Kevin Wolf in an op-ed in the local paper lays out a well-written and well-thought out vision for sustainable housing.
“A majority of Davisites want to preserve open space and reduce pollution. This became clear in 2008 when I chaired the city’s Steering Committee for the 2013 General Plan Housing Element Update,” he writes. “We heard from hundreds of residents and reached near consensus that the new housing should primarily be dense infill located near jobs, schools and shopping.”
What he doesn’t write is perhaps just as important, if not more important. His vision of Davis is not necessarily shared by the majority of people in this community. A decade ago, he was one of the leading and most outspoken supporters of Covell Village – a massive development that would have added 2000 housing units.
But the proposal was too big, with not enough mitigation for traffic impacts along the Pole Line and Covell Corridors, and the voters ultimately resoundingly defeated the proposal.
He acknowledges this when he notes that “traditional developments are also less likely to be approved by Davis voters. Between those who don’t want to lose more ag land and those who think any new housing and more traffic could harm their home values, the coalition against a Covell Village or a new Wildhorse-type development is daunting.”
However, he believes the unmet demand for housing in town “relentlessly increases,” along with “the associated problems.”
He argues, “An increasing number of Davis’ students and workers commute from nearby towns where housing is more available and affordable. The added driving obviously increases greenhouse gas emissions, but the trend has other, less obvious, environmental impacts.”
His solution is to push for housing at Nishi and Mace, along with Trackside and Sterling apartments.
While Mr. Wolf lays out a strong case for the developments he supports, he fails to note alternative solutions to the problem, as well as other considerations.
First, he notes, “An increasing number of Davis’ students and workers commute from nearby towns where housing is more available and affordable. The added driving obviously increases greenhouse gas emissions, but the trend has other, less obvious, environmental impacts.”
But what he fails to note is that Davis suffers from a jobs-housing imbalance. And while many focus on the housing end, the reality is that the huge amount of VMT (vehicle miles traveled) results not just from in-commuting from other areas to Davis, but also from out-commuting from Davis to other communities. This becomes important when he notes the need to create jobs in Davis.
Second, while he is quick to note that Davis students commute from nearby towns, he fails to note that a huge part of that is caused by growth from the university, in which the university has acknowledged they will not be able to provide housing for all of the new students: “Even in our highest on-campus housing scenario, we’re going to study some very high on-campus housing scenarios, we don’t anticipate being able to house every single new student.”
Mr. Wolf completely ignores this elephant in the room.
But that is not the only elephant he ignores. He notes, “With 440 units providing 1,500 bedrooms for students and another 210 for-sale condos/flats averaging 1,300 square feet (650 units total), the Nishi project can meet some of the backlogged demand for housing.”
He says, “This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lower our carbon footprint by providing housing with such a low driving-per-unit impact shouldn’t be missed.”
At the same time, we are talking about just 650 units on 45 acres of land. While Nishi represents a potential once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, we can argue that perhaps it is under-utilizing the land and therefore passing by an opportunity.
However, my biggest problem is that politics is the art of the possible. And in Davis, both Nishi and Mace have to achieve Measure R victories in order to be realized. This is a lesson that Mr. Wolf has not learned from Covell Village.
Under his brief discussion of the Mace Ranch Innovation Center, he writes, “More than 5,800 jobs are eventually expected from the project, resulting in demand for more than 3,000 housing units. However, a mixed-use alternative could include live/work housing units on-site. Even if the new employees weren’t the ones occupying these units, their location near the bus lines to Sacramento and UCD and within walking distance to schools and shopping would help reduce the project’s GHG emissions.”
He adds, “The 850 units proposed, at densities of 20 to 40 units per acre, would not offset all of the housing demand created by the new jobs, but are enormously better than if the project came without any.”
When the city of Davis was looking for new revenue sources in order to make the economy more diverse and sustainable, many people who were ordinarily opposed to growth on the periphery were willing to consider sites like Mace and the Northwest Quadrant with the understanding that it not contain housing.
One of the project objectives in the application process was, “Maintain the City’s slow growth policy by prohibiting residential uses within the site, thereby emphasizing the sole objective to rapidly achieve economic growth and financial stability.”
When the idea of a mixed-use alternative was floated, there was certainly an argument to be made that a live-work arrangement might be a dynamic mix. However, there is a reality. Many people I have spoken to – probably well over 100 by this point – have told me that they would consider an innovation park at Mace but if housing is there, not only would they not vote for it, they would actively work to oppose it.
That was before a number became attached. Eight hundred fifty units is more housing units than was ultimately approved for the Cannery. The community was perhaps willing to support building on the periphery to create jobs and help balance the budget and make our revenue stream both more diverse and more resilient, but adding 850 units of housing to the proposal will make the project dead on arrival.
Instead of talking about housing, we should be focused on a transportation system that can more efficiently move people from where they live to where they work, and upon the idea that by creating more jobs in town we can reduce VMT, because people will have less incentive to go out of town to go to work.
Second, we need to do a better job of utilizing our existing sites like Nishi to provide the housing we need.
Finally, the university needs to live up to their past agreements and at the very least accommodate new student growth with on-campus housing.
The community just isn’t going to support 850 housing units at Mace any more than they were going to support 2000-plus housing units at Covell – we need to stick to the art of the possible and allow ourselves to, at the very at least, start addressing our fiscal needs, which will greatly help in the long run to address housing needs by giving us the resources to redevelop in areas where it might be possible to seek greater densities.
—David M. Greenwald reporting