Monday Morning Thoughts: WDAAC Is in Fact Low Density

Opponents of the West Davis Active Adult Community have hit the project for being low density and sprawl.  For example, Alan Pryor and Pam Nieberg write: “WDAAC is a Sprawling Development Reminiscent of the 1950s and 1960s. It does NOT Meet any of the Sacramento Council of Governments’ (SACOG) Seven Principles for Smart Growth and Clearly Needs More Density, Different and Diverse Building Types, and Good Transportation Infrastructure.”

They add, “Rather than focusing on a modern, dense but diverse development model, the WDAAC project proposes a huge number of sprawling ranch-style homes on 5,000 sq ft lots reminding us of the excesses of the past.”

The applicants have tried to push back on this view.  They note, for example, that at 13 units per acre, the project is actually more dense than Grande Village and the Cannery (which is 12 units per acre) and slightly less dense than the much smaller Chiles Ranch project of 96 units on 7 acres of land.

I disagree with critics who assail the project’s overall location, having noted that many of the key uses for seniors are in close proximity to the project – including medical offices, the hospital, groceries and pharmaceuticals.

However, on the issue of density, I disagree with the developers.  Their point of comparison is to three other traditional developments in town – all of which are primarily single-family homes on relatively large lots.

The developers push back on this point – they argue that people do not wish to buy smaller, more compact urban homes, but rather prefer the lifestyle of a residential neighborhood that would be provided by WDAAC.

They argue that you have to provide housing that people will buy.  While this point is definitely understood, there are a number of elements here that should be taken into account.

First of all, whether you agree or disagree with Measure R, it is in fact the law of the land.  This is a point that the developer has understood and recognized from the start.

But the reality is that the community does not generally want a lot in the way of peripheral development.  That was the reason for their initial support for Measure J.  Their stronger support for Measure R.  Their opposition to Covell Village and other peripheral projects.

As such, peripheral land is scarce in Davis.  We have a decreasing amount of available infill land and the result is that, if we wish to find ways to provide additional housing, we must be as efficient as possible with the land.

Compact development is the way to achieve much of this.

Second, while the location of the project and the type of needs of its projected residents probably lends itself to less car use than would ordinarily be the case – the truth is that we have to look at ways to more broadly reduce dependency on the automobile in order to reduce GHG emissions.

While a senior project in this location may actually serve some of those purposes, by building to far less density than other infill projects, we are limiting the benefit of the project itself.

The bottom line here is the developers are comparing this project to other single family developments, and suggesting that it is comparable if not better than other recent projects – but they are tilting the scales in their favor by limiting the comparison to single family developments.

Third and finally, we have to start moving the bar.  We aren’t going to be able to build a lot of projects likes WDAAC in Davis.  We do not have a lot of land that is available for development without a vote, and the public is going to have a short leash for future developments.

The opponents argue that the WDAAC opens up the entire northwest quadrant of the city to speculative, piecemeal development.  I would argue that they are wrong.  The development of that location would require votes of the public – a public that is not that willing to extent its support for such development.

Instead, I see the opposite problem – the WDAAC is likely to be at best a one-shot deal – a single approval, and therefore we need to be as efficient as we possibly can about any approval for peripheral development.

The bottom line here is, after this project there are no active proposals for Measure R projects on the radar.  Can that change in short order?  Certainly.  But, as of now, it does not seem likely that there will be another peripheral proposal – each is too speculative in terms of chances for approval, expensive to undertake, and is an overall dicey proposition.

If that’s the case, we need to be really careful to vet Measure R projects and make sure we get as much from them as we can.

In my view at least, I think the developers here are open to criticism in that they opted for a traditional development during a time when such developments are likely to be rare and at a time when it is not clear what other large developments the voters of Davis will be willing to support.

Given the overall housing crisis in California and the scarcity of available land in Davis, this project can rightly be criticized for not being dense or compact enough.  In our view, the future of development in Davis is going to look less like the comparison points that the developers are using for WDAAC and more like projects like Davis Live housing and the University Mall redevelopment – dense, compact, and tall, built on existing development and within the current boundaries of the community.

—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. Rik Keller

    The density numbers look even worse when you break down the individual uses on the site.

    For example, the affordable housing component is being achieved through a land dedication of 4 acres. Set that aside for a minute*, and the rest of the residential uses based on the table on the article would be 10.6 units/net acre (410 units/38.7 net acres). And it would be 5.5 residential units per gross acre for the whole of the site minus the land dedication (410 units/70 acres).

    * the developers claim that 4 acres is sufficient to meet their affordable housing obligation though they never actually provide the calculations of this obligation as required by the City’s Affordable Housing Ordinance. The Ordinance states that this land dedication provides “credit” at the rate of 15 units/acre for satisfying the affordable housing obligation = 60 units. The developers are claiming that 150 affordable units will be built on this parcel. However, these are all proposed to be studio and 1-bedroom units at 600 sq. ft. floor area or less. The Ordinance treats these as equivalent dwelling units (EDUs) at a minimum rate of 2.5 bedrooms per unit. Therefore, depending on how the studio units are calculated, these are a maximum of 60 (150/2.5) equivalent dwelling units.

  2. Matt Williams

    David, an interesting point of density comparison  would be what the density (units per acre) is for University Retirement Community and/or Atria Covell Gardens and/or Eleanor Roosevelt  and/or Dos Pinos.  I have a call in to URC and Covell Gardens to get a number of units and parcel acreage. I will post the information they provide when they provide it to me.

    1. Matt Williams

      I said I would get back with density data for URC and Atria Covell Gardens once I got it, which I now have.

      URC has a total of 244 units on 11.1 acres for a gross density of 22.0 and a net density close to 30.0

      Shasta Point, the affordable component built in conjunction with the URC project, has a total of 68 units on 1.6 acres for a gross density of 43.6 and a net density close to 50.0

      Atria Covell Gardens has a total of 157 units on 4.4 acres for a gross density of 35.7 and a net density close between 40 and 50.0.

      Compare that to the projects in David’s table.

  3. Todd Edelman

    medical offices, the hospital, groceries and pharmaceuticals [sic]

    in proximity will decrease VMT in your estimation?

    First of all, medical offices, the hospital and a pharmacy are a single category. A lot of the first two can be accommodated by a comprehensive clinic, and of the last by a small version of a CVS-type store. A good clinic (for all ages and needs) and pharmacy would and should be part of any revitalization of Downtown.

    If someone who lives Downtown – e.g. in a multi-use development in the Civic Plaza parcels between A and B and 5th and 7th plus A and C between 5th and 6th – wants to drive to shop they have more diverse choices than what they’d get at WDAAC, but they could also walk or cycle to some of these and more.  As far as emergency medical care goes, the fire station is so close Civic Plaza by that personnel from there could almost arrive sooner by foot than by vehicle…

    But the best selling point in regards to health for a Central AAC is that it would encourage walking with a purpose and would facilitate community interaction with diverse community members, including grandchildren, which developers pretend could visit the WDAAC location “every day”

  4. Jeff M

    Here is how it works if you are a developer.

    First, you determine what type of housing your target customers wants.

    Second, you build that housing.

    Third, you sell / rent that housing.


    Here is how it does not work.

    First, bureaucrats, politicians and busy-body activists tell you what type of housing customers you get to target, and what housing type of housing they should want and then require you to build that type of housing.

    Second, you don’t build any housing because it does not make any business sense.

    Third, you go build housing somewhere else.

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