Serious Questions About Hotel Conference Center’s Impact on Traffic, Its Sustainability, and Transparency of the Process

Proposed Hotel Conference center on Richards
Proposed Hotel Conference center on Richards

by Alan Pryor

  1. Introduction and Summary

In a recent article in the Vanguard discussing the 2 large planned innovation centers in Davis (Nishi and Mace), Councilmember Brett Lee assured readers that all due diligence would be undertaken by City Staff and the Council to ensure the Innovation Projects were sustainable and well thought out:

We must clearly identify and mitigate the negative aspects of a tech park.”…“Poor design is difficult to mitigate; therefore, any proposal must have a well thought out design that includes planning best practices with a heavy emphasis on sustainability.

Unfortunately, such a thoughtful approach has not been followed with respect to consideration of approval for the massive 160,000 sq. ft Conference Center/Hotel/Restaurant complex newly proposed for Richards Blvd and Olive Dr. While the economic development objectives are this project are potentially noteworthy, the project has a number of very notable shortcomings and does not come close to meeting Davis’ desired environmental objectives or its standards for public engagement for a huge new commercial development. For instance,

1) This project has a very small solar PV system despite ample roof space for installing many more panels than is proposed. There is no analysis of what percentage of energy consumed on site is provided or could be provided by additional solar panels for which there appears to be room.

2) The project may create unintended traffic bottlenecks and worsen already adverse traffic conditions into downtown Davis. This is because of inadequate mitigation caused by insufficient analysis of both preexisting and future traffic conditions. The project additionally fails to address future cumulative traffic impacts potentially caused by the Nishi project as is required by CEQA.

3) The project proposes insufficient parking which will severally exacerbate already adverse and congested traffic conditions caused by the project.

4)  The process by which this project is being brought forward is seriously flawed in that it minimizes the opportunity for public participation in the approval and entitlement process. This project was approved by the Planning Commission on July 8 and is now being considered by Council for full approval and entitlement only 45 days later. It is absolutely unprecedented that a project of the size and magnitude as the Conference Center would move this fast through the entitlement process without sufficiently engaging the community.

5) This project is not consistent with the Gateway – Olive Dr Specific Plan as otherwise reported in the Staff report.

Re: Unsustainable Energy Use and Insufficient Onsite-Produced Alternative Energy – The Staff report states that the project will have many sustainable features including solar PV and green roofs and walls. One is led to believe that these sustainable features will lead to meaningful reductions of carbon emissions as a result of the project’s operations. Unfortunately, that is not the case as only a comparatively very small solar system is actually proposed to be installed which will contribute to only a small fraction of the project’s overall energy use. There are substantial areas of unused roof space that could otherwise economically have solar panels installed. The exact degree by which solar could contribute to the project’s overall energy usage is not known because the project has not reported what its total annual electrical load is likely to be.

The impact of this project on the City’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan goals must be quantitatively evaluated before entitlements can be issued. This analysis should include aggressive implementation of energy efficiency technologies for the facility. Other large commercial projects in town, particularly Nishi and Mace, are already striving to maximize energy reduction to minimize their carbon footprint when built out. Council should demand no less from this project which, as discussed more fully below, is currently not the case

Re: Worst Case Traffic Scenarios are not Evaluated and Cumulative Traffic Impacts are not Considered – Because the project could substantially and adversely affect the traffic flow through the arguably worst traffic intersection in Davis (Richards Blvd. and Olive Drive), analysis of the possible project traffic impacts must by necessity take a very conservative approach to traffic management and include analysis of the maximum mitigation measures possible. Unfortunately, it appears the traffic study commissioned by the applicant looks at projected traffic flows using unsubstantiated baseline conditions. These assumed baseline conditions were based only on a few hours of observation on a single day in October 2014 which has not been shown to be “normal.” This potentially grossly underestimates baseline conditions which could lead to inadequate estimation of worst case traffic impacts.

Re: Proposed Mitigation of Traffic Impacts is Insufficient – The traffic mitigation plan proposes very simple and inexpensive mitigation measures that could fail miserably in maintaining smooth traffic flow if actual traffic flow the intersection is much higher than anticipated. Failure to account for maximum occupancy and use of the conference facility (as more fully described below) underestimates the potential number of arriving and departing attendees or guests of the completed facility. In a worst case, this could potentially result in almost gridlock conditions through the Richards Blvd/Olive Drive intersection. This is even more likely if there is a large planned event in downtown Davis that draws much greater than normal numbers of car arrivals (e.g. Picnic Day, etc.). This eventuality has not been considered.

Any traffic environmental impact study must also address cumulative impacts of a project if part of a series of larger projects. The Staff report acknowledges that they expect to receive in the very near future both a Caltrans plan for freeway off- and on-ramp modifications and a traffic study as part of the Nishi EIR review process. Amazingly, the Staff report acknowledges that these proposed projects will have demonstrable impact on traffic circulation on Richards and Olive but does not quantitatively consider those impacts. CEQA otherwise requires that all foreseeable cumulative traffic impacts must be considered in any environmental impact evaluation, which clearly has not occurred here. Thus, certification by the City of a Mitigated Negative Declaration in the absence of evaluating those cumulative impacts is clearly insufficient for CEQA compliance purposes.

Inadequate Community Engagement and Outreach – Although this project has been discussed conceptually for many years, numerous false starts by the project applicants have delayed its presentation to the community. With little public fanfare, the applicant then presented a new more detailed project plan earlier this year, which has been discussed with Staff with virtually no opportunity for detailed input from the City’s broad sustainable community. The Conference Center proposal has been presented to and approved by the Planning Commission on July 8 and will be before the Council for environmental and entitlement approval this coming Tuesday. Never before in Davis has any project of nearly this size or magnitude ever been put on such a fast track approval process by the City without any substantial input with a broad community engagement process. This way this project is being handled is clearly not the “Davis Way” and the lack of process invites distrust and suspicions.

