When the Nishi project goes to the Planning Commission this week, it is doing so without a final and concrete project going with it. In October 2017, the property owners submitted a preliminary conceptual site plan and narrative for development on the Nishi property.
The application then made its way through advisory commission review in November and December, “with the goal of garnering preliminary comments to inform final development of the site plan and Baseline Project Features.”
Indeed, even in the fiscal analysis by the Finance and Budget Commission taken two weeks ago, they qualified their motion by stating: “Any conclusions should be considered preliminary and subject to change.”
Matt Williams notes that in the staff reports for seven city commissions the number of beds jumps from as low as 1900 to as high as 2800 over a 60-day period.
He says, “That begs the question, ‘What’s the size of the project going to be tomorrow?’ The simple truth is that nobody knows, not even the developer.”
In a city predisposed to argue that a project is not ready for prime time, that’s strong language.
The reality that the developer faces is that they have zero margin for error. They must get the project through the Planning Commission this week and hope that they have no bumps at the council level, because February 6 is the deadline to get the matter on the ballot for June.
The project must become concrete fairly quickly. Measure R requires that the ballot measure include Baseline Project Features as required under Chapter 41 of the Davis Municipal Code. “If the project is approved, these Baseline Project Features cannot be removed or significantly modified without subsequent voter approval,” the city writes. But these Baseline Project Features currently “are being drafted for City Council review.”
The Planning Commission won’t get to see them, but can make recommendations about which project components should be included in the Baseline.
The question really is going to be – is that going to be good enough for the voters? The voters who, mind you, have yet to approve a Measure R project.
On the plus side, while the project has changed somewhat from 2016, the basics of the project are fairly similar. There are several big changes. First, gone are the for-sale units. Second, gone is the R&D and commercial space. The original project not only had 300,000 square feet of R&D but also 40,000 square feet of retail. The R&D is now completely gone and the retail is down to 10,000 square feet, enough for a coffee shop or café.
Third, there is no regular Richards Boulevard access to the project, so the traffic will flow through campus, not the impacted Richards Blvd. Fourth, there is an affordable housing component, made to serve low income students.
While three of the four of these should make the project easier to pass, the speed with which this project is reaching the voters threatens to undo some of that advantage.
First, the elimination of for-sale units will help address concerns about air quality because, without permanent residents, any air quality impacts will occur over a brief time period of exposure. Most of the studies available posit impacts over a 70-year lifetime of exposure, not a brief one to three years of exposure.
The change in traffic flow will mitigate probably the biggest reason why Nishi lost narrowly in 2016, as traffic impacts were seen as troublesome on the already-congested Richards Blvd. Having campus-only access was actually a recommendation of many opponents last time, and it was also the configuration of the higher rated Housing Element Steering Committee (HESC) 2008 project.
Finally, the affordable housing situation where the project was exempted and then the developer contributed $1 million to the affordable housing fund was seen as a sweetheart deal for the developers. Now they have a full affordable housing component.
Add to that the fact that this provides 2200 beds for UC Davis students during a time of a housing crunch and this is a project that clearly meets a critical need.
Given all of that, one would believe that this project should cruise to victory, but the current situation complicates things.
Right now here are the biggest arguments against the project. First, Dr. Thomas Cahill continues to believe, even with mitigation measures that would greatly reduce indoor particulate matter levels and the lack of long-term residents, the air quality issues are understated in the available reports. How far this argument will actually go to convince voters, who will not be living there to vote against it, remains to be seen.
Second, there are those who believe that the current project should be mixed-use and continue to have a commercial component. The Vanguard would probably join in that criticism, but argue that is not really a good reason to oppose the project if the project fills critical community needs.
There are also those who believe that Nishi would be helping to bail out the university from their obligation to provide student housing. Although UCD’s commitment to build 8500 beds, 85 percent of what the city and others have demanded, probably mitigates that argument somewhat.
As the Vanguard has argued, with the 8500 units on campus and the 5000 to 6000 units proposed in the city, we can finally solve at least in the next ten years our student housing crisis.
But the process issue looms large here. Critics have always complained that a project is being put to a vote before it is fully ready. There is usually some truth to that. At some point, you just need to set a hard deadline and go for it. Every project could be further refined – at some point you just say, good enough and let the chips fall where they might.
In retrospect, Nishi in 2016 was probably as ready as it ever was. The reasons for the downfall – affordable housing and traffic impacts – probably would not have changed in six months. It is true that the council in the month leading up to the vote got a number of concessions which will not be available to them this time around.
This time, the not ready for prime time argument is really going to resonate. The fact is, council won’t be able to make last minute major tweaks other than on the fly at the February meeting. That will be a hardship. Commissions will not be able to review project baseline features. There will be real criticism that the EIR which was done for the previous project is not sufficient for the current project.
In the end however, the not ready for prime time argument is probably not the winning or losing argument. Instead, the bigger problem will be the features that are seen as insufficient, in part due to the lack of vetting of a more concrete project.
So, issues that might have been caught during the normal process may come up during the election, when it is too late to deal with them.
So where does that leave us? The city of Davis needs student housing. That will be the strongest argument for the project. Proponents can argue that this is already a well-known project and a well-known site.
They can argue that this is a great place for student housing as it is close to campus, it avoids traffic impacts onto Richards, and students can simply walk or bike to class. Whatever air quality issues that exist will be mitigated by the short duration and the other mitigation measures – including sequestering the housing toward the northeast portion of the project, away from the freeway, building trees and other barriers, and the filtration system.
Is that enough? I suspect for most people who are not looking for a reason to oppose the project – yes.
There are two big advantages to waiting: first, it would be a general election rather than a primary election. Having a bigger electorate, everyone believes, will be an advantage. The students are more around in the fall and more likely to vote in a general election and that is a key core constituency.
Second, you avoid the big issue of not being ready for prime time, although again, I discount that somewhat.
The biggest disadvantage is the question of what happens with the West Davis Active Adult Center. The city pushed them off to November to clear the way for Nishi. Two projects going head to head is a recipe for disaster for both. But I doubt West Davis wants to delay any further.
In the end, council will have to decide whether they have enough to put this on the ballot and the voters will have to decide whether they have enough to support the project. Given the narrow margin for success, I’m not sure if I were the developer I would want to risk that additional bullet against the project – but then again, it is not my dime.
—David M. Greenwald reporting