Commentary: The Battle of Neighbors vs. Densification and Infill


Infill Housing

In the year 2000, after a decade of large scale peripheral growth in Davis, the voters narrowly said that they wanted to have a say in all future peripheral projects and they backed Measure J, mandating that all conversions from agricultural land to urban uses require approval from the voters.

The people of Davis then backed that anti-sprawl sentiment by soundly rejecting the first two such projects – the 2005 Covell Village and the 2009 Wildhorse Ranch.  In addition, last year (2016) the voters also narrowly rejected Nishi.

With peripheral development largely precluded by the combination of Measure J/R and the inclinations of the majority of voters, many have argued that if you are not going to grow out, you must grow up.  But infill presents its own challenges – neighbors wishing to minimize impacts will often organize in order to oppose a project altogether, or attempt to reduce the impacts on their homes, neighborhoods, and ways of life.

In a very real sense, the battle over infill figures to be much more intense than the battle over peripheral development.  And, while each of the three ballot measures have generated controversy and acrimony, infill has a much more direct impact on residents and pushes development much closer to existing residents and neighborhoods.  The potential for heated battle is a lot higher.

The city of Davis was able to avoid some of these battles largely because the recession that began in 2008 greatly reduced the pressure for more development and the pressure for growth.  In fact,
from the 2010 election until after the 2014 election, the issue of growth was largely off the radar.  The consensus seemed to be that peripheral growth was disfavored by the voters, and we should focus on infill.  And with the economy down, there was not a huge amount of infill.

The big exception to that was the 2013 Cannery project that was approved by a 3-2 vote, but that was almost a peripheral project which just happened to be in the city limits and did not require a Measure R vote.  There weren’t many adjacent neighbors that would be closely affected.  The 2009 Wildhorse Ranch vote during the heart of the recession was bitterly contentious and overwhelmingly defeated, as it was poorly timed at a time when the housing market was still collapsed.

However, since 2014, the issue of growth has renewed its force.  The biggest impetus has been the expansion of the university combined with a low percentage of on-campus housing (29 percent) and a low vacancy rate in the city of Davis.

Beginning in late 2015, the university embarked on its new Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) and, with community pressure mounting to get on-campus housing percentages on par with other universities, UC Davis has agreed to grow to 40 percent (an additional 6200 beds) but not 50 percent (10,000 new beds).

That has left a gap that the market is now taking up.  In addition to a new 2600-bed proposal at Nishi, there are several infill apartment projects which have cropped up.

The dilemma that Davis now faces is that, due to Measure R policies, it is very difficult to get peripheral projects passed.  Can Nishi become the first?  That remains to be seen.  It would appear on the surface that Nishi has addressed two of the major concerns (traffic and affordable housing) that led to its 2016 defeat at the polls.  Will that be enough?  We have seen a limited pushback on the issue of air quality, but we have no way to gauge whether that will be sufficient to defeat the project.

The discussion on infill remains contentious.  Neighbors pushed back against the Hyatt House hotel – it was ultimately approved by council, but downsized.  The council approved a downsized Sterling Apartments after neighbors expressed concern over traffic and visual impacts.  Neighbors are also pushing for a downsized Trackside Center, which is scheduled to go before council next week.

Residents have pushed back on proposed medium- to high-density student apartments, calling them megadorms.

Critics have argued that these “mega-dorm” projects include “hundreds of apartments designed specifically for adding 4,500 – 5,000 or more students in the City, but would not help with the market-rate housing needs for our community’s families and workers. These projects including Lincoln40, Plaza 2555 in South Davis, and now Nishi would be predominately 4- and 5- bedroom enormous apartment suites. Generally, each bedroom has an individual bathroom.”

They continue, “Since these mega-dorms use a rent-by-the-bed format targeting students, this is not a design that works for families and local workers.”

Critics instead want more student housing to be placed on the UC Davis campus, something that UC Davis has resisted.  To date, the university is planning to go forward with its EIR for 6200 new beds.  It does not appear likely that it would go to the 10,000 needed to really increase vacancy rates in the city.

And this is the dilemma that the city faces – with dwindling available parcels in the city, and the general lack of availability of peripheral lands for development, the city is faced with the prospect of having to build up.  But building up leads to conflict between both slow growth advocates as well as existing neighbors.

The advantage of these student housing complexes is that they can put a good amount of students in a limited size footprint.  In theory that could open existing housing for families, and at the very least alleviate the low vacancy rates that are having detrimental effects on students.

