Planning Commission Unable to Act on Key Provisions of Trackside Proposal

New Trackside schematic

Confused over the requirements under the Design Guidelines and frustrated at the lack of access to staff response to comments on the Initial Study, the Planning Commission voted down key portions of the Trackside development.

By a 6-1 vote with Darryl Rutherford dissenting, the Planning Commission voted not to recommend that the council adopt the Initial Study.  It was with a 7-0 vote that they voted not to recommend approval of the Design Review.  But, by a 5-2 vote, the commission supported the Core Area Specific Plan Amendment and Rezone of the Planned Development, along with the demolition of the current site.

Most commissioners spoke supportively of the project, but chafed at the lack of guidance and information, particularly on the Initial Study and Design Guidelines.  They have thus left these considerations for the council to sift through.

More than 25 people spoke during public comment, and the overwhelming view from the neighborhood was one of intense opposition.  Once again they were arguing that, while there is not general opposition to redevelopment at the Trackside site, the size and massing of the building is in violation of design guidelines and the impact will be detrimental both on the immediate neighbors and the neighborhood.

Ash Feeney, Assistant Director of Community Development and Sustainability, attempted to clarify the design guidelines process, noting that the “proposed design guidelines do not prescribe specific architectural styles or images, nor do they encourage direct imitation of the past or radical departure from the existing design context.”

He said the “guidelines describe a preferred policy direction but are intended to provide flexibility.”  He argued that the “project is substantially consistent with Design Guidelines.”

On the Special Character Area of Third Street, he noted, “Two- and three-story buildings should predominate,” which he later argued by no means precluded a four-story building.  “It does anticipate a vision for greater heights,” Mr. Feeney explained.

He also noted, “The third tier review is required for new buildings or additions greater than three stories proposed in the core commercial area and greater than two stories in the mixed use area.”

David Robertson, one of the commissioners, in reading the code section argued that it would seem to suggest the requirement is to go by the more restrictive section in the case of a conflict.

One of the public commenters cited a code section which reads, “Wherever the guidelines for the DTRN [Downtown and Traditional Residential Neighborhood] conflict with the existing zoning standards including planned development, the more restrictive standard shall prevail.”

Ethan Walsh, Assistant City Attorney, weighed in, stating, “The way I read that is if there is a direct conflict, between the guidelines and the zoning code, then the stricter of the two shall apply.”  He noted the opponents are making a point that the size and massing “are inconsistent with the zoning as amended.”

He said, staff is arguing that “they’re consistent… that there is not a conflict between the guidelines and the zoning.  The massing and scale language in the guidelines is more subjective and so there’s a question as to whether or not it is consistent with the two.”

He expressed concern with the fact that “staff was not responding to the letters that have come in.”  He said, “It seems to be that the onus on you folks to provide the information that allows my colleagues to say okay, I think I understand all the issues that have been raised by a variety of parties.”

Herman Boschken stated, “We have at this point insufficient information to make a recommendation.  The findings are incomplete.”  He said “that means we need to pursue that further.”  He did call it a “well-designed” and “good project.”

David Robertson said, “I’m torn because we haven’t been given direction by the city council – we must densify.  On no uncertain terms, we must increase density in the city.  We’re up against a huge problem as far as the amount of housing and this is a drop in the bucket, this number of units… we’re doing this piecemeal and I hate it.

“We’re so far away from meeting the housing needs,” he added.

“By the same token, if you’re going to densify, this project is very well-designed,” he added.  “I’m favorably impressed by the project itself.

“I just have problems with the procedure that’s getting us there today,” he said, noting that, with other things in order, he would be supportive of the project and ready to recommend approval.

Darryl Rutherford agreed with his colleague on the project itself, in that “this is the type of project that’s potentially the future of Davis.”  He said he hears the neighbors’ concerns on the size and scale of this, that it “could be quite daunting as you stand in the backyard… staring at this large building.  But I’m not sure what else we’re going to be doing in this town.”

He suspects the whole corridor will be growing upward.  He called the project, “Precedent setting.”

Unlike his colleagues before him, Stephen Mikesell indicated he would be voting no on the merits.  He said that city council should “give serious thought to revising those guidelines if they are going to be treated as though they are simply suggestion, then the people affected by those guidelines need to know that.”

He added, “If we are going to continue to enforce those guidelines on most of the people, then we should enforce the guidelines on all of the people.”

Mr. Mikesell said, in the hotels, they were accused of “mutilating the zoning, where the zoning was squishy on those,” then he said that “in this case, the zoning is not squishy, the zoning is very clear as to what the height limitation is on these.”

