Monday Morning Thoughts: Why Nishi Doesn’t Go Far Enough

Interior View of Nishi
Nishi artist rendering Interior View
Nishi artist rendering of Interior View

Nishi is an interesting project from one perspective – it seems people either love it or they hate it. For those who love it on the slow growth side, the appeal is that it is small, it is a project already surrounded by development, it’s close to downtown and the university, and it can meet some needs of the city without huge changes.

On the downside, you have the nightmare on Richards Boulevard, with existing traffic impacts that figure to increase and a project that doesn’t make enough of a difference, from some people’s perspective, to be worth it.

From my perspective, I see both the best and the worst of both worlds here. Nishi is an obvious place to develop, but its strengths quickly become its weaknesses without careful and bold planning. My criticism of Nishi is that it takes too modest an approach and therefore creates the worst of all worlds.

The Nishi site is small at just under 47 acres, and it is an awkwardly-shaped oblong, making it more difficult to build something more compact.

The developers further diffuse its impact by turning the project into mixed use. While there are some strengths to that, if we hash this out further we see that it provides for just 650 residential units, where 440 are rental and 210 are for-sale units. It also has up to 325,000 square feet for R&D (research and development) uses, and 20,000 square feet for retail uses – coffee shop, café, restaurant.

That becomes the first problem with the development. The city has a drastic need for residential units, particularly student rental units, but 650 is not going to dramatically improve the housing stock – particularly when its impact is further diffused by splitting the units into 440 for rental and 210 for sale.

Along the same lines, the city is greatly in need of R&D space, but 325,000 square feet, while nice, is no game changer either.

The result of this mix is not particularly helpful to the needs of the city, as encompassed in the fiscal analysis. EPS (Economic Planning Systems, Inc,) projects a net loss of $78,000. While that is something that the city can fix in terms of getting it to revenue neutral, the point EPS makes is that “the estimated annual net fiscal deficit for the Nishi project is attributable to two key factors: 1) the inclusion of 650 residential units; and 2) an assumption of approximately 80,000 square feet of public/nonprofit space (20% of total nonresidential space).”

EPS continues, “Residential development – in particular higher-density, moderately-valued residential development – is often a net fiscal burden on a city’s operating budget. That is, the cost of providing municipal services can exceed General Fund revenues (e.g., property tax revenue, sales tax revenue) generated per unit.”

EPS attempts to rectify the situation by noting the need for a balance of land use and the provision of workforce housing.

However, from our perspective this analysis perfectly illustrates the problem with the current proposal – it is a modest proposal and so we do not gain the clear benefits of housing which would offset the fiscal hit, and we do not gain the clear benefits of commercial which would generate the revenue and jobs we truly need.

As it stands, even mired in this conundrum of modest proposals, Nishi can and should pass IF the city can fix the traffic impacts on Richards Blvd., which the EIR clearly shows will be impacted even if the city considers “to be acceptable” an LOS (Level of Service) F – where the level of service declines to “forced or breakdown flow” where “every vehicle moves in lockstep with the vehicle in front of it, with frequent slowing required.”

Here the developer, it seems, agrees with our analysis that the traffic impacts on Richards can be fixed far more simply than city staff has recognized. In the second reading on the Hotel-Conference Center, the staff is pursuing some expensive fixes – some of which are necessary, such as signal time improvements, restriping, and a corridor study.

But from our perspective, re-routing UC Davis campus traffic to the west and out of the core of the city would have the most dramatic impact. We were told that this was recognized a long time ago by city staff and engineers, but downtown interests prevailed.

Recent conversations we have had with the Davis Downtown suggest that if that was a past hindrance to change, it is no longer the case.  Our view is that the traffic situation can be fixed with relative ease and low cost if the city and university can find a way to re-route their traffic.  Fixing the traffic impacts on Richards should alleviate most concerns and organized opposition to the project.

At the same time, we continue to push for something more. As we noted in the past, UC Davis is looking to expand by thousands of students in the next five to ten years. They do so having taken on the responsibility for providing a lower percentage of on-campus housing than any other UC school. Nishi, as a project right across the street from the university and in walking and biking distance from the downtown, is ideally suited to provide high-density housing at minimal impact to visual sightlines or to the surrounding community.

One possibility is that the developer greatly densify housing, providing instead of 650 units, 2000 units or more – which could house up to 5000 students and greatly reduce the student rental housing shortage. This could be better accomplished through ways to reduce the number of vehicles on the site – either by creating a car-free housing scenario, or providing off-site parking through the university.

