Sunday Commentary: City and Campus Headed for a Confrontation to the Detriment of Both

The handwriting is on the wall.  The city in a letter from Attorney Whitney McDonald have pushed back against the university.

While the city is willing at this point to accept the university’s numbers even if they amount to 48 rather than 50 percent of students being housed on campus, the city has legitimate concerns over the timing of building that housing – or the certainty that the housing will be built.

As Ms. McDonald writes, the biggest problem is that the Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) does not provide any assurances, including an identifiable and enforceable implementation plan, “that this will actually occur.”  The city is also concerned about mitigation.

Ms. McDonald continues: “The FEIR fails to incorporate feasible mitigation measures to address significant environmental impacts. Many of the measures that are identified do not ensure adequate mitigation and allow deferred implementation until well after significant environmental impacts will occur, in violation of CEQA.”

The city, Ms. McDonald writes, “believes these issues may be addressed through further analysis and adoption of additional mitigation measures, but more time for consultation with the City and others, and a revised FEIR, will be necessary.”

She argues: “Such a collaborative approach is critical to the ongoing relationship of the City and the University, and has been urged by other commenters such as the County of Yolo, which ‘urges serious consideration of the City’s comments.’”

While the city is hopeful a “more direct and responsive collaboration can occur now,” it warns that the city “may be forced to pursue other legal remedies.”

This is the big issue and, as council prepares for a special closed door meeting this Tuesday, it is one that appears to divide the council.  The city council has generally been united on land use issues and taken a collaborative approach.

However, as newly-elected Dan Carson has signaled in comments made during the election, he views the need for the city to pursue a binding legal agreement with the university.

The university for their part has offered talk.  The chancellor among other things is proposing an annual “Town/Gown” meeting where they can report on activities of mutual interest.  That’s far less than what the city is asking for.

As one councilmember pointed out to me, the city council approved an official two by two with the university over a year ago, and the university has not attempted to meet even once.

Greg Rowe, a Planning Commissioner and land use expert, posting on the Vanguard suggested the city embark on two parallel and simultaneous courses of action.  First to file a CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) appeal within 30 days and, second, “launch discussions with UCD with the goal of negotiating and executing a legally binding and enforceable agreement that obligates UCD to a definitive on-campus student housing financing and construction schedule, whereby new student housing construction will occur on pace with growth in the student population.”

The problem with such an approach is that the only way to get a legally binding and enforceable agreement is to go the route of litigation.

I get the concerns laid out by Councilmember Carson and others that we have gone down the path of informality before and it hasn’t ended well for the city.  Previous LRDPs, and even MOUs signed by the city and university, have resulted in agreements, reasonable housing projections, but ultimately the university has fallen short of delivering.

At the same time, others on the council are concerned that pursuing a legally binding agreement will have consequences as well.  The council to a person has spoken about the need for better relations with the university.  But litigation has costs in that regard.

We have already lamented the fact that the city was bypassed for consideration of Aggie Square.  Whatever the city hopes to get out of a mitigation agreement with UC Davis pales in comparison to the benefits that an Aggie Square will bestow upon Sacramento.  By suing the university, we effectively preclude cooperation in the short term.

One needs to look no further than the West Village situation from 10 to 15 years ago.  The citizens in West Davis ended up suing the university over impacts.  Sources have told the Vanguard that the interactions between the university and community and the bad blood left a huge mark on UC Davis, to the point where they have attempted to avoid land use disputes ever since.  That explains their non-involvement in things like Nishi and the World Food Center, and now Aggie Square.

The agreement reached between the neighborhood and the university has reduced traffic impacts on Russell, but at huge costs.  It has effectively cut off West Village from the city.  It has harmed the viability of business at the Westlake Plaza shopping center.  And the huge upside was a small amount of cars that would come from the West Village facility over the course of the day – most of it not during peak hours, as most of the students would head to the university via bike or bus.

The city needs to figure out another way to work with the university on a timetable and certainty about buildout of the 9050 beds that UC Davis has committed to via the LRDP.  Litigation and the threat of litigation could embroil both parties in expensive and lengthy legal battles.

The result of that dispute would be costly to both sides.  First of all, a CEQA lawsuit, just like the ones filed against the city, would only delay housing units coming online.  What we need is to actually facilitate and expedite their delivery.  As it stands right now, the university will be hard-pressed to meet the 2020 delivery date.

Second, by going legal, it would harm the community in that other areas of collaboration would immediately be halted, particularly economic development – which remains just as important to this community going forward as squeezing some mitigation and extra housing out of the university.

We need to find better and more collaborative ways to address the real concerns expressed here without litigation or the threat thereof.  One of the big problems in previous LRDPs and MOUs is that, once the agreements were signed, it seemed that the pressure was relieved on the university.

The community is going to have to remain vigilant and engaged and continue to press the university to make good on their promises.  That’s a better way forward than litigation.

—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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  1. Craig Ross

    A critical point here is that if the city and UCD get into a pissing contest here, housing won’t get built and people screwed over will be the students.

    1. Howard P

      Sums it up nicely, and I believe, accurately…

      If I am asked to do something, and particularly if the other politely shows how it might benefit me, I’m usually “there”… someone tells me I ‘have’ to do something, or else, ears close, hackles rise, and think of the Clint Eastwood/Dirty Harry mantra, “make my day!”

      Damn good point, Craig!

