In many ways the discussion that occurred on Tuesday was a familiar one for council – an infill project is proposed, the existing neighbors push back against it. But there was one difference – most infill projects we have seen have asked for a General Plan amendment to go above and beyond the current planning and zoning guidelines. This one didn’t.
As Rochelle Swanson put it, “This meets all the things we say we want.
“At some point we have to say yes,” she said. “This is something that’s allowable in this district. If we can’t say yes to what’s allowed, what can we possibly say yes to?”
As Mayor Davis put it, “Here they get a project that’s in the boundaries and we still get it. That frustrates me a little bit. I don’t know why we got it.”
But if that part was a twist, the night of the discussion really wasn’t. It was a typical discussion with the developers proposing a project of a given size and scale and the neighbors pushing for smaller.
“The tradeoffs are always challenging,” Mayor Davis said. “I really have learned to listen to the community about their concerns about keeping their place nice.”
He continued, “I’m struck by how we’ve constantly been asked to do less” in terms of housing proposals coming before council “in the face of one of the worst housing crises in the country.”
But in a way this is inevitable. It really comes down to a community-imposed tradeoff. The growth of the university and the growth of the region continues to put pressure on the city of Davis to grow. The lack of available housing for families, faculty and staff at the university is troubling to many in the community.
At the same time, as the council noted, there are students looking for rental housing, students living in their cars and couch surfing. The impacts of a 0.2 percent vacancy rate push the young, those without means, and the vulnerable to the brink of homelessness.
Ron Glick has been pushing this point on Measure R for a long time and I think he has a point – if the city cannot grow outward because of constraints of Measure R and the housing needs continue to expand, the city will have to find more creative ways to pack more housing into the existing city limits, and that means infill projects and the conflict between the existing residents and new development.
The voters of Davis who narrowly passed Measure J back in 2000, who widely supported the renewal in Measure R and who will face a renewal in 2020, have made it clear both in their support for Measure J/R as well as their opposition to Wildhorse Ranch, Covell Village and Nishi, that peripheral development, if it is approved, is going to be infrequent.
Mayor Robb Davis noted that the previous council had attempted to address housing by putting Nishi on the ballot. That lost by 700 votes, he said. “Personally I took it very hard because I put a lot of work into it, but also because it seemed to me that was an opportunity for us as a city to do the right thing in an environmental sense but also to provide what we haven’t been able to provide over the last decade – which is significant rental housing.”
Ron Glick was more pointed in his comments on Tuesday.
He noted that one of the reasons for unaffordability of housing is lack of supply. While there are natural reasons for lack of supply that will constrain a market, there are also “artificial reasons why you get lack of supply,” and in Davis that is Measure R.
“What’s driving everything,” he said in the risk to people in the mobile home, Sterling, Trackside, the B Street project, “all of these things is Measure R because we can’t spread out.
“You talk about densification as though densification is some great thing, but every time you try to densify something, there are people down here saying don’t densify my neighborhood, please don’t densify my neighborhood,” he said.
He said it’s a de facto thing, “if we can’t spread out, what are we going to do? We have to do infill. As long as we have this limit line – conversation on ag land is $15,000, Sterling $1 million an acre.” He said that “because of Measure R, land inside the line is now worth 100 times land outside of the line.”
He argued if we had built Nishi and Covell Village “maybe there wouldn’t be so much demand.”
Clearly Mr. Glick, as he has argued for years, wants to get rid of Measure R. But he has a point here. It is a point that we should all pay attention to. We have choices in this discussion.
Look, I don’t agree with Ron Glick. I think Measure R is a good thing – we need to remember why we have Measure R and it is because we had decades of unconstrained growth on the periphery. I also don’t necessarily believe that Measure R will always block all new development. Nishi might have passed were it not for some critical mistakes – and pre-Measure R, Wildhorse was able to pass a citizen’s vote.
The community has chosen to not support peripheral development. That means they have constrained the housing market to give developers a huge incentive to develop in existing neighborhoods – where they only have to deal with the city council and not the voters.
That means that, in order to add housing, we must build higher and more dense projects than the existing land use. Sometimes that means we will see projects like Trackside, which go well outside the bounds of existing land use policies.
When that happens, we are sympathetic to the neighbors – particularly in the case of Trackside, the neighbors who own the homes on the southwest corner of I Street, whose lives will be greatly impacted by a development that they reasonably could not foresee.
But B Street is different. The R3 zoning meant that the possibility existed on B Street that multifamily homes would go in. The project met the zoning requirements except for a 15-percent portion where the roofline exceeded height requirements by three feet.
In other words, in this project, the developers stayed basically within the guidelines and we still had sufficient pushback to take the issue to the city council. That doesn’t bode well as we move forward with more infill projects over time.
We want developers to work with the neighbors in a good faith manner. We want them to take into account the concerns and work to mitigate impact. But it’s also a two-way street and we need the neighbors to act reasonably as well, and understand that as long as we have the need for housing and the limitations on expanding outward, that there will be a financial incentive for infill and densification.
This discussion on B Street – a small project of 11 units – ironically becomes far more important than we would ever anticipate because these comments set the stage for the next projects and the community debate. The council has made it clear now that they will approve infill projects.
Unless we want to change our views on peripheral development, Davis is going to see more and not less of these discussions in the months and years to come.
—David M. Greenwald reporting