Even under that scenario, the development might still be able to provide a good amount of the R&D and flex space under the current proposal. However, by greatly densifying housing, the Nishi project would be a huge benefit to the community as it alleviates a huge shortage.

Or we could go bold in the other direction. Back in January we wrote about the USC Village – which, incidentally, is only 15 acres, roughly one-third the size of Nishi.

While the USC Village focuses on retail rather than research and innovation, some of the concepts could be extended to Nishi.

Here is a description: “With conveniences that include a full-service grocery store and 100,000-square-feet of additional retail, USC Village will have all the amenities and comforts of a town center for students and neighborhood families, set amid vibrant green spaces for open recreation. The retail planned for the USC Village include places for dining, entertainment, shopping, and evenings out with friends.”

One article, from the fall, wrote, “Imagine a bustling, welcoming residential community where Trojans can eat, sleep, study, play, dream, mingle and, above all, discover themselves. Picture inviting residence halls with private courtyards opening onto an inviting town square. A scholarly enclave churning with possibilities—outdoor concerts, poetry readings, street theater. A place where undergraduates can hang out with distinguished faculty outside the classroom.”

They added, “USC Village will bring this vision to life—and revolutionize the landscape of the university. This 1.25-million-square-foot, residential-retail center on the north side of the University Park Campus will feature a cluster of five-story residence halls encircling a grand plaza that will form the pinnacle of student life at USC. For up to 2,700 students each year, USC Village will be home away from home.”

Now USC itself is investing $650 million into the USC Village.

“This is by far the biggest thing USC has ever done, and probably ever will do,” said USC President C. L. Max Nikias, who spearheaded the USC Village planning effort. “We are growing to the north in a big way. USC Village will no longer be adjacent to the campus. It will be the campus.”

But imagine the possibilities on a 47-acre site – we could do a lot.

The point is that right now we have a 47-acre proposal that creates 650 housing units along with 350,000 square feet of commercial uses. If we get the traffic impacts right, we can probably get it passed. But perhaps we can and should think bigger.

The USC proposal, for instance, thinks it could pump $5.2 billion into the local economy – that’s a lot of local sales revenue that we seem to be shirking on.

—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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  1. Jim Frame

    an assumption of approximately 80,000 square feet of public/nonprofit space (20% of total nonresidential space)

    What does that 80,000 s.f. comprise?  If it’s actually public-use space (e.g. a public library or community center) I’d look at it more favorably than I would if it’s land earmarked for purchase by UCD for office or lab use.

    1. hpierce

      Well, I’ll bet that the housing ‘element’ will be purchased by UCD within 5 years after completion.  Giving the city the service burden, but taking the property off the tax rolls.  Less worried about UCD acquiring office or lab space.

    2. Frankly

      I’d look at it more favorably than I would if it’s land earmarked for purchase by UCD for office or lab use.

      UCD has plenty of land on which to build office and lab space that will be off the tax roll.  I think any private land developed needs to be commercial needs to be for taxable commercial… or other common public use.

  2. Anon

    So far, Nishi has the following major issues for the city, among others:

    1. Net fiscal negative to the city due to inclusion of housing.

    2. Because of significant traffic impacts, it will require far more road infrastructure investments than the much bigger MRIC project.

    3. The housing at Nishi is not workforce housing, but student housing.

    4. Traffic impacts of Nishi will cause even more congestion at one of the most problematic traffic areas in town.

    So why should the public support Nishi?  The only thing I can come up with from the Innovation Parks Economic Impact Report is that it will contribute to the “innovation ecosystem”.  In my mind, Nishi is the far more questionable project of the two, and needs to at least attain being net fiscally neutral to the city at the very least.  Even then I am not sure the public will support it.  There needs to be some more clarity from the city how this project is going to benefit Davis, not to mention some changes in the assumptions.  Perhaps eliminate the the housing element; change the county/city tax sharing assumptions, etc.

    1. Davis Progressive

      “3. The housing at Nishi is not workforce housing, but student housing.”

      two-thirds is student, one-third is workforce.  i think we need more student housing here, not more workforce.  but it appears you disagree?

      1. Anon

        If Nishi is supposed to be an “innovation park”, why should it provide student housing, which may have nothing to do with incubators and startups or research done within the innovation park?  I could better understand it if it were graduate student rentals, but simply student rentals?  Student rentals makes this a mixed use project with a tech business component, not an innovation park.

