Trackside has been a contentious issue since it was introduced as a six-story project way back in mid-2015. It was no less contentious on Tuesday, with several hours of public comment and more than 50 people speaking.
Council ended up approving the project by a 4-1 vote (although the approval of the environmental document was unanimous), with Mayor Pro Tem Brett Lee as the dissenting vote.
The lengthy public comment on Tuesday was punctuated by two very distinct schools of thought. One was a fairly large contingent of students and recent graduates who spoke forcefully on the need for student housing and affordable housing – even though Trackside itself would not seem to lend itself necessarily to either. The concerns of the low vacancy rate seemed to motivate an unusually large number of comments from the generation under 40.
In fact, several people on Tuesday observed a large generational divide, with very few people under the age of 40 opposing the project as proposed, and the vast majority of the opposition to the project as proposed (i.e., in favor of a modified or reduced size/impact project) being older, established residents in the immediate neighborhood.
But one of the questions that immediately came up with the neighbors’ counter-proposal is whether they did any sort of assessment to see if three stories would be fiscally viable. They argued by comparison that other similarly-sized projects were viable. If the proposal 3.0 is not financially feasible, Councilmember Will Arnold reasoned, “that means it’s between proposal 2.0 and nothing.”
When the question was posed to the developer team, Steve Greenfield told council, “The financial viability model doesn’t hinge on what the return on investment is going to be in 20 years, it hinges on can you finance the project to build it.”
He said a bank reviewed their pro forma, “based on construction value from last year and downsized project 3.0, and construction costs have gone up since last year… I looked at the 3.0 and it comes out with a negative net value of over one million dollars. So if we’d been given the land for free, it wouldn’t be viable to build the 3.0.”
In response, one of the neighbors with 40 years of experience in construction said, “All these developers have to do is get more equity from their investors and take on less debt, and any building could be financially feasible if they’re getting rent.” He said, “I don’t know what their financial feasibility study showed or their pro forma to the bank, but it can be changed by getting more equity from their investors.”
Larry Guenther acknowledged that they had not had a conversation with a financial advisor.
Mayor Pro Tem Brett Lee said he takes zoning for what it is “and if I have to make an exception, I have to ask why.” He said, “I think there is an objective component, and the objective component is does this fit within the zone, and if it did, it wouldn’t be here tonight – almost by definition. So we’re saying let’s ignore the rules and let’s approve something outside the rules.”
He said that he was surprised by all of the references to things like the housing crisis and greenhouse gases and accepting the binary choice before them. “Why aren’t people, for example, demanding the six-story option,” he said. “Once we’re sort of outside of this objective area, now we’re into subjective.”
He said, “Personally I’m okay with the three, I’m not okay with the four.” He doesn’t see a huge difference on these issue, with the three versus the four-story proposals. “The amount of housing here isn’t going to significantly address the housing issues in Davis.”
Councilmember Will Arnold thanked the neighbors for presenting an alternative proposal, something he had never seen before. But he took exception to what he called “the rhetorical gap.” He took exception to the notion that the design guidelines were being wiped out and “Davis was losing its soul.”
“The idea that we would be throwing out all the guidelines and waiving all the rules and kicking in the doors of zoning, I believe our staff has done a very good job of presenting a solid case as to why that’s not the case,” he said. “The actual Trackside image is absolutely consistent with the case study that was provided for in the design guidelines…”
About the idea that we would be losing the soul of our town, he said “to me I think there’s a huge gap there between what is actually being proposed and the rhetoric around it.”
“What it is, is discretionary,” Councilmember Rochelle Swanson said. “Moving forward with what’s being proposed doesn’t throw everything away – we make exceptions, we make small changes… It concerns me when everything is looked at in discrete pieces and not wholistically.”
She said “when I saw the first proposal, I was not a fan.” She called it “transit oriented development.”
In addition, she was concerned that “no one is talking about the fact that this is about the haves and have-nots.” She appreciated the presence of the students. “Our job is that we are stewards, we don’t just represent one neighborhood… We represent the present but we also represent the future.”
She said that for every person down there, there is a working family working two or three jobs, sleeping, trying to get ready for their day tomorrow and our job is to represent them too. “Yes 27 units isn’t going to save the world, but it does set a precedent. People are looking at this.”
She said that “if we were talking about four stories’ difference (between neighbor and developer), I think we would think differently. But we’re talking about one and there’s financial feasibility. Just because it’s fiscally feasible doesn’t mean that it’s financially feasible.”
Councilmember Lucas Frerichs said “(the housing crisis) is real.” He added, “Housing of all types is needed. That’s something that fundamentally I believe. Are we going to solve it all here in Davis? No.”
He noted that on his way to council, he ran into a homeless student living currently in a vehicle near City Hall. He said, “It is absolutely real. It is great for those of us who own homes in this community to think that it’s the other, but it’s people in this community, it’s happening right now and we need to be responsive to that.”
He said that “we are pushing on the university to do their part and they need to do a lot more.”
Mayor Robb Davis gave some lengthy remarks. He said he believes that Trackside “clearly contributes to the goal of the Core Area Specific Plan. I believe it contributes to the intent of the design guidelines.
“It will bring more people into the downtown,” he said.
The question becomes, what does it do to Old East Davis? He said the environmental review has convinced him that it is not going to damage the historical buildings in that neighborhood. He acknowledged that there was disagreement on that and potentially a lawsuit. “I don’t see a problem there,” he said.
Will it harm the neighborhood? he asked. “That’s where I’ve lost sleep over the last several nights,” he said. “Will it drive residential out of that neighborhood. I don’t think so.” He also didn’t think it would contribute to the over-densification of the neighborhood. “I don’t think it’s precedent setting in that way.”
How is it harming the neighborhood? he asked. “I’m not going to say it doesn’t because I don’t live there… Will it change the neighborhood? Yes. There will be changes in the neighborhood because of this.
“Will it destroy the character of the neighborhood?” he asked. What is the character? And he mentioned the word “eclectic.” He doesn’t think that it fits that definition of the word.
“The character of the neighborhood is extremely diverse… it is probably the most diverse neighborhood in the system,” he said. But he argued, “Diversity in a biological sense is a resilient thing.” Because of that, he said “I’m not convinced that this project is going to hurt it.
“I think a project like this helps accomplish the intent of the Core Area Specific Plan,” he said. “I think it definitely meets the design guidelines in the sense that the design guidelines seek to serve and carve out these different areas, that are designed to carve out and achieve these ends.”
He supported the project because it brought the achievement of goals without, in his view, harming the neighborhood.
The council, on a motion by Will Arnold and seconded by Lucas Frerichs, voted 4-1 to approve the project, with Brett Lee in dissent. Is this the end of this story and controversy? That remains to be seen.
—-David M. Greenwald reporting