Michael Harrington says he has nothing against the Hotel Conference Center proposed on the corner of Richards Boulevard and Olive Drive, he simply wants to see proper process followed. However, this week’s closed session shows two current lawsuits filed by Mr. Harrington, with a potential third one looming, depending on what the city does with Nishi.
For their part, the city believes they did not need to do a full EIR (Environmental Impact Report) to evaluate the traffic impacts of the Hotel Conference Center at the already-impacted Richards Blvd. corridor. Traffic is bad now, and traffic will be bad with the Hotel Conference Center.
The peak flow traffic, they believe – and with some justification, won’t be heavily impacted by the new development because people are likely to arrive at the hotel during off-peak hours. But the city relies heavily on the notion that people will park at the hotel and then walk downtown rather than drive. Even if the hotel implements some sort of cost for doing that, it seems problematic.
As someone who has worked on F and Second Streets as well as D and Second Streets, I can probably count the number of times I have walked to Caffé Italia for lunch or dinner on one hand. That’s over a four-year period and I’m a relatively healthy person and Caffé Italia is a shorter walk than most of the downtown restaurants would be from the new hotel.
It is not that we disagree with the city necessarily on the traffic impacts, however, the land use people the Vanguard has talked with believe that, while the city may be legally justified in going the Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) route, it was a politically foolhardy approach.
According to our sources, the city should have engaged in a Focused EIR. It would have taken no more time than a negative declaration, but would have insulated the city from this lawsuit.
Caught in the middle on this is the applicant – Royal Guest Hotels and Ashok Patel. Sources have told the Vanguard that the applicant believed that they should have done some sort of EIR, but was overruled by the city. This was partially confirmed by Katherine Hess herself, who told the Vanguard it was the city’s call on how to scope the project, not the applicants’.
For what it’s worth, while guarded due to the lawsuit, Ms. Hess insisted that she hasn’t seen anything to cause her to doubt that finding.
Perhaps from a land use and legal perspective she is right. But our source tells us that a city should never do an MND if there is a threat of a lawsuit.
The city probably did not see this coming. One theory is that the city felt it was cheaper and easier to do an MND and probably believed no one would challenge it.
That all changed on August 25 when Michael Harrington, one hour before the council meeting, wrote an email declaring, “I would like to register my objections to the City proceeding with this large project without the full EIR analysis that I believe is required by CEQA.”
“I do not believe that the short cut version of the traffic study is enough,” he said, adding, “I do not believe it is appropriate to simply waive a planning wand and say that future projects and future funding might find solutions to the growing traffic jams at the Olive/Richards intersection, and the back up of cars in the Richards Subway Tunnel.”
That should have been seen as a credible threat. Mr. Harrington had already sued the city on the water project, forcing an expensive settlement last year and he is engaged in a protracted battle over a Conditional Use Permit provided by the city to his neighbor.
The lawsuit puts both the city and applicant in a precarious position. A lawsuit could delay the project by a year and a half or more if it ends up going to trial because the city believes that they are legally correct in issuing a negative declaration. That would effectively put the project on hold – a project that the applicant has been heavily invested in for years and that the city hopes, when built, will generate half a million a year in revenue through the transit occupancy tax and enhance property taxes.
For a city sorely needing tax revenue, this project could be a huge boon.
The city has already asked the applicant to provide for legal defenses, even as the city itself seems to have enormous culpability in failing to foresee the potential lawsuit and failing to act in September to avoid litigation.
From our perspective, while the plaintiff has touted the public process issue, in our view, the key issue of the Richards Blvd. corridor is going to have to be addressed regardless of any lawsuits. The Nishi-Gateway project is likely to go on the ballot sometime in 2016, barring litigation that would hold it up.
In September, the council already had some discussion on the notion the Vanguard brought up with regard to some of the traffic flow problems – namely that UC Davis faculty, staff and students are using the Richards Blvd. exit as their main access point to UC Davis.
That causes the traffic to back up on Richards Blvd., turn left at 1st Street and then either enter the campus by way of A Street, or head north on B St and then West onto Russell to enter on the north side of campus.
It would not take much to redirect traffic to use the UC Davis dedicated off-ramp on I-80 or the Hutchison or Russell Blvd. exits off Highway 113. That would resolve a lot of the traffic flow problems.
There is an additional problem – that the light at Richards, E St., and 1st St. is not synched up well to the light at 1st and D. That causes traffic flow problems in both directions with traffic backing up from the light at D St. back under the Richards Underpass while eastbound traffic backs up to B St. during peak hours in the other direction.
Better light sequencing and redirecting traffic could alleviate most of the problem without expensive engineering.
Efforts to widen the underpass two decades ago would have proven futile. It simply would have shifted the congestion point from the underpass to the downtown. And the real problem isn’t actually the underpass, it’s the flow through the two traffic lights that is causing the back up.
None of this needed a lawsuit to require the city to fix it. The Vanguard was told that at one point the downtown wanted that traffic flow through Richards, believing it would help the downtown, but the view now is that the congestion is a hindrance to business, not a help.
The public is not going to approve Nishi unless the circulation issue is adequately addressed. Therefore, regardless of the merits of the case in technical legal terms, we believe the lawsuit was unnecessary and that the resultant delays to a hotel are likely only to have marginal impacts on traffic, and will only harm the city.
The city, however, bears responsibility in failing to anticipate a lawsuit and insulating themselves. Moreover, the city has allowed this traffic flow problem to continue for 20 years, even as its engineers understood there were ways to alleviate some of the congestion.
—David M. Greenwald reporting