Commentary: Nishi Goes to the Voters, Will They Support It?

A sign that students were holding on Tuesday night presents the project as highly sustainable
A sign that students were holding on Tuesday night presents the project as highly sustainable

There did not seem to be much doubt that Nishi would head onto the June ballot – and while this calendar year began with this being an open question, to a person on the city council, the view was expressed that the applicant had done the work necessary to allow the project to face the voters.

The fact that it was unanimous is important. With Measure X in 2005 and Measure P in 2009, the votes on council were split and the split ended up reflecting divisions within the community. Will a unanimous vote of the council change things? Everyone I have spoken to felt that if Nishi had any chance of passing, it needed a unanimous council vote.

Brett Lee was perhaps the one councilmember in doubt. His comments on Tuesday indicated that he was not merely allowing the voters to support the measure, but he himself supported the project.

“At this point I do plan on voting yes and ultimately the voters will decide whether they think this is appropriate for Davis,” he said. He said his criteria for this vote “is this something that I’m willing to hang my hat on in terms of this being something that I’m willing to vote yes on. I plan to vote yes and in large part it’s due to the progress that has been made in the last month.”

Clearly, there are those opposed to the project. Some of them undoubtedly would have opposed any project, while others were likely quite sincere in their claims that they felt the project needed a bit more work.

In our view, as expressed last week, the project was ready to go to the voters. Those who felt it needed more time can decide if their concerns are enough to oppose the project or if they will simply have to hold their nose and recognize that it is not a perfect project, though it may be good enough.

It is hard to know how deep the opposition goes. There is clearly a core of people opposed to the project, but that core seems more shallow than it did in 2009 with Wildhorse Ranch, and even in 2006 with Target. In fact, I would suggest Target may be the apt comparison, where opposition by those in the community was trumped in a close election by support from the students.

On Tuesday night numerous students came out – some spoke in favor of the project while others sat quietly, applauding at appropriate times – in support of the need for student housing. For those who cynically suggested they have been paid, there is no evidence I have found to support that. In a primary that could feature Bernie Sanders, students coming out to vote could be the pivotal turning point in this election.

I found Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis’ addendum to his comments on Tuesday fascinating, when he stated, “In the end I feel we have fulfilled our responsibility to the electorate and therefore, with a clear will and intent, release this project to the collective wisdom of the community—if such a collective wisdom exists.”

He would add, “If we wake up in June and this project hasn’t passed, the sky will not fall. The world will not end. Armageddon will not arrive on our borders.” He said they will continue to make decisions as councilmembers and citizens “within a constrained environment.”

There are clearly those who will not agree. Nishi represents a lot of things but one is the last clearly defined property outside of the city identified for housing. Once Nishi is off the table – one way or another – it is not clear where the city turns for peripheral housing options, if it turns anywhere at all.

Moreover, if Nishi should fail, it is hard to foresee any new housing other than infill.

Nishi offers residents a fairly clean choice. It is almost itself infill – nestled between I-80 and the university. There is no danger that it opens up other development. It offers close proximity to the university and downtown and, but for the concerns over access and traffic on Richards, it would be a slam dunk.

And yet we know this is Davis and the passage of Nishi is anything but a slam dunk.

Lucas Frerichs’ comments were interesting, as he stated, “We have an opportunity to put forward a project to the voters of Davis in June that, if approved, will be guaranteed to be head and shoulders above most if not all others we have seen in Davis. And if it’s not approved by the voters in Davis there will be other communities that approve projects that are far far worse.”

I find it an interesting comment because a decade ago Mr. Frerichs supported and worked for the massive Covell Village project – he once believed that that project was appropriate for Davis, even as 60 percent of the Davis voters disagreed.

For all the talk of the perfect being the end of the good, my view of Nishi is that in many ways it is a lost opportunity. As I told someone on Tuesday night, I think the council did as good a job as they could have done, given all of the circumstances.

While there are good features of this project, I think we need to be honest about what it is and what it is not. This is not the USC Village. This project is not Poly Canyon Village. It is not a site that is going to be transformative in terms of innovation and research. It is also not a development that is a game changer in terms of plugging the need for student housing.

A few months ago I remarked that the site tries to deliver both housing and R&D (research and development) space, but in the end doesn’t provide enough of either.

The developer will come back at me about financing and cost considerations, and I get it. But, at the same time, I think it is important not to oversell what this project is.

