On Wednesday of last week, the Davis Planning Commission was tasked with holding a public hearing and taking comments on the Lincoln40 Draft EIR.
The project calls “for demolition of an existing 14-unit apartment complex and ten single-family homes, and the construction of a 249,788-sq. ft., 130-unit multi-family residential building, as well as parking areas, accessory structures, various amenities and site improvements. The project would include a mix of two- to five-bedroom fully furnished units, primarily designed as student housing.”
While the charge of the commission was to evaluate the EIR and hear comments, the discussion ranged from concern about the traffic report (which is a valid concern) to questions about on-site affordable housing, but also there were more general comments about the project itself.
Commissioner Marilee Hanson questioned staff about the findings of the environmentally superior option, which she believed should be the on-campus version. “Somehow every CEQA analysis we’ve seen come before us, they’ve somehow or other, they managed to not show that the project would not be environmentally superior on campus.”
She said, “I’m getting a little suspicious of all these factors that go in, and these projects that are somehow student dorms end up for some reason – it doesn’t look at (being) advantageous to put them on campus.”
Ms. Hanson then added, “Once again it’s a single use type of project. We have lots of people that need housing in this town, and if you build traditional apartments then in the future, or even currently, anyone can find those apartments to be useful. Projects like this and like Sterling and some other ones that are being proposed are taking up all the land in town that is zoned for housing, and they’re being taking up with a design that will never be workable or attractive to working families, people with children, and small households…
“We don’t have a lot of land left in town for multi-family housing and I’m very concerned that every single site is apparently being used for dorms. I think dorms are a great thing, but the really best place for dorms is on campus. I do think we’re enabling the university by constantly approving these projects when I really don’t see the university doing much. They will continue to not do much, if we continue to let them get away with it.”
She said she is very sympathetic to students, she went to Berkeley at a time when UC Berkeley was not building enough housing for students, “but UC Davis is doing worse than the other campuses.”
Here are some of my thoughts in response to her comments.
First, while there is no doubt that there are some challenges with the Richards-Olive Drive intersection, if you were going to look at vacant parcels on a map and try to figure out the best place to put student housing within the city of Davis, the Lincoln40 site would no doubt be near the very top of the list. It is a short walk or bike ride onto campus and it might be closer to the eastern portions of the campus than alternative sites on campus themselves.
Second, she makes the point that this is a single-use project. No doubt it is designed for student housing and, while I would not disagree that there are other housing needs in town, it is very clear that student housing tops that list.
Given our 0.2 percent vacancy rate and plans to expand enrollment, that is by far the greatest need. So to look at a project that fills a portion of our greatest need and to criticize it because it doesn’t accommodate other needs seems to be nitpicking. There is only so much you can do with a 130-unit project on a relatively small site.
I would argue that trying to be everything to all needs would be less rather than more helpful.
Where I have a greater problem with is what she says next.
Here, to repeat, she argues, “We don’t have a lot of land left in town for multi-family housing and I’m very concerned that every single site is apparently being used for dorms.”
This is a factually incorrect statement. As far as I am aware, there are only two market rate student housing proposals – Sterling and Lincoln40. If you look at the other current housing proposals, none of them are market rate student housing. The only other housing project that has a student component would be the proposal for south Davis across from Playfields Park, which would be affordable-by-design micro units for low-income individuals including students, but not exclusive to students.
So to say that “every single site” is apparently being used for dorms is completely false.
She then states, as pointed out above, “I think dorms are a great thing, but the really best place for dorms is on campus.”
She is entitled to her opinion, but in her capacity as Planning Commissioner, her job is not to weigh in with her opinion, it is to make sure at this point the project complies with CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act).
Further, she adds, as stated above, “I do think we’re enabling the university by constantly approving these projects when I really don’t see the university doing much. They will continue to not do much, if we continue to let them get away with it.”
Again, in the last 12 years or so, we have approved exactly one market rate student housing project. If the council approves Lincoln40 – which it has not yet – that would be two.
In the meantime, the university has proposed adding 6200 units on campus. I have long argued the need to go from 90/40 (90 percent of new students housed on campus and 40 percent of overall students housed on campus) up to 100/50 which would require that about 4000 more units be approved, but it is hard to argue that even 6200 units constitutes “not do(ing) much.” Should they do more than they have so far? Absolutely.
The other strange comment is her comparison to her experience at Berkeley in which she said “but UC Davis is doing worse than the other campuses.” Ironically, the one campus UC Davis is not doing worse than is UC Berkeley, in terms of on-campus housing.
The bottom line for me is this – with student enrollment growth and current housing shortfalls, it will take about 10,000 new student housing units for UC Davis to address current needs and projected growth. That is a huge number and I see no way that the city can accommodate that.
The university has thus far agreed to build 6200, and that number is a good start but leaves us about 4000 short of our needs. The city, between Sterling and Lincoln40 if approved, will be accounting for about 1500 beds.
That is hardly enough to let the university off the hook, and in fact it will barely make a dent unless the university follows through on its commitments. But to characterize the situation as Ms. Hanson has is inaccurate at best. And worse yet, it is really outside of the purview of the Planning Commission’s charge once again.
—David M. Greenwald reporting