One of the issues that came out of Wednesday’s Planning Commission meeting was the need for a new General Plan, or an update to the existing one.
Commissioner Herman Boschken called it a “quagmire” in his judgment “that we have gotten ourselves into.” He said, “The problem may not be so much the developer and what he wants to do, but the city of Davis and what it has failed to do. I’m speaking about in effect that this project speaks to the usability and consistency of a badly outdated general plan – one that’s filled with conflicts and changes that don’t gibe with one another.
“It is this lack of contemporary value of the general plan which I think causes the conflict that we’re dealing with at the moment,” he said. He noted that the new council has put at the forefront of its agenda “an attempt to right or reckon with the general plan shortfalls and specifically the possible use of form-based codes or zoning.”
While I think Mr. Boschken makes an interesting point here, I also think that this problem is exacerbated by staff’s choice of how to handle the incompatibility with the General Plan. For the last number of years, the city’s approach to the outdated General Plan has been planning by exception – they simply create a General Plan exception and move on with their day.
In the case of the Hyatt House hotel proposal, staff for reasons that are unclear decided to first create a General Plan amendment that would allow hotels at any land zoned for a business park. Perhaps they were wishing to avoid future discussions like the one we have seen where the neighbors point out that the land is appropriate for business and commercial uses but not for a hotel.
After objections and at the last minute, staff brought back an item that actually made things a good deal worse by narrowing the focus.
This is problematic as well, as Mr. Boschken noted that 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.
While I think the work of Marilee Hanson, showing that hotels next to housing and away from freeway access and amenities are quite unusual, the comments of Cheryl Essex actually bring a lot more to bear here.
It was Ms. Essex who made the key point here that, while a hotel is not in the current zoning for acceptable uses, the difference between a hotel on this spot and other business is far less than stark.
“Ultimately, I think this is better, I think the hotel is better,” Ms. Essex said, noting “there is 24-hour security, the traffic patterns are much more dispersed, they do not go through the neighborhood whatsoever, the privacy screens on the south windows and the hotel’s commitment to provide its guests with quiet night sleep is a significant benefit over that of a 50-foot tall office building.”
She said that the proposal is likely to reduce vandalism, and that it would certainly reduce incessant freeway noise, with privacy impacts adequately addressed. She noted that the project is adequately set back to the homes, and there is now a bonus of 25-year-old trees. The additional layer of trees is a real benefit.
While the city seemed content to move forward with General Plan Amendment at the end of the day, that is really not what ails the city.
What I think ails the city is not that their General Plan needs updating, it’s that the current political situation makes change virtually impossible.
Consider this – the city has a housing shortfall, for not only rentals but also for single family homes. The city is also suffering deeply from a lack of revenue, which will make maintaining roads, parks, greenbelts and other facilities extremely difficult.
The city has not been able to build on the periphery since prior to Measure J’s passage in 2000. While three projects have been voted down in that time, two overwhelmingly, the city has failed to figure out the right strategy for getting housing approved.
That has forced the city to look at infill sites, which pits the interests of the city against the desire of the neighbors. As Commissioner Stephen Streeter illustrated with his suggestion that they look at three rather than four stories, we see the same difficulty with some of the housing proposals as well – limited sites have pushed for developers to go up, but going up has led to increased conflicts with neighbors who are concerned about sight lines and other impacts.
Meanwhile, the city’s economic development and revenue generation is on life support. The city looked at three sites for R&D and economic development – two were dropped prior to getting to the council and one was defeated at the polls.
Hotels could be looked at to generate a million or two in TOT (Transient Occupancy Tax), but Embassy Suites is mired in litigation and perhaps financing issues; without it, there is no conference center and with no conference center, the viability of other proposals is at least in question.
Where does the city look to generate revenue at this point? Perhaps a tax? And if the community says no – then what?
The bottom line here is that, while it is true the General Plan is out of date, a new General Plan is not going to make neighbors more amenable to massive change, nor is it going to make the voters more willing to support peripheral projects – and that being the case, it is far from clear what a new General Plan actually solves.
—David M. Greenwald reporting