This project is is a mixed-use site that will provide about 650 housing units and perhaps 1500 beds for students and other renters. It provides a modest amount of R&D space of about 325,000. It is sustainable and green. It is next to UC Davis and near the downtown. While it will not change the game in terms of city financing, I figure it will reasonably generate $500,000 to $1.4 million in revenue.

People will undoubtedly quibble over those numbers – but I’m okay with them for the most part. If the city wants this to be a net positive project in terms of revenue, the city council needs to hold the line on spending. Increased employee compensation will do far more harm to the bottom line of this project then any equivocation about the true assessment will.

I am troubled by the affordable housing component here. The pre-development agreement allows the developer to avoid building the required affordable units. The city gets the developer to donate $1 million toward the in-lieu fund, but that amount is far less than the number, $50 to $75 thousand per unit, the city would normally be entitled to.

The city obviously felt that the developer did not have the margins to cough up the additional $5 to $10 million the city should get for a project this size, but in a time of claims of unaffordability, it seems the city sold this awfully low.

Because the city affordable housing program operates under the city’s own affordable housing ordinance, the city council has the ability with three votes to change the requirements in the development agreement. From a legal standpoint, they can change the ordinance with a simple three-vote majority – therefore, this is not a legal issue in question, it is a political one.

On the other hand, I just do not see the project needing extra time at this point. There is nothing that could happen by November that wasn’t basically addressed now. If we had wanted to push the project back to 2020, we might have more assurances on traffic and Richards Boulevard.

Clearly, the impact is significant and unavoidable, but as one poster noted, the city council “can still certify the EIR, and make findings of ‘over-riding considerations’… and proceed… when that mechanism has been used, there are very few instances where it has been overturned at the trial level, and fewer yet at the appeals level…”

Adding to that, it seems highly unlikely that a court would overturn the results of a vote of the people based on a disagreement in the traffic impacts, when basically everyone already knows there are issues. Moreover, unlike other projects, because the developer is looking at triggers for construction and occupancy, they have the luxury of time to allow the court battle to play out.

In the end, it will be the voters and not a judge who decides this project. The voters will have to weigh the good with the bad and decide if enough boxes were checked to earn their vote.

I would actually argue here that the stakes are a good deal lower than a lot of people think. The project provides some housing, some revenue, some R&D space – but it is not a game changer on any of those fronts.

On the other hand, while it is not perfect, the project is not really going to change the dynamics of the community. It is not a highly visible site for most in the community. It is not going to lead to further development. And it is probably not going to noticeably make traffic and congestion worse on Richards – and it might make things better by forcing much needed changes to Richards and allowing for an additional campus access point.

Will that be enough for the voters to approve their first Measure R/J project? Stay tuned.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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33 thoughts on “Commentary: Nishi Goes to the Voters, Will They Support It?”

  1. darelldd

    I’m right there with you on the whole article, David. And if it’s going to be done, the project must be required to make the Olive interchange better – not merely “not much worse.” I’ll let experts in the various other fields pay attention to all the rest of it – my thing will beholding them accountable for proper access of all travel modes.

    In my possibly naive mind, I see this as a potentially great opportunity to finally fix some things that are terribly wrong with that area. The Cannery folks were given a free pass on access. We can’t let that happen again.

    1. Frankly

      I think this comment sheds light on what I see as a fundamental problem with development projects in Davis.   It is not good enough that a new development sufficiently and “reasonably” mitigate negative impacts, we must milk it to fix all the problems that already exist.

      The fact is that our stingy development and change mindset is the very thing that has resulted in many of the problems that already exist.   To hold future developments hostage over these things is… well justification for taking some people out to the woodshed.

      I’m sorry, but it is like a bunch of spoiled children rejecting the opportunities put in front of us, and then demanding someone else fix the resulting problems.

      We had the opportunity to widen the Richards underpass and implement more bike and pedestrian-friendly designs.   And it would have happened with money from the railroad.  But we said “no”.   We could have used Mace 391, land we owned, to develop a world-class Davis-way innovation park and realize all the revenue from it.   But we said “No”.

      And every time we say “No” it has future consequences.

      And it should not be the responsibility of the next development project to fix the accumulated mess of problems from all of those previous times we say “No”.

      Say “Yes” more often if we want to leverage opportunities to prevent so many problems.  Stop piling on the accumulated mess as a condition of approval.  It isn’t reasonable.

      1. Don Shor

        We had the opportunity to widen the Richards underpass and implement more bike and pedestrian-friendly designs. And it would have happened with money from the railroad. But we said “no”.

