Commentary: What Have We Gained from the Hotel Settlement?

Former City Councilmember Michael Harrington raised legal issues that suggested a potential law suit at the same meeting
Former City Councilmember Michael Harrington raised legal issues that suggested a potential lawsuit

In my years of doing the Vanguard, we have covered a number of lawsuits and their settlements and, in those years, there does not seem to be more uncertainty over the implications of a lawsuit than this one.

Part of the problem here is that the city was not a party to the settlement of this suit.  Therefore, normal sources for clarification, either from Assistant City Manager Mike Webb, who heads up the planning department, or from the city council, were largely in the dark on the details of the settlement.

Those in the know – such as Michael Harrington – were not talking.

It is easy to take a cynical view of these matters – after all, the most glaring portion of the settlement was the $75,000 that attorney Don Mooney was set to receive as part of the settlement.

Was this really all about money?  The suit originally alleged that the Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) was in violation of CEQA due in part to the insufficiency of the study of traffic impacts to Richards Boulevard.  How does this settlement address those issues?

That is the biggest puzzle in this whole settlement.  It was never clear that the hotel was going to have a huge impact on traffic on Richards Blvd.  Part of the reason is that, while there are existing congestion issues on Richards, the hotel was not generally going to bring in sustained traffic, especially during peak hours.

The settlement does bring in a loaner bike program, a shuttle service, and it establishes a parking fee to encourage people not to bring their cars from the airport.  However, one source indicated that the biking program was already required by the city.

In his press release, Mr. Harrington indicates “… the Settlement Agreement reflects that the lawsuit caused Embassy Suites to reduce the visual massing of the buildings, push the buildings to the southern boundary of the property along the freeway so the public’s view from Richards provides for a modified site plan and building design that will be much improved and opened up, and ensures that the project footprint and design will not interfere with or compromise the City and Cal Trans’ ability to re-work the Richards area, including Olive Drive intersection and the I-80/Richards tight diamond.”

But it’s not clear how this is accomplished with what is actually in the settlement agreement.  The settlement agreement reduces the number of floors of the building, but not the height.  What is even more strange, and no one with knowledge is willing to explain, is how this is accomplished without a reduction in rooms – which Mr. Harrington insists will not occur.

The question, as others posed yesterday, is “what exactly did the settlement change for the traffic situation?”

Alan Pryor, apparently not a party to the lawsuit, but a critic of the project, stated, “Absolutely nothing was changed to improve the traffic. The purported traffic study is still deficient in exactly the same manner and the mitigations are still just as deficient as before.”

He continued, “Think Richards is screwed up now? Just wait until construction on the hotel starts. The average 5 minute wait to get to the downtown will probably explode to 10-15 minutes. It may be faster to go to the malls in Woodland than to try to get downtown through the tunnel and find parking. Wonder what that will do to our downtown merchants and our retail tax revenue?”

Again, let us back up this discussion to the points raised by Michael Harrington and Alan Pryor last fall.

Former City Councilmember Michael Harrington raised the issue of planning process, stating, “I think we have a situation here where the city staff is recommending the use of a ‘neg dec’ to avoid a full CEQA analysis and I think that the facts and law are against that process.”

He added, “I think that the weaknesses in the traffic report and the fact that the historic resources were not really evaluated, I think that that places you out of the ‘neg dec’ status and I believe that if you continue this and look at it some more, you’d have a good project.”

Alan Pryor, continuing on his line from his guest column in the Vanguard, stated, “I think there are many problems with this project that we really have to work through.”

He said, “For one, the traffic analysis was deficient in that it relied on unjustifiably low pre-existing baseline traffic counts taken by humans only over a two-hour period last year. I certainly don’t think you can say that’s representative.”

He further stated that this is compounded by under-counting or underestimating the number of vehicles that would come to the facility during maximum occupancy events. He argued that they did not have near enough parking to handle that.

So again – someone needs to explain on the record how this very modest agreement addresses those concerns.  In fact, I think we need to go further than that – why did Michael Harrington have to file a lawsuit to get bikes, a shuttle service, and a fee for parking?  It seems like that could have been done in a separate negotiation.

With the bigger issues of the MND and traffic study unresolved, we have to at least consider the possible explanation that this was simply all about money and not at all about good planning – the latter of which has been the central premise of Mr. Harrington’s actions for the last several years.

The ball is in Mr. Harrington’s court, in our view, to explain what the community has gained by all of this.  Right now the answer would seem to be not very much.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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18 Comments

  1. Misanthrop

    I guess you need to weigh this against what would have been gained by pursuing the lawsuit. By that standard you get an EIR that gains you nothing environmentally and probably costs more in time and money than a settlement that costs the owner $75,000.

    Whether this was a shakedown or a Hail Mary pass is up in the air. That it was a waste of time and money is indisputable because that question is answered by the settlement.

  2. ryankelly

    We forget that this was to go to trial several times, but delayed when attorneys supposedly scheduled vacations, though I know for a fact that Harrington was in town on the date of the last scheduled date.   Now the trial date is approaching and the shakedown occurs.  I suspect that there would be further delays and Patel relented.  Of course this was all about money.   Harrington claims that he’s all about transparency, public participation, accountability, but includes a confidentiality clause in the settlement, so no one can talk.  I suggest community shunning to let him know that this is not an acceptable practice.

