A lot of people were talking about Nishi’s new proposal yesterday and most viewed it in a positive light. There were a few points of negative feedback we received. On one end, some still felt that the project as a medium density project was simply not bold enough.
They felt with the depth of the student housing crisis, 2600 student beds on a 45-acre property left a lot on the table.
On the other end of the spectrum there were those still concerned about the impact of air quality on the students who would live on the property.
The Vanguard is sympathetic with the charge that the project lacks great vision or ambition. The Vanguard always argued that, in shooting for mixed-use, Nishi got the worst of both worlds – failing to provide enough student housing AND enough R&D space to make a huge difference.
Contrast this project to USC Village which is a $700 million project that houses 2500 students with numerous restaurants, a retail center, and R&D space on just 15 acres and you can get a sense
for what was left on the table. They are expecting that project to generate about 8000 permanent jobs.
Nishi doesn’t accomplish any of this. Instead, what it does do is to provide 2600 student beds for Davis – which turns out to be important if unambitious.
By our calculations, the call for 50 percent of new students to be housed on campus would require the university to provide 10,000 new beds. Right now they are committing to 6200 of those. The university is pushing forward with its EIR in January and we expect not much will change between now and then.
The university has not, would not, and will not commit to going higher than 6200, although they are willing to entertain bids for projects that increase height and density. Without its inclusion in the EIR, we expect that will be done on the margins.
That leaves 3800 beds to be filled by the city or be absorbed into the shrinking rental vacancy for the city – or to force students to find housing outside of Davis.
With Sterling and a potential Lincoln40 generating about 1500 beds and Nishi projecting to 2600, the three student housing projects can reach about 4100 beds which, if the university follows through on its commitment to build 6200, would get us to the 10,000 bed mark rather easily.
It is probably an overstatement to claim that means that the student housing crisis is solved, but it does greatly lessen it.
In our analysis over the 600-something vote defeat for the Nishi project in June of 2016, we focused on two problems which this project solves.
First it is looking into a reduction in vehicle trips and the idea that they would consider elimination of private automobile access to west Olive Drive. They would also consider only having off-site parking which would allow for storage of vehicle but would discourage daily vehicle trips to and from the site. That would seem to deal with traffic concerns on Richards.
Second, the original project was exempted from affordable housing. This one would avoid that pitfall.
The applicant writes, “Even though the prior project was exempt from affordable housing requirements, the new plan could include housing available to underserved students. Most students do not qualify for the necessary conventional Federal and State subsidy benefits.
“Nonetheless, if some path to feasibility can be found, such housing will be a benefit to students who need assistance.”
Questions still remain, however.
Litigation was filed against the original Nishi project in 2016. Earlier this year, that litigation was resolved in favor of the city with the litigant conceding the affordable housing argument. However, earlier this week, Michael Harrington announced he had filed an appeal of the ruling.
In a release to the Vanguard, he wrote, “Plaintiff has filed its appeal today as we believe that certain aspects of the trial court’s decision after hearing are legally incorrect or need further clarification by the Court of Appeals. Those aspects include the traffic issue and the lack of affordable rental housing. Further comments will come at the time of briefing.”
A key question will be whether the legal challenges are nullified because of the major differences between this project and the previous project that was subject to the litigation. Plaintiffs challenged the adequacy of the traffic study on Nishi, but if the applicants here are recommending limited to no private vehicle access, the project may not impact Richards Boulevard at all.
When the Vanguard spoke with Michael Harrington he was non-committal on what he would do at this point – although he did feel like he made for a better project than the one that was defeated at the polls last year.
The biggest remaining issue is a complex one and it is unclear how it will translate electorally.
The traffic issues last time were probably the most important factor in the loss of the project. Side issues like Redrum Burger were impactful as well. And, personally, I think the lack of affordable housing lost a number of progressive voters who were otherwise concerned about the lack of rental vacancy in Davis.
The issue of air quality still remains. It was a big point of discussion yesterday in the comment section.
Tim Ruff, the project manager, told the Vanguard that this new project will serve students whose average occupancy is less than three years.
They eliminated the for-sale option which would have presented much longer exposure. And he believes that the impact is no different than at Solano Park or along Olive Drive, where there exists plenty of apartment and student housing.
The Vanguard spent a lot of time analyzing the issue during last year’s campaign and we have come to the conclusion it is a lot more complex and equivocal than many are making it.
A key point that Dr. Thomas Cahill makes is that this is an emerging area of science and he would use the term “dangerous” to describe what he believes is a significant added risk of death from exposure to the particulate matter at Nishi.
But if you push him on a number of issues he acknowledges that he just doesn’t know and he prefers to err on the side of caution – or what he calls the “precautionary principle.”
He told the Vanguard, “This requires that in the face of uncertainty, I would have to choose on the basis of the most conservative estimate of the impact, which is almost always lower than the scientist’s bottom number. In Davis, this means that (if) there is any reasonable chance that I and my colleagues are right, I would have to reject residential use and maximize protection of workers in commercial or research facilities.”
But in 2016, the residential use had a sizable for-sale component to it. With a rental-only use, the exposure is reduced to a year, two years, possibly three years.
If you consider the actual exposure of a student who lives on the site for even three years, even if they are there around the clock (which no one will be), it is considerably less than the exposure of a worker who works on the site for ten years, twenty years, etc.
As the Final EIR notes, “The Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District (SMAQMD) estimates that the reasonable worst-case level of health risk from freeway generated toxic air contaminants is approximately 919 per 1,000,000 residents for a residential dwelling located just 50 feet from the busiest freeway in Sacramento County.”
Back in January, Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis, himself a public health professional, argued that the risk assessment at Nishi was actually quite low.
Section 4.3 of the Draft EIR, for example, notes, “One common metric of health risk is the number of additional cancer cases that may occur in the population exposed to a particular TAC [toxic air contaminant], or located in an area exposed to TACs in general. This is typically reported as additional cancer risk per million people.”
Here the EIR notes that, according to the American Cancer Society, “the lifetime probability of contracting/dying from cancer in the United States is 43.3%/22.8% among males and 37.8%/19.3% among females. In other words there is a lifetime probability that over 430,000 per 1 million males and over 370,000 per 1 million females will develop cancer over their lifetime.”
In his comments to council, Robb Davis noted that the lifetime risk of respiratory cancer was about 10 percent or 100,000 in 1 million.
The numbers shown above are on the magnitude of 1025 per 1 million, a far lower added risk than the overall risk.
Most of the freeway impact studies analyze the effects of living near a freeway over a long-term exposure of at least 20 years.
Indeed, as the EIR notes, “Long-term exposure to this concentration of diesel PM corresponds to an incremental cancer risk level of 235 in one million above the background level of cancer risk from TACs in the region for residential receptors.” They add, “The estimated level of increased cancer risk based on SMAQMD’s Roadway Protocol (SMAQMD 2011) is approximately 197 in one million.”
Long-term exposure is the key term, and that calculates to an increased risk of cancer at .0235 percent increased risk. That’s for long-term exposure.
The bottom line is that it is not clear that the actual risks here are significant. Moreover, we don’t have any points of reference – how does Nishi compare with Olive Drive and other sites for potential student housing in Davis?
From our perspective then, the air quality issue is at best unclear, the new proposal mitigates that somewhat by eliminating the for-sale component of the project, and it addresses the traffic concerns and affordable housing concerns.
While I still think the project could be more ambitious, at this point it would seem to have a very good chance of passing a citizen vote in June. Stay tuned.
—David M. Greenwald reporting