Last week’s presentation by Joe Minicozzi gave us some interesting new ideas for how to evaluate the fiscal impact of projects. But, as we know from the recent discussions on Trackside and, before that, Paso Fino, infill and densification are not straightforward policy objectives in this community.
For all of the talk about Measure R as a barrier to development, infill – while not requiring actual votes of the people – can be just as difficult. In the wake of the Measure J (Measure R’s predecessor) defeats last decade of Covell Village (2005) and Wild Horse Ranch (2009), there was a general belief that large scale Measure R projects will be rare and difficult to pass. We will see if Mace Ranch Innovation Center and Nishi are placed before the voters next year and whether they can win.
In the wake of those defeats, the council shifted gears toward policies they were better able to assess and control. As noted in the staff report on Paso Fino, for instance, “The City policies include encouragement of infill and densification.”
But, as Paso Fino itself demonstrates, the simple goals of infill and densification are tricky. In one staff report, the city notes, “This project is an infill that maximizes the density. However, there are other City goals and policies that encourages the maintenance of ‘an aesthetically pleasing environment and manage a sustainable community forest to optimize environmental, aesthetic, social and economic benefits encourage’; and ‘preserve and protect scenic resources and elements in and around Davis, including natural habitat and scenery and resources reflective of place and history.’ The City Council would have to weigh the benefits of infill and densification policies with the ones cited herein.”
Paso Fino, as it turns out, had some trump cards in favor of residents who were opposed to the increase in density of the initial project. The two critical issues, of the preservation of the eastern greenbelt along with the protection and retention of the trees as publicly owned, were enough to sway even councilmembers who generally favor development and densification toward a smaller project that ultimately the neighbors could support.
This was not the case in the summer of 2013 when the council approved, by a 4-1 vote with Brett Lee in opposition, the Mission Residence project. Part of the objection here was a glaring abuse of process, in that the city went through an extensive visioning process for B Street. The process included a large amount of community feedback and extensive community buy in – give and take and compromise. And then they abandoned that agreement when a more dense specific project proposal came forward.
It seems easy to argue, as some have, if we are not going to expand beyond our current borders, we need to become dense. The problem is that not everyone supports the notion that we must grow at all. And, even if they do, infill projects are disproportionately impactful on some residents over others.
While the entire Old East Davis Neighborhood Association has been in strong opposition to the Trackside development, it seems clear that those who live on the west side of I Street are going to be far more impacted, even within that neighborhood, than others.
The developers can probably mitigate some of the impacts on a lot of the residents, but putting a six-story building across the alley from certain residents with the accompanying noise from traffic and services is certain to cause a huge impact on a subsection of residents.
The point here is not to weigh in on Trackside itself, but rather to illustrate the tricky nature of this kind of infill development.
A recent letter from a resident bears this out. The resident writes, “We could stick Trackside-style places all over. Sticking a wildly out-of-proportion high-rise on top of some retail is no great feat, all one has to do is ignore proportion, scale, the damage that will be done to the surrounding neighborhood, and the majority of design guidelines we developed as a city.”
They continue, “Densification of the downtown core is only one part of the goals of redevelopment. The Trackside developers consistently gloss over the fact that they are asking the city to ignore the majority of the development guidelines we as a city developed to maintain the character and charm of Davis.”
I think Joe Minicozzi’s ideas for the metrics of development are both interesting and important. On the other hand, in a community like Davis, attempting high-density infill projects is going to be just as contentious as developing peripheral subdivisions.
The one difference is that the council in the end controls the infill process. And so, while Mission Residence and the Cannery were lengthy and challenging processes, the council ultimately approved them on divided votes. Paso Fino, on the other hand, with tree and greenbelt issues, got watered down. And it will be interesting to see how the council handles Trackside.
Even where I think most people would agree we could get densification in the core area, we are likely to run into problems. One critical point that Mr. Minicozzi raises by implication is the large number of single-story units in the core area. There are very inefficient land use practices right in the heart of our most productive zone.
One of the problems with that approach is cost. Developers are going have trouble financing that kind of redevelopment. That is why for years we had the RDAs (redevelopment agencies), which, despite a lot of flaws, at least gave the cities the ability to publicly finance redevelopment and new density. I have been told, by some business people in the core, the costs are often too great to knock down a single-story building and attempt to build a three-story building.
During the Trackside discussion there has been a lot of talk about violating design guidelines for various zones. It seems to be that the first step is to revisit what the guidelines are, figure out if those guidelines are still useful or if they need revision – have a community discussion about what the vision of the community looks like, and then alter the guidelines accordingly.
Doing so in the absence of a specific project is generally the best way to go, because you immediately avoid the pitfall of people with high stakes in the outcome participating in the process.
Again, I think densification and infill are important goals, but the reality on the ground is that these type of projects figure to be just as contentious as peripheral ones, even without the required vote of the people.
—David M. Greenwald reporting