Commentary: Is Scaled Down Sterling a Good Deal for Davis?

Sterling Apartments – original proposal

After the success of the conflict resolution process with the Hyatt House project, the city was quick to get one started with the folks at Rancho Yolo who had concerns about the Sterling Project.

It makes a lot of sense why the city would employ such processes, especially if it is a way to sort of make peace between the applicants of a project and the neighbors.

The concerns laid out by the neighbors focused around the impact of a five-story building, the lack of parking and the potential traffic impacts.  Certainly traffic impacts are real, and the last few months have seemed to show an uptick in traffic related problems in town.

The solution here was a compromise – they lowered the building heights and decreased the number of overall bedrooms by about a quarter.  Not officially announced, but I believe there is a provision in the agreement, much like with Hyatt, that the neighbors won’t get involved in litigation – of course, as we have seen with Hyatt, that didn’t stop a competitor from litigating against the project.

Again, if this kind of process can make these sorts of agreements more regular and the process more collaborative, that is a good thing – at least in some respects.

Nevertheless, I do have some concerns that the city should consider as it plans the next steps.

First of all, the environmental analysis I think is a bit flawed here.  The EIR considered the No Project Alternative to be the environmentally superior alternative, and next the Reduced Density Student Apartment Alternative.

The problem I have with either alternative is I’m not sure I buy them.  A “no project alternative” does not eliminate the student population that would otherwise reside on Fifth Street at Sterling.  We have had, over the past year and a half, a long and at times heated conversation over where students are going to live.

Everyone seems to understand that UC Davis is likely to continue to grow, there is only a 0.2 percent apartment vacancy in the city, and therefore, those students are going to need to find a place to live.

The university has committed to housing 90 percent of those new students on campus, and increasing the total on-campus population to 40 percent of all students.  Both activists and the city council recognize that this will not accommodate current and future need.

They have pushed for a 100/50 mix, with all new students being provided on-campus housing options and the university having half the overall student population on campus.  UC Davis has resisted going this far, and has reasoned that a 10 percent residual is going to live out of town anyway – probably an unrealistic assumption that is based more on current available housing than anything else.

The bottom line here is that, regardless of the policy and the mix of on-campus housing, the city is in need of more rental housing, and there are real impacts if they do not have enough.

Students will double and triple up in existing housing, causing parking and noise problems in the neighborhoods.  Students will live out of town, congesting commuter routes and adding to our carbon footprint.

None of this is really analyzed in the EIR No Project Alternative.  There is not a real analysis that student populations are independent of available housing and therefore they have to live somewhere.

This is the problem with the Reduced Density Student Apartment Alternative as well.  The 200 or so fewer bedrooms means that students have to find an alternative living place, and the question is whether that is better than the Sterling Alternative.

And that leads me to the second problem here: the people at Rancho Yolo – and again, this is not in any way a criticism of them, but rather a concern about the process – are not the only stakeholders here.

Who else is a stakeholder?  A huge number of people travel through the Pole Line/Fifth Street intersection and drive down Fifth Street to get to work or the downtown.  They are all impacted.  But so too are people who have to deal with extra traffic because we lack adequate rental housing in the city, and those who have to deal with parking and noise issues due to packed mini-dorms in town.

We have granted the immediate neighbors with a status here that, in fact, gives them more leverage over the process, but the reality is that Sterling has vast impacts on the city, as did the Hyatt House, and I’m concerned that the entire community gets a reduced role in the deciding the process.  Granted, the city council is supposed to represent the entire community.

The bottom line is that if the council approves the reduced project – as they really should at this point – that means we are probably going to need another apartment complex to house those 200 students that are not being housed at Sterling.  That means someone else is going to have infill and traffic and noise and potential visual blight concerns, but they were not part of the conflict resolution team.

These are things we need to think about going forward.  As I said, the council at this point, assuming there really is agreement here, should approve this project as revised because otherwise they completely undermine any chance of conflict resolution in the future.

