As I write this there are still about 6000 provisional and absentee ballots to be counted. Given the relatively narrow margin that Nishi is going down, it would only take about 52.5 percent of the remaining votes to flip the result. While that does not sound like much, understand that it is likely a long shot.
The early absentees actually favored Nishi by a narrow margin, about 52.7 to 47.3 percent. However, on the day of the election, the measure failed by roughly 600 votes. It has been my experience that the late absentees mirror the day of election and therefore we can expect the final margin to expand slightly rather than the result to flip.
There are a lot of variables at play and unknowns, but I would say the measure passing at this point is a long shot and so, in this piece, I will act as though it has failed to make several key points.
Bob Dunning was hasty to declare we will never see another Measure J/R project, but clearly a rational developer would think twice before risking what would have to be millions of dollars planning for something that, in the best case scenario, is a coin toss.
We will not get a do-over on this, but clearly key mistakes were made in the planning process that made the project much more difficult to pass.
Nishi clearly wanted to get on the ballot ahead of MRIC (Mace Ranch Innovation Center) – a threat that resolved itself only after the project was on the ballot, but in hindsight it was a huge mistake to push the election onto the June ballot The project was probably harmed by the fact that the election was called for Hillary Clinton before election day, and it likely didn’t help that the Republicans had long since settled their nomination.
The turnout was surprisingly low, around 43 percent, although that number will rise with the counting of 6000 ballots. Still, you would have seen perhaps a 25 to 30 percent higher turnout in November, which may well have helped the yes side.
That being said, pushing it to November probably was not enough to fix several other problems. The fact that the LDRP (Long Range Development Plan) had not come out even in draft form yet was likely not helpful to the prospects of the project. That left open the argument that UC Davis hadn’t agreed to anything in terms of the campus access point. It is hard to know how much of a factor that played – but it was there.
A bigger issue for me, one that might have swung the election, is that the city could have taken several additional steps to remedy the existing traffic issues on Richards. The project actually proposed and was willing to fund a solution to the problem, but had the city fixed the traffic sequencing and figured out a way to start routing traffic to UC Davis via Old Davis road, it would have gone a long way toward remedying the chief shortcoming of the project – traffic on Richards and the belief that this would make the traffic worse.
The council, in retrospect, should have dealt with this issue prior to both the Hotel Conference Center and Nishi – at least from a political perspective. They couldn’t have done this by November, but doing so would have changed the outcome greatly.
Finally, the biggest mistake of the project was the affordable housing deal. This hurt in several ways. First, legit or illegit, the deal had bad optics. The city ended up essentially exempting the project from affordable housing requirements. That allowed the opposition to argue favoritism and argue that Nishi was a $10 million giveaway to developers.
While the developer could note that they were committing huge resources to access, the optics of the arrangement clearly hurt the prospects of the project passing. In addition, at least some of the social justice students and activists turned against the project on this basis. That helped negate what might have been an advantage of the Bernie voters turning out and supporting the project.
Furthermore, you didn’t just have the “Big A” Affordable Housing issue, but the small “a” as well. The opponents were able to claim that these were just $2400 rental units that no student could afford. The developer took a long time to put out an alternative number, but the combination proved perhaps deadly. Students who knew we needed more housing had that argument undermined by the prospect of not being able to afford the new housing.
While I didn’t see anything illegal here in terms of the lawsuit, the developer was probably best off taking the project up to 800 units with a 200-unit affordable component in it.
In a razor-thin election, that would have been enough even with other shortcomings to push Nishi over the top. Likewise, assuring LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum would have gone a long way to help as well.
On the other hand, there was probably little the developers could do about the air quality issue – they pushed back a bit, they had the mitigation, but at the end of the day, the facts were the facts there.
Likewise, I would not have recommended no west Olive access to the project. Having an in-city project with no access to town directly made little sense to me. West Village with no Russell Blvd access makes little sense and that’s a university project.
The bottom line here is that the community does not trust the council on development issues. These trust issues go back a long way. They were highlighted by the 60 percent of the community that opposed Covell Village, even though the council approved it 4-1.
The continuing problems at Cannery only illustrate the point that council was not willing to tie down developers on key issues. That created a huge trust gap. You had the failure of council to nail down the bike access to Cannery. You had the CFD (Community Facilities District) that was given to the developers on a 3-2 vote after the fact. You had the appearance of a conflict of interest with Dan Wolk receiving $20,000 from The New Homes Company as he served as a key deciding vote. You then had the city inexplicably hiring the Cannery Project Manager.
Had the city gone aboveboard on Cannery, Nishi may well have passed. Trust issues are critical on this vote and, time and time again, I saw in the arguments of the No side a critical lack of trust for the city and city council to hold the developers to their commitments.
The fiscal component was also a problem – even though I agreed with the eventual analysis of the Finance and Budget commission. It was pointed out to me that the standard has shifted from net neutral to net positive.
Part of that is that this was originally sold as an economic development project with a revenue component. EPS (Economic & Planning Systems, Inc.) in the end hurt the city because their assumptions were too conservative. That gave opponents something to sink their teeth into – even though again, I believe they were wrong.
First you had the services CFD that was money guaranteed by the developer to make the city whole. Second, you had the flawed assumption that neither sales tax increase was going to continue. You can argue that the city might allow the 2014 sales tax to expire in six years, but the other sales tax has been on the books for 12 years – I don’t see it going anywhere and that’s $200,000 or so each.
Third, the costs for fire and police were not real. By that, I mean we would not have hired a single additional officer or firefighter based on Nishi, so that nearly $800,000 was not real cost. EPS erred by putting it in and the police and fire chiefs did us no service by arguing for the costs.
Again, it handed the opposition an argument they could sink their teeth into. And erroneously so. It gave them the argument that the $1.4 million in revenue was all just an accounting sleight of hand when, in fact, the problem was that EPS was way too conservative.
In the end, the margin in this race was so close that any slip up would prove costly – and the project died in the end, if it does die, from a thousand paper cuts.
So what does that mean for Measure R’s future? That’s a discussion for another day.
—David M. Greenwald reporting