Marilee Hanson, the vice chair who chaired the meeting, said, “The guidelines mean something. They’re the rules, they’re the standards.  We should require people to abide by them or get rid of them.”

She suggested the whole neighborhood bought their properties “thinking that those guidelines meant something.”

She noted that the neighbors stood up there tonight, stating “they have no project with a project going in here – they expected a project to go in here, but they expect it to comply with the guidelines.”

Ms. Hanson argued it would be impossible to make the recommended findings.  “They just aren’t true,” she said.  “This isn’t consistent with every guideline and zoning requirement.”

She also cited a “pattern here,” where “we’re constantly brought these things with inadequate information and we’re told that the city council really wants our opinion.

“I don’t think that the way that the city has to go is constantly breaking the rules in order to get more housing,” she said.  She argued this project could be great if it were more compatible with the neighborhood.

So, in the end, the commission – the vast majority of its members – determined they could not recommend either the Initial Study or the fact that the project “is consistent with the objectives of the General Plan, conforms to the General Plan and any specific plans, complies with applicable Zoning regulations, and is consistent with any adopted design guidelines for the district within which the project is located.”

That simply means that the council will ultimately have to make their own decision – as they would anyway.

–David M. Greenwald reporting



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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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36 Comments

  1. Tia Will

    Once again they were arguing that, while there is not general opposition to redevelopment at the Trackside site”

    I would like to amend this statement to reflect the actual situation. The general feeling in our neighborhood is that we would love to have a new project on the Trackside site. The expression that I used the first time I spoke at City Council on this matter was “delighted” to have an updated and aesthetically pleasing project on this site…..within zoning and design guidelines. We are not neutral or merely acquiescing. We would be thrilled to see a project consistent with guidelines that preserves the nature of our neighborhood.

    So a little more information about those meetings between the developers and the neighborhood. Yes, we had the conversations as stated. Yes, the community was asked for input. Yes, there was a reduction from the overzealous initial proposal for six stories in a “transitional zone” when there are no six story buildings anywhere in the city of Davis.However, what was consistently the case is that the developers were willing to talk about aesthetics and and minor mitigations without being willing to address the elephant in the room, the size and scale of the building remaining well outside the zoning and design guidelines which was the primary neighborhood objection to begin with.

    The neighborhood is of the opinion that it could be worthwhile to discuss the possibility of a three story building appropriately designed to fit in with the existing neighborhood aesthetically. We had asked early on in the process that the architect draw up what a three story proposal might look for this site. This request was not even considered. We were simply told that it would be too boxy and we wouldn’t like it. This, even though at last night’s meeting we gave two examples of 3 story buildings currently existing in Davis that the neighborhood would be happy to accept.

    This is not a case of a neighborhood unwilling to accept development or densification. It is a neighborhood that is eager to do so within existing guidelines and in the spirit of maintaining a transition zone which Trackside fails to meet any direction.

    1. Dianne C Tobias

      I’m no expert in any of this but it appeared once again that the PC punted to CC with reason of not enough info. Now that might be true and I did follow most of their supporting facts but now the CC will be faced with the decision with less expertise of planning and more political temptation. I know the CC was to hear the application anyway but now it seems they lack the PC input.

      1. David Greenwald

        As someone who has been critical of the Planning Commission, I would have done the exact same thing had I been in their shoes.  There is the confusing issue of Design Guidelines, but I don’t think staff provided enough direction for the commission to make the determinations.

      2. Howard P

        No, they have the PC input.  Affirmative recommendations on the CASP Amendment and on the PD (the ‘heart’ of the application)… negative votes (recommendations) as to the IS and the DR.

        The PC acted… they gave their input.

        1. David Greenwald

          I have a problem with that view, Howard.

          As I noted above, the planning commission told staff that they didnt have enough information to make a decision – which seemed legitimate to me.

          Staff’s position was that they wanted a decision that night and whatever planning could do would be fine – which doesn’t really seem to comport with the idea that you should have  commissions.

          So that’s my first problem – you have a commission that is charged with providing advise to council telling staff they don’t have enough information to provide that advise.  Their negative recommendations were based on lack of evidence rather than necessarily opposition which is very different.

          There is a clear lack of clarity on the issue of design review, but other issues as well that just didn’t seem to be handled as well as they could have been.

        2. Howard P

          Then… why the votes you showed in your piece?  I was going on your words… were they inaccurate?