This project has also NOT been reviewed by any other City Commission as to it true sustainability (the responsibility of the NRC), its financial impacts on the City (the responsibility of the Budget and Finance Commission), or the potentially adverse impacts of traffic on arguably the worst intersection in the City (the purview of the Traffic and Bicycle Safety Commission).

This project will be the most viable feature to new visitors entering the City on Richards Blvd. Indeed, the project will very likely be viewed as the “Gateway to the City,” especially if the Nishi project is implemented in the future. As such, the project must be held to the same very high energy efficiency standards we expect will be imposed on the Nishi and the Mace Innovation Park projects and have been imposed on other new new residential projects in town. As currently configured, this project is not even close.

Re: The Hotel/Restaurant/ Conference Center Complex is Clearly Inconsistent with the Current Gateway / Olive Drive Specific Plan (G/ODSP) – While the City may choose to modify the Specific Plan to allow for such a proposed use, it must be done in full light of the inconsistencies of the project with the Specific Plan as further discussed below and contrary to Staff’s statements that the project and Specific Plan are compatible with only certain modifications.

Conclusions – Given 1) the significant sustainability and traffic-related shortcomings of this project; 2) the lack of review by either the NRC, the Traffic and Bicycle Safety Commission, and/or the Business and Finance Commission, and 3) and the fast-tracked manner in which it is being reviewed and presented to Council for approval, Council should reject this project and return it to the proper Commissions for review as would normally be the case with almost any project of this magnitude.

Because of the size and impact of this project, the project proposal should be fully presented to the community in a thoughtful and deliberate process as is being done with Nishi and the Mace projects (and as was also done with the Cannery project), and consistent with the transparent manner in which projects are normally evaluated and considered in Davis.

Failure to do so will almost certainly generate serious questions as to whether Staff and the Council are fully committed to the sustainability and transparency objectives otherwise espoused by Council and expected in this City. This concern could have implications as to the future success of any Measure J/R to approve the two new Innovation Parks next year.

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  1. Project Description (quoted from City Staff Report to the Planning Commission)

The proposed project is for a new six-story hotel and conference center on 2.82 acres located at the southwest corner of the intersection of Richards Boulevard and the westbound Interstate 80 on-ramp in the City of Davis located in Yolo County. The project would replace the existing single-story 43 room University Inn and Suites Hotel and Cafe Italia restaurant with a new six-story 132 room hotel, including a +/-4,000 sf restaurant and 18,400 sf conference center (comprised of +/-13,775 sf of banquet / meeting rooms and +/-4,625 sf of pre-function area). All existing structures would be demolished and the site would be cleared for the proposed new expanded use.

The new facility would be comprised of one structure 77 feet in height with a footprint of +/-49,500 sf and total square footage of +/-163,450 sf in 6 levels/stories. The lobby, registration, lobby bar, large conference / banquet rooms, kitchen, restaurant, and some back-of-the house support functions would be on the ground floor. The second floor will have additional meeting rooms, fitness center, hospitality rooms, additional administrative offices, back-of-the house space and a possible spa, as well as house the outdoor swimming pool / pool deck. Guestrooms will reside on floors 2 through 6. The roof level may include a lounge (bar), outdoor deck.

In addition to the hotel building, a three-level parking garage with 166 spaces is proposed along the Interstate 80, freeway side, plus 6 surface spaces for a total of 172 parking spaces…”

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  1. Additional Information on Inadequate Sustainability Features and On-site Alternative Energy Production

According to the Staff report, “Sustainability features including photovoltaic panels over a portion of the parking structure, partial green roof and accent “green walls,” bicycle infrastructure, and roosts for peregrine falcons.

Unfortunately, very little details of these “Sustainability” features were disclosed in the Staff Report. Upon receipt of further information requested by this author last week, however, it is obvious that all of these “Sustainability” features constitute little more than green-washing to make the project appear to more environmentally benign and sustainable than it really is.

Solar Photovoltaic Panels – For instance, the proposed solar PV system would actually only cover about 15% (2700 sq. ft.) of the garage’s upper 3rd story surface area (~18,000 sq. ft.). It was subsequently stated by Staff that this was the maximum number of south-facing panels that could be economically accommodated on the roof due to shading by the adjacent 6 story hotel building. However, a more comprehensive solar analysis was commissioned from local solar company Talbott Solar by the author. This analysis showed that, while it is true that the output of south-facing solar panels would be adversely affected by shading from the hotel complex directly to the west of the solar array, it also showed that substantially the entire upper parking structure could be economically covered by east-facing solar panels that would only lose about 15% of the net solar output compared to otherwise unshaded south-facing panels. This option was either not explored by the applicant or the results were withheld from the report to the Planning Commission and Council. By not performing or fully reporting feasibility studies of more solar options, the project applicant attempts to reap the public relations benefit of touting their sustainability features while justifying avoidance of the initial expense of a more full-sized solar installation. This is inconsistent with the City’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan.

The City currently has an ordinance mandating that a minimum level of photovoltaic power panels be installed on every new single-family home constructed in the City. In the past, however, the City decided not to impose this solar requirement on commercial and multi-family projects because owners of such commercial or multi-family properties correctly claimed that they would not reap the benefits from such solar systems because tenants of their buildings always paid for their own electricity use. Thus, electricity savings from a commercial or multi-family PV system would accrue to the tenant renters of the project and not to the builder/developer that initially paid for the PV system installation.

In this project, however, the owner/developer that pays to install the solar PV system is actually the same entity that would reap all of the savings of a lower energy bill because there is no separate metering of hotel guests energy usage. There otherwise appears to be no other good reason why the project applicant would not install the maximum amount of solar panels allowed by the roof configuration especially if the project is designed to be as sustainable as possible with a minimum amount of associated greenhouse gas emissions.

