A couple of years ago, there was a proposed project at Paso Fino. The neighbors were alarmed that the density of the project would result in the city either selling off or swapping a publicly owned greenbelt and the potential removal or privatization of Canary Island pine trees.
After a series of public meetings and a huge amount of public pressure, the city council in effect sided with the neighbors on a much smaller “compromise” project that reduced the number of lots and the size of the project while preserving the greenbelt and the trees.
This should serve as a cautionary tale for Kemble Pope and the other investors at Trackside.
My purpose here is not to “litigate” the facts and competing claims that have been made. I think it is clear to all involved that mistakes have been made along the way. The real question is whether there is a way forward, a place where all involved can go and be reasonably content with the process and the outcome.
I think the first step of acknowledgement is that that answer may be no and that the city council, like they did with Paso Fino, will have to make the call.
So let me start from a place where I believe we are. We have an underutilized property just north of Third Street, west of I St and just east of the railroad tracks. The buildings are single-story, old, and past their prime.
In the days of redevelopment, the city might have been able to invest redevelopment money into the project. But that money for now is gone. We are left with a group of local investors who do not appear to have deep pockets. So they are going to have to make the project pencil out and, I will acknowledge at the start here, I have not run through the finances with the applicants, so I’m flying a bit blind on that.
As I have stated previously, the biggest challenge for the city of Davis, going forward, is to reconcile several different conflicting city goals. First, we have growth restrictions on the periphery and, while I have been an advocate for building modest-sized, 200-acre innovation parks, I have been an opponent at this time in continued peripheral housing developments.
But, with the city needing more rental units and more office space in the core, ways that we can densify the core while maintaining our borders are ones we should pursue. However, with densification comes neighborhood concerns.
For me at least, I do in general support the notion of densification. I look around the downtown and see underutilized space – single-story older buildings that are screaming for redevelopment. At the same time, people moved into the areas of I St and eastward with the current landscape.
I walked into the houses and backyards of several of the people on the southwestern corner of I Street and along the alleyway, and I can very much sympathize with their concerns. While my sense is that the impact immediately and quickly declines as you move further from the alleyway, the concerns of those neighbors are legitimate and we have to acknowledge them.
I believe when I first met with Kemble Pope in January of this year, I had suggested three or four stories. I don’t see any way that six stories are going to get the approval of council. The question is whether those neighbors will support three or four.
If the neighbors are really holding out for two stories, then I think that’s a non-starter. I don’t see how it pencils out for the investors and I don’t think it meets the needs of the city. Six is too high, two is too few, and three or four would seem to be a sweet spot where both sides have to give a little.
There are other impacts as well. When I toured the site, there was concern that the alleyway would be converted to the place where cars head down to park, where the garbage trucks come, where delivery trucks come, etc. Again, I can see how that is going to impact just a small number of neighbors, but again, that impact is real.
Are these changes feasible? Right now I see a process that is not working well. Trust has been broken. The city has in the past looked at conflict resolution processes and that may be a good way to go here.
I read the commentary submitted by Kemble Pope on October 22 calling for a public process and explaining why he requested a delay in the hearing of the project at the October 19 Historical Resources Management Commission at the last second. I also read Alan Miller’s response on the part of the Old East Neighborhood Association.
Mr. Pope wrote, “On behalf of the local investors that I represent, at the October 19th HRMC meeting, I requested that the consideration of the item be delayed until the next meeting to allow for a longer period of public review and comment. I should note that a large group of our neighbors had already sacrificed their weekend to review and comment on those documents and cleared their calendar to show up that night. We are grateful for their time and input and apologize that they were inconvenienced and made to ‘hurry up and wait.’”
Mr. Miller responded, “The applicant claimed they pulled the item because no one had enough chance to digest the materials — that he was doing us a favor because he’d long had a problem with the turnaround times for receiving meeting information. Old East Residents said they were ready and wanted to speak; why was the applicant ‘suddenly’ not ready, and doing everyone present a supposed favor that no one present wanted? The applicant then said that over 20 letters had come in that day and he wasn’t expecting those and hadn’t had a chance to read all of them, and doubted the Commissioners had either. Old East Neighbors, on the other hand, got our letters in by Monday’s deadline and were ready to speak.”
At some point, this matter will proceed to the Planning Commission and then the city council. What happened with Paso Fino is that staff worked to revise the proposals but ultimately the council had to rule on the size and scope of the project. That may be where this process is headed unless both sides can carve out their own compromise approach.
In the long term, the council needs to clarify the direction they want to see infill go. How dense is dense enough? How do we handle the legitimate concerns of neighbors? How do we make this process less contentious?
For those who want to argue that this is why we should re-examine peripheral development, that seems a direction in which most in this community do not want to go – which makes it all the more urgent we figure out what infill development should look like and how best to create a fair and open and transparent public process.
—David M. Greenwald reporting