Sunday Commentary: Council Needs to Take a More Proactive Stance

USC VIllage is about to open in August

Back in September, the university proposed, in its LRDP (Long Range Development Plan), removing a possible road connection to Nishi.  The item read, “The revised plan does not include a possible road connection from campus into the Nishi property. This revision reflects the recent decision by Davis voters to reject the Nishi development proposal.”

However, the city pushed back, noting in its letter that it “remains committed to working with the property owner and UC Davis to determine the future possibilities for the Nishi site.”  The university agreed “to evaluate connectivity to the Nishi site.”

Nishi remains a tricky issue.  The voters narrowly voted down a project less than a year ago in June 2016.  However, given its close proximity to campus and the downtown, it seems an inviting location that would not lead to sprawl.

But there are considerable hurdles to any future development at Nishi.  One of the reasons that voters voted no was traffic concerns.  The city has been looking at grant money, in the absence of developer money, to help reconfigure the I-80 interchange and alleviate some of the congestion and safety risks on Nishi.

A bigger problem might be concerns about the air quality resulting from emissions from vehicles on I-80.  The Vanguard, citing an LA Times report from last week, noted that “California air quality officials have warned against building homes within 500 feet of freeways.”

During the campaign, Thomas Cahill recommended a two-year study period for the aerosols at the Nishi property.  In LA, the LA Times did their own study, finding, “Pollution readings near the freeways were three to four times higher than in neighborhoods at a distance from traffic.”

It has been nine months since the defeat of Nishi, and yet there has been no effort by either the developers or the council, to our knowledge, to study the air quality at Nishi.

Some have suggested that this should not be the responsibility of the city council – that it should be on the private developers to study this.

But that misses a more essential problem.  While some, including Professor Cahill, would argue that Nishi was a particularly bad site, given being tucked in between both the tracks and the freeway, our view is that if Nishi is at risk for higher levels of pollution, so are other sites in Davis – in particular, along Olive Drive.

If the LA Times had the resources to study air quality levels, the cost is probably not prohibitive.  And it might be possible for the city to get a grant to cover some of it.  We have a vulnerable population living along Olive Drive in particular and we should find out if they are being exposed to potentially harmful pollutants.

At the same time, the path of least resistance and greatest benefit might be to move away from a residential plan at Nishi and toward something along the lines of USC Village.

Thomas Cahill told the Vanguard last year, and recommended to the city in January 2015, that the city should utilize the “precautionary principles.”  He said, “In Davis, this means that (if) there is any reasonable chance that I and my colleagues are right, I would have to reject residential use and maximize protection of workers in commercial or research facilities. The best way to solve this is to have better data, covering at last a year and including all the most toxic components. This is what I recommended in Jan 2015.”

We urge the city to get better data, but also to look toward a commercial project.

USC Village has always been intriguing to me – in part because it is similarly situated to USC as Nishi is to UC Davis.  And, in fact, what they are proposing for a parcel one-third the size of Nishi would be utterly game-changing here.

And yes, they were recommending 2700 student housing units (or, more likely, beds) on the USC project, whereas Nishi was probably at 1500 on a much larger parcel.

But the economic impact is mindboggling.  They were proposing 1.25 million square feet of retail in addition to 2700 students.  Nishi, on three times the space, was proposing 300,000 square feet of R&D space, some ancillary retail, and just 1500 students.

Given the air quality concerns, what I was thinking is an interesting configuration here.  We have restaurants and entertainment on the portion of Nishi facing campus where people can simply walk off campus, spend their money in the city, and generate sales tax.

Then you have the R&D space for university spinoffs and high tech.  What you would not have is the large single-story space that would be able to house an expanded Shilling Robotics, or an expanding Bayer/AgraQuest – for those you might still consider an MRIC (Mace Ranch Innovation Center).

But there you would probably have the room for the $2 billion a year research facility of the World Food Center, with the potential use of experimental nearby agricultural fields.

The cost of USC Village is somewhere from $650 to $700 million – and that would require university buy-in.  But, if the city and developer came to the university with such a plan, it would seem simple enough to figure out a way to make it work.

