Tonight the latest iteration of Trackside goes before the Davis Planning Commission. The Planning Commission will not have the final say over the project, however, it has the capacity to forge a number of key questions facing the project.
The Trackside project in its latest iteration proposes to redevelop two existing commercial buildings just to the east of the railroad tracks north of Third Street. The current design has a new four-story, 47,983-square-foot building with 8,950 square feet of commercial retail space on the ground floor, and 27 apartment units on the three floors above.
The project also includes 30 covered and uncovered parking spaces, an outdoor plaza on the west side, landscaping, bicycle and pedestrian facilities, alley improvements, and other site improvements.
The proposal would change the existing alleyway from a two-way to a one-way alley. Apartment units include a mix of studio, 1-bedroom and 2-bedroom units ranging in size from 705 square feet to 1,537 square feet plus balconies.
Here are some key questions that are raised by this project.
Is the Project inconsistent with design guidelines and the Core Area Specific Plan?
Once again city staff has made the decision to simply ignore city guidelines when a project does not comport. Staff writes, “Consistency with design guidelines are an aesthetic issue…”
They continue: “The City’s Planning documents work together to implement the City’s vision for the community. A General Plan and Specific Plans are general by nature and consist of a wide array of policies and goals. The policies describe desired outcomes, but do not require compliance with every single policy. Design guidelines are similar in that way, but provide more focused guidance.”
Staff argues, “The Design Guidelines must be considered as part of a project review, but do not establish mandatory requirements in contrast to Zoning standards which are mandatory. While the DDTRN [Davis Downtown and Traditional Residential Neighborhoods] Design Guidelines includes several quantitative guidelines with specific limitations that function as a standard, by and large the language of the guidelines indicates preferences and recommendations.”
How tall should the Trackside Project be?
This is one of the key issues for the neighborhood. The original proposal was for it to be six stories. The revised model calls for four stories. The neighbors have hung onto the current Core Area Specific Plan which calls for two to three stories in the core – they have argued this is a transition area and have called on it to be two stories.
“The newly proposed, four-story Trackside Center fails to make an appropriate transition in any direction,” they write. “To the west will be a new two-story commercial building: the new Ace Hardware addition that the Old East Davis Neighborhood Association supported. To the north is a ground-level rock yard. To the east is a row of traditional one-story homes and infill units. To the south is a row of one-story commercial buildings.
“The Design Guidelines clearly state that a two-story, mixed-use building — with a clearly set-back third story — is a desirable transition from downtown to the historic neighborhood.”
Should the city revise its Core Area Specific Plan first?
Part of the problem that you have right now is that the neighbors are claiming that the project is in violation of current Design Guidelines and the Core Area Specific Plan (CASP). They are effectively right about this – the proposal is in violation.
The city staff has chosen to deal with that conflict by simply ignoring the design guidelines. That is not appropriate.
The problem is clear – the Core Area Specific Plan is out of date and therefore not a useful guideline for policy.
Currently the CASP puts a height limitation of two to three stories – but the CASP was designed pre-2000, pre-Measure J. If you revise the CASP, the next iteration should put the height limitations at five to six stories in the core. That would allow for ground floor of retail and restaurants, a second floor of office space and three or four floors of residential.
If downtown is reset to five or six stories, a two-story Trackside makes little sense.
Bottom line: I agree that Trackside is a transition zone, but that’s a transition between six-story core buildings and two-story neighborhood buildings, which again puts us at three or four, not two stories, at Trackside.
The city should update the Core Area Specific Plan rather than attempt to simply ignore the Design Guidelines, as they did in the approval of the Davis Ace building.
Is Trackside precedent-setting?
Concerns have been raised about the impact of “zoning change regarding mass and scale for all parcels in the transition area is not analyzed. Concern about project setting precedent for area in terms of mass and scale.”
Staff attempts to punt this question as well.
Staff responds, “The proposed rezone and CASP amendment have limited applicability and no projects are currently proposed on similar parcels in the transition area along the railroad. Any future project will be considered based on the merits of the project and would undergo full planning review.”
But staff is ignoring clear problems here that go beyond the specifics of this particular project. It is not that other projects are likely to come up along this particular transition boundary, but rather there is a whole perimeter around the core area that could potentially be redeveloped. There are implications along B Street, and along the potential northern boundary of the core area as well.
Moreover, as mentioned before, the precedent-setting nature of this does not just extend in one direction. Building a two-story Trackside when the core area will be envisioned, at least potentially, to go up to five or six stories is equally problematic.
Finally, the precedent-setting nature of this is not just limited to the transition area, so the fact that city staff is now ignoring Design Guidelines for two consecutive projects is equally problematic and potentially precedent setting.
When the neighbors complained about the B Street Residence project, staff was able to respond that the project was clearly within the bounds of existing zoning and infill guidelines. But they actually undermine that by their comments here that they can simply ignore Design Guidelines that are inconvenient.
The Vanguard does not make a recommendation here on what the city should do, but simply believes that the course laid out in the staff report is fraught with problems and potentially unintended consequences.
The Vanguard has been very critical of the Planning Commission overstepping their authority, but in this case you have a rather clear-cut violation of the current Design Guidelines and Core Area Specific Plan, and city staff is simply ignoring those inconvenient guidelines. Here the Planning Commission would have full authority to weigh in and call out city staff.
—David M. Greenwald reporting