The Project will produce Substantial but Unquantified Increases in Total Greenhouse Gas Emissions – While the applicant claims the solar photovoltaic system will meet the electricity needs of the parking garage itself and other small common area needs, there is no information available to determine the adequacy of the solar PV system compared to the total electrical load of the entire project. Although information on the projected total electrical load of the project was specifically requested from Staff by this author, it was not provided. This leaves the community able to only guess at the net excess energy consumption of the project. Staff stated in their report to the Planning Commission that “the proposed project would be more GHG efficient than the existing land uses,” but concedes that this efficiency only is on a current vs. future “per room” basis. The simple fact is that the total carbon footprint of this project will be many, many times greater than existing uses of the property. However, the net increased energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions cannot be determined because the applicant has withheld that information from the public domain. Staff and Council should demand that information from the applicant and analyze it for consistency with the City’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan

Indeed, it has now been shown from a variety of local commercial and multi-family projects that approaching Zero Net Energy consumption on-site is technically and potentially economically viable. Staff and the Council should demand that as many energy efficient project features as possible should be required of the applicant as long as the applicant’s return on investment in these energy reducing strategies exceeds their current borrowing costs – i.e. when financed, these energy efficiency projects generate positive cash flow from day one. Just because this large-scale commercial project is not in the Nishi or Mace Innovation Park projects, there is no reason why Staff and the Council should not similarly strive for Zero Net Energy (ZNE) as possible requirements for this projects.

Partial Green Roof – With respect to the “Partial Green Roof” proposed by the applicant and touted as a “Sustainability Feature” of the project, the proposed green roof actually only covers about 13% of the total roof area of the hotel/conference center complex. The rest of the roof space is unutilized although the applicants suggests that they may wish to install a rooftop indoor/outdoor bar and patio area. Assuming such an entertainment garden area would otherwise only cover a similarly small portion of the 6th floor roof top area, there seems to be no other impediments to installing in excess of an additional 10,000 sq. ft of solar PV panels on the 6th floor roof which would substantially contribute to a Zero Net Energy project.

Accent Green Walls – After the Staff report noted that the original exterior concrete wall design proposed by the applicant was too bland, “accent” green walls were added to avoid long expanses of bare concrete and as design features. The total amount sq. footage of green walls compared to the total exterior wall surface, however, is only about 10% of the west facing facade, 2.5% of the north facing facade and about 1% of the east facing facade. Clearly, this is not a substantial investment in green technology.

Bicycle Infrastructure – The Staff report touts the extensive bicycle infrastructure proposed by the applicant. Although the applicant claims that there will be a total of 68 bicycle parking spaces provided on site with 48 allocated for guests and conference attendees, closer examination reveals that this bicycle infrastructure will be inadequate if 10% of arrivals to the project complex come by bicycle as projected in the traffic analysis.

Falcon Perches – According to the Staff report, “there are two areas allocated for falcon perches at the roof parapets.” While an admirable afterthought added late in the process when it was noted that additional sustainability features were desired, the reality is that feature will do virtually nothing to attract migratory raptors and certainly does nothing to reduce the overall carbon footprint of this large project.

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  1. Additional Information on Shortcomings in Traffic Analysis and Inadequate Analysis of Cumulative Impacts

The intersection of Richards Blvd. and Olive Drive is arguably the most congested and problematic of all intersections in Davis. Long lines frequently form on multiple access points from downtown leading to the train undercrossing, trying to exit to the east. Similarly, it is not uncommon for such long lines to develop on the Richards Blvd. freeway overpass, trying to enter the downtown area, such that multiple light changes at the Olive Dr. intersection are necessary to be able to pass into the downtown area.

The degree to which this area is already congested is not at all reflected in the traffic analysis for the project and it has certainly not been quantitatively or objectively determine by repeated traffic measurement in the neighborhood. As a result of these likely traffic underestimations, the traffic analysis claims that the project will not have a significant negative impact on current traffic conditions. This overly optimistic traffic analysis serves as the basis for the recommendation in the Staff Report that Council certify the Mitigated Negative Declaration under CEQA as requested by Staff. This certification means that the City agrees that the project will not have significant adverse traffic impacts that are not mitigated by appropriate measures. As further discussed, this is highly unlikely.

As a result of this traffic analysis, the Staff report states, “It is estimated that the proposed project will generate an additional 819 daily trips over the existing University Inn & Suites Hotel and Caffé Italia; 172 and 175 trips will be generated in the AM and PM peak hours, respectively.” Based on this determination, the Staff report recommends only a few minor modifications to the intersection that will completely mitigate traffic impacts to “less than significant.” These proposed mitigations are as follows and shown below:

1) A median of traffic separator curbs to prevent left turns across Richards Boulevard into and from the hotel, gas station, or other uses between Interstate 80 and Olive Drive.

2) Potential reconfiguration of the Richards/Olive intersection to more comfortably allow U-turns from northbound to southbound Richards, in lieu of left turns.

3) Additional green paint identifying bicycle lanes and conflict areas

HCC-Pryor-1

Unfortunately, the traffic analysis upon which the Staff report is based on unjustified assumptions that minimize the projected adverse traffic impacts that the project will generate.

Insufficiency of Baseline Traffic Data – Baseline (“before the project”) traffic conditions of the Richards Blvd.-Olive Dr. intersection and nearby downtown and south Davis intersections are inadequately estimated because they are based only on human traffic counts conducted on a single day, October 14, 2014, and then only over an hour each between the hours of 8:00 and 10:00 am and again from 4:00 and 6:00 pm. These times were chosen to correspond to morning and evening “peak” conditions when traffic is assumed to be the worst in the area.

Although the applicant’s traffic analysis noted that Davis schools and the University were in session on that day, there is simply no quantitative data to suggest that this otherwise mirrors “normal” conditions on downtown Davis streets on any other days. It certainly does not account for abnormal traffic conditions such as in stormy or inclement weather or if there are special events in downtown Davis or the University drawing in large crowds. Such circumstances could easily double “normal traffic counts or slow traffic by as much as 50% which would turn an already problematic intersection into gridlock.

