large projects in California reach similar conclusions.”

The transmittal letter also notes, “The Draft EIR identifies the Mixed Use alternative as the environmentally superior alternative that also best meets all of the project objectives. The DEIR notes that because this alternative includes housing it is not consistent with the City’s expressed goal of having only non-residential uses within the innovation center.”

The letter adds, “While the Mixed Use Alternative is identified as the Environmentally Superior alternative under CEQA the ultimate decision regarding feasibility of the alternatives lies with the City Council. The Council will make findings regarding the desirability of the proposed project and the feasibility of each alternative.”

Council has been notably skeptical about including a housing component, out of the belief that it would sink the project.

The history of housing in Davis should make the developer more wary about even mentioning the possibility of housing. It was a decade ago that Measure X went down to heavy defeat 60-40 percent, despite the developers spending $600,000 to three-quarters of a million to pass the project. Four years later, Wildhorse Ranch, in the midst of the housing collapse, went down 75-25 percent.

While I would maintain that traffic impacts contributed heavily to the Measure X debate, one concern that many residents will have is housing a Trojan Horse. The idea being that the housing component is allowed into the project and the developers then claim that they can’t get the businesses to move into the project and so the housing component expands.

There are, of course, protections against such scenarios, creating baseline project features would necessitate a new vote for major changes. The council could force the developers to develop a critical mass of tech park prior to housing.

However, in a campaign context, the housing component would be used against the project and, by leading with housing now, it tips the developer’s hand that they want it and believe there needs to be housing.

That is not a small mistake – the developers have turned the conversation away from economic development and the need to develop more stable tax revenues and towards housing, and that is a losing proposition.

This move may not have been fatal, but in an environment that figures to be skeptical and an uphill battle, they have started the new discussion on the wrong foot.

—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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22 Comments

  1. Brett

    It is interesting to look behind the headlines of the recent innovation park press release, and actually examine the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR).

    Let’s look at the main proposal of a innovation park with no on-site housing and call that the “basic option”.  And let’s call the option with on-site housing as the “mixed use” option.

    =

    For the “basic option”, all external trips are thought to be handled by car:

    “As noted above, for the Existing Plus Project case, all trips are assumed to come from outside the City of Davis. Therefore, no bicycle or pedestrian trips are assumed, and negligible transit trips are assumed, and all external trips are assumed to be vehicle trips.”
    -from page 4.14-20

    Apparently no one in Davis is assumed to work at the innovation park let alone bike or walk there. Which is odd, because in the housing impact section of the DEIR, it clearly assumes some of the employees will live in Davis.

    When we examine the “mixed use” option we discover that when they evaluate the external trips generated they assume something different:

    8.2 percent expected to be bike/walk based on the following methodology: 32.9 percent of MRIC employees are projected to live in Davis. 22 percent of current Davis residents bike to work. Given the location of the Mixed- Use site at the eastern boundary of the city, 3 percent of employees traveling to the site are estimated to walk to work.”
    -from page 8-138
    This isn’t about people living internal to the project walking across the street to their new job (that would be an internal trip).  This is how they examine the impact of ”external trips”.
    =
    In case you were wondering, it is assumed that 815 units in the mixed use option would be occupied by employees of the innovation park.  815 out of 850 total housing units.
    As shown in Table 4.12-12, the estimated employee housing demand at buildout of the MRIC is 3,763. Using the methodology described in Table 4.12-12, out of the total employee housing demand of the MRIC of 3,763 units, an employee housing demand for 2,053 units would occur within the City of Davis.22 The remaining housing units (1,710) needed to meet the MRIC’s employee housing demand would be met outside of the City of Davis, within the six-county SACOG region. 
    Assuming that 1,238 housing units out of the 2,053 units would be available to accommodate the MRIC’s total employee housing demand within the City of Davis, the resultant MRIC employee housing demand that cannot be accommodated in the City of Davis would be 815 housing units. For this proposed project, this unmet housing demand within the City of Davis would then need to be met within surrounding jurisdictions. For the Mixed-Use Alternative, the demand for 815 housing units would be met on-site, thus providing the City of Davis’ projected share towards employee-generated housing. 
    -from page 8-187
    =
     
    In fairness, this is a draft EIR for the project.  I think the final EIR may need to address some of these issues.  I am not sure if some of the initial headlines were warranted.
     

