Sunday afternoon featured a forum on each of the three measures on the ballot this June. This marked the first time the Yes and No sides squared off against each other on Nishi, and they did not disappoint. The forum was held at the Community Chambers and was sponsored by CivEnergy.
Each side was given about five minutes for opening remarks and then there was a back and forth conversation, with the session wrapping up with audience questions. The Yes side was represented by Sandy Whitcombe and Mayor Robb Davis, with the No side represented by Colin Walsh and Matt Williams.
With UC Davis projecting an additional 6000 to 7000 students over the next decade, “students are facing extreme financial stress and housing insecurity.”
She noted that students line up out the door at meetings, telling “their nightmare stories. They just can’t find a place to live in many cases.” She added, “There are thousands now commuting into our cities just to go to school. It’s causing more traffic and its not healthy for the commuters or the environment.
“We’re turning into a town of students and seniors,” she said, noting that neighborhoods like the one she grew up in are disappearing. “A walking and biking community is what students have really been calling for. They want to live here.”
She talked about the downtown parking problem, and “one of the answers to that is to build higher density housing near town centers.”
Matt Williams explained that, two years ago, “I took a position of yes on Nishi because we did certain fiscal steps in order to make a good project. I’m unfortunately, from my perspective, a no on Nishi this time.”
“We voted on Measure A two years ago, and the city rejected it,” Colin Walsh stated. “This is a similar project in the same location and yet the council has brought it on us to bring it back. And when they did, every single member of city council agreed that this project was inferior to the project that was voted against two years ago.”
He listed two specific concerns. “There are real environmental concerns about this site. Prominent air quality experts have put forth a lot of evidence that this isn’t a healthy place to live.”
Mr. Walsh argued, “There has never been onsite testing. There has been testing done nearby.” He said that “with no testing, I don’t see how we move forward with this project.”
His second objection was the financial component to the project, which Matt Williams would take up.
Matt Williams also addressed Sandy Whitcombe’s point that we need higher density downtown, arguing that the 2016 project “had a density of 66 units per acre,” while this project “has 27 units per acre.” “How is going from 66 units per acre down to 27 units per acre a commitment to higher density housing next to downtown? I have a hard time figuring that out.”
He called this “a squandered opportunity.” He said that they should have the same density as the prior project, which would generate 5000 to 7000 students rather than 2200 students for the current project. “That would mean we would have 5000 less demand for mini-dorm space,” he argued. “It would solve much more of the problem that exists.”
Two years ago the Finance and Budget Commission projected a $1.4 million surplus. “This year, 90 cents on the dollar has evaporated of that $1.4 million,” he said. The current projection is for it to be a $140,000 surplus.
Mr. Williams explained that the Finance and Budget Commission in 2016 had helped the city set up $900,000 as a means to cover replacement of infrastructure and other needs. “There is nothing, there is not a single dollar being saved for that capital infrastructure (in the current project),” he said. Therefore, he argues that the project generates a $750,000 deficit for the city.
“We are $8 million in the hole and we’re adding $750,000 on top of it,” he said. “That’s insanity. That’s not fiscally responsible.”
Sandy Whitcombe explained that something new for this project is affordable housing, where the last project didn’t have any affordable housing.
“There was no affordable housing, now there’s a groundbreaking affordable housing program for students,” she said. “Students don’t typically qualify for big ‘A’ affordable housing and now we’re going to offer 110 beds at Yolo County’s extremely low income rates, 220 at the very low income rates that are tied to Yolo County incomes for the life of the project and will help students for generations to come.”
Robb Davis explained, “The Finance and Budget Commission gave to us one motion, and that is that the project is net fiscally positive. Matt is talking about things that he had hoped that the commission would vote on, but they did not, because they did not see the value in the method that Matt is putting forward.”
He added, “In the developer agreement it is required that the developer pays for all cost of infrastructure on the site.”
Matt Williams countered that, in 2016, staff in consultation with EPS presented to council the information on both the full life cycle costs and the pay as you go cash accounting. “Responsible reporting now to the council would have allowed them to make a more informed decision.”
Colin Walsh argued in terms of the housing crisis, “Let’s remember Nishi is five years away from being built. This is not a short quick fix to our housing situation.”
He argued, “There are things that can be done.” He noted the Pacifico co-ops have two buildings that have been vacant for ten years. “This is something that the city can do now,” he said.
“There are reports of students having no place to sleep at night, yet the city has done nothing about that. They could be allowing students to park in the lot here, and allow students to use the showers as a short-term fix until housing can be built,” he said.