      1. Ron

        Try telling that to a judge (if it gets that far).  🙂

        If an action is pursued, it should (also) address issues other than how much housing UCD will build. Perhaps something along the lines of the UC Santa Cruz agreement, in which the university makes financial contributions to the city, to help address its impacts.

        1. Howard P

          Childish.  Perhaps you  should lose the ‘cute’ P-A snark, and emoticons.

          Guess you did not read the article… or the other info, including Regents direction to address timing and financial mitigations.

        2. Ron

          If anything is childish or naïve, your original comment would certainly qualify. (Sometimes, your comments and responses are absolutely astounding.)

          Regarding the article, are you referring to this?

          While the city is hopeful a “more direct and responsive collaboration can occur now,” it warns that the city “may be forced to pursue other legal remedies.”

          Or, are you referring to one of the other references (in the article), regarding potential legal action?

        3. Ron

          Truth be told, that kind of back-and-forth isn’t important (and doesn’t even warrant an observation or comment).

          But, Howard’s original comment precluded the possibility that UCD will (indeed) be “told what to do”, at some point.  Regardless of whether or not they think it’s a benefit. (The primary point.)


  2. Greg Rowe

    Well, I don’t know about David identifying me as a “land use expert.”  I think that title would more properly apply to someone like well-known Sacramento area land use attorney George Phillips.  While I can understand David’s concerns about the potential for the City to file a legal appeal of the LRDP EIR certified by the Board of Regents last week, it must be kept in mind that the City only has 30 days in which to file such an appeal.  As stated in the CEQA Desk Manual, parties wishing to challenge agency approval of a project under CEQA must seek court review within 30 days after the agency has filed and posted a notice of determination for either a negative declaration or EIR. It’s like “speak now or forever hold your peace.”
    While the role of litigation relative to CEQA may be distasteful to some, the Desk Manual points out that “CEQA is most often enforced through litigation brought by private citizens, organizations and public agencies.” It is not enforced by the State Office of Planning and Research or the Natural Resources Agency.  This leaves the City with few options. Absent a legal appeal, it is quite likely that UCD would continue ignoring the City, just as it did until Whitney McDonald’s letter was sent to the Regents on July 17. Only the potential threat of litigation finally stirred the Chancellor to issue a letter containing 3 vacuous non-solutions.  
    Given UCD’s recalcitrance to commit to a definitive and reliable on-campus housing construction timeline and mitigation implementation schedule, litigation is the only real leverage the City has for ensuring that UCD actually follows through on its weak promises and platitudes.  History has shown that executing MOUs will not serve the interests of the City and its residents.  To some extent, that is to be expected because institutional memory is short.  Both UCD and City administrators and Council members will retire or go on to other pursuits, meaning that over time an MOU can be forgotten or disregarded by future leadership.  A court-sanctioned settlement, however, is much easier to keep track of, with enforceable “triggers” that can be activated if necessary.  Witness the settlement agreement executed among UC Santa Cruz, the Regents, the City of Santa Cruz, and the citizens group that instigated the action.  It’s easy to imagine that at the very least the Santa Cruz citizens’ advocacy group would have taken notice if UCSC had not abided by the terms and conditions of the settlement agreement.
    The commentary expresses concern that litigation may not serve either party well, and could lead to further delays in constructing badly needed student housing.  That’s precisely the argument UCD used in urging the Regents to certify the EIR and approve the LRDP.  It is definitely a risk that should not be taken lightly; after all, no one wants the students, many of whom are living in near-poverty conditions, to be caught in a battle between the City and UCD.  However, there is nothing to preclude the City from filing a legal appeal and subsequently withdrawing it if in the meantime an agreement can be executed with UCD.   
    And, let us not lose sight of the fact that if UCD had been diligent in meeting the campus housing construction goals set for it in the Regents’ 2002 student housing report and the 2003 LRDP, the university would be housing far more students on campus than the current 29%.  Throughout the LRDP process, UCD has implicitly used the threat of delayed housing construction for students when in fact the university’s historic inaction is the chief culprit responsible for the current lack of affordable housing for students.

    Meanwhile, it has tried to obscure the facts, as shown by former Chancellor Hexter’s assertion to the Regents in November 2016 that UCD was at that time “providing housing for 35% of the students,” while failing to tell the Regents that this inflated number included students living off-campus in master leased apartment complexes.
    Today’s commentary avers that perhaps UCD is reluctant to cooperate and collaborate with the City of Davis and its residents given the pushback against original aspects of the West Village project.  This may be so, but again, UCD is not blameless.  Not only did it not do anything to mitigate the negative fiscal impacts of taking private property off the tax rolls, as cited in one of the June 1989 MOUs between the university and the City, but it continued engaging in this practice right  on through last year when it offered to buy the Interland business park.  If the university had evidently $66 million on hand to so readily spend, it would stand to reason that it could have just as easily invested that money on more on-campus housing or reimbursing the City for the property taxes lost through UCD’s decades-long practice of buying and master leasing properties in the City.   Then again, how much student housing would exist on campus today if housing had been built instead of the Mondavi Center and the Shrem art museum?  Or if UCD had sought contributions from alumni for student housing, as USC did to help fund its new Trojan village? 

    1. Alan Miller

      I don’t know why you don’t submit your comments as articles.  I don’t mean that sarcastically, I am serious.  They are long and thorough and really should/could be articles.

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