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