    1. Barack Palin

      Apparently no one in Davis is assumed to work at the innovation park let alone bike or walk there. Which is odd, because in the housing impact section of the DEIR, it clearly assumes some of the employees will live in Davis.

      So it looks like the numbers are very selective in order to push the housing.  I know for myself, and I believe many others, this was to just be a business park and that’s why I got on board.  I will vote no if housing is part of this project.

      1. David Greenwald

        I think you have to take the E I R with a grain of salt. That’s why I focused on what the developers communications person shows to emphasize which was housing.

  2. Doby Fleeman

    Brett,

    Thanks very much for your thoughtful read and accompanying comments.

    It is frustrating that reports like this seem to ignore existing “as built” conditions of the communities in which they will be located.  For instance, would the report and governing parameters be the same for a community like Elk Grove which has the typical housing density of a surburban California community?

    We repeatedly hear that Davis is one of the “most densely populated” urban areas in the United States (residents per square mile).  If this is true, it would be interesting to know how our “local jobs” to residents ratio stacks up on a similar basis, and whether that statistic should be a part of this conversation.

    As Staff observes in their transmittal letter to City Council: “The DEIR notes that because this alternative includes housing it is not consistent with the City’s expressed goal of having only non-residential uses within the innovation center.”  Environmentally superior or not, one might have thought the EIR consultants would have been somewhat more attuned to and concerned with the accuracy and justification for these recommendations advocating for alternative uses that would detract from this goal of adding additional local technology jobs?

    Just as much as the consultants focus on housing related metrics, hopefully, one of the City’s consultants will present the Council with some constructive suggestions and an existing conditions report concerning public transportation options, both for Davis residents and those living outside the City but who work locally in Davis.

     

  3. Tia Will

    I am a little surprised that no one has yet referenced the Cannery as a potential housing site for the intended future employees of the Mace project. The two are in close geographic proximity. I have not yet considered how such a mental association of this new housing project and the proposed business project might play out in people’s thought processes since it just occurred to me.  Any thoughts ?

    1. CalAg

      The Cannery is too small to adsorb a significant portion of the housing demand from a large technology park. Moreover, the housing development will be mostly built out and occupied before any of the demand materializes.

  4. SODA

    I was surprised to see this as I stopped by the Mace site a few weeks ago when there was an Open House. I am pretty sure the Ramos brother told us they did not plan for housing (as opposed to what we heard at Nishi)…..if I am wrong, please correct me.

  5. Anon

    1.  815 houses are going to house innovation park employees?  How does the developer guarantee that only employees of the innovation park will buy those 815 homes?  The answer is – the employer cannot make any such guarantee – nor can the employer even make an educated guess as to how many that would be.  The number 815 is pure speculation, and my guess is it is not even remotely accurate.

    2. Which makes more money for the developer, building business space or residential housing?  If the developer is pushing for this huge amount of “workforce” housing (the word “workforce housing” in my opinion is a complete misnomer since there is no guarantee employees of the innovation park will live there), I would hazard a guess the residential housing is far more advantageous for the developer from a financial viewpoint.  But we don’t need more housing which is usually NOT a net fiscal positive for the city; what we need is economic development that generates substantial business tax revenue and jobs to help the city out of its fiscal woes.

    3.  What is to stop the developer in the future from claiming businesses just aren’t interested in moving to the Mace Innovation Park, so best to build more residential housing rather than let the land remain undeveloped?

    The more I watch this questionable process unfold, the more I am opposed to including any housing within the Mace Innovation Park.  I would strongly urge the developer to correct course in the final EIR, and put more bullet proof assumptions in the draft EIR that will withstand criticisms that will surely be shot from numerous “guns” around town. I also urge the City Council to stick to its proverbial “guns” and not include housing in the Mace Innovation Park project.