          And I have no disagreement with your assessment of clumsiness…

          If they had too little information, they should not have made motions and voted…

          1. David Greenwald

            Those were the motions that they passed, the reason for them was lack of information.

        3. Howard P

          You noted in your piece that they voted affirmatively on two motions… yet your riposte to me only points out the negative ones… according to your piece, there were two motions that were affirmatively passed, two that were negative…

          1. David Greenwald

            That is correct, they voted for three motions which they felt they had enough information on. The two commissioners actually opposed to the project voted against those motions.

      3. Matt Williams

        Dianne, I have a different take on what the Planning Commission did last night.  Led by Dave Robertson, the Commission sent a very clear message to Council and Staff that:

        (A) the combination of General Plan, Specific Plan, Guidelines and Zoning that currently exists in Davis is unfair to EVERYONE because they are contradictory, confusing, and inconsistently enforced,

        (B) those “rules” need to be updated so that they are internally consistent,

        (C) they need to be enforced by staff consistently,

        (D) Council should not act on the application until the rules are made consistent,

        (E) the CEQA process last night was the equivalent of certification of a Final EIR, and Staff needs to treat CEQA processes consistently.  Specifically, just as they do in a Final EIR, Staff and Legal Counsel need to provide the Planning Commission with answers to the formal questions/concerns submitted by the public.  Attempting to make a decision about the completeness of the CEQA process absent those answers from Staff and Legal Counsel is the equivalent of an Oval Office tweet.

        In my opinion the Planning Commission did no punting.  Rather they grew down a gauntlet. The Council should closely listen to the Commission’s advice.

        In addition Staff should establish more realistic timelines for project review so that the public submits its written comments by a deadline and then Staff includes in the meeting packet the answers to the submitted questions.  That is exactly what the Finance Department staff did during the FBC review of the Proposed Budget … the packet contained over 60 formal written questions with answers.  The FBC members could therefore make an informed recommendation to Council.  If Finance can do it, so can Community Development.

        1. Howard P

          Agree on pts A-C, leaning towards D.

          E is interesting on two fronts… one is that apparently the City is employing a variation of the IS’s I’m used to… they have a somewhat funky name for it.  I take exception to the ‘full EIR’ reference, but mainly on technical grounds… but understand and have no substantial disagreement as to the gist.

          Agree with, as noted

          Rather they grew down a gauntlet. The Council should closely listen to the Commission’s advice admonition.

          Reminds me of the dilemma created by a body wanting water to flow uphill without the expenditure of any energy in the process… and have the water becoming more pure, again, with no energy or other costs.  Any competent engineer should be able to do that, right?

          The CC needs to get their ‘docs’ in order… yet, over the years, the PC has been complicit in creating the discrepancies, as both bodies have wanted to be “all things to all people”… failure to do so (getting their docs/ducks in order) sets staff up for failure, as well as all the advisory bodies.

          And staff tends to be ‘the whipping boy’, because the ‘prince’ and the ‘court’ can’t be punished for their transgressions (after all they are ‘royals’, and in some cases, “legends in their own minds”), but someone needs to ‘pay the price’.

        2. David Greenwald

          I understand your perspective, but the reason staff gets caught on this stuff is obvious.

          1. Staff are professionals and experts

          2. Council are volunteers and amateurs without individual staff

          3.  Commissioners are volunteers and community members

          So of the three, who is the responsible party?  Council has to answer to the voters directly and staff are trained experts.

        3. Mark West

          “(D) Council should not act on the application until the rules are made consistent,”

          The ‘rules’ should have been made consistent long ago as the conflicts are not new. I don’t know that we should stop processing applications to get that done now, however. The length of time to get projects considered is already too long (and costly) and I see no reason to make it more so (unless one opposes all development).

        4. Howard P

          But staff doesn’t get to make the rules…  the amateurs do… despite/against staff recommendations, very often… I take it you support the “whipping boy” pattern…

          Yes ‘massa’… clearly staff’s fault… they need to learn ‘their place’… they keep forgetting that commissioners & CC believe (often) “when I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you”

        5. Dianne C Tobias

          Thanks Matt!

          I agree with all your points. I am just not convinced the CC will be made aware of the PCs reasons. And the minutes have taken months to be available, not sure if that has improved. And what is to say that the staff and CC will ‘see the gauntlet’ as you say!

          I have watched PC hearing in the past, then watched the CC discuss the same issue but the PC discussion was not provided to the CC at least at the mtg. Perhaps in the staff report to be fair, am not sure of that.

          Because much of last night’s discussion was about process,there wasn’t much about the project or the neighbor’s concerns.

