Measure J/Measure R campaigns seem to have devolved into an exercise where the opponents of a project attack the weaknesses of the project and the proponents of the project are forced to play defense – almost from the start. This week alone we have seen attacks on Nishi based on it being of insufficient size, on air quality concerns, on fiscal issues, and on the integrity of both the process of considering the proposal and the proposal itself.
If I have a criticism of Measure R – which I continue to support – it is first and foremost a politicization of the planning process which means that (A) positive aspects of the project are overlooked and negative aspects are emphasized, and (B) the need to put forward a project that can pass means that best practices may be ignored in favor of the art of the possible.
Nishi has always been seen as one of the top sites in the community. The positive is that it is next to campus within walking distance of the downtown. However, even though two versions were rated in the top 30 by the 2008 Housing Element Steering Committee, there has always been the challenge of access. The HESC actually ranked two versions of the project – the one with access to UC Davis only was rated more highly than the one with Olive Drive access.
One of the things I have learned about Davis is, while many claim to be environmentally focused, for the most part environmentally innovative projects are only advantaged in one way – it tends to remove an issue from the opposition. So if a project is not certified LEED-Gold for example, the project can and will be criticized. However, the project obtaining LEED-Gold status will not gain favor.
Sustainability is considered more a check box than a reason to vote for a project. So the fact that Nishi is a net zero energy project is not a reason why people will vote for it – it is simply a way to remove one possible argument against the project.
When the HESC evaluated Nishi in 2008, no one really realized that the driving issue would be student housing. At that time it was anticipated that Nishi would have 250 units – 125 multifamily ownership and 125 multifamily rental. The project currently sits at 700 – all rental, with 2200 projected beds for college students.
Here are what I see as reasons for people to vote for Nishi – it is of course up to them whether or not to ultimately support the project.
First and really foremost is we have a student housing crisis. Yesterday I ran through the math of UC Davis. From the city’s perspective, building Nishi means we add somewhere between 4000 and 5000 beds in the city. That means combined with the 5200 beds that UC Davis is supposed to add by 2020, we have a chance to add nearly 10,000 beds in the next three to five years – greatly alleviating the housing crisis.
The university ultimately projects to add 9050, but it is unclear when and where the rest of the 3800 beds would be built and, at the very least, the city would hedge its bets if the university does not follow through.
Those who believe that the university is primarily responsible for adding housing – this doesn’t let UCD off the hook. I think the most interesting thing is that, as the city has approved projects, it seems that these approvals have put more and not less pressure on the university to reciprocate. Observe that UC Davis came in with 6200 beds proposed in its LRDP. The city pushed for 50 percent on campus (10,000 additional beds) – the city then approved Sterling, Lincoln40 and put Nishi on the ballot, and yet the university has increased their commitment first to 8500 and then to 9050.
The critics were wrong that the city building housing would reduce the pressure on UC Davis. If anything, it gave the city the moral authority to say that we have stepped up – now it is your turn.
The initial project lost in part because of traffic concerns on Richards Boulevard. Now, I happen to believe that the plan that the city and developers had in 2016 would have fixed Olive Drive by creating a bypass for people to get to campus without going through the tunnel, but the voters rejected that.
The new plan seeks to avoid that debate by simply not allowing private access via Olive Drive and, despite claims to the contrary, the baseline features pretty much preclude a private Olive Drive access to the site.
That directs all of the traffic to campus. The site does accommodate about 700 vehicles with parking spaces, but those who argue this will lead to congestion on campus need to remember that the peak flow of traffic during the week will be from students coming to campus, and most of those students will walk, bike or use the bus – they will not drive. The campus travel survey shows that people who live within a mile from campus do not drive to campus.
Furthermore, this should help alleviate traffic congestion. These 2200 students are already attending class but, instead of driving in from out of town, exiting at Richards and driving onto campus, they are walking and biking to campus.
The more housing we build near campus, the less students will drive to campus and the less congestion we will have.
That means reduced traffic congestion. That means reduced VMT (vehicle miles traveled). That means reduced carbon emissions.
No one seems to following this string but it is critical. The reason why traffic is so bad in the morning and evening commute is that we have 28,000 people commuting into town to work, just as 21,000 commute out of town to work. Building housing next to campus will alleviate some of that congestion.
Does that mean that 700 students won’t be driving at some point? They will. But what people seem to forget is that most car trips are either clustered during peak hours or they are spread out throughout the day. The former are what to contribute to congestion and those will be either zero or close to zero due to proximity to campus.
The latter are going to add a few cars here and there but not be noticeable.
The other key reason why Nishi lost is the lack of affordable housing on the original project. This time, they have not only included affordable housing, they have designed it so that students can, for the first time, have access to that housing.
The projected cost for a bed at Nishi will be right around $800 to 900 a month – which is right around market rate. That’s actually pretty good for a new unit. And as we have pointed out, it is much better than the cost of just a bed on campus – which is about $950 in a tiny room with no living room or private living space.
The real advantage is that low income students will be able to apply for rents that start in the $500 range and end up just below $700 per month.
We can go back and forth as to why the developers only provided for 15 percent of the units being affordable, but most students see this as a huge positive for the project.
Housing insecurity is a huge problem. Campus surveys show as many as three percent of all students suffer from housing insecurity. There are students sleeping in the library. There are students living in their cars. And perhaps most frequent are students living on couches or crowded into a common living space due to lack of housing and high costs for rents.
Nishi addresses these issues by adding rental housing capacity which will reduce demand and alleviate the market crunch, while at the same time provide housing for students who are low income.
Are there other reasons to vote for Nishi? Yes. We have mentioned some of them, but for me the three biggest are adding supply during the housing crisis, the alleviation of traffic congestion by putting housing next to campus, and providing low income students with low cost housing options.
We have spent so much time talking about the imperfections of the project, so it seemed necessary to circle back to its core strengths.
Is this enough reason to support the project? That is for you to decide.
—David M. Greenwald reporting