Commentary: Why City Is Looking at Densification of the Downtown

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The Brinley Building before it got a facelift

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


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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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22 thoughts on “Commentary: Why City Is Looking at Densification of the Downtown”

  1. Ron

    From article:  “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 no (good) jobs downtown.  Anyone living there (who wants/needs a good job) will be commuting elsewhere. (And, will be traveling in/out of downtown for other reasons, as well.)

    Adding residential downtown will not “create” good jobs.

    This effort is about adding a residential neighborhood to an existing commercial neighborhood.  Nothing more, nothing less. However, doing so will have impacts on the city’s primary commercial neighborhood.

    1. Richard McCann

      Ron

      Huh? Another unsubstantiated speculative statement from an anonymous poster.

      Many of the new jobs downtown likely will be in offices with STEM-related jobs that are among the highest paying in the economy. (That’s why the median income in San Mateo County is $171,000.) They in turn can support better restaurants and retail, which in turn tend to pay wages above the industry average (ask San Francisco.)

      1. Ron

        Richard:  Pure, unsubstantiated fiction (in regard to what’s being proposed for Davis).

        As a side note, I understand that San Mateo has some “minor” concerns regarding housing affordability/availability (which in that case is a result of the tech industry), which you’ve previously brought up as a concern in Davis. But again, there’s no reason to even expect that industry to take up shop in downtown Davis. Actually, they’re not even in “downtown” San Mateo.

        Also – If you have a concern regarding the Vanguard’s commenting policies, please take it up with them. (You’ve made similar comments with others whom you disagree with, as well.)

        1. Don Shor

          … tech industry…there’s no reason to even expect that industry to take up shop in downtown Davis.

          The jobs that would relate to the commercial developments downtown would be related to the businesses that spin off from UCD or those that locate here due to UCD. More ag tech than computer tech, but tech nonetheless.

        2. Richard McCann

          Ron

          On what basis do you make this claim? Oh wait, we have no idea who you really are and whether you have any expertise or experience on these issues. On the other hand, I’ve openly identified myself. You can find out that I’m an economist, that I’ve sit and have participated on several City commissions and committees, that I’ve looked at economic development issues, that I mentor in a STEM education program in which I’ve become familiar with tech industry developments, that my wife and I are involved with food tech issues locally. From that base of knowledge, and understanding that this will take an economic development strategy that is not embedded in the Downtown Plan which is only a zoning exercise, I see that the new office space that would be allowed to be constructed in Davis (and it won’t be built until those (ag) tech jobs look viable.)

          [moderator: edited. The Vanguard allows anonymous commenters. Address your concerns about that policy to David and the board if you wish them to discuss it. It’s off topic, so I will remove most comments about the anonymous status of Vanguard participants.]

        3. Ron

          Seems to me that “Ag Tech” companies could have been located at Nishi (assuming that there’s actual demand for such space).  But, UCD apparently did not want traffic for such activities to travel through campus (according to David’s previous comments).  Not sure why they are “tentatively o.k.” with traffic related to student housing, at Nishi.

          Regardless, Davis/UCD are already a net “importer” of workers. Add more economic activity, and you make that situation worse.

          The push for more economic development by those who simultaneously claim that they’re concerned about housing affordability/availability makes one scratch their head in astonishment.

           

        4. Keith O

          [moderator: edited. The Vanguard allows anonymous commenters. Address your concerns about that policy to David and the board if you wish them to discuss it. It’s off topic, so I will remove most comments about the anonymous status of Vanguard participants.]

          It’s about time.  This has been allowed to go on way too long from this one particular commenter.

  2. Ron

    From article:  “All of this suggests that developers are not the ones pushing for these changes.  So who is?”

    All of this does suggest that developers, real estate agents, some property owners (who don’t necessarily own the businesses inside of their buildings), development activists, and those who are fooled into thinking that “smart growth” is necessarily a good thing are pushing for these changes.

    Residential development seems to be where the opportunity to make money is to be found, for some of those listed above.

    Probably not too many others are pushing for it. Some are pushing against it.

    1. Howard P

      edited
      yes, Ron, we get your point… BANANA… or, just no more people… thank you for your transparency…

      but your characterization of folk,

      “All of this does suggest that developers, real estate agents, some property owners (who don’t necessarily own the businesses inside of their buildings), development activists, and those who are fooled into thinking that “smart growth” is necessarily a good thing”

      Is simplistic, wrong, and sophomoric, IMO

    2. David Greenwald Post author

      Smart growth is good if you’re goal is to reduce carbon impacts and put housing, transportation and work into some sort of harmonic relationship.

  3. Tia Will

    Howard

    Is simplistic, wrong, and sophomoric, IMO”

    Since some of Ron’s statements seem factual, I am not sure what you think this applies to.

    It seems clear to me that developers, real estate agents, property owners, and development activists are people who stand to gain from future projects and would thus push for them, could you have been referring only to “those who are fooled…”?

    Or are you making a more sweeping commentary?

     

    1. Don Shor

      Where are the “tens of thousands” of jobs these people work at?

      UC Davis: stats per Wikipedia
      Academic staff
      1,888 (2016–17)
      Administrative staff
      21,486 (2014–15)

  4. Jim Hoch

    Academic staff1,888 (2016–17)Administrative staff21,486 (2014–15)

    Some of these people live in Davis already while others drive directly on to campus without passing through Davis.

      1. Jim Hoch

        Ross, David has stated that people who look up authoritative source material are only “google smart” while people who repeat rumors they have heard from people who don’t know are the font of true wisdom.

  5. Richard McCann

    The Cool Climate Network out of UC Berkeley (run by Chris Jones who lives in Davis) has maps showing relative GHG emissions by zip code. The more dense communities generally have lower emissions. Interestingly, 95616 is better than average at 40 tons/person/year, while 95618 is worse than average at 65 tons/person/year.

    http://coolclimate.berkeley.edu/maps

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