I completely support the idea of an early conflict resolution process, I just ask the council to re-think who the stakeholders are, and also re-think how we analyze project impacts.  In the case of student housing, there are impacts to no project that are not being considered in the environmental review process – and part of that is due to the fact that, if students don’t live in Sterling, they don’t disappear off the face of the earth.

—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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  1. Todd Edelman

    First of all, an age- and culturally-intergrated housing development – with necessary facilities that are focused on certain dominant populations – is better for everyone: For example, the younger student who learns early on how to live with diverse neighbors in an urban environment as well as the even younger pre-teen student in subsidized housing who could benefit in amazing ways by having informal tutors in hundreds of subjects right across the hallway.

    So segregating any university student-focused housing or market rate housing at Sterling from the affordable housing on the same plot of land is simply anti-Davis, isn’t it? Our clergy and elected leaders rightly rally at Central Park for religious and cultural inclusion following the attack on the Mosque, and we’re also a Sanctuary City – defying the Bannonists – but we’re putting poor people in one part of this development? Seriously? And it goes beyond – if I understand this correctly – that the likely minority over-represented folks in the affordable housing will not be able to use the Sterling pool.

    Further, Sterling needs storefront businesses accessible to the general public, which is a good segue to….

    The main reason there is certain to be a automobile traffic problem with Sterling is because the City of Davis has a requirement for a minimal level of car parking spaces on-site. There is no reason to reduce by 200 the number of units; the space used for the multi-level structure used for parking could instead be used for housing, or something else to benefit both Sterling and the local community.

    To prevent residents at Sterling from parking everywhere they can in the area, a variation of the parking permit system smartly used in other parts of the city can be utilized here as well; the difference being that people who live at Sterling will not be given permits for those areas, but to be more equitable this should apply to other residents of the neighborhood and beyond. This restriction will certainly make Sterling more interesting for people who try to live there unofficially, thus increasing “black parking”, i.e. parking not allowed by development agreement — and people who live at Sterling and other new developments would also not normally be allowed to have parking permits for UC Davis or used paid parking Downtown.

    To make this more equitable there need to be both increased restrictions on parking for other residents, and I’d like to the city create new fees for the owners of existing car travel-inducing “free” parking lots that cannot be infilled with new housing.

    And to make it more realistic – let’s just consider the Sterling and other new “cycling capitol of the USA”-type developments – there needs to be:
    * Generous carshare provision (perhaps one car for every 20 or 30 residents? – the advantages are numerous: There would likely be competition for Zipcar, which currently has what I understand is a soft monopoly in Davis; it might lower hourly costs for the service a bit; it will create demand to have carshare “pods” in other parts of Davis, which could eventually result in the ability for one-way trips, a functionality Zipcar uses in Los Angeles and which other operators have as a core feature.)
    * Not only bikeshare – bikeshare is coming to Davis later this year – but provision of cargo bikes that can carry more than a single shopping bag (that’s all the new bikes will be able to carry — this obviously limits their use as a car alternative!). There are already carshare operators that do this in Europe so it could part of any tender here… and sooner, rather than later, bikeshare bikes should be available for people who can’t (easily) ride a normal bicycle for a variety of reasons normally referred to in relation to the ADA.) To make the cargo bikes the best alternatives to cars, they’ll need electric assist (still the bikes would cost 1/4 to 1/5 of a new basic small car, with negligible running costs…).
    * Improved cycling infrastructure towards Downtown, the Davis Depot and Campus: Protected paths (5th St. is obvious; but also consider something in aggregate with the planned bike-ped overcrossing from Olive Drive to the train station that adds the same protected bike lanes to 2nd St and a direct connection next to and over the tracks allowing for possibly faster alternative route to campus… there’s a lot to consider here especially if Davis trades a peripheral parcel with good 80 or 113 access for PG&E’s huge, abusurdly-sited regional vehicle service yard at the edge of Old East Davis!).
    * ACTUAL DUTCH roundabout at Pole Line and 5th.
    * Unitrans bus service with 20 min. headways at relevant times, and frequent late night service at least on weekends. If in the short-term that’s not feasible for Sterling, there needs to be an interim shuttle usable by anyone from Sterling directly to Campus.)