        6. David Greenwald

          “But staff doesn’t get to make the rules…  the amateurs do… despite/against staff recommendations, very often… I take it you support the “whipping boy” pattern…”

          I just think that staff didn’t do a number of things last night and leading up to last night to allow this to go forward.

        7. Howard P

          Yes, but staff can’t cure all ills, and I was talking about a definite “pattern”, and not just last night, not just this issue… perhaps it was a bit of a ‘derailment’ last night, but hard to avoid those if the tracks are warped… or in this case, also different sizes and gauges.

        8. David Greenwald

          I understand but last night seemed rather different to me. I thought staff did a good job on the MRIC EIR for example.  I thought the PLanning Commission did rather poorly on B St.  So I think I’ve spread the blame and praise around on this stuff.

  2. larryguenther

    Mark West.

    “The length of time to get projects considered is already too long (and costly) and I see no reason to make it more so (unless one opposes all development).”

    In my opinion, this statement is turned around.  If the zoning rules were applied consistently and adhered to, we would reduce the time and money it takes to get projects through.  If developers proposed projects that fit the zoning, they wouldn’t have to redesign and citizens would not have to spend their time, energy, and money fighting about projects that run counter to city law.  Neither would staff.  If the Trackside Partners would have proposed a building that fit the Design Guidelines in the first place, they could have broken ground long ago.  Several projects in Old East Davis that have adhered to the Design Guidelines and have been presented more recently than the 6-story Trackside proposal are already built or are under construction.  And they have the blessing of the neighborhood.

    1. David Greenwald

      I don’t know if that’s necessarily true.  For instance B St Residence fit the zoning and yet there was opposition from the neighborhood.

      The other problem is that we need to update the zoning in some locations.

      1. larryguenther

        Actually, B St. did not fit the zoning.  It is higher than allowed.  And what did that delay amount to?  A month?  A month is not worth trying to get a win-win?  A small reduction in size would have pleased the neighbors, but most members of the City Council wouldn’t even entertain the discussion.  The Trackside partners proposed a 6-story building in a residential neighborhood and there’s pushback.  A new proposal is smaller but is still way outside the zoning and there’s resistance.  And that is the fault of the neighborhood?  This project has been going on for two years because of inappropriate proposals that are completely outside the existing zoning.  Period.

        1. David Greenwald

          ” This project has been going on for two years because of inappropriate proposals that are completely outside the existing zoning. ”

          I think this is too bluntly stated. You’re entitled to believe that this an inappropriate proposal, certainly I did not agree with six stories in this location. But there are processes that allow for the waiver of guidelines and zoning at the discretion of council. I think it’s best for you as neighbors to focus on the impacts on the neighborhood and the impact of a six now four story building rather than making such a blanket statement that is clearly subjective “inappropriate proposal.” Just my thought there.

    2. Mark West

      I think what you propose is a recipe for stagnation. The world changes and the City needs to have the flexibility to adjust to those changes. We are dealing with zoning regulations and design guidelines that are now nearly two decades old, and you cannot say that the world today is the same as it was when those documents were developed. The flexibility comes when developers propose something that is different from what was preconceived, pushing the envelope, if you will. Those proposals allow the City Council to make adjustments to meet the current reality. Would you, as an individual, want to be locked into all the decisions you made 20 years ago, with no opportunity to adjust for the changes in your life? If not, why would you want that for the City?

      The simple reality is that the three story building the neighbors want is no longer financially viable, in part because of all the demands that we have placed on new projects and the time that is required to get a project considered by the CC. Some may not wish to believe that fact, but that doesn’t change the reality.

      1. larryguenther

        You may think that is a recipe for stagnation, but I have evidence that it is not: in our neighborhood it works.  Buildings that follow City zoning are approved by the neighborhood and get built.  We are probably the densest residential neighborhood in Davis, yet we are still a great neighborhood.  While everyone else has talked about densification, we have done it.  We continue to do it.  And we have done it successfully with the Design Guidelines.

        The Guidelines were redone in 2007.  They are not decades old.  And if a zoning plan for a City cannot be relevant for 10 or 20 years, why bother?  The buildings these Guidelines and the Conservation Overlay are meant to protect are much older and are still absolutely relevant to the City.  The principals that are outlined in the Design Guidelines were valid then and they are valid now – abrupt transitions are bad planning.  So yes, the good decisions I made 20 years ago I am happy to be living with today.