The numbers are mindboggling.  USC and Los Angeles city planners are projecting that the 15-acre project will pump $5.2 billion into the local economy.

Think about that – a 15-acre site that USC thinks could pump $5.2 billion into the local economy. We have a 44-acre Nishi property.

All Davis would have to figure out is a way to capture one percent of that economic activity and it would have all the resources it needs, without raising another tax or building on any peripheral farmland for the next two generations.

Are there environmental and traffic impacts to assess?  Absolutely.  But with the order of magnitude of the revenue we are talking about, the city would have the resources to better deal with both impacts.

But this is not going to happen on its own.  The council needs to take the lead here and bring private developers and the university on board with a vision that could transform not only the city, but also the university and the region itself.

Can the council step up and do this?  They took a bold step when they pushed back on the LRDP, but now they have to take it to the next level.

—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. Jim Frame

    Think about that – a 15-acre site that USC thinks could pump $5.2 billion into the local economy. We have a 44-acre Nishi property.

    A couple of cautions about this comparison:

    1.  USC Village is bordered by existing streets on 3 sides, which makes it very accessible.  Even under the most optimistic access proposals — like the one that was voted down last June — Nishi will be constrained by only 2 access points.  (And some of us doubt the wisdom of allowing cars in via the Olive Drive connection.)  That will have a marked effect upon tenant appeal.

    2.  USC Village’s 15 acres are mostly buildable.  Nishi will have to give up a significant amount of land to streets, in particular the campus connection, and the latter will leave a narrow, odd-shaped parcel on the west end that further limits versatility.

    I’m not suggesting that Nishi can’t work, only that you can’t multiply USC Village’s projected economic effect by 3 and expect to get that out of Nishi.

    With regard to the air quality matter, I would think it’d be worth the city’s time to issue an RFP for a formal study of the site, and simultaneously discuss interim cost sharing with the Nishi owners.  Until at least a rough cost can be attached to the study, it’s pointless to speculate on the wisdom of going forward with it.  I can see value to the city in putting this matter to rest if the investment isn’t exorbitant.  And if the site owner isn’t willing to pay in full up front, the city can require reimbursement of any city participation cost as a condition of development approval.

    1. Howard P

      Agree with Jim’s last paragraph, except am thinking an RFQ should be done first… not sure the City is in a position to define a reasonable scope of work…one that would be accepted by a bunch of the folk in town…

      1. Jim Frame

        am thinking an RFQ should be done first… not sure the City is in a position to define a reasonable scope of work

        I suggested a Request for Proposal, figuring that industry experts will propose an appropriate monitoring plan with associated cost.  The city can then determine if and how to fund it.  Evaluation of qualifications would be part of the RFP review.

        (P.S.  In my line of work RFQ is generally interpreted to mean Request for Quotation, which would not be appropriate in this instance.)


        1. Howard P

          My jargon is RFQ = Request For Qualifications… typical for engineering/scientific studies.  I should have clarified earlier.  You are correct, a Request For Quotations is clearly inappropriate at this point.

          Until the basic scientific analysis is done, it is premature, in my view, to jump to mitigations/mitigation monitoring.  Your point is taken though, and that perhaps there needs to be a two-step process… to clearly define/analyse the situation, the impacts/risks, and then look at mitigation of risks deemed to be unacceptable to the CC/public.

  2. Ron

    Other than those living on Olive Drive, is there some reason to perform an air quality study that would include Nishi, if residential development is not (still) being considered?  (In other words, is the council hoping that “no” actually means “yes”, if they can get over this particular hurdle?)

    Strange, how some are “suddenly concerned” about those who have lived on Olive Drive for years.  In any case, would an air quality study (that shows harmful levels on Olive) preclude additional residential development proposals on Olive, such as Lincoln 40?  Or, would there likely be an attempt to approve Lincoln 40, prior to any additional air quality studies?

      1. Ron


        Further studies were recommended by Dr. Cahill some time ago, prior to any residential development proposal at Nishi.  And yet, that recommendation was disregarded.

        Again, no one seems to be acknowledging that non-residential development may not require further air quality studies.