    These two things following apply to the whole City, not just Sterling, but will make Sterling and developments like it so much better:

    * A new street speed design regimen: 15 mph for local, neighborhood streets; 20 to 25 mph for arterial feeders like F St. and L St.; protected bike lanes on any streets with a limit above 20 mph (this is what university students get in northern Europe), and a maximum 30 mph speed limit on arterial streets that all have roundabouts — in aggregate this makes them both safer and just a little slower than 40 mph streets. Across the full length of Davis, even a significant speed lowering is not going to increase travel time more than about five minutes on surface streets.
    * Express regional bus lines to and from Sac, perhaps point-to-point buses (which are like shuttles, except that they’re public and paid partly at farebox), utilizing a commuter-hours dedicated or HOV/carpool lane on 80 starting as far away from Sac as makes sense. In the future some of these services would be first complemented by – and later replaced – by faster Capitol Corridor services.

    Really, really, really… we need access, not cars. Our city’s pride in being the “cycling capitol” is only relevant if we are serious about increasing the reasons we have that title. Increasing bicycle modal share is an indicator of an overall sustainable and healthy mobility culture that goes well beyond a car’s license plate frame that says “My Mayor is Carfree”. To City Hall’s great credit – and the urging of the League of American Bicyclists – Davis has goals for cycling modal share that are both aggressive and noble, e.g. for 25% of arrivals at work, shopping, entertainment, dining out… what? That’s right, while these goals are close to being met in Downtown and near campus at least during the school year, on recent sunny days two of the prominent shopping centers on West and East Covell had less than a 5% modal share. The 25% goal is citywide, for THIS year.

    Go to your rooftops and windows and shout: “We’re educated, we’re honest, we’re wise! We’re not gonna take it anymore! We know we can’t have our cake and it eat it, too! We can’t build more parking for cars and expect to meet our goals for cycling in addition to keeping the streets safe for our children! University students with excellent and safe mobility are able to better focus on their studies, making them stronger future leaders, thus bringing glory to both their school and host city!”

    1. Mark West

      Todd –

      I don’t agree with all of your comment, but I like the fact that you are thinking beyond the accepted ‘norm’ here in Davis.

      “Sterling needs storefront businesses accessible to the general public”

      I completely agree. We should be building mixed-use projects where ever possible.

      “City of Davis has a requirement for a minimal level of car parking spaces on-site.”

      One of the first things that need to change with the GP update is this concept of ‘minimum required parking’ that we currently have, to the more forward thinking ‘maximum parking allowed’ approach.

      “To make this more equitable there need to be both increased restrictions on parking for other residents, and I’d like to the city create new fees for the owners of existing car travel-inducing “free” parking lots that cannot be infilled with new housing.”

      Absolutely disagree here. There is no need to ‘penalize’ those who have excess parking ‘grandfathered’ into their existing projects. What we should do instead to incentivize redevelopment of those projects by changing zoning to allow for taller buildings (and mixed-use) with fewer total required parking spaces. Over time, the excess ‘free’ spaces will go away.

      “a variation of the parking permit system smartly used in other parts of the city can be utilized here”

      I think the current permit parking system in the neighborhoods should be scrapped. The only people who deserve the ‘right’ to park on the street in front of their home (anywhere in the City) are those with disabled parking permits. If we believe that time limitations in certain areas are warranted, they should be applied equally regardless of where one lives.

      1. Howard P

        Have to disagree a bit with you… there is no inherent right to on-street parking for anyone other than the general public.