        Several times.
        Per John Lofland’s history (Davis — Arcadia, 2004):

        Plans to widen it had been put before the electorate in 1968, 1973, 1987 and 1997, and failed each time.

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          My view is that the Richards underpass itself is not the problem. If you drive on it you’ll notice that even getting past the underpass traffic backs up at 1st Street. The downtown streets to not have the capacity to take all of the flow put from Richards. That is the problem not the underpass. So if the city redirects traffic going to UC Davis away from Richards, or if Nishi itself is able to handle some of that traffic that is what will fix the underpass

        2. CalAg

          DG: I’m sure you can understand the concept of two problems existing simultaneously. And yet you constantly repeat this canard that the tunnel is not the problem. There are several cheap ways to fix the 1st St traffic, since it has to do with bad traffic engineering. The Richards tunnel – which routinely generates backups that extend all the way the the Chevron station in South Davis – is an infrastructure problem that needs to be corrected.

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            All I am suggesting is based on my observations we can deal with the issue of traffic through Richards without having to widen the underpass

          2. Don Shor

            The problem is that there are nearly 10,000 people commuting in to UCD every day. About 1/3 students, about 2/3 staff. And a significant percentage go through that tunnel, I’d imagine. If there’s engineering that can be done without widening the tunnel, great. The voters have routinely declined to widen it. I suppose one could put it before them again.

        3. hpierce

          To David and CalAg… if we can’t “fix it” without widening it… “monumentally incompetent staff”?  You’re absolutely RIGHT!… any engineer, worth their salt, should be able to figure out how to make water run uphill, with no expenditure of energy!  [and in reality, be able to figure out how to generate a lot of free electricity in the process!]

          The easiest solution to Richards is, by appropriate road closures/directional signing, use of the Old Davis Road exit off I-80, the Hutchison exit off SR 113.  But the “monumentally incompetent” City staff haven’t done that.  UCD is the victim in all of this.

          1. Don Shor

            Did you mean victim? Or maybe UCD is the culprit? Or was I missing that part of your sarcasm?
            I think UCD is pretty much responsible for much of that traffic and the absence of solutions.
            As you say, and has been discussed here before, directional signage and re-routing of most UCD traffic to the next off-ramp would make a big difference.

        4. hpierce

          Don… does blatant sarcasm jump out at you in the first portion of my post?  If not, why not?  Guess there are a lot of liberal arts majors who believe applied scientists have a magic wand, and if they don’t use it, they are inherently incompetent.  Walt Kelly is chuckling… he had it ‘nailed’.

          I well remember the 70’s vote against widening Richards… if we didn’t widen Richards, South Davis wouldn’t grow past the few hundred, maybe 1,000 homes south of I-80 at the time… TRUE WISDOM!  That ship [widening First, to accommodate that] sailed long ago with Aggie Villas, Davis Commons, etc.

          I strongly question that there was a “vote of the people” in ’68 or ’87… want to see documentation… might have been a vote of the CC as to whether to put a measure to a vote, but that’s something completely different… wasn’t here in ’68… was in ’87

          The idea that the RR would have paid for ANYTHING is patently false… in the ’73 vote, CALTRANS was ready to pay ~ 83% of the costs… that train quickly left the station.

          There is “history” that authors write, and then there are actual facts.

          1. Don Shor

            According to Mike Fitch’s book, there was a major bond measure on the ballot in 1968 “to raise funds for several projects” which was defeated. Looking at Lofland’s final draft (apparently I was looking at an early draft online):
            1973: financing plan was defeated.
            1988: bond issue got 60% vote, needed 2/3 majority.
            1996: council voted 3 to 2 to widen Richards (Partansky and Forbes no), but citizen referendum overturned that vote in 1997. No: 56 to 44.

      2. Odin

        Yes, Richards/Olive is a HUGE issue!  Here on Olive Drive we are already talking about a renewal of “Friends of Olive Drive” to take on the problems we anticipate on Olive.  We just received news of an additional 140+ people to occupy the future “Lincoln 40” being built up the road.  Bet that wasn’t taken into consideration as an impact on Nishi.  As I’ve said before on this forum, the intersection is already risky for bicyclists and pedestrians and the added traffic will only make it worse.  They haven’t even figured out how to handle the problem of traffic backups leading into Dutch Brothers off of Olive.  People coming off the freeway to patronize those establishments including In and Out don’t necessarily know what to do, so they make U turns on Olive creating a jam that often blocks the front of Redrum.  I ride my bike near daily through the intersection.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve nearly been hit.  I don’t care if they build Nishi, but it should NOT feed onto Olive.  You think the line heading back onto Richards is long now?  Just wait until we have the addition of two major developments into the mix.

