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