We have just a few weeks until we find out the final answer from the community on the Nishi Gateway project. In our view, the Nishi project addresses clear community needs for housing and jobs. However, like every project, it has both challenges – in terms of infrastructure and location – and shortcomings.
The question that the voters must decide is whether the needs it addresses outweigh the shortcomings of the project and the challenges of the location.
In the months before the Vanguard’s founding, the community witnessed a very dishonest effort to sell them on a massive housing development, Covell Village, on the corner of Pole Line and Covell. Had the Vanguard been around at the time, it would have delighted at the machinations of Pizza Gate and, as the Vanguard itself reported years later, the vast underreporting of campaign spending.
By contrast, this has been a fairly tame campaign. However, as I moderated the debate, I was struck by some of the comments from the opposition.
The Vanguard has remained neutral in this campaign and, personally, I continue to see strong reasons to oppose the campaign as well as compelling needs for the project. There are clearly legitimate arguments to oppose the project, but some of the claims made by the No Campaign have strained logic.
Here I will lay out what I consider to be five legitimate reasons to oppose the project, and then I will address several that the campaign has used that I think are less than honest.
First, Alan Pryor led his presentation with still photos of the traffic congestion on Richards Blvd – traffic congestion that exists now, without a project. The Yes on A campaign and project developer will tell you that they have the answer to traffic congestion – and they are pumping in about $23 million to help fix the problem. The solution is to widen the intersection of Olive and Richards, and divert some of the traffic to campus through the project.
Opponents will tell you that Old Davis Road is not set up to be able to handle that flow of traffic, just as we have seen that 1st Street isn’t, and that the project will simply move the point of congestion.
A legitimate argument can be made that we are putting 1500 beds and 1500 jobs in the most congested point of town and that the proposed mitigation will not address the problem sufficiently. Reasonable people may disagree with this point, but it is a reasonable and honest argument.
Second, why the city agreed to waive affordable housing requirements back in 2012 remains a bit of a mystery. As I will argue shortly, I don’t believe there is anything illegal about what the city did, but, given the city’s needs for an affordable housing stock, I think the decision was rather appalling. The city was able to negotiate about $1 million back in, however, by the city’s own measures, and they were entitled to about $70,000 per unit at one-quarter of the units. The city will counter that the $1 million was a trade off for the need for the developer to pay for infrastructure like the grade-separated crossing – that’s a fair argument and one that can be hashed out between the proponent and opponents of the project.
Third is overall affordability of the units. When the opposition pointed to the overall cost of the units and put a price at $2400 per unit, the proponents were quick to respond with a new number. As new units and being somewhat larger, the cost to rent a unit will be a bit higher. The developer believes, after considerable pushing, that the cost will be closer to $1800 per unit and that it will be split four ways. They also believe that developing additional units will open supply and therefore decrease cost overall in the city. Reasonable people can disagree on whether this makes it affordable, but at least this is a legitimate point.
Fourth, sustainability. This makes for an interesting debate. The developers will argue that they rank very highly in sustainability, they received a grant early on and have the goal of having a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental design) Neighborhood design at Platinum. However, they appear unlikely to get there and, while somewhat technical, that has to rank as a disappointment for the project. The proponents will argue that building housing right next to campus will reduce vehicle miles traveled. However, given the goals in the city at overall reduction in GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions, this seems to be fair game.
Finally, I still maintain that this is a project that does a little bit for adding housing (1500 units) and does a little bit for addressing innovation needs (325,000 square feet of R&D space). However, I look at projects like USC Village (Retail and Innovation) or Poly Canyon Village (Housing) and feel we could have done more. The question then quickly turns to does voting against the project – and therefore reducing housing, jobs, and R&D space to zero for 20 years – really make sense if what you wanted was more than this project offered? Again, that’s a legitimate debate.
These are five reasonable points. The Yes on A campaign will argue that they can address those five points and that’s fine. Let us have that debate. It is subjective, honest, and helps us identify and address community goals.
However, I have to say, as someone attempting to moderate the forum on Wednesday, I was stunned when Alan Pryor made the argument that we don’t need jobs, we have plenty of jobs at the university, what we need to do is address the jobs-housing imbalance.
Like many, I like and respect Alan Pryor. I think he has helped push the ball forward on a number of issues, and even when I have disagreed with him in the past, I think his involvement has been an asset to this community.
But the jobs argument does not fly. My problem with Davis is that, unless you have a doctorate, there are not a lot of jobs in town for people in their 30s and 40s. While there is some data that I am digging up to support that view, I will argue anecdotally here. Perhaps this is a generational thing.
I have known my wife since we met in Davis in 1998. In that time, she has had zero jobs in Davis. I would add that had I not invented my own business, I would not be working in Davis either.
Just for fun, I looked at a bunch of Davis’ young leadership, most of whom are in their 30s and 40s. Remember, for instance, former Councilmember Lamar Heystek, elected to council in his 20s – he never worked in Davis during his tenure on the council. Joe Krovoza was an exception – he was an attorney who worked as a staff member at the university.