        1. Davis Progressive

          i think you are correct – if nishi is supposed to be an innovation park, it probably shouldn’t have student housing.  the problem nishi is it’s trying to be an innovation park, have workforce housing, and student housing.  as such it does none of those three things well enough.  pick one or two, and you can get my vote.

  3. Davis Progressive

    it seems like there is a lot of really cool stuff that the developers could be doing.  i know they are focusing on sustainability, but i’m more interested in an innovative project that either helps us with our fiscal crisis or helps solve our rental housing problem and this project does neither.  i’m inclined to vote no.

  4. Nancy Price

    Tell me why the university does not build more housing on campus? It should be their responsibility and not had off to the city and taxpayers infrastructure costs and maintenance.

    Nishi has really serious air quality problems. Buildings will need expensive and energy demanding air-filtering systems and, while the planners want to encourage biking and walking, and sitting out in well-designed open spaces and cafes/restaurants, this is not where I would want to be – breathing in harmful particulates and noxious fumes and listening to traffic noise.

    You know, much of the site could be an urban tree farm that shields the area from the many I-80 impacts; there is as much economic value from the “service” of processing of and reduction of atmospheric carbon by the trees if you calculate in the impacts of global warming and extreme weather events – for example drought, severe storms or rising sea level.  What are these impacts that Davis is experiencing now and will more in the future.  Let’s make these calculations.

    Maybe reducing our footprint is more innovative than continuing along the path of more  development. Put the students on campus; add well-planned dispersed infill,  you don’t need much space for just basic R & D, depending what is the R & D, until you get to manufacturing and that’s another matter altogether.  If what the university wants to “capitalize” on for patents and products is coming out of their labs anyway, exactly who are these Innovation Parks serving? It seems to me it is basically we’ll build it and anyone from anywhere can come in.

    1. Davis Progressive

      “Tell me why the university does not build more housing on campus?”

      but this seems like a perfect spot to poot housing for students – it’s close to downtown and campus.  if you put more housing on the west side, you end up with students who are further from core areas of town.  so while i understand your point about services, i’d still rather students there than over by west village.

      1. Don Shor

        Fact is, we need all of that. West side, east side, all around the town. We’re short 8 – 10,000 beds right now. Housing is a shared responsibility in a college town. I would love to see UCD begin to approach the 40% goal of students housed on or by the campus, but that still leaves a lot of student rental housing that is needed privately. And, of course, a lot of people live in rental housing who aren’t students as well.

  5. Alan Miller

    Nishi has really serious air quality problems. Buildings will need expensive and energy demanding air-filtering systems

    How about every other residence near I-80 or 113, or Covell, or Mace, or 5th Street today?  We don’t generally have easterly winds, so isn’t south or east Davis really more at risk, if this is even a real risk? New developments don’t automatically suck all I-80 exhaust towards them.

    this is not where I would want to be – breathing in harmful particulates and noxious fumes and listening to traffic noise.

    There will be two sets of buildings between the freeway and the retail and cafes.  Do people avoid Cafe Italia, or Murder Burger because of the proximity to I-80?

    1. Don Shor

      All aspects of the Nishi development — living there, working there, shopping or eating there — will be voluntary. It will be completely possible to avoid the supposed harmful particulates and noxious fumes.

  6. Mark West

    The current Nishi proposal is a missed opportunity.  Rather than looking at it as a stand alone project, it should be developed as one leg of a two pronged expansion of the downtown, with the 3rd street corridor extending to L street as the other prong. At the Nishi end, there should be high density student housing, the proposed commercial space, and an extensive retail component with at least 10x more space than what is currently proposed.  Creating a small ‘village’ like the USC development that David cites is a good way of thinking about how the project could be improved, by creating a ‘University’ focused extension of the downtown.

    At the same time we have the discussion about the impact of the Trackside project on 3rd Street. On that end, I would hope to see that type of project concept replicated along both sides of 3rd Street all the way to L, with high density residential above, and retail and commercial space below.  Eventually, perhaps 50 years or more down the road, the PG&E parcels will be open for redevelopment, providing the other end of the downtown expansion, perhaps with another small ‘village’ development, this time focused around the needs of young families and retirees.

    Of course, this is Davis, so instead of planning for a vibrant and growing downtown, we will settle for more of the same low density housing and commercial space, with no significant expansion of retail. We don’t want to threaten the downtown land owners or the large apartment landlords in town after all (not to mention the few dozen residents living in the bungalows adjacent to the railroad tracks).



  7. Nancy Price

    Mark West describes an interesting overall vision…the problem is that what is being planned now is very piecemeal, project by project and the problem is…what will it add up to?

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