        However, if an air quality study is being considered (to include Olive Drive, as well), then perhaps the Lincoln 40 developer can contribute toward the cost, as well.  (And, any decisions regarding residential developments on Olive should be delayed until results come in.) I’m sure that idea will be “popular” among those who constantly advocate for development.

        I also wonder what a “bad result” might mean, regarding those who already live on Olive (including the relatively new, existing apartment complex).

        I understand that the Nishi site might have some unique air quality challenges that other sites do not have (e.g., raised, adjacent freeway).



    1. Jim Frame

      is there some reason to perform an air quality study that would include Nishi

      Nishi should be studied due to its high potential for development, as long as the cost is not prohibitive.  The cost can be recouped from the developer upon project approval, unless the owner is amenable to funding it up front.

      P.S. It might make sense to invite UCD to join a study expanded to include its lands adjacent to the railroad and the freeway.



  3. Howard P

    To be clear… even if harmful effects are shown for ANY use, that does not, in itself, preclude the CC from approving or denying any specific project.

    1. Ron

      Howard:  Point noted, except that the council ultimately has no say regarding approval of proposed developments outside city limits – period.  (They can certainly put the city and its residents through another “process”, however.) I guess the answer wasn’t clear enough, the first time (including from folks like you – who cited access concerns). 🙂

      1. Howard P

        has no say regarding approval of proposed developments outside city limits – period.

        Untrue… they (CC) can disapprove (deny) a development…  there are no provisions in State Law where “the people” can approve a development, even by referendum, unless the ‘legislative body’ approves it in accordance with the provisions of the Government Code.

      2. Jim Frame

        I guess the answer wasn’t clear enough, the first time

        The first time would have been in 1994, when the Nishi Gateway project was rejected by popular sentiment during the election campaign of that year.  This was pre-Measure J, but the developer decided that approval wasn’t in the cards and withdrew the application, if I remember correctly.

        Populations change, circumstances change, and those who interpret a close decision in 2016 as “never again” will likely be disappointed if they live long enough.  I fully expect Nishi to get back on the ballot, though I’d not care to predict when — it could be next year, or 20 years from now.  In my view, the parcel is simply too valuable as urban space to remain in unproductive ag usage for long.




        1. Howard P

          I recall it somewhat differently, Jim… the 1994 version, as I recall, got its TM approved, which meant all its zoning entitlements were in place.  The developer never submitted/pursued a FM (a ministerial act).  They were “home free” as far as discretionary approvals.

          As I recall, the conditions of approval were such that the up-front costs of major infrastructure required was not worth the risk of finding tenants (mini-recession going on).  Many were glad (primarily some staff) when the 2-year lifetime of the TM expired.  The project “died” by operation of State law.

          The 1994 project, as I recall, was way under any significant public radar, and I recall them getting their discretionary approval Ok’d by 4-1/5-0 votes.

        2. Ron

          Jim:  “Populations change, circumstances change, and those who interpret a close decision in 2016 as “never again” will likely be disappointed if they live long enough.”

          True (and populations “definitely” change, especially when new developments are built).  But, the primary justification for public investment at this time appears to be for something similar to what was rejected less than a year ago (e.g., a mixed use development).  Again, no one has addressed the possibility that a commercial site might not require an air quality study.

          If an air quality study is performed, it would be prudent to include Olive Drive (where another massive apartment complex is proposed, even closer to the freeway).  And, to involve that developer in funding the study.

           I understand the appeal of the Nishi site, for those who believe such a development is warranted (e.g., proximity to the freeway, the university and city).  However, those same factors work against it, regarding access (and possibly air quality).  No one has come up with a solution regarding access.

          Still wondering why the university hasn’t expressed interest in it, by working directly with the developer to annex the site (as part of the university’s campus).  (Actually, I recall this being mentioned in the wake of the failed Nishi proposal.) Perhaps the university understands the challenges quite well, and concluded that they want no part of it.  (For that matter, the university is reluctant to allow the construction of sufficient housing for its students on land that they already own, and are apparently hoping that the city assumes this responsibility.)




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