Commentary: Did the Old East Neighbors Overplay Their Hand?

The neighbors revised proposal for Trackside 3.0

The Vanguard received reports of people in Old North Davis receiving a flyer urging them to come speak out against the Trackside project, calling it “the line in the sand.”  The flyer claims, “By allowing a building within the Design Guidelines and zoning, we support good planning and the City honoring its agreements with the traditional neighborhoods.

“Why you should care…  The study area for the upcoming Core Area Specific Plan is proposed to extend north to 8th Street and East to L Street.  There are forces in town that wish to greatly densify all our neighborhoods through ‘spot’ or ‘exception’ zoning as much as they can before the new rules are even in place, so as to set a precedent of heavy densification.”

The Vanguard, as we reiterated this weekend, has mixed views on the Trackside project.  On the one hand, given restrictions and difficulty of developing on peripheral land in Davis, densification is a natural and probable consequence in a market with a low vacancy rate and high level of demand for new housing.

On the other hand, Trackside itself is a fairly small project which contemplates just 27 units, and the difference between the neighbors’ request for three stories currently versus the four-story proposal is small at best.  It seemed like a compromise of some sort would be in order, but erring on the side of the neighbors here was also possible.

By calling this “spot zoning,” the publisher of the flyer is alleging that the city is breaking the law.  At least in many cases, spot zoning has been deemed to be illegal, although the courts have ruled that “spot zoning” is not impressible if the “council demonstrates a rational reason in the public benefit exists for such a classification.”

Regardless, the issue here isn’t zoning but rather design guidelines.  These concerns generally have focused around issues of mass and scale, which many believe is “not in keeping the scale of the residential neighborhood to the East.”

Staff responds that page 10 of the design guidelines for the downtown addresses the difference between guidelines and standards, which they believe demonstrates that guidelines are generally descriptive statements that “describe a preferred policy direction for the City.”

Staff continues to believe that this language acknowledges “a certain amount of flexibility is provided unlike zoning standards which are unequivocal.”

Regardless, the charge of “spot zoning” fails to appreciate the difference between zoning standards and design guidelines and appears to make an inaccurate claim that this is spot zoning.

I am also troubled by Alan Miller’s guest commentary which is entitled, “We, the residents, are the deciders for our neighborhoods.”  The title would seem inaccurate on its face, but there are problematic elements within it as well.

Mr. Miller calls this “the big one.”  He writes, “The one that determines who determines the direction of infill Davis.”

Here again, is my problem: the differences between the neighbors’ and developers’ proposals are fairly small and yet, a 27-unit project is the “big one”?  This whole thing is overplayed.  And while
previously I was sympathetic to the neighbors, they are now – at least one of them – greatly overplaying their hands and attempting to ratchet up the controversy.

If anything, the precedent here was already set by Mission Village.  In that case you had a very clear B Street visioning process where the neighbors reached an agreement with the city.  The project violated the agreement and the council voted 4-1 to approve the project anyway.  The time between agreement and project was just seven years.

Here you have what is an antiquated Core Area Specific Plan, announced plans to change it, and, while I would prefer we set the rules first before moving forward, I just don’t see Trackside as being a major factor either way in the future of the city.

Again we get the false charge of “spot zoning”: “A destructive precedent was set by this decision: spot zoning by council majority. It’s a wrongly accepted specter that says at its core, zoning doesn’t matter, neighborhoods don’t matter and agreements don’t matter.”  Again, this fails to understand the difference between zoning and design guidelines – whether you agree with the staff’s interpretation of design guidelines’ flexibility or not, this is not spot zoning because we are not dealing with zoning at all.

Mr. Miller goes on to argue: “It rarely goes well for those being told what’s best for them.”

He cites the comment from November 5 by Nicole Bourne, Dan Wolk and Dan Fuchs who wrote: “All of these things enrich our community — including the Old East Davis neighborhood.”

Mr. Miller calls this statement patronizing and writes: “Who defines what is good for a group of people living in a place? Is it those who live there, or those with the power to change that place? Ask most indigenous peoples how that dynamic went down for them. It rarely goes well for those being told what is best for them.”

The reality is that the city council gets to determine what is in the best interest of the entire community, including the neighborhood, and, in fact, if a member of the neighborhood were on the city council, they would have to recuse themselves due to a conflict of interest.

So the answer to Alan Miller’s rhetorical question is the city councilmembers get to define that, as the duly elected delegates and representatives to the community.

Mr. Miller wants to argue, “Were Old East a no-growth group trying to stop Trackside, I’d be calling for our own heads. But that’s not the case” and that “we are the reasonable middle ground.”

However, what I see in both the flyer and this piece is that the middle ground is not so reasonable.  Between efforts to increase the pressure in the debate over four stories versus three and the irresponsible charge of “spot zoning” – we can throw out “reasonable.”

The neighbors have been working Farmer’s Market for months, they have placed ads in the paper, and have now leafleted surrounding neighborhoods.  It will be interesting to see how many people from outside of Old East Davis come to speak out against the project tonight, other than the usual suspects who speak on all subjects.  I will be very interested to see if anyone does.