  2. Eileen Samitz

    I just saw these comments from yesterday and wondering if Matt Williams or anyone has any feedback on this information posted by Cal Ag below  “hidden costs” to Davis residents from Nishi Gateway is what I have been concerned about and asked about in several letters to the City, but never got an answer. Talk about the “devil being in the details”.

    Also in addition to the “sweetheart deal” of Nishi Gateway having NO affordable housing (neve has this been grated to a large project in the history of Davis) and the Quimby Act deal too.


    More on these mysterious “fee credits.”

    From the Development Agreement:

    Based upon the current adopted Capital Improvement Program, the Project is estimated to generate $4,775,462 in roadway impact fees, reflecting the project components described in Section 200. The City retains the discretion to apply the Roadway Development Impact Fees contributed by Developer to specific public improvements, as the City may determine appropriate. City anticipates that three million dollars ($3,000,000) of the Roadway Impact Fees will be used for the Richards Boulevard Interchange.

    Payment of Roadway Development Impact Fees, as set forth herein, shall fulfill Developer’s obligations to make a fair-share contribution to the costs of Interchange Improvements (Phase 1 Improvement: Richards Boulevard/I-80 Westbound Ramps and Phase 2 Improvements) required by EIR Mitigation Measure 4.14-2.

    The Project shall be entitled to fee credits for construction of the Olive Drive and Richards Boulevard Intersection improvements and the bridge over the Putah Creek Parkway, but only to the extent that these fee credits do not reduce the total Roadway Impact Fee payment to less than the three million dollars ($3,000,000) identified above. This credit will be applied to Roadway Impact Fees due after three million dollars in Roadway Development Impact Fees has been collected from the Project, or through other allocation system approved by the City Manager and set forth as a Minor Amendment to this Agreement

    4. Quimby Act Fees and Park Impact Fees

    Developers’ Quimby Act and park impact fee obligations shall be deemed satisfied through the combination of the Project’s required land dedication, turn-key park, greenbelt and open space improvements.

    Reply Report comment

    February 17, 2016 at 5:30 pm
    My read is that the fee credits are:

    (1) A $1.775M discount on their roadway impact fees that will be used to offset the costs of public infrastructure – in violation of the general principle communicated to the public by the council that the developer would pay for all infrastructure.

    Specifically, the discount will be granted to offset the costs of the Putah Creek bridge (and presumably the bike underpass that curiously never gets mentioned) and the Richards/Olive Drive interchange improvements.

    (2) Complete forgiveness of the project’s obligation to pay it’s fair share of the Richards/I-80 interchange improvements. Value to the developer – unknown pending further investigation.

    (3)  Partial forgiveness of the developers’ Quimby Act and park impact fee obligations. Value to the developer – unknown pending further investigation.

  3. CalAg

    ES: Thanks for bumping the posts. While I look forward to the automatic rebuttal from MW, I think our elected representatives that negotiated and voted for this have some ‘splainin’ to do.

    Maybe they were deceived by the legalese as well. Would particularly like to know if councilmember Lee knew about this, since he was the leading voice for clarity and transparency.

    Not to late for a motion to reconsider on the DA … so that this apparent giveaway can be reascended.

    1. Matt Williams

      Actually CalAg, no rebuttal.  The one-time fees you describe were never discussed by the FBC.  Clearly there is homework to do.  It will be interesting to see what that homework uncovers.

      1. CalAg

        Keep us posted.

        I don’t understand the rules for Roadway Impact Fee expenditures. The two concerning things I see is that they are routinely being passed back to developers as “fee credits” and that the city uses them as a slush fund to borrow against (e.g. the Mace 391 acquisition).

        If you are interested in fiscal transparency, this is probably a good place to start turning over rocks.

        The one take-away for me from the Nishi project is that when staff/council tells the public that a developer is going to “pay for something” … that can’t be taken at face value.

        The honest way to discuss this is for the policy makers to tell the public that the City is going to pay for the infrastructure with impact fees from the project.

  4. South of Davis

    Eileen wrote:

    > Also in addition to the “sweetheart deal” of Nishi

    > Gateway having NO affordable housing

    It seems like the city feels that we don’t need any more affordable housing since the city of Davis has just left 60+ affordable units (MORE than half) at the Pacifico Apartment sit empty for the  almost years since the city took ownership of the property…

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      That certainly was not the explanation given by the city, nor do I believe that any of the five councilmembers will agree with you that that was the city’s take.