What we have seen now in the last three years is that the demand for new housing is generating a lot of new proposals.  But it is also creating the incentive for developers to push maximum density.

Ultimately the council becomes the arbiter here.  What we have seen is that the council definitely favors new housing at this point, but is acting as a buffer.  For example, the small Paso Fino development had several questionable elements to it in addition to impacts on the neighbors.  There were concerns about the use of a city-owned greenbelt and the removal of trees, and the council pushed the size of the project down – in fact, way down.

Likewise, the council reduced the size of the Hyatt House and Sterling Apartments projects, and it will be interesting to see what happens with Trackside (with strong neighborhood resistance – as opposed to Lincoln40 which has some resistance from the neighbors, but nothing really organized).

This tension will also play into the next Core Area Specific Plan as the council and city are likely to see mixed-use development in the downtown as a way to maximize the use of existing lands.

The question at some point is, will something give?  Will the community agree to some Measure R projects to take the pressure off existing neighborhoods?  Will the voters ultimately modify or eliminate Measure R if housing needs become impossible to meet?  None of that is clear at the moment.

What is clear is that, as long as there is demand for housing, developers will find a way to put up proposals that maximize density even in existing neighborhoods.  If you won’t grow out, the pressure to grow up will increase.

—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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14 thoughts on “Commentary: The Battle of Neighbors vs. Densification and Infill”

  1. Tia Will


    While I realize that this is a commentary piece, I once again feel the need to stress what I see as a misrepresentation from the title and extending through the article. You have framed this as a “Battle of Neighbors Vs Densification and Infill”. This is a highly inaccurate representation of both the OEDNA and of my position specifically since although similar, the two are not identical. From the beginning, at the first public comment on the Trackside project, I tried to make it clear that I favor densification and infill. The word that I used about a new project at this site was “delighted”. However, certainly not at the initially proposed six stories.

    What I would have been delighted with was a project such as that the neighbors have proposed which still meets the goals of increased density at this site while remaining within the current zoning and design guidelines. I see this as a win-win-win for the city ( increased density and infill over what exists at that site), for the developers ( given that these are upgraded commercial and luxury apartments will “pencil out” over time) and for the neighbors who will experience less of an impact on their homes/lives.

    1. David Greenwald

      The only two things I said about Trackside were “neighbors are also pushing for a downsized trackside” which is accurate and there’s strong neighborhood resistance (to the current proposal) which there is.  I’m not sure your objection here.

      1. larryguenther

        Sorry David, but you are incorrect.  You also said:

        “The Battle of Neighbors vs. Densification and Infill.”

        All the pushback from neighborhoods, to my knowledge, has been about degree much more than kind.  The proposal designed by using the existing zoning that Old East Davis residents put forward adds 30-40 people to a 1/2 acre site that currently has no residential.  That is densification and infill.

        This is not an ‘either, or’ battle.  It is an effort by the community to change and grow without losing the character that makes Davis a great place to live.  If we use the same tools as every other city, we will look – and be – like every other city.

        It is also a question of process.  Smaller developments are required to follow the existing zoning and the Design Guidelines.  It appears to many that large developers don’t have to.

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          “All the pushback from neighborhoods, to my knowledge, has been about degree much more than kind.”

          Yes, that’s the point of the whole article – density. How high, how dense. The whole discussion here is about the move to reduce size and impact of infill sites.

        2. Howard P

          The Trackside “developer” are, nor will likely be, a “large developer”.  A bunch of locals, pooling their resources, as an investment ‘opportunity’.

          The rest of Larry’s post rings true, in the main…

      2. Alan Miller

        The Trackside “developer” are, nor will likely be, a “large developer”.  A bunch of locals, pooling their resources, as an investment ‘opportunity’.

        Wow, way to spin it, HP.  “Large” is in the eye of the beholder.  These are “locals” who each have $50,000 to $100,000 in liquid assets that they can spare on a so-called “investment opportunity”.  You may run in circles where that is chump change, but that’s a seriously “large” amount of spare cash to most people I know in Davis.

        As Trackside Partners LLC insists anything smaller than the proposal before the council won’t “pencil out” (and I don’t believe that for a F-ing minute), that means the “locals” invested knowing that the project would fail if they couldn’t convince the Council to break the Design Guidelines and change the zoning, special-special for their special project.  That makes them speculators, not investors.