When the project was six stories, I certainly would have agreed with the neighborhood’s level of concern.  But now we are at a four-story proposal by the developers and a three-story counter-argument by the neighbors.  While I stand by what I said this weekend with regard to process, I find it troubling how much pressure people are attempting to apply and ratchet up over a very small difference at this point.

—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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17 thoughts on “Commentary: Did the Old East Neighbors Overplay Their Hand?”

  1. Keith O

    The Vanguard as we reiterated this weekend, has mixed views on the Trackside Project.

    You write this but when I read the article I don’t feel the Vanguard has mixed views at all.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      My position is still that the number of units is not worth fighting over and the city should either work a compromise or take the neighbors three story proposal. So I’m not sure of your point.

  2. Tia Will


    the publisher of the flyer is alleging that the city is breaking the law” 

    No. No one is claiming any action by the council is breaking the law. But as we all know, not all actions taken by elected officials are wise even if they are within the law.You basically go on in the same paragraph to refute your own claim by stating how a city council may act  “if the “council demonstrates a rational reason in the public benefit exists for such a classification.”

    What I see happening in this article is you over working one particular word, in this case “spot zoning”, to achieve an emotional effect just as you did when you over worked the meaning of the word “mega dorm” in order to dispute assertions with which you do not agree.


  3. Tia Will


    Did you confirm with the author of the flyer what was meant by their use of “spot zoning” prior to writing this article ? I am thinking that much controversy might be avoided by clarifying with others their meaning of a word, be it “mega dorm” or “spot zoning” prior to leaping into a contentious exchange of words based on questionable intent.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      For one thing, there’s not contact information on the Flyer. For another, “there are forces in town that wish to greatly densify all our neighborhoods through “spot” or “exception” zoning…” Spot zoning has a specific definition and is generally illegal.

    2. Eric Gelber

      It’s an overstatement to say that spot zoning is generally illegal in California, particularly when it’s used to afford greater rights to a parcel than the surrounding property rather than to give lesser rights to an individual parcel. The issue is whether the decision is in the public interest and is not arbitrary and capricious–i.e., totally lacking in evidentiary support.

    3. Howard P

      Well, from the wording (shared in this piece) from the flyer sure looks to the the work of two or three authors/’publishers’… I think anyone can guess one, and I think I’ve got a clue on one other… based on the wording… so, David, am pretty sure you know who you could talk to, if you were so inclined.

      Am also struck with the timing of the flyer… apparent 11th hour… and, the apparent acknowledgement that any decision is about more than one neighborhood, and by extension, the whole community.

      Will be interesting to see both how this plays out, and the more interesting part will be how the process is “cloaked” as to justifications/”spin”… as I have “no dog in this fight”, will be a spectator.

      If I had confidence in the good will and honesty, and collaboration in bringing a revised CASP forward in a timely (6-12 months, tops), I’d urge letting that play out first, ahead of the project… but at this point, I have no faith that there will be good will, honesty, true collaboration… I’m thinking that the new CASP will be like the giraffe… a horse designed by committee. A commttee devoted to make sure it reflects protecting each of their “turfs”



      1. David Greenwald Post author

        “so, David, am pretty sure you know who you could talk to, if you were so inclined.”

        Okay, but it’s not like the message was ambiguous

    1. Ron

      It “cuts deeply”, for those next to it, and creates further precedence to disregard neighborhood concerns.

      Regarding “overplaying their hand”, I don’t think that’s a factor, at this point. If anything, it shows how concerned and upset the neighbors are. The proposal dwarfs the nearby, small homes.

      1. Howard P

        Big difference between ‘disregarding’  (as in, ‘taking no notice of’ ), and ‘acting in lock-step with’.

        If one believes each neighborhood is “sovereign”…

        And if those who have spoken for the record to date actually represents the majority of the neighborhood…

        1. Ron

          In this case, there’s an agreement (guidelines) which preceded the proposal. (Seems like a lot of “interpretation” by city staff and others, regarding what that means.)

        2. Howard P

          Ron and David… neither were agreements in the technical sense of the word… agreements are writings, signed by equal parties, and both parties have a shared responsibility to act on their agreements…

          Both the B Street and other guidelines/policies, were drafted as part of an understanding by the City and those who participated… in both cases, those who participated were not “elected”… their representation of all (or even a simple majority) affected is a questionable assertion. Might be true, might not be.

          As another poster has implied, “Welcome to the Davis ‘way'”

          I welcome attorney opinions as to my definition of “agreement”…

    2. Mark West

      “I don’t see Trackside as an issue that cuts that deeply into the community.”

      I doubt it even ‘cuts deeply’ among the renters in OED. We hear a lot from the wealthy property owners, but with all the apartments located in the neighborhood, I doubt that property owners are the majority of the neighborhood’s residents. Kind of like the rest of the town, where the majority renters are just an afterthought for those with secure housing.

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