Analysis: Nishi Wins Big – What Does It Mean?

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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


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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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12 thoughts on “Analysis: Nishi Wins Big – What Does It Mean?”

  1. Matt Williams

    David’s assessment of what the revised proposal did to deal with the reasons that Nishi lost in 2016 is also a road map for what needs to be paid attention to in the coming years … during build-out and occupancy.

    •  The new project eliminated access to Richards Blvd. — Ideally there is one form of transportation that will have increased access to/from Richards … Unitrans.  Improved, high quality public transportation will provide residents with easy access to the businesses and services of the whole Davis community, as well as to the Amtrak Station.  Successful deployment of public transit service will allow us to seriously consider implementing the advice of the Parking consultants to the Downtown Plan Update process by replacing parking minimums with parking maximums in our planning process.

    •  The new project included an innovative affordable housing project. — For me, the jury is out on this one. Definitely some good, but still some things to sort out in the implementation. The Nishi affordable program appears to have (1) substantially increased the proportion of units rented by the bed versus units rented by the unit, which (2) solves the “lost roommate” problem (I personally experienced that problem during the time I was a renter in Davis.  It is absolutely a problem, but the frequency/magnitude is unknown). (3) As a result the total cost per unit for the Market Rate tenants goes up, and then (4) the affordable discount is applied to the elevated rent.  If the students value the solution to (2) enough, then the elevated rents are worth it, as long as students who prefer to pay the lower by-the-unit rents still have access to units that are rented that way. 

    •  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. — David is right, the issue does remain.  The mitigations are real, but will be seen as inadequate by some people.  I was at a Chamber of Commerce meeting yesterday and after the meeting was over one of the participants told me that he had voted no because of the air quality issues.  There will always be differences of opinion on the air quality issue.

    David went on to say, “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 problem with David’s final sentence is that he is untrained in fiscal matters.  He is going with gut feelings. The question going forward is, “Should our City be making fiscal decisions with a more consistent process, informed by independent experts?”  That is a question that transcends Nishi.  Monday’s Finance and Budget Commission meeting discussing the FY 2018-2019 Proposed Budget will be a first step toward answering that important question.  Citizens/taxpayers/voters who care about the fiscal health of the City should attend that FBC meeting, which begins at 7:00 at Council Chambers on Monday.

  2. David Greenwald

    I agree with Matt on one point here and that is this “transcends Nishi.”  In fact, I always felt like Matt treated Nishi as a proxy war for his bigger issues, changing the way that the city does fiscal analysis.  My view from the start has been is there really is a cost generated by Nishi, the problem is not Nishi, but the city.  However, I don’t think that allocating huge costs to projects is a good way to proceed.  I would hope if the FBC discusses this, they will look at ways to address fiscal concerns without increasing further the already high costs of development.

    1. Don Shor

      However, I think that allocating huge costs to projects is a good way to proceed.

      Seems like there’s an important word missing in this sentence.

    2. Matt Williams

      One of the points that Mark West raised in his campaign was that the City of Davis has had a long history of making policy by “picking winners and losers.”  What David is arguing for when he says, “I would hope if the FBC discusses this, they will look at ways to address fiscal concerns without increasing further the already high costs of development” is the perpetuation of that legacy of  “picking winners and losers.”

      What I will be looking for on Monday from the FBC is a different approach.  An approach that will make the costs of running our City much clearer, and in the process make decisions about residential developments much less prone to guesswork like Nishi 2018 was.  The key is to make informed decisions, not pick winners and losers.
      Fiscal Stability is a three-legged stool, with Economic Development as one leg, Taxes as a second leg, and Cost Containment as a third leg.  In the last two June elections, the Davis voters have said not to expect any near-term contribution to fiscal stability from Economic Development.  On Tuesday the Davis voters also said not to expect any incremental contribution to fiscal stability from Parcel Taxes.  That means our current situation realistically places all the burden of fiscal stability on the shoulders of Cost Containment.
       
      Councilmember Robb Davis raised the issue of Cost Containment on February 2, 2016 (see VIDEO LINK beginning @ 4:15:25), and subsequently proposed creation of a Cost Containment Taskforce to look closely at strategies and tactics for making real progress in containing costs. Unfortunately, his efforts died without receiving a second from any of the other Council members. 
       
      That makes it very clear that the citizens and taxpayers need to let the Council members know that actively discussing and addressing Cost Containment is important.  The failure of Measure I at the polls on Tuesday should be seen as just such a message.  The role of the Finance and Budget Commission is providing fiscal advice, rather than providing political pressure, so the recommendations provided herein are carefully constructed as fiscal advice, with particular focus on:
       
      •  Greater (overall) accountability for how funds are spent, and•
       
      •  Greater involvement, engagement and understanding of the Davis citizenry with the fiscal challenges our community faces
       

       

  3. Jeff M

    On a somewhat related note.  My drive into work this morning at 8:15 put me in a fantastic mood when I got to work in downtown Davis.

    Apparently classes were over yesterday when it was a mess of cars, bike and pedestrians coming from everywhere and going everywhere.   I actually was able to drive down Covell without hitting every red light and flashing pedestrian crossing.

  4. Alan Miller

    justified an expedited (rather than rushed) approach.

    Everyday for the rest of my life when I wake up, I will get down on my knees, pray to my God, and thank that God that Nishi was expedited and not rushed.

    dishonest and weird arguments.

    That they were . . . I was at the Amtrak station this morning to look at platform damage from the freight derailment last night, and a certain well-known breeder of red herrings was telling a reporter  about how Davis just passed a project that was next to the railroad tracks and how ‘”they” said a derailment couldn’t happen in Davis’ and here one had happened — she said “uh huh” like she had no f–king idea what his point was.

    Here I will leave you with a simple analysis: no project is perfect.

    That’s a simple analysis alright.

    the student housing crisis – and yes, I stand by the use of the term crisis here

    He stands by the term “crisis”.  And that has made all the difference.

    1. Howard P

      Alan… semi off-topic, but you brought it up… saw the KCRA piece… how bad (extent) was the damage to the platform?  Honest question.

      From what I could see from the KCRA piece, no injuries, no overturned cars, no “spills”, but saw a wheel where it did not belong.

  5. Alan Miller

    Alan… semi off-topic, but you brought it up… saw the KCRA piece… how bad (extent) was the damage to the platform?  Honest question.

    Not sure the “honest question” phrase . . . never doubted that.

    The damage is limited to missing tiles and gouges in the cross platform.  A drawbar broke on a boxcar and the rear wheel on the car derailed in front of it — not sure the cause and effect, or if UPRR even knows.  Both tracks are now open, and Amtrak is using the east end of the platform with minimal delays.

    1. Howard P

      Thanks!

      From the picture, reminds me, of an old Kenny Rogers song… think it was, “You picked a fine time to leave me, loose wheel”, or something like that…

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