    1. hpierce

      The developer cannot (and should not) change one scintilla of the Draft EIR.  It is a City document, it’s ‘out there’, and, at the end of the day, it is only a disclosure (what if) document.  Your mileage may vary.  Any concerns as to discrepancies, errors, etc. should be directed to staff, PC, and/or CC.  The final EIR is composed of the Draft, all comments recieved during the review period (typically 45 days), and response to comments.  It (FEIR) may include errata, additional analysis (based on staff or citizen concerns), and revisions to the proposed MM’s.

      I’m thinking Brett’s concern is a result of lack of the professional staff who understand trip gen, (used to be 3 in PW alone) or, more likely, due to staff reductions, the Admin draft had insufficient time avail for the professional staff to help make it “bullet-proof” (by eliminating inconsistancies).

      We’ll see.  But those who are claiming ‘conspiracy’ should check for the orifice their head is using.

    2. hpierce

      Anon… I agree the # of housing units (if built) occupied is purely speculation at this point, but on the other hand, without a site plan to evaluate, find it hard to imagine someone choosing to buy into or rent housing in a business park/innovation center unless they were employed there.  I know I wouldn’t.

      I suspect the developer (who, as I understand it, didn’t propose it) would have no problem considering the housing as an option… not a ‘required element, but an option that would help them market the project and/or ‘sell’ the project for a Measure R vote.

      As it stands, the proposal submitted does not include housing.  The EIR is a “what if” document.

  6. Dan

    David’s take on this is interesting: he seems to be suggesting that the development proponents should have better cloaked their true intentions to include housing in the proposal. Do we really want EIRs that are more opaque?

    My take is that this is a bold move to expose the hypocrisy of so many Davis residents who think of themselves as “green”. I really don’t know how someone can have genuine concern about greenhouse gas emissions, support this development project, and oppose including housing in it.

    Whether the developer’s approach succeeds remains to be seen, of course. But at least let us not criticize them for being open about their goals.

     

    1. Jim Frame

      I really don’t know how someone can have genuine concern about greenhouse gas emissions, support this development project, and oppose including housing in it.

      The DEIR on page 33 states that the no-housing project can reduce VMT impacts to less-than-significant levels simply by implementing a properly-designed transportation management plan.  That’s how.

      1. Doby Fleeman

        Ah, yes.  But, in turn, that would mean that the City needs to begin studying its options for an integrated local and regional transportation plan………and that costs money and would require significant new investment.

        But you hit the nail on the head, if Davis aspires to have more jobs, while avoiding the traffic and circulation pitfalls of cities like Palo Alto – it will require a much more proactive, forward looking approach to integrated transportation planning together with the will and a viable means to fund such investments.

        1. hpierce

          Doby (and all)… mitigation measures have to identify at least one MM.  There are generally dozens, if not scores of others that could fully (and perhaps better) mitigate to the same level.  TheEIR MM’s are not meant to be unique, nor comprehensive.

        2. Doby Fleeman

          hpierce,

          I’m not criticizing the process.  In this case, my comments are more a reflection of my frustration with our rate of progress (both planning and implementation) on important transportation-infrastructure related issues.

          Wishing and hoping we might use circumstances (community level discussions) such as these related to the Innovation Park applications to make tangible headway on some of the thornier issues facing our community.

  7. CalAg

    Housing is not the whole story here.

    This is also about the integrity of the EIR process. What we now have is a DEIR promoting an agenda using bogus assumptions. What else is lurking in the details? If the EIR consultant, staff, and applicant have constructed a house of cards, it will crumble when the project is subjected to the inevitable legal challenge.

    I’m afraid the City may have mortally wounded the MRIC proposal.

     

  8. CalAg

    I also wonder if the NWQ developers would have withdrawn their application if they thought there was a possibility that they could get 850 units out of the deal.

  9. Frankly

    Since 1975 there have been thousands of homes built for the workers of future innovation parks.  These homes have just been purchased by and occupied by others holding them until such time they plan to leave and then the innovation park employees can take rightful ownership.

  10. hpierce

    “… press release leads with a title: “Mace Ranch Innovation Center Report Concludes Housing Alternative Reduces Environmental Impacts.”  David, is this ENTIRE DOCUMENTavailable on-line?  If not, can you provide?

      1. hpierce

        oK…. need to craft my wording more carefully… hen I asked for “entire document’, I meant the press release referred to, not the EIR… just followed your link this AM.

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