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