As they say, the devil is in the details, but for those who believed that the Nishi vote should be delayed until November, the Davis City Council had a resounding response on Tuesday night, putting the measure within striking distance of the June ballot with its strongest showing to date.
Give tremendous credit to all four councilmembers who were there on Tuesday – Rochelle Swanson was ill and could not make the meeting. Of course it helped to have only one major issue on the agenda, allowing the council to not only focus on the job at hand, but to do so at an early hour when their minds were fresh.
It was perhaps Mayor Dan Wolk’s finest moment of his mayorship as he skillfully guided the meeting that could have bogged down once Robb Davis and Brett Lee put their proposals forth. Instead, the mayor was able to quickly forge consensus where consensus could be reached and pushed back to staff and the applicant on areas that will need more work.
While everyone seemed to believe that great progress was made on Tuesday, there are no certainties going forward. There are critical questions that have to be addressed in order for this to even get onto the ballot – let alone pass. But what seemed like a remote possibility prior to Tuesday is now quite possible.
What is the rush? There is no rush. There are, however, timelines. The developer has a desire to have the project on the ballot in June – in fact there are a lot of advantages to having the project on in June. First, by November the community will be heavily focused on the presidential election, whereas in June, the community will be focused on local issues – city council, a possible revenue measure, and potentially only the third Measure J/R vote in community history.
Second, by going in June, Nishi gets to go first. Pushing it back to November means that either Nishi and Mace Ranch Innovation Center are on the same ballot, or one has to be pushed to 2017.
Third, to some extent, Nishi and its developers feel that this has already been a long process and they simply want to get it done with at this point.
Finally, Nishi is not home free. There are a lot of questions and issues that must be clarified in order for the council to put it on the ballot and they still must win a community vote. What will be interesting is that, while in 2005 and 2009 the Measure J/R votes were on a special election, this year it will be on with other issues. How does that change the dynamic? Or does it?
From our vantage point, Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis and Councilmember Brett Lee were at their very best on Tuesday night. Critical issues were placed in the baseline features. That is important because a baseline feature can only be modified by another vote of the people – that means the developer and even the city cannot change those conditions after approval.
Once again, the devil is in the details, and to their credit, it appeared that the council was listening to the community’s concerns on many of the details of this project.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but here is where things seem to stand on critical issues.
First, the developer and the council have acknowledged that, without a UC-approved UC Davis access point, there is no project. Undoubtedly there will be those who will use the lack of current agreement as a reason to delay the project. Is it enough to have the commitment that there will be no project until the site is linked to UC Davis and “no occupancy until the Richards I-80 interchange improvements are complete”? That’s for the voters to decide.
Second, one issue that the mayor pro tem seemed to nip in the bud was the additional 20 percent residential units, which was added to the baseline. My reading of Measure J/R language on baseline features is that the requirements are rather vague and most of the commentary by the city involved what triggered a change, rather than how firm the requirements needed to be.
But, as Robb Davis pointed out, why are we playing this game – if we think the number should be 780 rather than 650, then no need to fudge.
The question of parking and indeed vehicular access still looms. Robb Davis suggested further reductions in parking and eliminating the garage. Brett Lee and also developer Tim Ruff came back that parking isn’t the issue, the issue is peak hour traffic, and they feel that they can limit peak hour traffic.
As expressed many times, I prefer less cars, and think that students are increasingly not bringing cars to Davis. From Nishi, you can walk or bike to most of the core and campus easily. There are buses for easy access. And the few times when residents need a car, giving them a free membership to Zipcar or another car sharing service would solve that problem.
I am holding out for a proposal that further reduces parking and car storage.
Unsettled is the finance issue. I was curious as to why the applicant would foreclose on a CFD (Community Facilities District) possibility to fund the infrastructure. He is willing to go to a lighting district. I’m also interested in why they would not implement a per square foot tax, that could generate over half a million a year right there with a fairly low impact on any individual business.
Robb Davis did a good job of illustrating why the EPS report and its assumptions are so conservative. One clear area is the sales tax – I think it’s a given we at least re-authorize the 2004 half-cent sales tax and a good chance we reauthorize the full one-cent sales tax passed in June 2014.
The fiscal analysis on the project, of course, widely varies. Some believe that this project is a huge loser financially, even though the developer has pledged to make it fiscally positive. Some have questioned why Robb Davis would work so hard to make this project pencil out – but, given its location and the nature of available land and voter preferences, that seems common sense.
There are those who believe that Nishi does not meet the goal of a revenue generator for the city. That is a fair criticism, although Dan Carson believes that the project will generate substantial revenue. Clearly the city will be going with a more modest fiscal analysis and, based on that, the voters will have to decide if the fiscal impacts are sufficient to vote down a project that may meet a good deal of other community needs.
The LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Certification issue is an interesting one. Robb Davis said on Tuesday that he wanted a commitment in the baseline agreement, “an agreement to pursue LEED certification.” I have always been a bit skeptical of LEED Certification as more about the process than the product. But Brett Lee made a great point on Tuesday.
He said that the idea of LEED “is very important” and “we need to commit to a certain LEED level.” The importance of LEED, he said, is that it introduces third-party verification and takes the onus off city staff to make critical determinations. “The nice thing about that is it’s third-party verification and people will have a high level of confidence that they’re evaluated objectively. It takes a little bit out of the concern that (about the cozy relationship between city staff and developer)… it takes that concern off the table.”
That’s an outstanding point in that it would take the pressure off staff and toward a third-party process.
However, Tim Ruff also had a good point in that there are aspects of Platinum Certification that are out of the hands the developers and the city. If the level of LEED is put into the baseline features and they can’t obtain it, they don’t have a project. That’s a fair point.
There is a compromise here that they put the need to pursue LEED Certification at the Platinum level into the baseline, and put the other requirements into the developer’s agreement.
Can we get to net zero energy here? Does it matter? That will be left for the community, but Robb Davis and Brett Lee did a great job pressing for accountability for these commitments.
I thought Brett Lee raised important points on the county tax sharing agreement. This is another issue that opponents can seize on because it is not settled. Councilmember Lee said he wanted approval of the project to be subject to a certain tax share with the county. He argued this would help the developer at some level, it protects the community against a poorly negotiated agreement with the county, and it puts the county on notice that there is a minimum, and if they get too ambitious then this falls through and they get nothing.
Is that enough to satiate critics? Hard to know.
Robb Davis ended his comments with this: “The question is why put this on the June ballot?” he asked. “If we can get these things answered I’d be willing to put it on the June ballot.” However, he said that, if there are still issues about sustainability and fiscal impact, we are doing a great disservice putting it on the June ballot.
I think that is a fair take. We have Measure R for a reason – it is to give the community the right to determine when and where to grow. I think if the issues that Robb Davis and Brett Lee laid out on Tuesday can get addressed in the next four weeks, there is no reason to put off the ballot.
Democracy is not a clean process. It is messy and uneven. We have seen this play out over the last few months, but, in the end, the process seems to be working toward producing a far better project than what existed six months ago.
Is that enough to get a passage by the voters? We have no way of knowing. But, at least from the council’s point of view, they have done their job and, on Tuesday, they did it well.
—David M. Greenwald reporting