        A ‘slippery slope’ otherwise…

      2. Todd Edelman

        Mark: Sure… note my use of “variation” and “smartly”. I more or less agree with your position on parking entitlement — what I meant was that there’s already a system where people have to register, follow rules and so on.

      3. Todd Edelman

        Mark – sorry about the formatting – you wrote: “Absolutely disagree here.”

        OK, so please tell me what we do with our inland seas Oak Tree Plaza, University Mall, the “Pig” Mall, and smaller places… but also – keeping in mind housing for MRIC! – housing targets at Target. You’re suggesting that we wait until their owners decide that housing infill is more profitable than providing parking?

        If I want to ride my bike from Downtown to Target, going via 5th and so on is only terrible west of Pole Line, but a journey on 2nd St. would be more direct. Yet here there are cars going 50 mph or faster and an extremely-old design – also by Davis standards – bike lane.  If I cycle the short distance from Green Meadows to Nugget or Grocery Warehouse, there’s everything from inadequate infrastructure to bad potholes.

        Those anchor stores and their host shopping centers are paying less than they should so the public to access them safely via the City’s preferred “active modes”, yes?

        1. Mark West

          Todd: “You’re suggesting that we wait until their owners decide…”

          They own the properties, so yes, they get to decide. I’m not sure why that is such a difficult concept for some of the folks that hang around here.


          “If I want to ride my bike from…”

          I have no interested in any attempt to turn Davis into a bicycling nirvana, but you are welcome to try if you wish. I don’t foresee a point in the near future (my lifetime) when automobiles will not be the predominant form of transportation. I may agree with ideas for changing road designs to make them safer for all, but until that happens we have to accept the world as it is and be responsible for our own decisions.  If you want to ride your bike on 2nd street (or out on the county roads, etc.), go for it, just accept that you are the one responsible for your own safety. If you cannot accept that, you don’t belong there.

          “If I cycle the short distance from Green Meadows to Nugget or Grocery Warehouse, there’s everything from inadequate infrastructure to bad potholes.”


          No different than for everyone else. If you don’t like the situation tell the City Council to make fixing the roads a priority. No one ‘owes’ you a special route for you and your bike just because you want it.


          “Those anchor stores and their host shopping centers are paying less than should so the public to access them safely via the City’s preferred “active modes”, yes?”

          Utter nonsense.


      1. Todd Edelman

        Your discussion on speed limits show you meet not one of the criteria.

        OK, Howard Panonymous, regarding my position on speed limits – which is based on European best practice which is more or less clinically-insanely safer than at least old school here and still much better than the most progressive cities in the USA, yes I lived there for years and benefited from it – am I more uneducated, more dishonest or more unwise? I would be especially thrilled if you can provide references on my lack of honesty.

        Or just tell me directly the educated, honest and wise story about speed limits!

        1. Howard P

          Will give you two… all you are entitled to…

          Do you know the carbon emissions from a MV (non-electric) @ 15 mph on a per/mile basis?  Compared to 25-30 mph? [hint… idling is the worst]

          Do you know the correlation between speed of MV and crash incidence with MV’s/bicycles/peds?  [will grant that ‘severity’ of crashes, when they occur is related to speed].[hint, none… many studies]

          I think not, on both counts.  But educating you on basics is not a part of my ‘job description’…

          “Panonymous” … cute… very…

        2. Jim Frame

          There’s educated, there’s honest, and there’s wise, but then there’s reality.  My understanding is that state law doesn’t permit arbitrary speed limits, the general rule being that the allowable limit is the speed at which 85% of the drivers travel a given stretch of road.  Post it lower than that and you’ve built a speed trap, and the courts won’t allow you to enforce it.  In order to enforce a lower limit, you have to demonstrate special circumstances of overriding concern.

        3. Howard P

          Jim… clarification… radar is highly suspect if used @ less than 85%… courts usually throw that out… ‘pacing’, i.e, a police officer following you and determining you are exceeding posted limits is enforceable… in CA, 25 mph is prima facie OK, unless posted otherwise, usually due to school zones or other demonstrable factors… the latter is very rare… your post is ~ 98% correct.

