By Eileen M. Samitz
Recently, an Op-ed was posted in the Sunday Dec. 13 Davis Enterprise by Kevin Wolf advocating for residential in four projects being proposed in Davis. The article made arguments for what would amount to a huge amount of new growth, particularly if all four projects were approved (at least 1,818 units). A significant number of these units would have 3-5 bedrooms targeting students, which means thousands of new residents. While Wolf advocates for an enormous amount of new housing, there are many issues he did not address.
UCD student housing
I too served on the Housing Element Steering Committee for the General Plan Update, and being a diverse group, there were few “consensus” votes. However, one subject supported by all, and later adopted as policy by the City Council, was the need to pressure the University to provide the student housing that it promised in its 1989 MOU with the City. UCD’s negligence in not providing this on-campus student housing is a main driver of any housing demand that exists in Davis. It is gross negligence, and simply unfair to the UCD students, that the University is not providing them with long-term, affordable on-campus student housing. The University can legally designate housing on their land to be dedicated for students only. In contrast, the City cannot legally dedicate housing for students only.
UCD plans to add 5,000 more students by 2020, the vast majority of which will be non-California residents so UCD can get the higher tuition fees. Yet, it is California residents who have paid the taxes to build and financially support the UC system. UCD plans to add an additional 7,000 students between 2025 and 2030, totaling 12,000 more students. At a recent City Council meeting UCD admitted that they won’t be providing all the housing needed for their own student population growth. So is the City being expected to provide all of this UCD student housing? Why is it not being built on-campus by UCD?
UCD owns over 5,000 acres of land, so there is no excuse why they have not provided the student-only housing needed that they have promised for 26 years. Even with all its resources, including reaching their $1 billion dollar endowment goal, UCD has failed to live up to its responsibilities to their students and the City. As a consequence, a large, disproportionate amount of housing in the City is being occupied by these students for whom UCD has refused to build housing, and our City housing supply is increasingly not available for non-students. More disturbing, we are now seeing the emergence of mini-dorms in residential neighborhoods, with their impacts on traffic, parking, noise, and subsequently the property values. But most importantly are the consequences of these negative impacts on the quality of life in these neighborhoods. Young college-age people generally have a busy, active lifestyle which would be better accommodated living in student housing on the UCD campus. In regards to sustainability, having enough UCD on-campus student housing would do more to the reduce Davis’ carbon footprint than anything in these four housing proposals.
SACOG RHNA “Fair Share”
Also not covered in the article is that the City has already planned for fulfilling our Sacramento Area Council of Governments, Regional Housing Need Allocation (SACOG RHNA) “fair share” of housing growth until 2021. Any excess housing built now will not count towards our next “fair share” requirement assigned by SACOG. Additionally, excess housing, such as the 1,818 total units (and thousands in new population growth) currently being proposed by the four projects, invites SACOG to assign Davis a larger fair share allocation in the coming SACOG cycle. Overbuilding housing units now means that Davis will have more housing demands imposed upon it into the future. Furthermore, it would use up precious water and wastewater treatment capacity (that we have just increased at enormous expense) that we will need in 6 years for our next RHNA allocation. This, added to the need to fund other City services for residential (which is revenue negative – it doesn’t pay for itself), would require significantly more taxes for police and fire services and other infrastructure costs like parks, greenbelt and road maintenance at a time when the City is already having major budgetary problems.
In terms of the issue of “affordable housing” raised in the article, what has been made clear historically is that even when a total of 1,000 housing units (i.e. which included a full range of housing unit costs) were built in just one year in the 1990’s, housing costs in Davis still continued to rise. This is because Davis is a desirable place to live. So no matter how many units are built, the cost of housing is not going to diminish in Davis.
Wolf campaigned in support of the enormous Covell Village project in 2005, and he later advocated for weakening Measure J when its renewal came up as Measure R in 2010. Since he appears to be quite a pro-growth advocate, it is not hard to understand why he is supporting projects such as Nishi and Trackside, which involve proponents of the Covell Village project. Fortunately, the public voted strongly to support Measure R without weakening it, and opposed Covell Village, in contrast to Wolf’s advocacy positions and efforts during those issues.
Nishi Gateway, and the Mace Ranch Innovation Park proposals
When considering the Nishi and Mace Ranch Innovation Park proposals it is important to recall that the only reason these two projects were even considered originally was to provide more revenue for the City. But after the financial analysis done by the City, it has become clear that the Nishi mixed-use project proposal has a net negative fiscal impact. Also, in addition to the traffic issues, the enormous infrastructure costs of more than $24 million dollars (note: a much higher estimate is expected), that Nishi would need to address access issues, would make the cost of the rental and the for-sale housing unaffordable to average income earners, and particularly the students which Nishi is targeting.