  3. Alan Pryor

    It was never clear that the hotel was going to have a huge impact on traffic on Richards Blvd.

    I don’t understand your reasoning here at all, David. You have posted two or three times how bad is the traffic you experience going on Richards Blvd  and into the downtown through the tunnel after dropping of your kids at school – even up to 10 minute delays.

    I wrote an entire article for the Vanguard showing in detail how the existing traffic was very likely under-counted (if actually counted at all – the worksheets have never been provided by the City despite repeated requests). I showed in detail how the sq footage capacity of the Conference allowed at least twice the estimated attendance at the facility compared to what was estimated by the developer. This lowball estimate was then used by Fehr and Peers to calculate traffic levels of service. I have also posted how projected levels of service are based on delays in traffic and not just how many vehicles per hour are moved through an intersection.

    So for you to say that it was never “clear” how traffic was going to be adversely impacted means you either never read my earlier posts, you forgot about them, or you did not understand them. In any event, it would be appropriate for you to at least point to any level of quantitative information that might give a different impression on readers rather than just offering up your completely subjective opinions when referring to the traffic mess that exists. How can it not get worse when you there may be up to an additional  1,000 vehicle trips a day just from  the new Conference Center…and not even counting Nishi if it were passed.

    We all know you are a great fan of the developers in town and put your thumb on their side of the scale any chance you get when you subjectively comment on development matters. But when there are actually facts presented that speak against your musings, good journalism practices would presumably dictate that you acknowledge that those other objective information exists and pass it on to your readers.

      1. Alan Pryor

        No, you are incorrect. I am not part of that litigation at all. But I support what they did. Anytime the City tries to take short cuts for the benefit of developers (which now seems to be the norm given the propensity for spot zoning instead of updating the General Plan), they need to be held accountable. If litigation is necessary then I think Mike H is doing an invaluable community service by pursuing this type of redress. He is certainly not getting rich doing this despite the back of the envelope calculations all you pundits are doing on this blog.

        But if you do not like the way the American legal system is run, then move to Russia!

        …..I have been waiting a long time to use that 🙂

        1. ryankelly

          But they accomplished nothing to address what you see is wrong.  You support a lawsuit to address what you see is an imperfect result by the City Council, but the result of the lawsuit does nothing to change the perceived imperfection, but you still support it – in fact, encourage it.   Then you wonder why people don’t listen to you or give you the media coverage you seem to be demanding.

          This is a  perfect example of “post-truth.”  Facts are ignored, so actions are taken to get an emotional response instead.  This is what the Davis Vanguard needs to battle.  There are other examples of this.  The article by the parent about her complaints about services for students with disabilities, but also blamed the School District for the impacts that caring for her her child has on her own health and employment is one that comes to mind.

    1. Mark West

      “So for you to say that it was never “clear” how traffic was going to be adversely impacted means you either never read my earlier posts, you forgot about them, or you did not understand them.”

      The traffic study supports David’s conclusions. You don’t agree with the conclusions of that study, but your anecdotal observations and lay opinions do not disprove a study produced by trained and experienced professionals using appropriate standards and methods. Until that study is invalidated, your complaints rightfully should be discounted.

    2. Tia Will

      Alan Pryor

      As someone who has no strong interest or bias regarding this issue, I would like to make a couple of observations regarding your comments.

      So for you to say that it was never “clear” how traffic was going to be adversely impacted means you either never read my earlier posts, you forgot about them, or you did not understand them”

      You left out an important forth possibility. It is entirely possible that David did read your posts, remembered them, understood them, and simply disagreed with your interpretation of the information.

      But when there are actually facts presented that speak against your musings, good journalism practices would presumably dictate that you acknowledge that those other objective information exists and pass it on to your readers.”

      I believe that David did, by publishing your article, and by frequently as I recall responding to your comments did indeed acknowledge that there was other information in existence and did in fact pass it on to his readers. Just because it was written by you and not by him does not mean that it was not presented.

  4. Chamber Fan

    This is the question I had yesterday – what is the benefit to the community of this lawsuit?  I have been told by those who know more than me, that the agreements listed were already required by the city – bikes, shuttle, parking.  So all I see is a money grab by Harrington.

  5. Ron

    ryankelly:  “I suggest community shunning to let him know that this is not an acceptable practice.”

    Not likely, to say the least.  (Yes, I’m familiar with some of the criticism.) $75K is not much for this type of work, and I sincerely doubt that it provided much motivation for anyone involved.

    1. ryankelly

      You don’t know Harrington well enough then.  $75K is motivation enough for him.  Winning is motivation enough for him.  Actually, this article and our comments are motivation enough for him.

  6. Alan Miller

    What is even more strange, and no one with knowledge is willing to explain, is how this is accomplished without a reduction in rooms

    Tall rooms with stacked beds, perfect for Basketball teams looking to save money?

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