If so, the dreamed “Gateway to Davis” could end up looking like an oversized parking lot, to the detriment of conference attendees, hotel and restaurant guests, downtown shoppers, or residents just trying to get into or out of town. The baseline conditions are also potentially underestimated because the measurements were taken when occupancy of the current motel was only at about 33%. It seems completely incongruous to use that baseline data to estimate traffic impacts of a hotel that is 4 times larger with projected occupancy rates of 85 – 100%.

Underestimation of Arrivals and Departures – The traffic analysis estimates traffic trips to the future hotel and restaurant based not on the projected hotel occupancy and/or projected restaurant visitors but instead on average trip generation rates derived by an industry trade group based on averages of trips seen at other restaurants and hotels. However, there is no data provided in the traffic analysis anywhere that suggests that these estimated trips generated are anywhere near what is expected for this particular project. The actual number of trips generated by this project will probably be substantially greater than projected for other “average “ venues in other less strategically advantaged regions.

Indeed, based only on the maximum occupancy allowed by the site, it seems apparent that the number of trips generated by the conference project will be substantially greater than estimated when large conferences are held at the site.

For instance, Staff has reported that the maximum occupancy of the conference center is 650 people. Taking the project applicants estimate that 78% of any conference attendees arrive from off-site (i.e. they are not hotel guests) and that 10% off the off-site conference center attendees arrive by public transportation, bicycling, or walking (also as is assumed in the traffic analysis), then this still leaves a total of 456 attendees arriving to the conference center by car each day of maximum conference center occupancy (650 x.78 x.9). Further assuming a 1.5 attendee/car ratio (as also assumed in the traffic study), this projects about 390 cars arriving and departing the site each day for the conference center alone. This will result in 780 daily car trips (counting both in and out) which is more than twice the projected 362 trips per day assumed in the traffic analysis study used to justified the recommended mitigated negative declaration for the project.

And that analysis did not even include any employee trips or service vehicle trips to bring conference-related supplies or exhibitions to the site. The discrepancy between these projected higher numbers of estimated daily conference center related trips and those assumed in the traffic analysis casts some doubt as to the accuracy and credibility of the entire traffic analysis.

As such, the projections underlying the assumptions in the traffic analysis should be looked at and reviewed by members of the Traffic and Bicycle Safety Commission. Absent that and combined with potential underestimates of baseline counts and “average” estimates of trips by hotel and restaurant guests, the traffic study conclusion that there will be “no significant environmental impacts” due to traffic generated by the conference center are questionable.

Inadequate On-site Parking – Again assuming that there are 390 cars going only to a conference center event each day during maximum occupancy, then the proposed 168 parking spots at the site will be grossly insufficient. And this does not even include parking required by restaurant guests, hotel guests, and cars taken to the site by the estimated 75-95 daily employees. The applicant claims that the difference between the number of on-site parking slots and expected cars arriving each day will be handled by “off-site” parking assisted by valet parking to an unspecified off-site location.

Amazingly, however, there is no specification where this off-site parking may occur or its capacity. Such off-site parking may have to handle parking for hundreds of additional cars at a time. Will project visitors attempt to park downtown, further congesting the downtown corridor? Will they attempt to illegally park along Olive Drive to the east and west of the project, congesting businesses and/or apartment complex parking? It is highly unlikely attendees will choose to cross the freeway and park in some undisclosed location in South Davis and then walk back over the freeway to get to the conference center. So the pressing and unanswered questions are:

1) Where exactly is this off-site parking going to be,

2) How will attendees get from the off-site parking re to the conference center, or

3) If parking is by valet, how will the valets get back and forth from the off-site lot to the conference center?

The applicant has also suggested that valet parking to off-site lots will alleviate traffic congestion but this actually exacerbates the problems associated with arrival and departure traffic. This is because each vehicle that is valet parked will actually require 4 trips per car instead of two trips. There will be the usual initial arrival trip in and eventual departure trip out. But with valet parking there will be at least one additional trip to the unspecified off-site parking lot from the conference center to park the vehicle and then another trip to redeliver the vehicle back to the conference center for guest departure. If the number of cars utilizing valet parking is 150 vehicles per day, this will generate an additional 300 trips per day, greatly increasing the underestimated number of daily trips projected by the traffic analysis. The current traffic analysis completely ignores these additional trips generated by proposed valet parking.

Allowing this project to proceed with such insufficient on-site parking without exactly specifying the size and location of all off-site parking locations and analyzing these additional traffic impacts is simply irresponsible and undermines the credibility of the CEQA analysis and Mitigated Negative Declaration. The only reasonable solution is for the conference center to either greatly increase on-site parking substantially by adding at least 3 extra levels to their proposed parking structure or to purchase off-site parking locations either very close to the facility, or to operate a 24/7 shuttle service to and from that site and the conference center, restaurant, and hotel.

Insufficient Mitigation for Traffic Impact – Staff has proposed and applicant has accepted a number of measures for traffic mitigation which may exacerbate rather than alleviate the problem, as follows:

1) Staff proposes that U-turns be allowed from north bound Richards Blvd. traffic to allow access to the project from south bound Richards Blvd. U turns require substantially more time to complete than left hand turns and its allowance here will further slow traffic at the Richards-Olive intersection even more.

2) The median strip on Richards is proposed with a much longer left hand turn lane for north bound traffic approaching Olive Dr. On the surface this seems reasonable until one realizes that the location of the westbound freeway off-ramp intersects this left hand turn lane very close to the intersection. Thus, any traffic exiting west bound 80 and desiring to make a left hand turn on Olive to go to the Conference Center will have to cut over one or 2 lanes of traffic and then force themselves into the line in the left hand turn lane within only a few car lengths in order to make the left hand turn onto Olive Dr. One does not have to be a traffic engineer to see that this is a recipe for accidents, particularly in inclement weather conditions.

