Wednesday night brought another avoidable debacle from the city’s planning staff. We will get into some of the dynamics of that exchange shortly, but what I found interesting, first and foremost, was the similarity between the discussion of Field & Pond at the county level and the Hyatt House at the city level.
Field & Pond, a special events facility out on County Rd. 29 near Winters, was ultimately approved by the County Board of Supervisors on a 4 to 1 vote, despite being voted down at the County Planning Commission level a few months ago. Basically, in that case, we saw the applicants going out of their way to attempt to compromise and accommodate the concerns of the neighbors, and, at the end of the day, the neighbors were unwilling to budge from their position that the event center was inappropriate for that location.
We have seen something similar in the Hyatt House discussion. The neighbors of the proposed hotel along Cowell Boulevard in South Davis have come up with a litany of issues, many of them very legit (just as the neighbors of Field & Pond had legitimate concerns), mostly about privacy. What we have seen in the last iterations is the developers working hard to address those concerns. First, they came up with the partial privacy screen that should make it very difficult to see into the neighbors’ homes and yards.
But they didn’t stop there, they have added some trees on their own property line to give additional space and cover to the neighbors.
Between that additional space, the privacy screens and the evergreen trees, the neighbors will have a good measure of protection. Last week, the Vanguard was able to view the scene from the perspective of one of the most impacted neighbors – and, yes, we could see the balloons put up as markers, but I think what is missing is that someone would still have to strain to see between tree branches – it’s not an unobstructed view.
Having addressed those issues, the argument by the neighbors seemed to shift a little, and the sense was – they just didn’t want the hotel there. It didn’t really matter what the developers did, they didn’t want the hotel there. The argument was incompatibility to the site.
I think, at the end of the day, I come down with where Commissioner George Hague was. Do I think there are better sites in town for a hotel? Yes. Do I think that the problems on this site are surmountable? Probably.
This was always going to go to council, and I think there is a strong chance that this project will get approved, with some modifications.
One dynamic which people should pay attention to is that the argument seemed to be that the Marriott site was better – that it should be either one or the other. This is backed somewhat by the HVS Consulting & Valuation report. The one caveat is that, at least at this point, it is not clear that the Embassy Suites – which is in litigation but also according to some reports has financing issues – will go forward at this point.
People were downplaying the fiscal needs of the city, but you may be talking about $1 million annually. Ironically, that neighborhood is extremely reliant on the city being able to maintain its greenbelts and parks, not to mention the bike paths and city streets – all of which are imperiled without an influx of revenue.
The Finance and Budget Commission met on Monday and, while they did not take a side in the recommendations on land-use applications – which are the purview of the Planning Commission and City Council, they did find that, if approved, the Hyatt House “would likely result in a net fiscal benefit to the City of Davis in the hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.”
While that may be a small number in terms of the overall needs of the city, which are in the tens of millions of annual funding, in terms of the city’s ability to be able to maintain parks and greenbelts, that money could be critical in the coming years.
Concerns with Planning Staff
To be fair, I think there is plenty of blame to go around here, just as there was on Nishi. I think Herman Boschken’s comments on the General Plan, which we will analyze in much greater detail in a subsequent piece, are spot on. When he said that “this problem speaks to the usability of a badly outdated General Plan,” I think he nails it on the head.
Those who are opposed to this project but skeptical of a General Plan revision should be aware of the irony – one of the reasons that Mr. Boschken cited for opposing the staff recommendation is that the General Plan is basically unusable at this point. This result, therefore, makes it more and not less likely that the city will push forward with changes to the General Plan.
Along the same lines, staff has been heavily criticized for attempting broader General Plan amendments and South Davis Specific Plan Amendments, and they have now narrowed the focus. This is problematic as well, as Mr. Boschken noted this comes dangerously close to spot zoning, something he called illegal.
The General Plan Amendment proposed is: “Hotel uses are conditionally allowable on Cowell Blvd. between Research Park Drive and Drummond Avenue.”
The South Davis Specific Plan Amendment: “Twenty percent of the site area shall be landscaped, or as otherwise established within a Planned Development on Cowell Boulevard between Research Park Drive and Drummond Avenue.”
So, instead of simply granting an exception to the General Plan like other projects have done, the city has gone from suggesting a more general amendment to the General Plan to a very specific amendment, that does come close to spot zoning.
At some point the council is going to have to take leadership here, but this seems very problematic to be proposing this stuff on the fly.
Making matters worse was confusion about council direction. A key issue, cited specifically by Chair Rob Hofmann, among others, was the resolution passed by the City Council regarding establishing criteria for evaluation of hotel proposals. This issue was first pointed out by Marilee Hanson, and he indicated that this gives clear direction from the council about what criteria they should be basing their analysis upon.
Without this direction, Mr. Hofmann indicated he would probably have gone ahead and supported the project.
City Planner Katherine Hess said that these were intended to “supplement the customary planning entitlement review consideration” and, “so as we see it, the criteria on page 166 are things that the council’s going to look at when both of the planning applications are presented together…”
One councilmember told the Vanguard that those principles were set forth by council as their own guide to evaluate the two sites on a one to one basis, but they were not supposed to be used by the Planning Commission. That was never made clear by Ms. Hess, and at least one vote went away from the project because of it.
Another clear problem with the discussion was the focus by Herman Boschken and Rob Hoffman on the viability of the site. Several commissioners here got into issues of this sort that had nothing to do with planning or their purview.
From the city’s perspective, this was a debacle. You had clear confusion on the part of the Planning Commission as to what their role was in this, and no clear direction from city staff.
It should be pointed out that you did not have the Planning Department’s director in attendance at this meeting. The city manager has provided no direction or leadership here.
While I don’t think this is fair to put this all on the shoulders of planning staff or the staff, from the city’s perspective at least, you have put a hugely contentious issue on the shoulders of a planner who was demoted from being the department head a few years ago due to problems with communication to the public, and she was put into the very position where she was set up to fail once again.
What was the last major project headed up by Katherine Hess that got approved? At some point, the city needs to look inward and suggest that this stuff isn’t working.
The neighbors were always going to complain about a four-story hotel in their backyard, but the rest of the issues and, in particular, the confusion on the part of the commissioners was completely avoidable.
Council doesn’t want to get into personnel issues. That makes sense, but at the same time, the city needs to change the way they do business and that starts where they can control things – at the city manager level. There is no hands-on leadership that I can see coming from the city manager.
Next month, this whole mess is going to be dumped into the hands of the council. The neighbors are angry and frustrated. The council has to weigh the concerns and desires of the neighborhood against the needs of the community, and they have gotten remarkably little assistance on all of this.
—David M. Greenwald reporting