The list of authors is long, it’s a list of longtime progressives mixed with some new faces: Cara Bradley, Thomas Cahill, Gilbert Coville, Pam Gunnell, Marilee Hanson, Michael Harrington, David Kupfer, Robert Milbrodt, Roberta Millstein, Don Price, Nancy Price, Rodney Robinson, Johannes Troost, Dean Vogel, Colin Walsh, and Michael Yackey.
They come up with a long list of problems, but is it really a list that is novel?
The authors write: “Two years after Davis voters rejected the Nishi project at the polls, it’s back on the ballot as Measure J with the same pollution hazards from the adjacent I-80 freeway and railroad, but without the commercial component that was supposed to deliver significant revenue to the City.”
They list seven problems. I will respond to the problems – if you want to read their rationale, you can click on the link.
Problem 1: Harmful air quality. This is probably the number one problem cited with Nishi – we have addressed this multiple times and I don’t buy into it. Since really they spread this out over three points, I will address specific aspects elsewhere. Here I will point out that one reason the developers moved to student housing is that we would expect the typical student to rent a unit here for somewhere between one and three years – with three years probably being the very upper limit. Most of the research on air quality is baselined over a 70-year time horizon, so even if you believe that Nishi has extraordinarily bad air quality (which I do not), the length of exposure is not long enough to cause real problems. Short-term problems with asthma? Sure, but guess what, normal air in Davis, especially coming from the north, produces problems as well.
Problem 2: Refusal to do inexpensive additional testing. The funny thing here is that Roberta Millstein, one of the authors here, has repeatedly made the case that the air quality as measured is bad enough anyway. That is why I view this as a delay tactic. Let’s push them to do additional testing which will delay the project. My view: we already did testing near the site. We already know that the air quality is not great. We put mitigation measures into place. Moreover, as I have pointed out repeatedly – the air quality conditions at Nishi are not worse than anywhere else. Look at East Olive and you will see that the conditions should mirror it, and yet we have seen decades of inhabitation without any noted increase in respiratory problems. I think we have enough data to call out the question, especially given my points in Problems 1 and 3.
Problem 3: Speculative mitigation. The authors repeat a point raised a few weeks ago, saying “there is no guarantee that these mitigations will materialize, since they are not part of the baseline features of the project. All it would take is a plea from the developer and a 3-2 vote of a development-sympathetic Council to eliminate the mitigations.”
As I have pointed out – there are no guarantees. Measure R is completely untested and until it gets to a court and a judge, we are all speculating. That said, the developers here have enacted reasonable mitigation – you have vegetation, air filtration and building design that will reduce the amount of particulate matter on the interior. Probably by enough that the homes in Nishi will be cleaner than my home in south Davis not far from the freeway. Will the council undo the mitigation measures on 3-2 votes? Even if they can – on which we are speculating – it is unlikely. The funny thing is that in past arguments the opponents have used Cannery as example of why we should worry about Nishi. The problem with the Cannery example is that it shows that making changes is hard, even with a 3-2 vote possibility. None of the proposed changes to Cannery have gotten council approval. So if Cannery is the example, the argument is undermined, not confirmed.
Problem 4: Poor use of land. The argument goes like this: “If air quality were not an issue, the developer could actually be building more than twice the number of units on Nishi (based on the housing density of the 2016 proposal) and more affordable housing than is currently planned.”
Yes and if wishes were horses. This is bait and switch at its finest. The density argument is strange, as Nishi has the same amount of land as before. In 2012, there were 1500 residents in the plan. Now there are 2200 residents in the plan. If anything, Nishi is addressing more not less housing needs than two years ago.
Can we go higher? Should we try? This is highly speculative. The argument that Matt Williams has made is that we should build for 5000 to 7000. That assumes if we vote no on Nishi, the developers will come back with a third plan – that’s problematic at the very best. And that they will come back with a more dense project? It is especially problematic, given that the primary complaint from the opposition, as demonstrated in this latest article, is air quality not land use. From my perspective the voters should ask – do we need 2200 student units and is Nishi the place to put them? Anything else is sheer speculation.
Problem 5: Cost to the taxpayers. The key argument: “Davis citizens… would be on the hook for between $350,000 and $750,000 annually.” I think those figures are absurd. The developers have already agreed to pay for the “backbone infrastructure” which “infrastructure includes a roadway bike and pedestrian connecting to the UC Davis campus, bicycle paths and sidewalks, public utilities, storm water drainage and detention, and open space, and a grade-separated crossing of the Union Pacific Railroad.” So where is the money coming from?
My other problem is that we end up analyzing costs that are not actually incurred by the city as the result of new development. By way of example, there is a broad discrepancy between the city and critics in terms of the added cost for police and fire services. This is true even though, reasonably speaking, there will be no additional police or fire personnel as the result of a project the size of Nishi.
One of these critics believes that the cost for police would amount to $557,000 after buildout in five years. That means that at roughly $150,000 in total compensation per officer, the city would end up hiring 3.7 officers to account for a single apartment complex. The city estimates are still adding in cost for both police and fire, but at a much lower level.
Other critics will note that EPS (Economic & Planning Systems, Inc., the consultant) in their rather conservative model for costs from 2016, conducted interviews with the Chief of Police, Darren Pytel, and Assistant Fire Chief, Rick Martinez. Just because Chief Pytel and Assistant Chief Martinez found it reasonable, does not mean those are likely to be actual costs. It should be pointed out that, while Matt Williams has repeatedly cited Pytel and Martinez from 2016, neither of them raised an objection about the current model or expressed concerns.
Finally, there are those who argue that the city needs to account for “end-of-useful-life capital costs (maintenance and/or replacement) that come due when the pre-spending has been exhausted.” But if the developer has already agreed to pay for the infrastructure and maintain it, it is not clear to me that this doesn’t amount to double counting.
Problem 6: Loose ends. There is no legally binding agreement with UC Davis over the access to the university, but so what? The baseline features make it clear that without such access there is no project. This is one of the weird red herrings that critics have pointed to. There are no guarantees. But UC Davis wants more student housing near campus – they are not on the hook for the costs of the connection, so why would they say no? It makes no sense, like most of these arguments.
Problem 7: Better options. There are always theoretically better options in the abstract than there are with a concrete proposal. UC Davis can and should house more students on campus. They’ve agreed to increase the percentage of on-campus housing from 28 percent of overall students to 48 percent. But thus far, they have not agreed to go above that number. Student housing on campus is far more expensive (60 percent) than off campus and many students do not want to live on campus all four years (or five years) of their college experience.
The critics never address any of the key advantages of this project – not the market rate housing that will make a dent in the 0.2 percent vacancy rate, not the location that will allow students to bike, walk and bus to campus rather than drive, and not the affordable housing component that will allow 320 students to have high quality rental housing for around $500 per month – when the cost of a bed on campus is $950 for a triple occupancy room and that doesn’t even include the expensive meal plan.
—David M. Greenwald reporting