Reading a letter in the local paper seems to require some response. The letter, presumably in response to Dan Urazandi’s op-ed on downtown parking, is entitled, somewhat confusingly, “City Council’s lack of representation.”
The writer of the letter notes that the “current city council fails to support its constituents,” though doesn’t seem to articulate in what way that is the case.
“(T)he example given relates to lack of adequate parking and the introduction of meters downtown,” the author writes. “But there are countless other examples.”
What becomes clear is that the author is most upset about “the degree to which council members support radical changes (many simply arbitrary) to the downtown area.”
Here there are a few points to which I wish to respond.
First, she writes: “The latest transformation ‘vision’ involves redeveloping perfectly good existing buildings to four stories! What? This mixed-use monster is being heralded by developers as ‘smart’ and ‘sustainable’ and is nothing more than a nationwide agenda to increasingly get people out of peripheral areas and into the downtown areas.”
First of all, one of the problems with the Davis Downtown is that it was built during another era. When land is plentiful, the city can grow out, and when there is open space that can be developed, it is fine to have single-story buildings in a downtown core. But now with space at a premium, the downtown looks more and more underutilized.
It becomes clear that the author does not like the idea of four-story buildings.
Far from smart growth and sustainable, she sees this as “nothing more than a nationwide agenda to increasingly get people out of peripheral areas and into the downtown areas.”
From a smart growth perspective, is it environmentally friendly that people who work in Davis have to get into their vehicles, drive to the community in order to work, and then leave at the end of the day to drive home?
There are a variety of stats for it, but the numbers are large: each day tens of thousands of people drive into Davis in order to work. At the same time, tens of thousands of people, who live in Davis, hop into their cars and drive to work out of town.
The downtown, as a large employer of people, is underutilized as a place where people can live and work – thus reducing their VMT (vehicle miles traveled) and bringing down our contribution to GHG (greenhouse gases).
As we can see of other buildings in the downtown, it is possible to retain the small town feel and the walkable and bikeable character of the downtown, while still building up.
A lot of these “perfectly good existing buildings” are actually not perfectly good. We are already seeing a facelift on the Brinley Building, one of the most underutilized in the city. The developers there will be looking to, within the decade, redevelop the building to allow for a combination of restaurants, retail, office space and residential.
But the writer puts the blame here on developers. She notes that mixed-use “is being heralded by developers as ‘smart’ and ‘sustainable’ while at the same time arguing, “These plans are good for the pockets of developers and those in highest positions of power.”
In Davis, developers are looked at, at least in some circles, as the mortal enemy of the community. But a more balanced view is in order here.
First of all, the idea that these are automatically huge money-making endeavors for developers is misplaced. In fact, the fiscal analysis, such as we have demonstrated previously, calls into question whether these projects are even economically viable for actual developers who are investors, rather than owner-occupied buildings.
As Matt Kowta from BAE Urban Economics told the Vanguard, “While variance from project to project could be significant, I think the financial analysis demonstrates that it will be challenging for developers to put together feasible projects in the downtown area, particularly if they have to acquire sites in the open market that most likely include an existing structure with some economic life left.”
The analysis shows that if the city wants redevelopment, they are going to have to reduce costs and risks.
Here are some recommendations from BAE:
- Reduce project risk and project timelines by establishing clear planning guidelines for the desired development types and reducing or eliminating discretionary review processes;
- Allow increased densities, so that developers can achieve greater efficiencies of scale on the limited number of available sites, including better spreading the high cost of site acquisition;
- Limit requirements imposed on downtown development projects which would translate to increased costs that do not bring corresponding revenue increases; and
- Consider entering into public-private partnerships with developers to help put together feasible development projects that attract new businesses to downtown. This could include utilization of City-owned land on terms that help to bridge feasibility gaps where there is an expected return on the City’s involvement.
All of this suggests that developers are not the ones pushing for these changes. So who is?
I think that comes down to available resources. What we see is the following:
- The need for more commercial and economic activity in the core
- The lack of ability to grow outward, either for commercial or residential purposes
- The need to put jobs and housing together
- Better utilization of existing space for commercial
There is actually a combination of city fiscal reasons as well as environmental reasons for this push. But, for the most part, this is not going to be a huge boon for developers. In fact, if the city wants to make this work, they will have to figure out creative ways to reduce risks and costs.
—David M. Greenwald reporting