Proposing 650 housing units on such a small land parcel (i.e. the Nishi parcel is only 47 acres), with 345,000 square feet of commercial as well, would be a very crowded situation. The Nishi Gateway project developers claim to be targeting students for their residential housing, yet as mentioned earlier, housing in the City cannot legally be dedicated or reserved for students. Even if they were able to succeed in recruiting students for their housing, this perpetuates the problem of the City, rather than the University providing the student housing for UCD’s student population growth. Other issues are that it would pass the long-term costs of the residential housing onto Davis residents, plus the City would need to share the property tax with Yolo County, since the Nishi parcel is located in the county.
Regarding the Mace Ranch Innovation Center (MRIC) proposal, it is disappointing to see that a “bait and switch” is being attempted now by the Ramos developer group. After more than a year of promises that the Mace Ranch Innovation Park was “just and only” going to be a high tech research park to produce revenue for the City, the developers are now trying to morph the proposal into a mixed-use project. 850 housing units are somehow supposed to be jammed into the Mace Ranch Innovation Park. This is an enormous amount of housing for a project this size, which will be in a huge high-density apartment–like cluster. Their claim that 85% of the housing will be occupied by innovation park workers is unrealistic. Additionally, the developers cannot legally reserve the housing there for workers in the innovation park and not everyone wants to live in ultra-high density housing, such as young families with children.
It is also notable that recently the MRIC developers tried to manipulate the City Council to get them to add housing to the project by using their own “poll” which the developers composed and had run with crafted language to yield their desired results. Despite the clearly non-objective questions, the results were so close they were not persuasive anyway.
Another objective of the innovation parks was to provide more jobs for existing housing in Davis to address the jobs-housing imbalance issue. Instead, what is being proposed now is more housing for the jobs that are being created. This is nothing more than an endless Ponzi scheme.
The Trackside Center project is a good example of both bad planning and over-densification as well, where a transitional zone neighborhood would be impacted with an enormous six-story building which would sit right next to the railroad tracks. This project violates principles in our General Plan, the Core Area Specific Plan, the Davis Downtown and Transitional Area Guidelines. Simply stated, as a former Planning Commissioner, it goes against the basic concepts of good city planning. The “process” to include neighborhood input has been inadequate and disingenuous (which has been covered in many letters to the editor). This proposal seeks to cram a behemoth of a project amongst one- and two-story historic homes which people have worked hard to preserve, and will ruin the quality of life in an entire neighborhood. Wolf’s article makes a “Nimby-ism” accusation, yet the neighbors are open to consider a significantly downsized project that is compatible with the neighborhood and respectful of the City’s standards and previous planning documents. The developer’s complaint is that a project that is compatible with its surroundings will not be profitable enough or won’t “pencil out.” Well then, the project should not be approved. No entire neighborhood should be destroyed in the name of densification, and Trackside, as currently proposed, is an example of “over-densification” and is simply destructive. Trying to railroad projects like this just creates distrust of City “process,” particularly when so much public input went into creating our citizen-based General Plan and the other planning documents.
Sterling Davis Apartments
Another example of over-densification is the Sterling Davis Apartments project at Fifth Street and Pole Line. This project also targets student housing, and would add over 1,000 students traveling from this location to campus daily on streets like Fifth Street, which are already impacted and not bicycle friendly. Not only is this site a bad location for student housing, but the traffic and other negative impacts on the nearby senior Rancho Yolo community and the other residential units in that neighborhood would be significant.
Finally, it has become clear that there is major concern amongst many citizens, like myself, about the way that our City planning is going. It is important to organize now to assure that all the work done by hundreds of Davis citizens to adopt good planning principles, and specifically to implement the General Plan principles, as well as the other guiding planning documents like the Specific Plans, is respected by the City planners. Mini-dorms and over-densification is not the answer to the issues before us. The basic problem is the University’s resistance to build the on-campus housing for their own students, who are, as a consequence, forced to occupy such a disproportionately large amount of our City housing. I wish to invite people who are also concerned about these issues to join our Citizens for Responsible Planning group by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org or to call me at 756-5165.
Eileen Samitz is a former member of the City of Davis Planning Commission, the 2001 General Plan Update Committee, and the 2008 General Plan Update Housing Element Steering Committee.