He argued for the densification of existing apartments, many of which are owned by Tandem, the same owners as Nishi, “without a Measure J vote.” Walsh argued Tandem could densify its 13 existing apartment complexes in Davis, some of which are over 40 years old and have never had an apartment added to them.
Robb Davis responded on Pacifico, saying that “we are housing people who are in imminent risk of homelessness.”
He quoted Charles Salocks, “There is no scientific basis for concluding that air quality at the Nishi site, as influenced by freeway traffic, is any different than at other residential locations, existing and proposed, along the Interstate 80 corridor in Davis.
“The no side,” Robb Davis said, “wants you to believe there is something unique about Nishi, there is not.”
He said, “We are dealing with the housing crisis in our city in multi-faceted ways, we have not been sitting still. We have entitled two project for students – pushback by the community on both of them. One reason we cannot do more with this property is that we were told by voters that commercial was going to cause too many impacts, so we’ve gone to housing only as a priority.”
Matt Williams said that the developers have advertised car-free living. He asked, “Why is there five acres of parking if that’s what we’re going to do?”
Colin Walsh responded, “No independent expert has ever been hired by the city to look at this and there has been no onsite testing at any time. Without onsite testing we don’t even have the inputs to put into the equations to know what we’re talking about.”
He noted that the developer will cover the costs of the roads, but said, “These are going to be private roads. What’s the oversight that the city will have for maintenance of these roads long term?”
That wrapped up the conversation portion of the forum and they then took questions from the audience via note cards.
On affordable housing, Robb Davis disputed the notion that this is a “unique and different way than the city has done affordable housing in the past.” He said, “That’s not true.”
He explained, “We have affordable housing in market rate units all over the city. In each case, the city monitors those units.”
He said that the city has done this type of monitoring of those establishments for 30 years. “There’s nothing new here,” he said. “It is true that we’ve reduced the requirement from 35 percent.”
He said that they no longer believe that 35 percent is practical. “Fifteen percent, based on the fiscal analysis that was done by an outside expert, is reasonable for this project.”
The mayor pointed out that this is the first student affordable housing that the city will have developed. “This is the true story of affordable housing in this project,” he said.
Colin Walsh pointed out that “the affordable housing agreement is only referenced in the baseline features and only appears in the affordable housing agreement – which may or may not be changeable by a city vote.”
Walsh read from the Nishi Ordinance that “…the city may on its own or at the request of Developer, consider and make modifications to this Affordable Housing Plan…including but not limited to expanding the availability of Affordable Beds to non-students…”
He said, “The mayor just made an argument that 15 percent is better than 35 percent, and yet the very document that he’s arguing for allows for a great deal of flexibility in the future for the city to change the affordable housing plan. There is no guarantee that this affordable housing plan will be there in perpetuity.”
Robb Davis, after some debate over format, offered in response, “It’s the clear legal opinion of the city… that changes to the affordable would trigger a new vote.” He said, “The fact that there’s a legal opinion on the table, makes it actionable now in a court of law – if any changes are attempted.”
Changes, he said, “would require a new vote on the affordable housing on Nishi.”
Colin Walsh responded that “there are specific instances where the affordable housing can be changed.”
Robb Davis said, “That concerns the question of students. That’s a question that’s on the table, can it be limited to students. We believe it can be.”
He explained that statement “allows it to be modified so that current housing law can be followed while maintaining the 15 percent.”
What happens if the access to the university does not happen?
Robb Davis responded, “That’s in the baseline features, if that doesn’t happen, no site can be occupied.”
Matt Williams asked, “If the underpass doesn’t go forward, are we stuck with a property that has been changed – the zoning has been changed from its current agricultural subject to its projected new use?”
Robb Davis said that “the answer is yes.” He said, “Nothing can go on that property unless there is an undercrossing. We understand that.” If the university does not allow the crossing, “then no development can house people on that property.”
Colin Walsh pointed out, “There is no requirement that there be approval before construction begins – there is no definition for what ‘construction begins’ means.”
Colin Walsh added, “So the site could get built out and no one could live there.”
He continued: “An election where the project was already developed and sitting there ready for occupancy, if that went out to the public…” Walsh argued that the city could be forced to connect the project to Olive Drive under these circumstances.
Sandy Whitcombe scoffed at the notion, “There’s no way to get financing for a $100 million project telling the bank, oh and by the way, we don’t know how people are going to get here.”
She then said, “We need to focus on reality and the need and the merits of the project and not all these weird red herrings. This is serious, let’s get rational. People need housing. This is good for everybody.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting