For years Nishi has been the alluring open space in Davis. Nestled in next to the university and within walking distance from the downtown, Nishi has been tempting. But aside from Measure R considerations, the major hold up has to do with access.
Nishi is an odd-shaped parcel that is more triangular than the standard plot of land, running from the southwest to the northeast. It is bounded on the north side by the railroad tracks and the university, and bounded on the south by I-80. To make matters more complicated, the only true access point is west Olive Dr, exiting at Richards – only the most heavily congested corridor in Davis.
Because of its proximity to the university, councils have been tempted to attempt develop here, but the 800-pound gorilla has always been access.
As Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis put it in no uncertain terms, “I will not vote to put this on the ballot in June without conditions related to access. The cleanest way is to say no undercrossing at the railroad – no project. No improvements to Richards – no project.”
However, like his colleagues, he said, “I’m willing to see what we can come up with in terms of this other way that may allow certain things to go forward in phased way, but no further. With the idea that the actual, that’s on the table in front of us cannot be developed without the second crossing.”
The big line in the sand is the second crossing – ability for residents of Nishi to have an access point under the railroad tracks at the university. For their part, while UC Davis was initially partnering with the city on this area, looking at their own Solano Park in conjunction with Nishi, UC Davis has gotten a bit squeamish, based on some student protests back in 2013 and 2014.
However, as the university looks to work with the city on their own Long Range Development Plan (LRDP), it is probably more a matter of timing than lack of support at this point. Whether it will be ready for a June vote is anyone’s question.
Councilmember Brett Lee may have a workaround for this – offering the idea of a phased project. He called it “curious” that people referred to the second crossing as “the key event” in terms of the project moving forward. With a single access point, he noted, the draft EIR shows a Level of Service (LOS) F at the Richards-Olive intersection. However, with the two access points, there would also be an LOS F at the intersection.
He said he agrees with the notion that “that level of service F is unacceptable.”
He suggested a phased approach, saying that “the idea would be at each phase Level of Service F would not be encountered at Richards and Olive.” He said he would support a June ballot “provided that the applicant could produce a phasing proposal which would not trigger a Level of Service F at our intersections.”
This would allow the project to move forward and the public to have more certainty, as they wouldn’t have to worry about the university approving the second access point. The applicant could have an initial build and when a second access point or corridor improvements on Richards were implemented that would allow additional housing to be built at that time.
Councilmember Lee sees this proposal as having more teeth than it might first appear. Achieving a Level of Service of better than “F” would require more than just perfunctory approval of a second access point – it would require that the city and the developer find a fix for Richards Blvd.
Now, the council earlier in the evening approved a staff recommendation on light sequencing and pushed for staff, and UC Davis during the LRDP process, to work on changing the habits of drivers who are using Richards as their primary UC Davis access point.
From our perspective, merely having the second access point is not enough. Through that process we are simply building infrastructure to accommodate bad habits.
For their part, both Brett Lee and Robb Davis both made mention of the need and ability to discourage the use of automobiles.
The Vanguard has in the past pushed for a possible car-less Nishi. But we don’t really have to go that far. Nobody the Vanguard spoke to could put an exact number of the reduction of cars, but what if we had a goal of reducing the number of cars by 25 percent, 50 percent or even 75 percent?
There are a lot of ways to do that. One way is that the city could look into discouraging vehicles in all new developments. There is an interesting nexus here because climate action supporters see reduction in vehicles as a way to greatly reduce our carbon footprint. At the same time, there are those slow-growthers who have told me they would be more willing to accept development and density if we find ways to reduce the number of cars.
On a more localized level, this is something we could simply write into the development agreement. The developer at Nishi might be willing to support a reduction in cars if it makes it more likely that he achieves a victory in the Measure R vote outcome.
It would also be a way to quiet critics like myself who can conceptually support a project at this location, but have concerns about circulation and accessibility.
There is a legislative approach, but there is also a market-based approach. The developer could reduce the number of spaces, allowing those willing to pay a price for parking to have vehicles, while having many of the units designated as car-less.
I have personally noted a trend among many of the college students that I work with – increasingly, they do not have their own cars here. When they need cars, we could have accessible Zip Cars and car-sharing programs available to them. In the meantime, they would have easy access to UC Davis and the downtown.
On Tuesday, the city council took an important first step by making it clear that, without a grade-separated crossing to the university, Nishi is not going on the ballot. But why simply reinforce driving habits, when, instead, we can look at a model that increases density while decreasing the impact of vehicles?
Now is the time to start pushing this.
—David M. Greenwald reporting