After nearly two and a half years of contention and debate, city staff is now recommending that the city council approve the Trackside Center mixed-use project on Tuesday. For all of the mistakes that have been made along the way, and all of the debate, there are some fairly important issues raised by what is ultimately a project that keeps the same amount of commercial space of the existing building(s) and adds 27 one- and two-bedroom apartments.
Given that, I wonder if this whole episode is even worth it from the community’s standpoint. After all, we are not adding commercial space, although we are configuring it better, and we are adding all of 27 residential units – and I wonder if we are adding them for the best use. At best, we are not doing much more than adding a few drips into a system badly in need of a range of housing types.
Naturally I am pretty conflicted about this site, some of the planning that has gone into this site, and the arguments made against the current proposal.
It is an interesting irony that the city council last Tuesday appointed ten additional members to the CAAC (Core Area Advisory Committee) that will be in charge of helping plan and guide the Core Area Specific Plan process. In my view, the Core Area Specific Plan (CASP) is badly outdated and one of the big changes that needs to occur in this community is we need to build up in the core from the current one- and two-story buildings, with occasional three- and four-story buildings, upwards to six stories.
We can modernize our store fronts, improve parking, add office space, and build residential all into the six-story blocks of our downtown if we have the bold vision that is needed to push that forward.
The neighbors want to argue that the current project doesn’t meet the current design guidelines – and they are correct. The city’s response is basically to say that the guidelines are really just
Staff notes in their report the difference between guidelines and standards, which they believe demonstrate that guidelines are generally descriptive statements that “describe a preferred policy direction for the City.”
But why have guidelines if any given project can simply ignore them or disregard them as three councilmembers see fit?
Staff believes, however, that “the guidelines are not strict standards and do not require 100% compliance and there may be disagreement about the interpretation of guidelines, but it is ultimately the Council’s role to review the project under the guidelines, and determine whether the project is consistent with the design guidelines as a whole.”
Staff continues to believe “the Trackside Center project complies with the majority of the design guidelines and meets their general intent.” They argue, “The building has been designed to transition in height from the smaller residential structures nearby with the taller building mass concentrated on the west side facing the railroad tracks and downtown area. Building architecture, detailing and articulation break up the elevations and create visual interest.”
This is the heart of the debate and where I believe both staff and neighbors get this wrong.
Staff gets it wrong because they are too willing to simply disregard inconvenient guidelines. The neighbors get this wrong because they are in fact relying on antiquated guidelines that need to be replaced.
We can argue – as we have – that it would be better to get the CASP updated and modernized first, and then build projects that meet the need guidelines. The advantage of that is that the opposition would lose an opposition point, the staff would not simply have to disregard the guidelines, and we would produce better consistency – rather than the real patchwork of development by exception that we have seen over the last 20 years or so in Davis.
The neighbors argue that this site represents a transition zone. Indeed, the project’s location between the established Old East Davis residential neighborhood and the core downtown area means that it serves as a transition site between the two areas.
The question is what is the baseline transition. The neighbors will argue, “A neighboring structure that is greater than twice the height of an adjacent structure is not a sufficient transition.”
The problem that you end up with is that you have a subjective definition as to what is an appropriate transition. While the neighbors argue that this is not a sufficient transition, the city argues to the contrary. Again, they argue, “The building has been designed to transition in height from the smaller residential structures nearby with the taller building mass concentrated on the west side facing the railroad tracks and downtown area. Building architecture, detailing and articulation break up the elevations and create visual interest.”
The difference between the neighbors who are asking for three stories and the developers who want four is not that much. It is hard to argue that three stories is an appropriate transition while four is not (although that, de facto, becomes the debate).
It would be easier if the new CASP were in place and defined the core area as having a six-story maximum height, and the transition area with three to four stories. But at some point you get into aesthetic preferences which are by definition subjective.
There have been concerns about this area as a historic part of town that would be impacted or altered by the new development. However, the Historic Resources Management Commission reviewed the project and voted unanimously to affirm the Commission’s determination: “The existing structures do not meet the criteria for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, California Register of Historical Resources, or City landmark or merit resource requirements based on the Historical Resources Analysis and that they do not warrant full review under CEQA as historical resources.”
Finally, I see this debate coming down to one of density. The city is quite limited at this time in the amount of available land that it has for new housing, and therefore this incentivizes the developers and encourages the council to push for maximum density.
“The increased density and intensified development that occurs with infill projects often raises neighborhood concerns about traffic, noise, aesthetics, and other issues,” staff writes.
And in reality the debate over Trackside comes down to one of size, scale, massing and density of the project, and whether the current proposal is appropriate for the location.
The city, strapped for housing, short on land that does not require a Measure R vote, short on resources without the ability to redevelop with RDA money, has to make tough choices between serving the desires of current residents and finding housing for current and future residents in need of housing in Davis (a controversial subject here in town to say the least).
Many will argue this is precisely why you should not have Measure R, as it invites controversy by forcing high-density housing next to existing neighborhoods. But given that we have chosen Measure R, we have also chosen, by extension, to take on infill and densification efforts as the only means to alleviate housing shortages.
But lest you think you know where I come down on the issue of Trackside, there are problems here.
First, we are talking about 27 units. Actually we are talking about the difference between the 27 units that a four-story building would have and however many units a three-story building would have.
I support in general the idea of maximizing density in the face of scarce land and housing options, but in terms of bang for the buck, this one seems really dubious.
I have heard the arguments in favor of this type of housing – but, from my perspective, I don’t see that luxury end rental housing is really the biggest area of need in Davis. Again, I can see an argument for having that type of housing – I certainly listened to the developers when I met with them. But, given all of the acrimony here, the council should ask if the marginal advantage of four stories is really worth it.
So, in the end, I would suggest that the best solution would be for the developer and neighbors to reach their own agreement. The city has had some success with a formalized conflict resolution process and, given the relative closeness in the two sides, that process may work.
In the end, I think the city and frankly the developer should take the smaller building design if they cannot reach another agreement. The marginal bang for the buck from the perspective of the city just does not seem to warrant the amount of frustration and anger this development is causing.
The council should really think twice about allowing these kinds of projects that require amending design guidelines to go forward, prior to the process of actually changing the CASP and other planning guidelines. I just do not understand the need to push this forward.
One councilmember said that, if we say no, we’re discouraging housing. I just don’t buy that. We have no shortage of housing proposals and will continue to see more because they are money-makers for developers.
The message from council should be that design guidelines matter and if you want to propose something outside of the current guidelines, you do so at your own risk and you are better off waiting for the city to update their CASP than to go push forward with it now.
With that said, I fully expect the council to approve this project on Tuesday as currently proposed, unless there is a new agreement with the neighbors prior to the meeting.
—David M. Greenwald reporting