3) The proposed prohibition of left hand turns from In-N-Out Burger and the gas station onto south bound Richards will also force exiting traffic to make a left hand turn onto Olive in order to then make a left hand turn back onto south bound Richards. However, the traffic backup on Olive already often extends well past the gas station and In-N-Out Burger exits onto Olive. This will force drivers to wait through numerous traffic lights to make that turn, further congesting an already dangerous traffic intersection.

Insufficient Bicycle Infrastructure – The Staff report discusses the extensive bicycle infrastructure proposed for the project. Closer examination reveals that this bicycle infrastructure will be inadequate if the facility is maximally occupied and 10% or greater of arrivals actually do come by bicycle as projected in the traffic analysis. For instance, at maximum occupancy of the conference center (650) and restaurant (250) (again assuming 78% of attendees are not guests in the hotel) and assuming, 10% of the attendees arrive by bicycle (which percentage the Staff report claims is conservative), it would would require a minimum need for 70 bicycle stations. Yet, the Staff report states only 48 bicycle parking spaces will be provided for “guests and conference attendees,” leaving it unclear how many will be available for use by attendees vs. the hotel’s own bicycles reserved only for its hotel guests.

Failure to Address Cumulative Impacts in Traffic Analysis – Any CEQA environmental impact study must address cumulative impacts of a project if the project can be considered part of a series of larger projects. The Staff report has acknowledged that they expect that they will be receiving within a very short period of time both a Caltrans plan for freeway off- and on-ramp modifications and the traffic analysis for the proposed Nishi project. The Staff report acknowledges both of these projects will have demonstrable impact on traffic circulation through this entire traffic corridor.

Although the Staff report claims that these cumulative impacts will be addressed within the traffic analysis performed for the Nishi project, compliance with CEQA requires those cumulative impacts to also be analyzed by the traffic study for the Conference Center project if it is to be used as the basis for certification of the Mitigated Negative Declaration for this project. Such a cumulative impact analysis clearly was not included within the scope of the traffic study for this project which casts a doubt as to the legality of any such certification by Council

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  1. Additional Information on Non Compliance of the Proposed Project with the Current Gateway / Olive Drive Specific Plan (G/ODSP) – Staff is informative in their report as to how the size and height of the project requires broad variance approval by the Council to exceed size and height criteria otherwise embedded in the current Gateway / Olive Drive Specific Plan (G/ODSP). This Plan otherwise has numerous other less specific elements as it relates to the character and nature of the Gateway/Olive Dr. neighborhood. Additionally, the City’s General Plan has similar statements about maintaining the “small town character” of Davis. Staff makes general statements that this proposed project is otherwise in compliance with these objectives. This is not true, however.

Following in italics is language excerpted from the Specific Plan followed by my underlined comments in parentheses.

Land Use: Develop a land use plan which addresses the character of the area and the needs of Davis and recognizes the proximity to the University and Core Area. It should:

  1. Consider the present and future needs of the students of the University. (Comment: This project does nothing to address needs of University students)
  2. Enhance the vitality that currently exists within the University, Core Area, and surrounding neighborhoods.(Comment: I suppose if you mean that bringing in more out-of-town shoppers and diners to downtown enhances the vitality, this could be true. The alternative scenario is retail prices rise in the downtown core in response to outside market demand which is to the disadvantage of students)
  3. Create a dynamic plan that meets the needs of a diverse population and allows for opportunities to live, work, shop, and recreate.(Comment: It is hard to imaging that this project will do anything to enhance living, working, shopping, or recreating opportunities for any residents on East Olive or downtown. There will some jobs created but as was reported in a recent article in the Vanguard about low wage hospitality industry workers and the conditions and pay scale workers will experience at this facility, it is hard to characterize this project as a “good” job creator.)

Applicable General Plan principles and policies include the following:

– Vision 2. Small Town Character: Maintain Davis as a cohesive, compact, university-oriented city surrounded by and containing farmland, greenbelts, natural habitats and natural resources. Reflect Davis’ small town character in urban design that contributes to and enhances livability and social interaction. Maintain a strong, vital, pedestrian- oriented and dynamic downtown area. Encourage carefully-planned, sensitively-designed infill and new development to scale in keeping with the existing city character.(Comment – It is hard to construe this project in any way keeping with Davis’ “small town character”)

I believe it is abundantly clear to even a casual observer that a 6-story hotel with a 3-story parking garage generating at least a few thousand car trips a day is not particularly in keeping with the “small town character” espoused in the City’s General Plan nor beneficial for students living in this neighborhood as advised in the Gateway / Olive Dr. Specific Plan. That said, the economic pressures to bring additional revenue-generating visitors into Davis are compelling and this project seems to meet those needs.

But the City Council should be very clear in any entitlements that this project fundamentally changes the character of this Olive Dr. neighborhood and not mince words about how it will “enhance the neighborhood.” From a livability point of view, this project does not enhance the neighborhood. But if the project is ultimately approved, it is a sacrifice the Council should concede it is willing to make purely and simply for revenue generation purposes.

And the Council should not sacrifice the City’s Climate Adaptation goals for this project in the race for revenue by agreeing to a project that does not have all economically viable sustainable features. Nor should the City agree to any project that does not adequately assess, minimize, and mitigate for any untoward traffic impacts that will adversely affect everyone who utilizes the Richards Blvd. Corridor for their transportation needs.

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  1. Additional Discussion on Lack of Transparency and Openness in the Approval Process

The entire entitlement and approval process for this project has been quietly undertaken during the summer off-season when many local land-use activists are out of town and/or their attentions are almost entirely consumed with the Nishi and Mace Innovation Center projects. Very few other people in town are even aware this project could be entitled and approved as early as this Tuesday. Given the major and obvious project shortcomings which would have otherwise come out with a more deliberate and transparent Commission review process, Council should reject Staff’s recommendation for approval and entitlement and direct Staff to submit the project to the NRC, the Traffic and Bicycle Safety, and the Budget and Finance Commissions for further independent and objective review.