        What Davis doesn’t need is a small, well-connected group of rich speculators pushing their over-sized projects and over-densifying values down the throats and next to the homes of regular citizens in the various neighborhoods of Davis.

        I’m all for the densification of the downtown itself, and I’m all for a large, mixed-use building at the Trackside Center site.  But don’t you dare give this group of “locals” a pass for what they are trying to do, nor for the way they are going about it.

  2. larryguenther

    I feel that you consistently 0ver-simplify the Nishi vote.  There were several major problems with the former Nishi proposal.  One that you neglect to mention was that it was not fiscally sustainable for the City; i.e. it was a money-loser in the long run.  If a project with several major problems is narrowly rejected by the people, perhaps people are not so antagonistic to peripheral projects as you and others keep saying.

    Perhaps if projects put forward for peripheral development were better projects, they would get approved.

    1. David Greenwald

      “One that you neglect to mention was that it was not fiscally sustainable for the City; i.e. it was a money-loser in the long run. ”

      That’s really not accurate and to the extent that it is, it has more to do with how the city analyzes fiscal impacts and the lack of cost containment than anything to do with the development.  Read my whole analysis from a few weeks ago when I break out the problem with the way the city does fiscal analysis for the projects.

  3. Eileen Samitz


    Your article title does not at all reflect what the issue really is with Trackside. The Trackside neighbors are not against having a more densified project built at the Trackside site, they just want one that follows the rules and is compatible with the projects surroundings. What the neighbor have a right to not get is a ridiculously enormous project which is completely out of scale with the neighborhood and breaks all of the City’s planning rules.

    The problem is that the Trackside proposal 1.0 and even 2.0 are both too big with enormous impacts. Why have zoning codes, specific plans and a General Plan to guide good planning if they are only going to be ignored or side-stepped? The City needs to play by its own rules and not allow developers to railroad and shoe-horn in projects that are completely incompatible with the surrounding neighborhood.

    The City needs to stop shoe-horn planning and implement common sense densification that works. Trackside 2.0 needs to become Trackside 3.0 (the conforming proposal) which the neighbors have offered and is a huge compromise for them to agree to. That design works and therefore that is the real solution for a win-win situation for the community and the developer. Trackside 3.0 would  since still a fairly large project with three stories, but not enormous and incompatible like the Trackside 1.0 and Trackside 2.0 developer proposals.

    The City needs to follow its own planning rules, work with the community and do better planning rather than jamming overdensification down the community’s throat. There is no reason why this “process” should be going as negatively for the neighbors has this one has been handled with Trackside.  The City should be prioritizing what is in the best interest of the community, and Trackside 2.0 is not at all there, yet.

    1. David Greenwald

      Again, this wasn’t primarily about Trackside and B, I disagree with you.  The issue of Trackside is how dense to go.  The developers are proposing four stories, the neighbors prefer less density.  That’s exactly the issue raised here, but the article is taking a broader perspective.

      You write: “the city should be prioritizing what is in the best interest of the community” – I agree, but I’m not sure we agree on what the best interest of the community.  You note that we are jamming overdensificaiton down the community’s throat (btw, issue that is in fact raised in the title), but the point I’m making is if we have indeed precluded future peripheral development, we have to get more dense in an effort to meet ongoing housing needs.

  4. Eileen Samitz


    Well if “how dense” is the issue then the title should have been, “How Dense Should Trackside Be?” Or  “Is Trackside Too Dense?”, but the title you have totally mis-rerpresents the neighbors position who simply want the City’s own planning rules followed and a common sense amount of density. Another title could have been,”Why doesn’t the City follow its own planning rules”?

    The Trackside site is in a transitional area and there is no way that Trackside should be any higher than 3 stories being surrounded by one- and two-story historical housing units and given the enormous footprint of this site, two stories would be best.  Four stories would be completely out of scale with the surroundings.

    It is clear that the solution for Trackside is to implement good planning. And here the neighborhoods have offered this enormous compromise of agreeing to three stories which embraces good planning principles. The project simply needs to abide by the City’s own rules, and the result is that Trackside needs to be three stories or less, not four. Otherwise, the City and the Council are simply throwing the community under the bus along with our City’s planning principals, zoning, and General Plan.



    1. David Greenwald Post author

      “It is clear that the solution for Trackside is to implement good planning.”

      So you are arguing that the solution here is to do something that is subjective and nebulus – good planning. Good planning is in the eye of the beholder.

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