My View: If Ever There Was a Place for Dense Student Housing… Davis Live Is It

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If Eileen Samitz and the Davis Vanguard agree on one thing this year, it is that we should build student housing at the proposed Davis Live Student Apartment Project on Oxford Circle.  Actually the Planning Commission largely agrees on that point, but they had procedural issues that prevented them from recommending the council move forward when they take it up on June 12.

This is a dense project – but it is located in the middle of student housing and a mere block from campus.  The plan calls for 440 beds in a 71-unit project that will be four and five bedrooms, with some units containing up to eight students.

The current plan calls for seven stories totaling 85 feet in height – which is below the 100 foot limitations of the zoning.

But the planning commission had problems with the plan.  They were concerned that the project only calls for 12 percent affordable housing and pushed hard for 15 percent like the current city guidelines call for.

They were concerned that there are only 71 parking spaces.  As Commissioner David Robertson explained, “The parking needs a justification as to why 71 spaces is the right number.”

There were concerns about the traffic report that apparently only came out on Wednesday afternoon and was too dense to absorb.  And there were concerns that the CEQA Exemption was not adequately explained.

Eileen Samitz spoke during public comment and supported the project: “The Oxford Circle Project is a project that seems to be a good project given its location for student-oriented housing.  It makes sense.”  She said, “Many of the students’ needs would be provided right immediately around it.”  She noted that there would be “very little traffic generated” by the project.

Ms. Samitz and the Vanguard have had our differences of late, but here we are in full agreement.

There is student housing now at the site.  It is close to campus and in an area with student housing currently.  And there are sufficient support amenities to make it a continuing good location.  So what’s the problem?

From watching the commission meeting, this was a problem of staffing.  For example, if the commission could not support the environmental review because they were not convinced that it met the requirements for a Transit Priority Project – they should have been able to have a representative from the city attorney’s office explain it to them.

What doesn’t make a lot of sense is that the commission received a March 2 letter from SACOG (Sacramento Area Council of Governments) “with a confirmation that the proposed project would be consistent with SACOG’s Metropolitan Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy for 2036 (MTP/SCS).  The letter acknowledges that the entire project site is located within one-half mile of a high-quality transit corridor, and that the proposed project would develop the site for solely residential uses at a density of 68 units per acre.

“The proposed project is located on an infill site within a Center/Corridor Community designated by the MTP/SCS. SACOG determined that the proposed land uses, densities, and building intensities are consistent with the assumptions of the MTP/SCS for such communities.”

Staff concludes on this basis that the proposed project is statutorily exempt from CEQA.  But why not have a city attorney at the meeting to explain this to the commission?

On density: if we can’t put a seven-story building, which by the way is only 85 feet – so it meets the current zoning standards – in this place, where are we going to get that kind of height and density?  Don’t we want max density in the middle of other student housing?  Haven’t people been calling for the campus to build eight-story buildings to maximize occupancy and minimize the footprint?

The parking issue is also a bit of a head scratcher.  I get that 71 spaces for 440 residents seems like a low number.  That’s about half the average rate for housing as was mentioned by Mr. Robertson.

But there are factors to consider.  The project is basically across the street from campus.

Applicant Dan Weinstein explained their thinking on parking rather well.

“We have less parking here, and the reason is… we really were looking at the trends,” he said.  He said his son is a freshman and neither he nor most of his friends drive.  “I’m not saying that’s everyone, but that’s becoming more and more a trend line.”

Commissioner Robertson had a different take.

He said, “You disincentivize it by having fewer parking spaces.  If you have fewer parking spaces, people aren’t going to own cars.  Baloney!   It’s not true.”

But there is also a problem with his thinking.  Going back to the UC Davis Travel Survey, those who live within a mile from campus do not drive to school.  If around 30 percent of all students have access to a car, as a recent survey stated, and you have a project where they let the students know there is very limited parking, naturally students without cars are likely to go to Davis Live Housing and those with cars will probably find somewhere else to go.

This is not quite the crisis that the commission made it out to be.  But they did need staff to explain the thinking on parking and why they were willing to support it and that did not sufficiently take place.

On the affordable issue, I would like to better understand the rationale for going under 15 percent.  Darryl Rutherford raised an interesting point of what happens if a student living in affordable housing loses their student status.

As I understand how affordable housing in general works, you get qualified for the affordable housing at the beginning of your lease term and then each time you renew the lease, you would have to be re-qualified.  That means if your income goes up, you don’t get booted in the middle of your lease, you become ineligible to renew the lease.  Student status should work the same way.

In my view, this is a good project.  It may have details to work out – as most projects do going forward.  The council will undoubtedly take a look at the concerns of the Planning Commission and figure out a way forward.

But from our perspective, during a student housing crisis, this is the kind of housing we need close to campus.

Don Gibson of the Graduate Students Association made a lot of important points.  We’ve used the three percent figure, but the university is apparently doing additional research to figure out what percentage of students are housing insecure and homeless.

“If it is similar numbers like the California community college system, it’s about 12 percent (who) face some form,” he said.

He said that the university has a survey out to determine in a better way the extent of the problem.  “The only real data that we see that’s reliable is the vacancy report,” he said.  “Which is still basically zero.”

He said, “My back of the napkin calculations are that there’s basically anywhere between a 4000 to 7000 bed deficit in the city because students are turning single-family homes into micro-dorms.”

This would be the third project to go forward now with a student affordable housing model, following Lincoln40 and Nishi  That is a big and important change.

As Don Gibson reminded the commission, “Students don’t qualify for any beds… currently available in the city of Davis.”

Now we leave it to the council to fix the details.

—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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4 thoughts on “My View: If Ever There Was a Place for Dense Student Housing… Davis Live Is It”

  1. Todd Edelman

    As I wrote on Thursday, it seems inconceivable that the development team can even explain everything they’ve already come up with by the morning of June 7th, when the packet has to be prepared for the City Council meeting on June 12th, let alone conceive of some formula for the proposed amount of parking places. Is it 71, because there are 71 units? There is some sense to that, but it’s a huge disincentive for carshare to be successful here, because that car-to-apartment ratio provides too good informal carsharing.

    The current design for bicycle parking at Davis Live is terrible — it’s two doors and a lot of distance from the shared front entrance. They were told how to improve it at the BTSSC meeting on May 10th, but changed nothing for last Wednesday.

    Based on only these two points my sense is that their intentions for sustainable mobility are good, but they don’t know that they are doing. It’s not an existential crisis to re-locate the bicycle parking, but it’s a lot of design work, no matter which great suggestion of mine they implement! In a way I don’t blame them, because there’s no guidance for residential bike parking besides minimum numbers and having short term parking outside (convenient, but not so safe) and long term inside (safer, but not so convenient). Fortunately I’ve started a sub-committee in the BTSSC to work on this.

    Even the affordable beds at Davis Live are Capital E-Expensive. The market rate in based on super high prices of student apartments that already have by-the-bed leasing, rather than e.g. Craig’s List. Without a certain level or amount of affordability Davis Live can’t get a CEQA-exemption.

    I’m supportive of peripheral parking for visitors to Davis, e.g. for Downtown located south of the Richards tunnel, and fully integrated into the 80-Richards interchange (for Nishi), but not for residents of new apartments. But if that helps Davis Live maximize housing for people over parking for cars, so be it: It’s a five-minute bike ride to UC land across the 113; cars can park here so that people can travel way more easily than on buses for transportation to Woodland or elsewhere.

  2. Jeff M

    We need a pedestrian overpass or underpass for crossing Russel Blvd with this development.  We are just a few years of growth away from that point of traffic over-saturation with that critical east-west traffic corridor for Davis.

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