Commentary: Nishi is On the Ballot, Can It Win?

It’s quiet – too quiet?  That was the reaction from a lot of people on Wednesday morning.  They were waiting for the shoe to drop.  The way it did in 2009 after the council voted 3-2 to put Wildhorse Ranch on the ballot.  The way it did in 2016 after the council voted 5-0 to put Nishi on the ballot.

We don’t normally have polls in Davis so we have to operate on gut instinct, and my gut instinct is that those two races were lost in the first week after the council vote.  Wildhorse Ranch, put on the ballot in 2009 in the heart of the economic downturn, was a huge tactical error to begin with and never had a chance, but we saw the wave of opposition rise right up on the Vanguard almost immediately.

Nishi was a closer call.  Looking at the race with 20/20 hindsight, the key mistake was on affordable housing – the project got off on the wrong foot and, while they ran a reasonable campaign, it
was not enough to overcome the surprise issue of affordable housing and the not-so-surprise issue of traffic.

The developer wants to re-brand the second Nishi proposal away from “2.0” and toward “Student Living Near Campus,” but judging by the comments by the council and public, I think that’s a tough task.  Nishi is not going to satisfy the average voter either.

Councilmembers on Tuesday were unanimous in support, but it wasn’t a jubilant cry but more of a “good enough.”

Councilmember Rochelle Swanson, for instance, said, “I was a little disappointed in the change from 1.0 to 2.0 with some of the loss of innovation.”

Like me, though, she sees the rise of Sierra Energy and University Research Park as supplanting the need for innovation at the core of Nishi.  We still need a 200-acre park to fulfill the needs for economic development laid out in the 2010 Studio 30 Report, but, make no mistake, Nishi 2.0 is not the same project as 1.0.

Councilmember Will Arnold had similar thoughts, “This is a reduced project from the project we had before, two years ago.” He said, ‘There was a lot of things I liked about Nishi 1.0 that I’m lamenting aren’t part of this project, in particular the innovation piece.”

That is not to say no one is excited by this project, it is only to suggest that Nishi 2.0 was more about taking away reasons to oppose the project than giving people reasons to support it.

Mayor Robb Davis hit the nail on the head once again when he said that “what we have is a project that fits within that EIR.  That doesn’t mean it’s an optimal project.  From my perspective it wasn’t, but it enabled us to move forward in a more timely way.”

He said, “We end up not acknowledging the trade offs in the decisions that we make.

“This is a crisis,” he said.  “Housing is a crisis.”  He said, if you run out on campus or even at cold weather shelters, “[y]ou’ll see students sleeping in their cars.

“The housing crisis in this community is real,” he said.  He said even though Nishi 1.0 was superior and met more community needs, he’s willing to support this, “because we do have a crisis.”

In the end, I believe that this is going to win and it’s going to win overwhelmingly primarily because it solves one big need in this community – and really one need only – the student housing crisis.  And it does it without upsetting the apple carts of the finicky residents of Davis.

It is not going to add to their traffic.  It is not going to compete with their home values.  It simply supplies 2200 beds for students and puts them next to campus and away from where students can make noise, clog up the roadways and irritate the remainder of the otherwise aging Davis populace.

Want to understand what has changed between 2016 and 2018?  Look no further than the comment from Sean Raycraft, Vanguard Board Member.  In 2016, he opposed Nishi.  Now he is a strong proponent.

“I opposed the original Nishi project,” he explained.  He said “I didn’t think it was a good project.  I didn’t think it was affordable for my members.  I campaigned against it.”

The big difference now is first that the developers worked to create on-site affordable housing.  He said, meanwhile, in the last two years, “the housing crisis has gotten worse.  I have homeless members who work two jobs.  That is unacceptable.”

Mr. Raycraft was one of several younger members who spoke on Tuesday who opposed Nishi in 2016, but are working to get it passed in 2018.  While the worsening housing crisis is a factor, the inclusion of on-site affordable housing this time is a huge part why.

“This is an innovative path forward,” said Lucas Frerichs, and adds “trying to get the access and true affordability for students which has not been done before.”

Another factor that has emerged has been the rise of Aaron Latta, as a student leader.  He has created the Davis Housing Brigade, of which he believes there are at least 25 members who have been coming to the council and commission to speak out on the need for student housing.

The students are not “dupes” for developers, as Mayor Davis wisely stated late in the meeting.

Indeed, when the council needed guidance on whether to go forward with the compromise on the number of affordable units, they called Aaron Latta to come forward.

He said, “At the bottom line, any level of affordability for students is a good thing.  This is the second project that exists that has it.”

He pointed out, “Every single one of these numbers are people, but if we don’t get this project passed, it’s that many more people without an affordable place to live.”

He said, “I think the students would be willing to take a little fewer of the very very low affordable housing units and take more of the very low affordable housing units.”

Mr. Latta said that the affordable housing plan for Nishi was “beyond my expectations” and he was “amazed by the affordable housing plan for Lincoln40.”

So while it is true that many believe that Nishi 1.0 was the superior project from a community perspective, the addition of the innovative affordable housing program has cleared the path for support from key student segments who held out two years ago.

That and the worsening student housing crisis could put forward record turnout from student groups that are needed as a counter-balance against the more slow-growth oriented general population.

But the strategy from Nishi has also aimed at cutting into the opposition from the community as well.  No longer will the issue of traffic impacts on Richards dog the project.  Gone is the redevelopment of Olive Drive that threatened the iconic Redrum Burger.  Gone too perhaps is the question of whether the university will provide the campus access at Old Davis Road – and as the council points out, if the access is not provided via campus, the project cannot proceed anyway.

That leaves largely the air quality issue which, while some hardcore environmentalists may be moved by it, lacks the issue of self-interest necessary to combat the wave of student support from student renters desperate to get out of their cars and off of their couches and into affordable housing.

In the end, it appears that Nishi should win overwhelmingly – but of course, not if the students don’t show up to vote.  If they show up, this will not be close.  If they do not show up, anything can happen.

—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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  1. Don Shor

    Closing the access from Richards, and getting the full support of the chancellor probably makes more difference in the electoral outcome than anything else.

    All the basic questions have been answered. The issues are framed, and there isn’t that much more to add to the conversation about the supposed hot topics.

    The last-minute Hail Mary that certain professors threw to try to get the chancellor to block or delay based on air quality appears to have failed.

    There are no outraged nearby neighbors.

    There are many wild cards in an election with 9 10 11 47 people running for city council. But I agree that this will probably not be as contentious as it was last time around.

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