Even with a lot of ballots still remaining, the chances that the results on Measure J, Nishi, change from Tuesday are very remote. This will be the first of three articles analyzing this result. This one looks strictly at the election.
Sometimes, despite all of the natural twists and turns taken by a campaign, the initial analysis holds. We don’t have a deep data dive at this point, but it would appear that our initial take actually proved to be true.
In 2016, Nishi lost by 700 votes. There were three key issues at that time. First, people were concerned, despite promised $10 million in road upgrades, that it would impact the already heavily congested traffic on Richards Blvd. Second, and I think ultimately just as important, was the lack of affordable housing either onsite or combined with only $1 million in affordable housing fund fees. Third was air quality.
For all of the talk that this was the inferior project to the first iteration – the revised proposal sought to deal with the reasons that Nishi lost in 2016. The new project eliminated access to Richards Blvd. The new project included an innovative affordable housing project. Third, while the issue of air quality remained, by eliminating the for-sale housing, the new project limited exposure to possible air quality concerns to at most one to three years.
There was a second factor driving this vote and I think John Whitcombe hit upon it on Tuesday night during our interview. The housing crisis was there in 2016, but the housing crisis was the biggest issue and perhaps the only issue in the local elections in 2018.
“I think people recognized that maybe it was bad enough, we ought to do something about it,” Mr. Whitcombe explained to the Vanguard.
With 2200 beds, the Nishi project would not solve the housing crisis by itself, but with the promised 9050 beds on campus and now perhaps 5000 beds off campus, the combined effort will make a huge difference in the availability of housing over the next decade.
Based on the close result in 2016, with the elimination of the two biggest reasons for that loss and the increased importance of the housing crisis, our initial take was that Nishi was likely to win and win rather easily.
However, during the course of the campaign, there was enough mud flying that, given the lack of polling, no one knew exactly what was going to happen. Adding to that uncertainty was the release of VBM (vote by mail) data that showed, as late as late last week, only 13 percent of students had returned their ballots.
What would that mean? We could envision a scenario where the split was close to 50-50 among the permanent residents, with the belief that student voters would put things over the top for the measure. Without students, it was anyone’s guess.
As it turns out, Nishi appears to have prevailed rather handily even without the student vote. In short, the initial analysis largely held. People saw the two biggest issues on the table, and they felt enough concern about the housing crisis that they were willing to support the project by a fairly wide margin.
The air quality issue was probably the most legitimate of the reasons to oppose Nishi. But, as I will point out shortly as I have throughout the campaign, I think the case here is overstated.
There were a lot of different aspects to the air quality argument. First, there was the basic ask by Thomas Cahill that Nishi do additional testing. Second, there was the claim that Nishi was the most problematic site in the city and one of the worst in the state. Third, there were the mitigation measures.
I think a big problem that the opposition had here is that air quality concerns are not an easy sell to the community as they do not immediately and directly impact residents like, say, traffic impacts. Hard core environmentalists will have concerns, but, even in Davis, that population doesn’t run that deep.
The need for new testing was probably the most compelling argument offered up by the opposition – however, I viewed it largely as a delay tactic, to attempt to push the issue back six months, even two years. I felt we had good enough data to know that there were concerns with the site and I still really don’t know what opponents believed more data would add.
Going along with that, the notion that Nishi was the worst site belied commonsense. If you look at a map, it is not clear that East Olive is significantly different from Nishi. That has been developed for decades, and no one raised air quality concerns for Lincoln40. Thomas Cahill fudged the data and analysis on elevated freeway impacts. And it’s not clear that braking is more prevalent along Nishi than either before or after that location.
Finally, the idea that Nishi with short-term inhabitation would somehow be this dangerous belied reasonable analysis. The mitigation measures, the vegetation, the air filtration, and the short duration should greatly reduce any health impacts.
Those who argued that residents would have to leave their windows closed – there are times when residents throughout Davis have to do so because of high levels of allergens in the air. It’s a fact of life.
Bottom line: air quality is a concern, air quality being worse at Nishi was never definitively established, and mitigation measures should help as should short duration.
Second, the opponents attacked the project with a fiscal analysis that was complicated. The opponents argued that the project would lose $350,000 to $700,000 a year. That just never made any sense. The explanation of that was theoretical and complex and in many ways defied logic.
The city, developer, and proponents had a simpler case: the developer was going to pay for the infrastructure and the maintenance of it.
The opponents threw out a big scary number that I suspect a lot of voters disregarded because it didn’t seem reasonable.
The third argument was process. I get it – the project was put on the ballot rather quickly. The opposition tried to make something of that. I think the problem they had here is a lot of people felt like this was a similar project, it had been vetted, and I think most people like me concluded that the need to get housing built, and built quickly, justified an expedited (rather than rushed) approach.
In my analysis on Measure R, I will talk about the tendency toward paralysis by analysis which I think the opposition attempted to use to thwart this project, as well as what I think were dishonest and weird arguments.
Here I will leave you with a simple analysis: no project is perfect. For me, I supported this project because I believe the student housing crisis – and yes, I stand by the use of the term crisis here to describe the housing situation in Davis – trumped other concerns.
I believed that the air quality problems were overstated and could be reduced through mitigation and short duration, the fiscal analysis was overstated, and the process issues were mitigated by the fact that this was really a modified version of an already vetted and discussed project.
On the lawsuit, I have no idea if Susan Rainier and Colin Walsh are paying money out of their own pockets or whether the law firm is doing this pro bono. Someone is paying the costs of this lawsuit and they are likely going to lose.
Given the fact that voters approved this project by a nearly 60-40 margin, given that this provides affordable housing to low income college students, and given the depths of a state housing crisis that is only going to get worse, there is no court that is going to invalidate a vote of the people on the grounds cited in this lawsuit. Someone should drop this suit and cut their loses – they will not win.
—David M. Greenwald reporting