For all of the complaining about the confining nature of Davis’ Measure R, which requires the conversion of agricultural land outside the city to go through a public vote, it is not all that clear that developing inside the city without a Measure R vote would be less constraining.
A few months ago Nishi went down to electoral defeat by about 600 votes, marking the third time in the last 12 years that a Measure J/R project was defeated at the ballot box.
But even without Measure R, development is difficult in Davis. Cannery went through several iterations and even a number of different developers before the project was ultimately approved in 2013. In the last few years we saw pushback on Paso Fino, resulting in that project’s reduced size and we have seen this year pushback against Trackside (resulting in reductions) and Sterling Apartments (outcome still unknown), not to mention strong pushback on the Hyatt House hotel.
For those who believe the problem here is simply the nature of infill – that is not clear either. Nishi, which really had limited numbers of neighbors, was defeated at the polls. The Davis Innovation Center, which was a peripheral project, was pulled after the residents of the Binning Tract started to mount opposition against that project. And Mace Ranch Innovation Center (MRIC), if it were to include housing, had folks starting to line up to oppose that – leading to the council keeping it commercial only and MRIC being pulled.
Against this backdrop the city is facing a mounting shortage of rental housing. Last fall, surveys found a 0.2 percent vacancy rate for rental housing. With the university expecting to add another 1000 students this fall, that shortage could become more pronounced with students forced to pack even more tightly into existing housing and further impacting the supply of single-family housing for families and other older residents.
What is the solution?
One approach from the city’s perspective has been to find some spots in town to develop apartment and other rental units. That has been, at best, a slow process. Nishi would have provided around 1500 beds, but was narrowly defeated in June at the polls. Sterling Apartments could provide 1000 beds or more, but there has been strong opposition, particularly from Rancho Yolo. Lincoln40 along Olive Drive might provide some beds, but it still needs to go through the public process.
The Vanguard has this year suggested that the city find somewhere between 3000 and 4000 beds in the short term to help alleviate the shortfall of housing, but even that somewhat modest proposal has been met with strong pushback.
Others have suggested putting pressure on the university to fill their housing obligations. While the city does not have direct authority to compel UC Davis to build housing on campus, there are a number of reasons to suggest that UC Davis might be the better location, especially given the lack of on-campus housing that they have provided.
However, even here there are signs of difficulty.
First, UC Davis seems just as susceptible to pressure as the city. A plan to tear down and densify Solano Park was scrapped, at least temporarily, in the face of protests from existing students. Second, a plan to consider building housing along Russell Boulevard has been met with opposition, and the plan might be scrapped.
Third, the plans for building at West Village were delayed, first by lawsuit and then by the economic downturn.
This spring, the university, through its Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) process, announced a plan to provide up to 90 percent of new student housing. The question is whether they will follow through, as twice in the past they have made similar promises but failed to follow through.
In 1989 UC Davis agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that committed to providing 25 percent of its existing student population and 35 percent of incoming students with on-campus housing. However, they never followed through with that.
Thirteen years later, in 2012, the university produced a report, “UC Housing for the 21st Century,” which acknowledged the need for more on-campus housing UC-wide and established a 42 percent goal for all campuses. UC Davis was to provide at least 38 percent by 2012.
However, as Eileen Samitz reported last year, “This plan for UCD student housing never materialized. UCD has one of the nation’s largest campuses with over 5,000 acres,” and yet has failed to hit the critical 30 percent mark let alone 38 percent.
UC Davis makes a lot of sense for supplying much needed rental housing, but it does not appear to represent low-hanging fruit. There are cost considerations that go with prevailing wage and other requirements. They appear just as susceptible to land use issues and neighbor concerns as the city.
Finally, while the university is driving a lot of the housing demand, the city has little ability to force UC to act.
The next few months will be critical in determining how far the university is willing to go in terms of supplying housing for its students and alleviating the current housing crunch.
—David M. Greenwald reporting