    2. Robb Davis

      Sorry, been under the weather a bit…

      On Pacifico please see this action that the CC took in January.  Guess folks missed it.  We are preparing these units for occupation.  It took extra time because we wanted to craft an arrangement that would allow for maximum flexibility, so rather than use CDBG/HOME federal money that would have restricted uses we used local money.  More time but more flexibility.

      On the DA questions raised by Eileen and CalAg, I would note the following:

      The project would provide $3 million in Roadway Impact Fees for the Richards Interchange as its fair-share contribution to the required improvements.
       The project provides land and improvements for parks and greenbelts, so parkland in-lieu fees or fees to improve the parks would not be required (this is explicit in state law and the Davis Municipal Code with respect to parkland dedication; similar provisions were made in the Cannery DA).
      The project is required to provide the connection to UC Davis; the City agrees to seek grants or other funding.
      The project would provide an estimated $3.5 million in construction tax.
      Fee credits for infrastructure are common with developments. Cannery, for example, received credit for construction of L Street intersection improvements, Oak Tree Plaza median improvements, water line easement, agricultural/irrigation well,  and stormwater mitigation.

      Hope this helps.

      1. hpierce

        OK… I’ll ask a “stupid” question… what’s the difference between a “permanent loan” and a gift/expenditure?  The staff report refers to a ‘permanent loan’, but not sure what that really means.  Meant as an honest question.

        1. Robb Davis

          From the staff report:

          The $500,000 loan would be provided at a 3% interest rate for a 30 year term and would be repaid through residual receipts based on adequate cash flow from the project.

          This is been a very common approach to providing funding for major affordable housing projects using the resources of the trust fund. Using residual receipts practically means that the loan will probably not be paid off within the 30 year period.  As far as I know we have not yet had a loan of this nature come to the end of its term. So it’s not clear what will happen. I may have this wrong but it is my understanding. Note, this is how many loans have been structured for Davis’ affordable housing program. That is, this is not a novel approach for this project.

  5. skeptical

    “Monumentally incompetent staff” assumes they possess the necessary skills but are inept in using them.  I suspect staff lacks the necessary skills and they are faking it as best they can.  Meanwhile the department heads fiddle while Davis burns.   

    1. Don Shor

      I don’t think ‘staff’ has discretion to implement traffic engineering changes without direction from council. It’s really bizarre that commenters here are seeing fit to declare staff incompetent, faking it, etc. I can only imagine how they feel when they read this stuff, particularly coming from anonymous commenters.
      Changes to Richards are basically policy choices to be made by elected officials, not something to be proposed by staff. Put the blame where it belongs.

      1. hpierce

        Staff is competent (not “super-stars”) but not possessing ‘magic wands’… if not related to expenditures outside the budget, or established policy, hopefully, professional staff is empowered to ‘do their thing’… I’d not trust any of the CC to determine what signal timing at any given intersection would be, for example.

        I’ll disagree also, Don, that it IS staff’s responsibility to recommend changes within their expertise… if it requires CC action, and the CC negates the recommendations, if there are failures, it should not be attributed to staff.

    2. CalAg

      FWIW – “monumentally incompetent staff” was sarcasm. A rhetorical fail (illogical extreme) meant to underscore my opinion that Richards can’t be fixed without widening.

      I don’t buy the argument that there is an easy solution and staff just doesn’t get it.

  6. Tia Will

     it IS staff’s responsibility to recommend changes within their expertise… if it requires CC action, and the CC negates the recommendations, if there are failures, it should not be attributed to staff.”

    An excellent example of why it would be more productive to move beyond fingerprinting when there are suboptimal outcomes. Fortunately, there is another model available for how to avoid this non productive approach. System analysis with debriefing aimed at how to identify at which step in a process there was a breakdown rather than whom to blame allows for prevention of similar errors in the future.

  7. sisterhood

    “I am troubled by the affordable housing component here. The pre-development agreement allows the developer to avoid building the required affordable units.”

    No surprise there at all. Perhaps a nice gesture would be for the city to give some of the million dollars to the families who had their down payments, (“carrying charges”) stolen due to the last affordable debacle. Not a legal solution, a moral one. IMHO. Wonder if the few remaining lawsuits were ever settled, or the families just ran out of money for legal fees.

    Wonder what the developer and city now define as “affordable” for this new project. Sure hope it’s spelled out better than last time.

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