Rochelle Swanson has spent most of her time on council commuting out of town, though recently she has tried to make a go of it by starting her own consulting company. Brett Lee, in his 40s, has worked in the Bay Area and now West Sacramento. Lucas Frerichs spent most of his first term, in his 30s, commuting to Sacramento, although he recently got a job in town. Dan Wolk works in Solano County. Will Arnold, another exception, was able to use resources left to him by his father to purchase a local business, but prior to that, he worked out of town.
School board – of five members of the board, only Law Professor Madhavi Sunder works in town.
Alan Pryor is correct that we have a jobs imbalance. Every morning, a crew of people commute into town to work at the university. But every morning another crew of people drive outside of town to work in Sacramento or to head west. The university has some jobs, but the biggest thing that the university is looking to do is transfer research and technology to the private sector and what Davis needs is space for some of that R&D to take route in spinoffs and startups.
Second point, Alan Pryor on Wednesday continued to assert that the city broke the law on the affordable housing deal. He bases it on two points, first that the project does not meet the definition for vertical mixed use. Second, that the city could not or did not change requirements under the development agreement.
Robb Davis addressed both of these points. He noted that “the City Council in 2013 allowed for affordable housing exemptions for denser types of housing—including so-called ‘stacked flat’ condominiums and vertical mixed use housing. Even before these ordinance changes, in 2012 when the City Council passed a resolution committing (reimbursable) resources to help fund Nishi project development costs, it included in its deliberations a statement about its intent to exempt the Nishi project from affordable housing requirements. While this statement of intent was not binding on the current City Council, it did set the stage for project planning and created the clear expectation that there would be no affordable housing requirement.”
Alan Pryor argues that, because the first floor is not completely devoid of functions that are ancillary to residential use, it fails to qualify. In the past, we have noted that the ordinance simply states that such use “does not include,” not “cannot include,” and moreover, we also showed it would likely be impossible not to have common areas, stairways, and other access points on the first floor.
To show that the project does not meet the exemption, we would need to see case law and here I think the opponents are playing fast and loose by co-mingling political arguments with legal ones.
The city has a second defense, though. Section 65866 of the State of California Government Code allows a city to approve deviations from otherwise-applicable regulations and policies through a Development Agreement.
Alan Pryor argued, again without citing case law, that this didn’t apply because 65866 mentions “rules, regulations, and official policies” whereas the affordable housing ordinance is a city ordinance. The problem with that argument is that Mr. Pryor didn’t cite case law as to how courts treat an ordinance of this sort, which really can be changed at any time with three votes.
From a functional standpoint, the council could have voted to change the ordinance to exempt Nishi on a variety of grounds and it would have taken the same three votes it took to approve the development agreement.
A reasonable question is whether it takes a de facto action or a specific action to change the rules here. Again, the opposition offers no case law. This allows them to make political claims about illegality without backing them. We won’t have a court weigh in on any of this stuff until after the election – there is something disingenuous about that approach.
Finally, while it is a lesser point, Alan Pryor, in attacking the $1.4 million revenue claims – which is certainly subjective and fair game for criticism, argued that the Finance and Budget Commission pulled out $700,000 or so in expected costs for police and fire. He argued that both the police and fire chief argued for them.
What chief isn’t going to argue for more money for their department? The reality is that the city is not going to hire any additional police and fire personnel based on the addition of Nishi in the city. Given that, the money is only theoretical. The Finance and Budget Commission was right to exclude those costs because, unless you have to hire more personnel, they aren’t real.
That leads us to the question of air quality. The argument has been made that the location of Nishi between the rail and I-80 presents a huge problem for susceptible residents, particularly children, pregnant mothers and seniors.
This is a difficult argument to evaluate. I would like to see someone independent make an assessment of the actual risk management. For instance, in January Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis argued that if we examine the actual risk of the air quality issues, it is not as great as we might think. He explained, “What we’re hearing about this property is one in 4500 people will over the course of an entire lifetime contract a certain form of cancer. That’s not annually, that’s one in 4500 over the course of a lifetime. We’re talking about magnitudes of difference.”
He said, “These are minuscule risks compared to the risks that we face every day in our lives.”
Then there are the mitigation measures that several writers laid out in an op-ed yesterday. They noted that planting an urban forest could help remove up to 50 percent of all airborne particulate matter and that the residential condos will have a particulate filter, which would remove 95 percent of air particulates.
So, if that information is correct, between the low risk and the ability to mitigate, this could be a non-issue.
That is certainly not enough to satisfy critics like Thomas Cahill or Alan Pryor. While I appreciate the work done by the co-authors yesterday, I would feel better if we had a more independent analysis here.
Where does all of this leave us? I think it leaves us about where we started. Nishi provides us with about 1500 beds, the opportunity for R&D space that will lead to startups, tech transfer and jobs. It provides living close to campus and downtown.
However, there are concerns about the affordability of the rental units, about traffic impacts and about air quality.
The voters have to weigh the benefits against the risks.
—David M. Greenwald reporting