In retrospect, the Davis Planning Commission seemed to simply not want to act in any sort of gatekeeping capacity. They voted 5-2 to forward the Nishi application to the Davis City Council, despite expressing serious questions about issues such as traffic, congestion, air impacts and the fiscal analysis. They also passed, by a 7-0 vote, a motion to approve the EIR.
The majority of the public commenters and even the commissioner comments fell along the lines that there was large support for the project in principle but there are too many unanswered questions to go forward at this time – except that when the vote came, the commission voted to move the project forward, at least to the city council.
The tough decision is now going to have to be made by the Davis City Council in the next month or so, as to whether to put the project on the ballot.
On Tuesday Mayor Dan Wolk perhaps tipped his hand, stating he believes that Nishi will go on the ballot in June.
“I think it’s an excellent project,” he said. “They’ve committed now to being at a minimum fiscally neutral.” He cited the EPS report and argued that Nishi along with Mace, using conservative estimates, “will bring in millions of dollars to the city in terms of revenue.”
He added, “[Nishi] has also committed to a second crossing into UC Davis.” He said, “We understand that there’s an issue with Richards in terms of traffic and they’ve committed a second crossing into UC Davis as part of the process.”
It is these contingencies that make the project and its time all the more curious. One contingency is that development would not be able to go forward without a UC Davis commitment to the grade-separated crossing to the UC Davis campus.
That decision is now wrapped into the LRDP (Long Range Development Plan) process that the university is undergoing. That approval might merely be a formality and it likely would occur long before construction would commence on the Nishi site.
However, the more curious stipulation is the one saying, “No buildings would be allowed to be occupied until Richards Interchange improvements are completed.” As we have reported in the past, the Richards Blvd. corridor improvements are not likely to be implemented for another five years, with the improvements completed perhaps in 2021 or 2022. Does the developer really want to wait five or six years before allowing the buildings to be occupied – and if so, why not wait until November when some of the other details of the project might be addressed?
The fiscal analysis is also an important consideration. The EPS report shows that the project is a negative $78,000. One of the project alternatives calls for a hotel, which presumably pushes the project into a positive. However, the analysis of the hotel situation that the Vanguard published this week at the very least calls into question those findings and the city will be waiting for the HVS report which might be completed late this month.
The council obviously would not have a lot of time to determine the hotel issue before making a decision on Nishi.
The mayor this week cited Dan Carson, a member of the Finance and Budget commission, who presented council “with a paper that showed that [the EPS report] really underestimated Nishi… He thinks that right now that the report had Nishi at a negative $78,000 per year, but he estimates that that’s a really low figure, that it’s probably much more positive into the millions.”
For his part, Mayor Wolk called the EPS report a very “conservative” assessment of the fiscal situation. He cited Dan Carson’s more optimistic view, which Mr. Carson trumpeted again before the Planning Commission.
It is the contingencies, however, that perhaps make the project more risky at this point.
On Tuesday, the mayor said, “I’m very interested to hear my colleagues’ take on Nishi because that second crossing is really critical to the council.” He noted that UC Davis is critical to this equation because the UC Regents have to approve the second crossing.
“Will the council and will the community ultimately be comfortable adopting a proposal that has contingencies? And key conditions to it, or do they want to see something more solid?” he asked. He said they’ll have the dialogue but his hope is that the council and community will still lend its approval.
The mayor here really nailed the question – will the public be willing to support a project where two of the most serious considerations are contingencies? Without a second crossing, most people do not see the project as viable. There needs to be a direct access point from Nishi to campus, otherwise the project itself cannot really work.
You cannot have rental housing that will be primarily students next to campus without having a direct access point to campus. It makes no sense.
The second contingency, as we noted, is the Richards Blvd. corridor plan that needs to be implemented.
When the council put Measure P on the ballot in 2009 for Wild Horse Ranch, they did so before completing the developer agreement with baseline features, and that became part of the ongoing controversy that ultimately helped to undo the project.
The public wants assurances and specifics, and so it will be really interesting to see if the public is willing to support the project without all of the details immediately locked down, but rather reserved as commitments from the developer.
The question will undoubtedly arise as to how enforceable those commitments are and how they would be enforced. None of this is necessarily insurmountable, but it might be an aggravating factor in a Measure R vote.
It will now be left to the council to tease out these details and ultimately decide if this project is ready to go on the ballot for June.
In the meantime, the Vanguard will be hosting a discussion and information session on Nishi. The free event will be Saturday, January 30, from 1 to 3 at the Conference Room of the University Park Inn at 1111 Richards Blvd. In addition to a presentation and discussion period, there will be a field trip immediately following the session.
—David M. Greenwald reporting