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37 Comments

  1. Tia Will

     

    Alan

    Thanks so much for this very informative article. I am most keenly aware of the possible traffic impacts of this project since I most frequently use this route on week days at the peak times of the am and pm commute, either by car or on foot. I have found that I am more frequently choosing the alternative of Pole Line since the Richards intersection is frequently backed up enough to require multiple light changes to cross into downtown even with hotel occupancy at its current state.

    I am in complete agreement that this project should be more thoroughly analyzed through our city commissions prior to a CC vote.

  2. Topcat

    … the dreamed “Gateway to Davis” could end up looking like an oversized parking lot to the detriment of conference attendees, hotel and restaurant guests, downtown shoppers, or residents just trying to get into or out of town.

    Yes, This area is already very congested during peak times.  Due to the physical constraints of the area. I don’t see any way to add substantial capacity to the area.  The mitigation measures proposed appear to be unsatisfactory and they will fail to address the problems if the hotel and conference center are built as proposed.

    1. Davis Progressive

      if you read the eir – a hotel conference center is actually not likely to negatively harm peak driving because most people will stay at the hotel and not come in during peak times.  but events could be more problematic.  the bigger problem from the eir appears to be nishi along with other improvements to downtown.  why can’t we fix this road?

      1. Anon

        Why can’t we fix the Richards underpass?  It is the buffer zone to decrease traffic coming into downtown.  Widen it and you will have one heck of a mess downtown!

        1. Davis Progressive

          apologies, my intent was not to be cryptic.  i was referring to richards.  i agree with you on the underpass and once upon a time voted against its widening.  that’s not the only answer.  i understand the city is getting funding to fix the freeway interchange which is a huge mess.  redirecting traffic for uc davis out of the downtown is a must.  routing traffic through nishi could be helpful.

    1. Sam

      To downtown? That could work. Even better would be to run one to an offsite hotel parking lot on the south west side of Davis. That way people won’t really have access to their cars to bring them into town. Then limit the number of onsite parking spots and maybe even require the owners to charge some punitive rate for onsite parking to discourage its use.

  3. Jim Gray

    I have a totally different take on the proposed Embassy Suites Hotel Project.  I think that we should recognize and support what a potentially great addition this will be to the Richard Boulevard Entry to downtown Davis as well as to the eastern edge of the University.  This project will be a great addition to the community and I believe that the City Council and the Vanguard’s readers should support and encourage this effort. Here is why I think so:
    I am a 40+ year resident of Davis, and throughout my career I have been involved in Real Estate Development, Banking, and Business Investment. I have no direct interests or involvement in this hotel project but I felt that it was important to share with you a few of my insights about it.
    I first learned about this proposed project that Ashok Patel the project proponent and his family are offering when I attended a Davis Chamber of Commerce luncheon. I listened to Davis Assistant City Manager and Community Development Director, Mike Webb, Ashok Patel, the project architect and the head of the Yolo County Visitor and Tourism Bureau describe the plan and the potential benefits. Later I attended a Davis Planning Commission meeting on another matter, when the Commission reviewed the project and considered the EIR in detail. I got to see and appreciate how much effort and attention to detail has been incorporated into this proposal. Project planning has been underway for nearly 2 years and the current proposal incorporates a number of refinements to the plan and as a result additional attributes for the community.

    Here are some of the reasons that I particularly encourage you to support the project.

    The Patel’s are bringing a great brand, Embassy Suites to our community. Every traveler and visitor who is seeking a comfortable place to stay as well as good service and a strong amenity-mix ,know that they will get that at an Embassy Suites. According to Wikipedia there are currently 222 Embassy Suites Hotels in the US and about 10 internationally. It is one of the most desirable hotel brands. It is a chain of all-suite hotels, and all guest rooms  feature a separate living area as well as a sleeping area that benefit the family and the business traveler.  
     A conference Center that is needed and will act as a draw. The proposed Conference Facilities will provide a needed venue for meetings, and conferences and is oversized to provide a place for significant events. This is an unusual hotel amenity that is usually developed with considerable public subsidy because of the benefits that it brings to a Community.  But the applicants are offering this amenity without any subsidy because they see the demand for it.   
     The plans that I saw demonstrated a commitment to Great Architecture, Design, Landscape as well as Planning Sensitivity. The design includes a commitment to solar, a green roof, and a green living/landscape wall and numerous bicycle amenities. It is really silly to criticize the project because it is not 100% Solar/Green Roof. (PUC and PGE policies dictate as much about solar panel sizing as roof area.) My quick review of the plans show considerable investment and commitment to Sustainable and Green principles.
     The project will be a catalyst for Pedestrian, Bike, and Road and other transportation Improvements. Now realistically we all realize that this is at the impacted Richards, Olive Drive Intersections so perfection is not possible. Improvements will result. But clearly any talk of a Monorail is delusional and just silly.
      Significant sources of revenue to the City of Davis will be generated from this project.  These will come from a mix of impact fees, additional property, sales, and Transit and Occupancy Taxes. Revenue to the City will be considerable, positive and in the millions of dollars.
    The project is integrated into the community. It is next to downtown and to the University and is connected along the arboretum/ Putah Creek path. What a positive and emblematic new building upon arrival to our City.

    I hope that the City Council will vote to accept the EIR and approve the project. I would encourage the City Council to direct staff to figure out how to fast track this project.  We have an opportunity to send a “clear message” that Davis is “Open for Business” and that the City Council knows how to encourage and stimulate local business creation.
    This will be a great addition to Davis, to the University, and to the region. I am struck that different than a number of other hotel projects in the region, Ashok and his family are not seeking millions of dollars in subsidies and incentives — like many other hotel projects have asked for and received in the region from other municipalities.  (Just Google Sacramento Embassy Suites Subsidies if you want to see what other communities are willing to spend to get a project like this one. )The City of Davis has the opportunity to show that strong projects can be developed in the “post redevelopment agency era.”
    I believe that Ashok and his family are motivated as much by the commitment of doing something that is good for the community- a legacy project -and I hope that the City Council will vote in favor of this Embassy Suites Hotel. I would encourage Vanguard Readers to support this proposal.
    This project is being offered by a hard working Davis Family. They have been in Davis taking care of our families and guests in their other Hotels for decades. They want to re-invest in the community and in the business that they love. In my opinion we should put out the “Welcome Mat” for this ambitious undertaking.
     

