By Don Sherman
On the periphery of Davis, the public eye is on the Nishi Project and the Mace Ranch Innovation Center. Downtown, residents are debating Trackside. However, comparatively little attention is being paid to the enormous project proposed by Sterling University Housing for just east of the Davis Post Office at the critical intersection of Fifth Street and Pole Line Road.
The project proposes 244 apartment units, in 4-story and 5-story buildings, supported by 565 automobile parking spaces in a 6-story parking garage … all towering over the adjacent one-story residential Rancho Yolo Senior Community and adding a staff-projected 4,000 automobile trips per day through the 5th and Pole Line intersection.
The project’s mix of studio, 2-bedroom, 4-bedroom and 5-bedroom units are targeted at UCD students, duplicates of what they build all over the country. The 244 units will have over 800 bedrooms, and each of those bedrooms could house 2 students each.
Regardless of how you might feel about a housing project with 1,500 students, one thing upon which we can all agree is that this is a quality-of-life issue for at least two generations of our citizens. Is it unreasonable to ask, “Can we take just a little time to consider the consequences?”
Unfortunately, rather than taking time for due consideration, this project application has been hurtling through town like an express train at a frantic pace. The experience of concerned Rancho Yolo seniors tabling at Saturday Farmers Markets reveals most Davis citizens are neither aware of what is proposed nor of the profound effect the project could have on the character of Davis.
With scant notice on Friday evening, January 22, and the weekend intervening, the Davis Social Services Commission (SSC) announced a public meeting for Monday, January 25 to accept public comments and consider an application for a variance from the City’s General Plan and Zoning regulations.
Preparation for this public hearing by Sterling and their lawyers, in concert with City staff began several months ago. Contrast that to the 72 hours (three days) the public had to read the staff report for the first time, digest its contents, consult with experts, and formulate constructive feedback for the Commission and staff.
At the beginning of the Social Services Commission meeting’s public comments, a neighbor of the proposed project informed the Commission that the short weekend had not provided him or any other Davis citizens with enough time to prepare a well-considered response to the developer application and staff recommendation for granting variances. He politely requested some time to consult experts and come back better informed. At first the Commission chair, Mr. Wise, seemed empathetic and asked staffer Eric Lee if he could handle a postponement. It appeared the Commission had reached agreement on granting the extra time, but two hours later, the Commission voted 4-1 for approval.
At the Planning Commission’s preliminary hearing in June, one of the Commissioners described the proposed dormitory as “an ugly cracker box.” Those of us interested in the track record of Sterling University Housing and the way citizens feel about the dormitories they leave behind after building in other cities, have taken to heart the words of Ron Goldman, a renowned architect faced with the same developer and a similar project in Santa Monica. Read Mr. Goldman’s published summary in the Santa Monica Daily Press. As Goldman succinctly points out, the lesson in his experience is to carefully and completely consider this careening train, before it’s too late.
What should we consider?
A good place to start is the impact of the staff-projected 4,000 additional trips per day going through the 5th and Pole Line intersection. Shouldn’t, at a minimum, a traffic engineer’s assessment be reviewed in a public hearing by the Bicycling, Transportation, and Street Safety Commission, and a recommendation by the Commission based on the public hearing then be forwarded to the Planning Commission for their review and consideration?
Second, we wonder why city staff’s reports state the project “site is not immediately adjacent to sensitive uses, such as single-family housing.” Yet, less than 200 feet of this proposed massive project sits the Rancho Yolo Senior Community of 262 single-family homes. One need go no further than the shadow study on the City website (see Video Link) to know that a 6-story building is going to block out the sun for its neighbors to the north.
Third, the project would require a variance based on the proposed housing density of 45 units per acre, which is nearly double the General Plan’s 16.8 to 30 units-per-acre requirement. Where is the community dialogue about consideration of that density variance?
Fourth, the project proposes 240 apartments, in spite of the city policy specifying that “multi-family housing complexes should be designed, constructed and managed in projects of no more than 150 units.” Revision of the Davis City Plan may require a city-wide ballot measure.
Fifth, the project will add significant added traffic to the 5th Street corridor from east of Pole Line to A Street. A thorough traffic study of that corridor is needed and a public hearing before the Bicycling, Transportation, and Street Safety Commission is also needed, for transparency, for community input, and for a formal recommendation by the Bicycling, Transportation, and Street Safety Commission to the Planning Commission. Adequate time needs to be allowed in the CEQA process from the date of the public hearing until the closing of the CEQA comment period.
The five-stories (plus a sixth for parking) is a mini-city in the making, proposing 843 bedrooms, with nearly 150 of the 270 units having either four-bedroom/four-bath or five-bedroom/five-bath apartments. Clearly, this project is an overly dense student environment that wants to bring as many as 1,500 sardine-packed tenants, to a small 6-acre site.
Interestingly, one of the Social Services Commissioners asked the staff if they knew how UC Davis administration feels:
- About this dormitory being built at a distance from campus, the other side of Davis,
- With access over an already crowded route — one car lane each direction from B Street to L Street on Fifth.
- About 1,500 students and others packed like sardines in a building taller than any existing UCD campus dormitory,,
- Not to mention sharing these tenements with 40 affordable tenants of low-income apartments?
Astonishingly, the staff’s answer was they did not know.
One of the important concerns expressed by the Commissioners was whether it is good for the children of the 40 low-income families in the to be living and playing with 1,500 college students, sharing the pools, common rooms, and other facilities?
Our takeaway is that this headlong rush into an out-of-proportion and inappropriate intrusion on Davis. It is a one-sided, non-transparent process, that is taking a great risk, not nearly outweighed by short-term gain.
The suit salesman may say, “Take it home, wear it for a few days. If you don’t feel like a million bucks, bring it back, and we’ll swap it for another.” Once that first bulldozer or stick of dynamite begins the destruction at 2100 Fifth Street, it’s all in for Davis.
Can’t we at least take a few months to hear the voice of the public before deciding? Why are we in such a hurry? How will we feel if we rush into this before most Davis citizens even know about it? Suddenly, they drive to the Post Office or DMV, and say, “OMG, what the hell is this??”
Don Sherman is a Davis citizen and business owner.