        4. Todd Edelman

          Howard P:

          * Slower cars have less tire-to-surface noise, though certainly the difference when comparing higher speeds to each other (e.g. more so from 50 to 40 mph than from 30 to 25 mph); Hybrids are less likely to leave electric mode at lower speeds; a shift from cars to bicycles and appropriate public transport decreases emissions; the primary reason to do this is for collision safety – and I can’t tell exactly what you’re saying about that. See graphic here.
          * The European Commission has promoted the 30 km/h limit for urban areas for at least 15 years, and I’ve never seen any emissions-caveats. Here’s a philosophically-related program that includes a org. based with its HQ in Germany called – you’ll love this, I’m sure – European Alliance for Deceleration. Probably closer to 200 cities now and 25 mph is a lot more unsafe than 18.65 mph.And of course an electric car going slower uses less energy even if hyperlocal emissions are around the same. I’ve wondered why – as far as I know -there’s never been a neighborhood cruise setting for cars sold in Europe where a sophisticated automatic transmissions optimizes emissions of a vehicle going 30km/h,  nor any e.g. big relatively big “30” on speedometers. My guess is that this is because on most local streets in much of western and northern Europe drivers are more attentive — for example full stops are rarely required just based on signage, as it’s priority-based. Also more cyclists are also drivers there (to some extent this helps in Davis….)

        5. Howard P

          You clearly do not listen.  Your graphic shows exactly what I said it would… IF there is a crash, morbidity/mortality increases with speed of vehicle.

          I also said that the # of crashes (rate) is more than somewhat independent of velocity… turning movements, inattention, sobriety, etc. are more significant in crash/collision rates than velocity.

          The graphic assumes a crash/collision has occurred.  You postulate that speed/velocity causes crashes.  That is false.

        6. Todd Edelman

          Howard P: Turning movements, inattention, sobriety, etc. exist in the world of physics… with velocity. They are by themselves not relevant to this conversation if there is no velocity, and higher velocity exacerbates the problems associated with these things. I learnt about all of this by reading the sides of Celestial Seasonings tea boxes decades ago.

  2. David Greenwald

    “First of all, an age- and culturally-intergrated housing development – with necessary facilities that are focused on certain dominant populations – is better for everyone”

    I’m not sure I really agree on this point.  I think given the number of students we need to house, we’re just going to have to accept that a lot of housing is going to be mostly students.

    1. Todd Edelman

      You’re correct! Thanks. A dis-proportionate number of spaces here should be reserved for those enrolled in higher education in Yolo and adjacent counties.

      1. Howard P

        Actually, I’d go the opposite way, it it were legal/practical.  But, it isn’t.

        And neither is what you propose, and it is bad public policy and more than a Todd  tad elitist, to boot.

        Attended UCD for 5 years… did not have access to a car… finances… and that was when tuition was ~ $500/year.

  3. Matt Williams

    David Greenwald said . . . “Everyone seems to understand that UC Davis is likely to continue to grow, there is only a 0.2 percent apartment vacancy in the city, and therefore, those students are going to need to find a place to live.”

    Vacancy Rate is only part of the story.  Just as important was the fact that monthly rents spiked up substantially.

    Per survey respondents, the average rental rate for all units was $1,576 per month. This represents a 5.8 percent increase over 2015, when the average rental rate for unit-leased apartments was $1,489.

    — Lease rates for four-bedroom units increased the least relative to 2015, at 1.5 percent, reflecting an average rental rate of $2,627 per month in 2016.

    — Three-bedroom units displayed the next lowest increase in average rental rates, at 2.4 percent, reflecting an average rental rate of $2,041 per month.

    — The average rental rate for studio, one-, and two-bedroom units increased between six and eight percent, with rates equal to $972, $1,210, and $1,549, respectively.

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