    1. Anon

      I think this is one of those interesting choices the City of Davis needs to make – impact to traffic versus impact to city coffers:

      1. I agree that the monorail idea is a nonstarter.

      2. Requiring perfection, e.g. net zero energy or all solar or whatever bar is set by those who are against the project, will be the enemy of the really good.

      3. Continually raising the bar can often mean businesses go elsewhere rather than put up with never-ending nitpicking.

      4. At what point does the city finally agree that a project is “excellent enough”?

    2. TrueBlueDevil

      I generally like the idea, always have, I just think it looks like a cold bland structure. Putting the design of an old bicycle on the side of a concrete wall doesn’t change much.

      I’d prefer something that looks more like it belonged in Tahoe, Palo Alto, or Davis. Natural woods, maybe some trellis-covered-walkways with vines and such. Tie it into Mondavi, and / or add some color like the food sciences buildings in the same area.

      1. sisterhood

        I happen to agree with you on this one. The picture looks bland. It should have more natural wood, perhaps a water feature. Or some color. It just looks like every other hotel. Nothing says, “we are in Davis.”

    3. Frankly

      Thanks Jim.  This is helpful.  I have not had time to dig deep into the EIR or project, so this summary helps.

      This appears  to be another Davis perfection is the enemy of the good challenge.

    4. Davis Progressive

      The project will be a catalyst for Pedestrian, Bike, and Road and other transportation Improvements. Now realistically we all realize that this is at the impacted Richards, Olive Drive Intersections so perfection is not possible. Improvements will result. But clearly any talk of a Monorail is delusional and just silly.

      forget pie in the sky suggestions – what realistic steps can we take to mitigate the traffic issues?  because honestly, that’s all that stands in my way.  i’m not talking perfection, i’m talk reasonable measures.

      1. Sam

        A monorail really would have been cool, but maybe cost prohibitive. Why not build a parking structure behind the Design House and a walk/bike bridge over the tracks onto 1st street? If you did that and a pedestrian overcrossing over Richards the walk downtown will be easier than driving in and looking for parking.

      2. Frankly

        The demand to keep Richards two lanes is stupid, but I agree there needs to be another campus entry to direct more UCD employees and students away from Richards.  The reason that Richards is stupid as two lanes is that either side of the bridge over the freeway divides into multiple lanes.  It is a bottleneck.  It would be different if we were talking about widening something that then bottlenecks into two lanes.  But on the west side under the tracks in divides into four lanes.  Going east there is Olive Drive, then the freeway entrances, then there is Cowell Blvd.  That entire intersection needs to be redesigned to reduce the bottleneck.   Redesign it with good pedestrian crossing and bike lanes.

        You do know that there is a bike and pedestrian path down research park drive that goes under the freeway and bypasses the dangerous Richards intersection.  Cars cannot travel on that path.  So why not expect more bikes and pedestrians to take that path?  Is it that these are just lazy people not willing to peddle or walk a little farther?

        1. Davis Progressive

          the problem with your analysis is that if richards were two lanes each way, the bottleneck would be in essentially the same place.  as it is now, in the morning, the section of first street where people turn left backups passed the left turn.  you’d essentially be dumping two lanes of richards onto one lane downtown streets.  so instead of having the bottle neck on richards at olive, the bottle neck would move a block up to first.

        2. TrueBlueDevil

          Maybe we could just slingshot people over the railroad tracks into a large tofu park? The slingshot would be solar powered, and the tofu wold be completely green.

        3. Tia Will

          Frankly

          Is it that these are just lazy people not willing to peddle or walk a little farther?”

          I can’t even believe that you said this. You are critical of those who are already walking or peddling, but defend the convenience of those who use their cars !!!!  Really ?

      3. Jim Gray

        As I understand it there is going to be new frontage improvements made for cars along Richards where Cafe Italia and the current Hotel are.  The new building will also have new bicycle improvements to connect through to the Putah Creek and Arboretum Bike Pedestrian Path.  There will be short term and long term bike parking. When the Street improvements and the Bike Improvements and the hotel are constructed  there will be new lighting, new signage.  There really is a plan that makes improvements. One project can’t solve decades worth of problems.  But it is a step in the right direction.  The comprehensive fix will need a much bigger plan that includes, Cal Trans, The Railroad, The County, The Regional Planning and Transportation Dollars Entity, The City, The University, and numerous private business owners.  The hotel plan only helps … It doesn’t preclude long term “big fixes”.

        No it won’t solve the 2 lane tunnel problem.  No it wont solve the stacking problems of cars waiting to get off the freeway and into downtown. It will make incremental improvements and it will be a valuable addition.  It contributes… The designers, the Planning Commission, the owners, are all considering how to make it more safe.

        The majority of traffic is at non-peak hours.  Many staying in the hotel and using the conference center will be encouraged to walk and bike and see our City and University.  This is a needed good step forward.

        It is a step in the right direction!

  4. Nancy Price

    Thank you Alan Pryor for your first-rate analysis of this project.

    I am amazed that as currently designed this is the standard Davis is settling for at a time of climate and water crises, as well as traffic and air quality impacts.

    What we have is a looming cookie-cutter freeway hotel/conference center. I don’t care if the Patel’s and others involved in this are local. This is a national corporation and brand that has little concern for the local. If there is not a sign saying Embassy Suites Davis, who will know whether they’ve stopped in Davis or anywhere else on I-80 from Davis to Timbuktu?

    What’s happening to high standards,  fresh cutting-edge design we can be proud of that’s truly green, not “green-washed?”  What’s happening to the approval process?  And, what’s happening to our spine and the will to stand up and demand better….because, really – we need a better project!

