When the council sent the neighbors to the Hyatt House project to meet with the applicants in a conflict resolution process, the main advantage that the city had was that the council had already indicated their tacit support for a project at the site – that meant that the leverage was on the side of the city council and it behooved the neighbors to basically get the best deal possible, knowing that they could not kill the project.
At the time, conflict resolution looked like a way forward from the city’s perspective, as infill projects continue to pit neighbors against project applicants. However, at least thus far, the Sterling project is demonstrating the limitations of such approaches.
A few weeks ago, the Sterling applicants unveiled a reduced project after appearing to reach agreement with a group of neighborhood representatives.
A February email from Gerald Hallee to the Dinerstein representative, Mayor Robb Davis and Mayor Pro Tem Brett Lee says, “The Rancho Yolo Community Association (RYCA) Board of Directors has voted to suspend its opposition to the Sterling 5th Street Apartment Project based on the proposed February 13, 2017 Dinerstein downsizing of the Project.”
While Mr. Hallee indicated there were some contingencies, he also noted that “nearly all items listed in Attachments 4 and 5 have been accepted. The remaining few items can be managed while Dinerstein and the City finalize the agreement and prepare the re-design packets in preparation for the March 22 Planning Commission meeting.”
But what if the three-person negotiating team didn’t represent the views of the other neighbors at Rancho Yolo?
That, in fact, appears to be the case. A letter from Marge Beach in the Enterprise comes a week after a similar letter appeared in the Vanguard.
Here she attempts to dispel the notion of some sort of agreement, writing, “For those who think we at Rancho Yolo have ‘dropped our opposition,’ we have not. For those who think we are now ‘happy’ with the project, we are not.”
Instead, she argues, “The Rancho Yolo community continues its absolute opposition to the now ‘revised’ Sterling Fifth Street Apartments proposal.”
She writes, “We are not opposed to an appropriate, much smaller project of one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments, like the many largely student-occupied apartment complexes already near Rancho Yolo. We are very opposed to this massive, mostly four- and five-bedroom apartment project, which places too many students in a dorm-like situation without the amenities and support system that are provided in a college campus dorm.”
Letters of this sort have the potential to end efforts at conflict resolution.
There are several key points here.
First, your process is always only going to be as good as the degree of representation by your negotiating team. If your negotiating team is not representative of the community or neighborhood at large, or there is not buy in from a critical mass of neighbors, then the process will end much as this one does.
Second, it is going to make applicants like Dinerstein far less likely to give concessions in the future. They have already agreed to reduce the size of the project by 20 percent, but Ms. Beach and others have now signaled that they are either holding out for more (as indicated by the smaller project paragraph) or are opposed to this project in concept.
What incentive now does Dinerstein have to negotiate down further?
This puts the council in a quandary – it is, on the one hand, in their best interest to get some sort of compromise that leaves both sides relatively pleased.
But here the council has prescribed a process, the process generated an agreement between those who were involved in the process, but others are not pleased.
Is the council going to ask Dinerstein to further compromise, shrinking the project further, or are they going to say that Dinerstein acted reasonably and participated in a conflict resolution process? Will they pass the Sterling Project as currently configured?
Frankly, there is a bigger philosophical issue at stake. The groundwork has been laid for a more fundamental question: where should student housing go and what should it look like?
This is again part of why it would be helpful to know how much student housing the city of Davis needs to accommodate.
Are issues such as size of the project (now 160 units), number of beds (now at 540), structure of the leases (bed leases), number of bedrooms and bathrooms per unit going to get resolved here? Probably not.
As Ms. Beach concludes, “After almost two years of researching and trying to stop the Sterling Apartments project from becoming a reality, our board of directors felt it might possibly be approved anyway, so our negotiating team worked with Dinerstein to secure the slight concessions that it could, in return for agreeing not to publicly oppose the project as a board.
“Individual residents are quite free to continue in our public opposition to the project, and we do oppose it. It is not good for Rancho Yolo, not good for the students, not good for East Davis and not good for Davis as a healthy, supportive community.”
While she is correct, this is probably going to make it more difficult in the future for these types of negotiations and conflict resolution process to work. Given the scarcity of housing, it seems more likely than not that the council is going to approve these projects.
The goal of conflict resolution is to reduce the harm caused to the neighbors – the goal is not to kill projects.
Will the neighbors get further concessions from this process? Probably. But, in the long term, the next applicant is likely to be far less willing to engage with the neighbors in a structured way if there is no guarantee that the neighbors will honor the process.
—-David M. Greenwald reporting