In 2016, I fully expected that Nishi would prevail and become the first successful Measure R project. It was close. How close? The early returns showed Nishi passing, but as the night wore on and the core areas of town came in, it fell between 600 and 700 votes short.
Our analysis showed there were two key factors in its demise. The first was the issue of traffic impacts on Richards Boulevard. The second and perhaps more surprising issue was the affordable housing issue, but it was pivotal because a lot of students, who ordinarily would have supported a housing project, opposed Nishi on the grounds that it lacked sufficient affordable housing.
Clearly the developers took those mistakes to heart in developing the current proposal. They have made it student housing only – eliminating the for-sale component as well as the commercial component. That allows them to develop it with UC access only, eliminating the issue of traffic impacts while mitigating a third issue – air quality.
If my read is right at this point in time, while there are a number of smaller objections, it looks like the major battle over Nishi is going to hinge on air quality.
Can the project be defeated only on those lines? Hard to say. If it comes down to simply longtime Davis residents, then it is hard to know. If a large and organized group of students show up to vote, the issue may not matter at all.
This letter from Al Sokolow in the local paper exemplifies the risk.
Professor Sokolow writes: “Until now, I had not paid much attention to the proposal for student residential development on the Nishi property wedged between the UC Davis campus and Interstate 80. And to the extent that I did read and think about the proposal, I mildly viewed it as a good project — one that would help cure the community’s housing shortage in a desirable location close to the campus.”
He continues: “Reading Tom Cahill’s excellent commentary in The Enterprise, however, has sharply changed my view. His is no simplistic NIMBY argument from antagonistic neighbors. Rather, Cahill gives us a convincing, science-based picture of the health risks endemic to the site next to the interstate highway and the mainline of the Union Pacific.
“All of that heavy truck and auto traffic and diesel-powered train movement, compounded by braking and acceleration, creates dangerous air quality conditions for human habitation,” he concludes. “Cahill is an eminent physicist who has made an internationally respected career of researching air-quality issues. His concerns about the Nishi property deserve our close attention.”
I have actually spent a lot of time in the past few months reading through Dr. Cahill’s research and opinions on this matter. What I have concluded is that Dr. Cahill’s risk assessment is on the extreme side. He believes even with a tiny amount of risk, we should forgo the project.
The problem I have with that is that I think he is focused strictly on the risks of exposure to air quality rather than the totality of the circumstances. That totality includes the fact that if students do not live at Nishi, they have to live somewhere else. That means that other locations also have air quality concerns. Moreover, other locations require driving and other risks.
As Richard McCann points out, “Cahill is ignoring all of the other mortality risks he creates in his personal day to day life.”
A key point that I think hasn’t gotten near enough attention is whether the mortality risks are higher from a limited period of exposure to particulate matter at Nishi over a period of one to three years, or from the additional driving to and from campus and exposure to the risks of automobile accident and additional added pollution.
The question I keep asking – to which there has been no satisfactory answer regarding the limited duration of residencies at Nishi – is what level would have to be present in order to create a problem? As I pointed out on Sunday, that would seem a fundamental question since the data we do have doesn’t seem to suggest that Nishi poses an enormous health risk.
I also think that at the Planning Commission, the developer team did a good job of addressing some of these concerns through the work of Dr. Charles Salocks, Don Shor and Larry Greene.
There are several key points that need to be made in response to letters like that from Dr. Sokolow.
First, as Dr. Salocks points out: “The health assessment in the EIR is based on an assumption of a residency of 70 years with no mitigations. (The) typical residency at Nishi will be 1-3 years, not 70. This alone reduces long-term health risk by at least 95%.”
That again gets to my question which Dr. Cahill has not answered, despite my repeated asking.
Second, Don Shor in his presentation found that the urban trees play a huge role in reducing pollution and improving air quality, by as much as 16 percent. And we know that Dr. Cahill a decade ago did a vegetation study that found that they could reduce diesel/smoking car exhaust by 70 percent with the proper vegetation.
We also know that the air filtration system can reduce indoor air by up to 95 percent per the EIR.
Add to that, data on the wind directions suggest that the worst case scenario only happens five percent of the time – we have ten-year wind studies that won’t be impacted by more on-site study.
Add all that up and you have greatly reduced both the indoor air, which Dr. Cahill a decade ago said “drives the bad news for residences” given the 24-hour-a-day factor, and the outdoor air.
Is that enough? Apparently not for Dr. Cahill who argues, “Even one preventable death is not acceptable.”
I think people who follow Dr. Cahill’s advice need to understand where he is driving with this. His allowable risk level is therefore not merely very low, but zero. Given what we know about risks in the real world, that doesn’t seem very reasonable after all.
My view is that I can’t tell people which level of risk to assess. Rather I would prefer to simply be able to explain to the voting public where Dr. Cahill comes down and allow the voters to make their own determination.
—David M. Greenwald reporting