The Davis Planning Commission made a series of votes on Wednesday night to move the Nishi Project forward to the Davis City Council. If the council approves the project, it could go to the voters for a Measure R vote in June of this year.
The Planning Commission, on a 7-0 vote, voted to certify the project EIR. It also approved the Gateway/Olive Drive Specific Plan Amendment (SPA) by a 6-1 vote, with a suggestion to council that, in the event that the Nishi project does not proceed, the West Olive Drive SPA return to the commission for review.
This was followed by a series of 5-2 votes. First they approved the General Plan Amendment for the Nishi Property, including the provisions that the Nishi Project should not be occupied until connections to both UC Davis and West Olive Drive/Richards Boulevard interchange improvements are constructed. Second was that residential units cannot be sold (but may be rented) until the outside air quality improves to acceptable levels to a standard to be determined.
The commission also approved the Development Agreement, including Baseline Project Features for the Nishi Property, along with the Prezoning and Preliminary Planned Development for the Nishi Property.
The dissenting votes were Chair Rob Hofmann and Mark Truscott.
The Planning Commission’s vote added two suggested amendments to the baseline project: there should be no occupancy until the connection to Old Davis Road leading to UC Davis is completed and no units should be sold until additional air quality measures are implemented.
The applicants, in a press release, noted that, according to staff, “the air quality concerns can be substantively addressed by planting trees near I-80 earlier than previously planned and by planting larger trees. The Nishi Gateway is already designed to place trees and R&D [Research and Development] space as a buffer to residential units, with for sale units furthest back from the highway.”
“I appreciate the work of the commission, city staff, and consultants who gave the Nishi Gateway project the thoughtful analysis it deserves,” said Tim Ruff, managing partner of the Nishi Gateway. “Throughout this process, we’ve strived to make the Nishi Gateway an even better project for Davis, and we’ve taken community feedback to heart. I’m very pleased with this result, and I think Davis voters will be too.”
Despite this vote, however, the community and commissioners had serious concerns about whether the project is ready to proceed.
Commissioner Mark Truscott in his comments captured some of this when he said, “I like a lot about this project, it’s exciting.” But he added, “It does feel to me like it’s being rushed.”
He noted that there is an elephant in the room, that being the ultra-fine particulate matters and “the fact that there is a lot of residential units that will be washed, from everything that I read, with this matter.” He said, “For that reason alone, I have a hard time supporting this project with the residential component.”
He added that he hasn’t seen anything to indicate that they can mitigate that to an acceptable level.
George Hague noted that, as large and complex as this project is, “nobody came up there unalterably opposed to it.” (He would amend that to note there was one person). But most are “in a qualified way supporters,” but at the same time there are real concerns that were raised, particularly about air quality and residential units.
He added, “The one real sticking point that I have is that the transportation plan, the circulation plan, and the assumptions it’s based on, 27 years in the transportation industry, my opinion is that it’s simply not going to work.” He said, “The assumptions are unrealistic.”
Mr. Hague in particular had concerns about fire equipment accessibility. However, he said, “On the whole though, this property should be developed, it’s a good thing for the city. It’s not a matter of if we should do it, it’s a matter of how we should do it.”
Cristina Ramirez called it an “interesting” and “innovative” project and called it “exciting.” However, she expressed concerns with the “transportation circulation.” She noted that, during lunch time and peak commute hours, there is heavy traffic congestion on the Richards Corridor. “This concerns me quite a bit,” she said. “So I’m a little hesitant. I would like to see this developed but I think there needs to be a little bit more analysis in terms of transportation.”
Cheryl Essex said that she has wondered when Nishi would be developed, given its location near the university. “Development makes a lot of sense here,” she said.
She added that having a business park makes a lot of sense next to university and thinks it would be a great thing… “if it works.” “The devil is in the details,” she continued, noting that “we really need more safe, affordable housing in this area near or on the campus, near or in the downtown.”
“Our job in the Planning Commission is to help sculpt the very best project that we can and propose that to the city council,” she said.
Ms. Essex expressed real concern about the air quality issue. “I am really concerned that this is going to be a real unhealthy place to live, work, and play,” she said. “I wonder about that residential component more than anything. We need more residential – because if we don’t have more residential close to campus… then people are driving on Interstate 80 and creating more pollution as they come to town.”
She noted that tree planting “is not something that’s going to work right away, so the outdoor air quality may take some time to improve. It may never improve – it’s not a proven mitigation measure.” She noted that this might be possible if they delayed for sale housing until the tree mitigation is proven effective.
The logic is that people renting the units are less likely to live there for a long enough period of time to be exposed to enough harmful particulate matter to have health impacts.
On the transportation side, she said they need the two access points to the property when it’s occupied “and that’s going to be a challenge.”
Herman Boschken said he was trying to sort out between what was real and what wasn’t. He said that one thing that is very clear from the discussion is the need to “continue to search,” presumably for solutions to some of these concerns. The question, he said, “is whether we need to stop the process and wait for the continuing search.”
He said, “There may be alternatives down the road to make those shifts,” acknowledging that the process “may involve lawsuits.”
He concluded that he is satisfied that they should make a recommendation for approval.
Chair Rob Hofmann, the second dissenting vote as it turned out, stated that the project “is arguably our best opportunity in terms of proximity to the city.” He noted that “everyone knew this wasn’t going to be a simple project.”
He said, “I have considerable objection to the residential component.” He thinks a project could be done here that is R&D, focused on looking at innovative stuff.
Mr. Hofmann noted he voted against Lexington and Harmony based on the air quality concerns and he has to “stay consistent.” He noted “neither of which have the same level of concern of this particular location.”
He noted that, regarding Solano Park, “the key consideration there is it’s transitory.” Even as a student, you are only there for a year or two. “So it’s limited exposure,” he said.
Despite these concerns, the project was pushed forward on a series of 5-2 votes.
From the applicants’ perspective, “Nishi in its conception (though not size) is very similar to successful live-work infill projects like those in Emeryville, which are along a more congested stretch of the I-80 corridor.”
The developers add, “Multi-model smart growth development is proven to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve overall air quality over time, and it is essential for these projects to be built near existent commercial districts to be viable and achieve the desired result of reduced car trips. The nominal increase in air quality concerns, which are being further mitigated, is the inevitable tradeoff of smart growth infill.”
The applicants see this as a sustainable development, noting, “From its conception, the Nishi Gateway has worked to be a model development for sustainability and livability. For student residents, 80 percent of trips are expected to be conducted via walking, biking, and transit. Because of this, the Nishi Gateway would be the first project ever to exceed the City of Davis’ Beyond Platinum Bicycle Action Plan. The Nishi Gateway has also been ranked #1 by the California Strategic Growth Council for sustainability goals.”
They conclude, “Through this, they provided a grant which funded a comprehensive Sustainability Implementation Plan. In addition, the Nishi project will provide a net fiscal positive surplus, providing substantial revenue to the City, and it will also fund a new road to UC Davis to alleviate traffic.”
The issue is now in the hands of the council who must weigh a variety of factors in determining how best to proceed.
—David M. Greenwald reporting