    1. Davis Progressive

      i’m all for high standards, but putting in a hotel taht generates a quarter of million each year appears to be a good idea and will actually give the city money to make those high standards possible.

    2. sisterhood

      I agree. And for a town that boasts of being green and innovative, why not try to figure out a way to raise money for a monorail? Dream big, or else you just end up with cookie cutter hotels that may bring money into town but will also bring visual boredom and traffic congestion. I used to hop on the freeway there to go to work in Natomas. I see mornings when there is a meeting or conference at that hotel when that intersection will get gridlocked. Or at 5:00, when the conference is over, guests are leaving, & the commuter traffic is coming back into Davis. I’m not against this idea. I just think it could be way greener.

      I still don’t understand where many of the hotel employees making 9 or 10 bucks an hour will find housing. I guess no one cares about them. Just remember to tip big.

  5. ecotect

    Have we become programmed to like gridlock?  Is it just part of life now?  Is it “freedom” to sit one-person in a car going 4.5 mph while the clock ticks off moments of our lives?

    Is it fun and safe to ride your bike down the Richards corridor? Or walk?

    How many hotel conference centers do we really need in our small city?  Are there really so many conferences? Do they really pencil?

    Does the traffic study look at the I-80 corridor holistically and does it take into consideration population growth?  Does it look into the future?

    Has the Davis Planning Department looked at the Richards area as a system and looked at sustainability & resiliency? Has a stocks and flows study been done with knowledge of the territory understanding the boundaries between cities and surroundings that are ever changing?

    Is this major development part of a comprehensive, integrated, holistic Master Plan for Davis?
    Transportation is secondary to other planning.  Cities should not be designed around transportation–transportation should be a tool in a well conceived Master Plan.

    Cities need Master Urban System Planning that results in development seen through the eyes of life-cycle management and population density. Urban design needs to be revisited and renovated fundamentally to build toward a higher level of sustainability – is it sustainable to be stuck in gridlock in your car for hours and hours of your life?  Can pedestrian movement and bike movement be elevated as the preferred mode of transportation in Davis?

    City planning needs to have awareness of how to design to the environment, supply flows, spatial quality relative to the stocks and flows of capital and quality of life.

    What happened to architectural standards?  Do we really want this unattractive, status quo, old design for a mid-rise hotel in such a prominent position?  What are the sustainability goals for the hotel? Hotels use a lot of water and energy and a lot of deliveries – how does that affect our City at this crucial time?

    Old ways of thinking and acting need to be replaced with new patterns than have much more information, that look at the big picture, that project into the future and that are highly sustainable and resilient. It is time for a new model.  It is time for serious planning into the future with livability and not just “business-as-usual” arbitrary growth that lacks big picture urban systems planning.

    We need to change our old ways and do the best practices from new knowledge about how to live in our fast ever changing world.

    1. Frankly

      Have we become programmed to like gridlock?  

      No.  You don’t have to like something to accept its reality.   Obamacare comes to mind.  Taxes come to mind.  Death comes to mind.

      Is it just part of life now?

      To some degree, yes.  Except for the lucky few that get to work in the same town they work in, or that are retired on one of those fat public sector pensions.

      Is it “freedom” to sit one-person in a car going 4.5 mph while the clock ticks off moments of our lives?

      Is it freedom to be living beyond your means until you hit financial insolvency and all your infrastructure crumbles from lack of funds to maintain?

      Is it fun and safe to ride your bike down the Richards corridor? Or walk?

      Take Research Park Drive and the path under the freeway.  Problem solved.  Or are we too lazy to ride or walk a few more meters?

      How many hotel conference centers do we really need in our small city?  Are there really so many conferences?

      Yes.  Davis has too few of these facilities.

      Do they really pencil?

      Absolutely

      Does the traffic study look at the I-80 corridor holistically and does it take into consideration population growth?  Does it look into the future?

      Don’t know.  But at 72,000 people and growing by about 1000 per year, our roads are under-sized.

      Can pedestrian movement and bike movement be elevated as the preferred mode of transportation in Davis?

      It is a bit laughable to hear these ideas and the monorail idea being thrown out when the city is about broke.  Bring in some more business, increase the tax base, and then do this creative stuff.  I am all for it!  In fact, with additional revenue I would even vote for a bond to fund it early.  Although bond rates are increasing a bit now.

  6. Barack Palin

    So the Hotel/convention center will generate $250,000/year in new revenue.  Does this also consider  the extra revenue of hotel visitors spending money in town?

    1. TrueBlueDevil

      Probably not. That gets dicey. Maybe a guest changed from staying in Dixon, to staying in Davis. So the uptick in revenue is tougher to calculate, but I think it is a positive… less likely they leave to stay at their out-of-town hotel.

      1. David Greenwald

        It’s more than that – you will now have conferences in town that would have been elsewhere.  Those people will spend money in town.  The $200,000 figure is simply that from transit occupancy tax revenue, but there are more impacts.

  7. Miwok

    My experience at UC Davis tells me that there are not enough or big enough room for Conferences.

    The UCD “Conference Center” is three rooms. Max capacity, 400 people which get divided up if they want, and a couple of small rooms. Small hotel beside, and I have heard it soon to be doubled in size, but the Conference Center, not known. The ARC and Rec Arena are available, Freeborn has been in a two year rehabilitation that does nothing to make it bigger and they remodel the MU with abandon while adding new dorms since housing is not a priority in Davis.

    The many large halls are booked and even the Mondavi is booked well over a year in advance. Of course (your tax dollars at work) some departments on campus book a hall they need every day of the month whether they use them or not. Maybe common knowledge to you readers..

    1. TrueBlueDevil

      Where are these 3 conference rooms? I’m only familiar with the ARC ballroom and Freeborn.

      I didn’t know they had made final decisions on Freeborn, I thought they were also looking at bigger options (i.e., tear it down and build something else). But it did seem to serve the need for mid-size concerts, lectures, blood drive, registration, etc., all centrally located.

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