        If a building that is consistent with the zoning is no longer viable, why did the investors buy the property?  Is the City supposed to indemnify the risks of investors?  That is preposterous. Additionally, many other projects of the scale the Neighborhood is discussing have been built.  The Crepeville building, Temple Coffee, Helmus building.  No one has shown any numbers that back up the ‘financial viability’ argument, but there are existing examples of buildings that refute it.

        1. Mark West

          You are thinking about your neighborhood, I am thinking about the entire City, our $100’s of millions in unfunded obligations, and our severe housing shortage. The world has changed and locking ourselves into a plan that has already proven to be insufficient (see the unfunded obligations and housing shortage) is foolish.

    3. Howard P

      If the zoning rules were applied consistently and adhered to, we would reduce the time and money it takes to get projects through. 

      True… IF the zoning rules were consistent and up to date… it is apparent they are not… staff’s fault, as usual… PC and CC have no responsibility for that at all… after all the latter are all volunteers, even though they share the ‘legislative’ authority… staff does not have the power to make the rules…

      You don’t like how the game is played?…  It’s the ref’s fault! Not the ‘players’, not the rule-makers (public/appointeds/electeds)

      1. Dianne C Tobias

        At the risk of incurring your wrath, I would say staff/ref does have responsibility in crafting agendas and policy decisions FOR the elected officials. Staff are the experts, they know what good planning and clear standards are. Your analogy is a good one. The refs and the organization they represent make the rules, not the athletes.

        Instead of having the PC meet only when an application comes before them, suggest staff (with CC approval) craft policy decision agendas the PC could be working on in between applications.

        Be gentle Howard.

        1. Howard P

          Sure…

          I speak from direct experience, as I perceived it… your experiences and perceptions are different.

          Therefore, we see different ‘truths’. I won’t say you’re wrong… afford me the same courtesy.

        2. Howard P

          The refs and the organization they represent make the rules, not the athletes.

          Not true, to a VERY large extent… the rules involve ‘values’… staff can and should craft the language of the ‘rules’ implementing those values, but when the values conflict, all staff can do is point out the conflicts… they cannot resolve them.

          If they tried to, they would be attacked by all sides, as we often see here, from public comment at meetings, and from the dais.  Here the rules were unclear… some said that the rules should be interpreted one way, some in another.  Staff don’t get to vote on the contents of the rules.

           

        3. David Greenwald

          “Staff don’t get to vote on the contents of the rules.”

          No, but they laid out their interpretation of the rules for the commission and for the most part the commissioners were stuck between a position of having to accept that interpretation or punt on the issue.  They chose to punt.

        4. Howard P

          David… you wrote,

          No, but they laid out their interpretation of the rules for the commission and for the most part the commissioners were stuck between a position of having to accept that interpretation or punt on the issue. 

          No, they weren’t.  The PC could have, by majority vote, come up with their own opportunity for interpretation.  With 6 members present, there were probably 7 different interpretations on the commission, though.  It is apparent, from the votes, two commissioners flat out opposed the project, no matter what the staff presented.

        5. David Greenwald

          Yes two opposed the project outright, that makes the outcome of the vote all the worse because you can’t blame it on the opposition to the project.

  3. David Greenwald

    Please note there is an error in this article – there were only six commissioners present, therefore, the votes were 6-0, 5-1, and 4-2.  We got the outcomes correct, but my ability to count after 11 pm is apparently in question.

    D. Robertson moved, seconded by M. Hanson, to recommend that the City Council not adopt the SCEA/IS for the stated reasons: lack of staff responses to comments, hazardous materials issues, and points of uncertainty.
    Motion passed by the following vote:
    AYES: Boschken, Hanson, Mikesell, Robertson, Streeter
    NOES: Rutherford

    D. Robertson moved, seconded by H. Boschken, to recommend the City Council approve the planning applications for the project, including the Specific Plan Amendment Resolution and Rezone/Planned Development Ordinance.
    Motion passed by the following vote:
    AYES: Boschken, Robertson, Rutherford, Streeter
    NOES: Hanson, Mikesell

    D. Robertson moved, seconded by H. Boschken, to recommend the City Council approve the project planning applications for Final Planned Development and Demolition.
    Motion passed by the following vote:
    AYES: Boschken, Robertson, Rutherford, Streeter
    NOES: Hanson, Mikesell

    D. Robertson moved, seconded by S. Mikesell, to recommend that the City Council not approve Planning Application project Design Review based on concerns of consistency with prior application of the design guidelines as regards to other projects.
    Motion passed by the following vote:
    AYES: Boschken, Hanson, Mikesell, Robertson, Rutherford, Streeter
    NOES: None

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