What we saw emerge on Tuesday night with the first check in by the council on the Downtown Plan was a consensus on a few points – but the key question going forward is going to be how practical a vision this is. Moreover, just because the council, consultants and the Downtown Plan Advisory Committee (DPAC) would like to see more residential in the downtown does not mean the broader community agrees.
The view of DPAC was laid out by Vice Chair Michelle Byars. She said that “we believe that the addition of residential opportunities in the downtown will serve our community and the adjacent neighborhoods well.”
The DPAC “is generally in support of increasing building heights in appropriate parts of the downtown to allow more residents.”
This was clearly a view the majority on council also supports. Councilmember Lucas Frerichs stated that “additional housing in our downtown is important for economy.” He also noted it was important for our environmental goals.
Dan Carson also argued that, by bringing in housing into the downtown, “you bring people, you bring economic activity.”
But the economic analysis by consultants Bay Area Economics (BAE), as the Vanguard has already reported on several times, shows that margins are thin and costs are high. The key question for the DPAC and ultimately the council may not be the vision of bringing more people to the downtown and developing a more vibrant and mixed-use environment, but the feasibility of making that pencil out along with the other goals.
One key idea for dealing with these costs – and a suggestion laid out by BAE – is to make the process as predictable as possible.
Ms. Byars stated, “We are convinced of the need for predictability for projects for the benefit of both the neighborhood and the businesses.” She said that they “are striving to help the consultants as they formulate the form-based codes intended to provide this certainty.”
“I think what investors fear most is uncertainty,” Councilmember Carson stated. “If through our re-writing the codes, we can mitigate some of the great confusion… but just how do you navigate the planning process to build anything downtown and set up clear rules about what you can build… and clear demarcations about what you don’t want.”
City Manager Mike Webb stated, “With the form-based approach to things, there’s an element of durability to zoning, to the approach, as uses ebb and flow over time, as market conditions adjust over the decades, the form-based approach gives some resiliency to those changes.”
But the question is, will that be enough? There were two things pushed by both the council and the DPAC that will play a role here. First, the push for more affordable housing. Second, the push for more sustainability.
While the DPAC understands the need for the final plan to be “financially viable – both for the city and for the businesses,” they also have a desire “to do something bold, cutting edge, and to be a global sustainability leader.”
The problem here is that, while I think a lot of people can support that goal of being on the cutting edge in terms of sustainability, how do we square that with the need to contain costs for redevelopment?
This was the point raised by Will Arnold. He too wants to alleviate some of the “procedural hindrances to redevelopment in the downtown.”
At the same time, he recognizes there is a conflict between those wanting to incentivize redevelopment and mixed use in the downtown and those wanting to ensure the highest levels of sustainability and affordability.
“Those – if you’re investing in a project – just look like dollar signs,” he said, while noting they have long been goals for many in the community, including himself. “If it makes sense anywhere to incentivize folks doing mixed-use development, it would be my opinion that the downtown is where it makes sense. So that is a balancing act.”
At least on the affordable housing front, Brett Lee pushed the notion that some of that affordability can be “by design rather than big ‘A’ affordable housing.”
For Will Arnold, “My biggest question I think is the biggest question that remains for everyone – how do we get from here to there?”
For Mayor Lee, however, “I’m not as worried as some in the community about how we get from here today to some future vision.”
These are all critical questions that do need to be addressed going forward, if that is to be our vision of the downtown – more density, bringing in more mixed use and residential. And thus the question is how do we make it so these proposals can pencil out for the developers and investors?
But I do think more needs to be done in terms of public engagement. Does the public see the need for radical change in the downtown? We are not necessarily talking about rapid change, but it will end up being radical.
As Dan Parolek, from the consultants Opticos Design, stated, this is “incremental evolution.” He explained, “This is not going to happen overnight… It’s going to take time.”
Secondly, does the public support the need for more residential in the downtown? From my perspective, there are several reasons to consider residential.
For one thing, it would offer more urban housing for Davis. That would generally mean we would be looking at more workforce housing and less housing for families for children in the core area.
If we are going to continue to restrict or impede housing on the periphery, the other option is density and infill and the downtown remains a prime location because of the core area being relatively low density, mainly one and two stories that can be redeveloped and built up.
The third point is the downtown vision point. A lot of people believe our downtown is a success. In some ways, it remains so. But we have seen the decline of retail. We have seen the shift from retail to restaurants and bars and entertainment.
One way to improve both the retail aspect as well as the entertainment is to bring in more people to the downtown. Simple economy suggests that if there are more people living in the downtown, and they have shopping and entertainment options in close, they will tend to utilize those.
Thus, from a commercial perspective and a land use management perspective, residential in the downtown is the way to go.
The question that was not addressed or even asked is whether the broader community supports this vision and, I think, before we get into a huge land use battle over this, we ought to at least have this discussion.
—David M. Greenwald reporting