Following last Sunday’s CivEnergy forum a number of observers lamented what they saw as the uncivil discourse by the Yes on Measure L side. They were not wrong, but they missed the bigger picture. The No on Measure L side from the start attacked this project as “the worst example of suburban sprawl proposed in Davis in over 25 years.” They’ve said there is no “guarantee that the required low-income housing will be built,” have decried what they call “massive developer giveaways,” and of course portrayed the project as exclusive and discriminatory.
In short, the well had been poisoned long before the two sides ever met on Sunday and, while the No side was definitely more artful in their language, both sides threw barbs.
The bottom line is that Measure R campaigns have devolved into standard political campaigns. The developers have learned a lot from early Measure R defeats and this has forced them to address community concerns. The playbook for defeating a Measure R project is that you throw as much mud, as much uncertainty as possible against the project and hope that it resonates with the voters. (There is a danger in doing this of course – some of these attacks are losing their resonance with voters, especially those who believe that, while these projects are far from perfect, housing is needed).
When you have projects that the voters fear will have large traffic impacts and appear to be missing key components (like Nishi 1 and its lack of affordable housing), that’s an easy task. When the project has addressed most of these concerns, you end up with “weird red herrings.”
That brings us to the forum itself where we believe the Yes side did a nice job of articulating their vision for the project and why they wish to build senior housing. However, that vision was much of the time overshadowed because they allowed the arguments by the No side to get under their skin.
Firing the first shot was Jason Taormino, stating, “Our opposition I think agrees that this is a good idea, because they’ve come up with no legitimate points, they seem to be taking a page from Trump’s book – throwing out big lies and little lies and trying to divide our community.”
David Thompson pushed back against the attacks on the affordable housing, calling them “preposterous and untrue.” He pointed out their various successes, including raising $34 million for Creekside, and responded: “So the challenge that we can’t do it, we won’t do it, is just untrue, and should not be a part of this conversation.”
He added, “The sad truth of the No on L winning is this, that 150 apartments for seniors will not be built.”
Alan Pryor listed off eight points against the project. Some of his key points: “The developer’s ‘take care of our own’ Davis-Based Buyers Program is inherently exclusionary. And we believe illegally.” “The city has granted the developer massive giveaways and subsidies by reducing project impact fees by over $3.4 million compared to fees normally charged new developments.”
And, “Other than the four acre land donation on which someone else will actually build low income housing required for the project, the developer is not contributing any money to the actual construction costs for the low income housing units as has every major development in town in the recent past.”
The exchange over fiscal impacts was fairly tame. Mr. Pryor argued that the developer was getting massive giveaways and listed a number of them.
Dan Carson, who chaired the Finance and Budget Commission prior to being elected to council, said that his commission, over five months, looked at the way the city evaluates projects and their fiscal impacts. He concludes: “There is no giveaway on the one-time fees. There was an adjustment on the development impact fees side of the ledger and more resources than that have been put back on the other side of the ledger in terms of what are called community enhancement funds as well as various amenities in the project that are being paid for out of the developer’s pocket.”
Later he responded, “You can play the cherry-picking game of one item that goes down, and then you ignore the other stuff that goes up and you can come to an incorrect conclusion. “
On the issue of affordable housing, the developers believe they have gone over and above their requirements.
David Thompson: “We can build 150 units on there. We are allowed to build 150 units on there. It far surpasses the city requirement – it is the largest piece of land that any developer has ever given for affordable housing in the city of Davis.”
Alan Pryor counters: “We believe that the developer is not even meeting the minimum requirements of the city’s low income housing ordinance by the donation of only 4.25 acres of land. “
The discussion heated back up again when they got to the Davis-Based Buyers Program. After Rik Keller went through his litany of statistics showing, in his view, the history of housing discrimination in Davis, he concluded by quoting Gloria Partida’s op-ed: “There’s an op-ed recently in the Davis Enterprise that rightfully called out the terrible language used as the tag line for the project, taking care of our own, as ‘ringing with a distinctly Trumpian tenor that effectively delineates us from them.’”
Jason Taormino then responded: “I love Rik’s statistics, I’ve got some of my own that I’ve made up. I think if you take his 800 square foot house, on his more than 8000 square foot lot, and you invert and multiply it by the co-efficient of the water content of bologna – you’ll find out one thing, they just don’t want to take care of Davis seniors.”
But Rik Keller, while more artful in his attack, pulled no punches. At one point he said, “I would actually say, as insensitive and offensive as that is, as your father has said, that the actual results and the actual impact of the program is even worse.”
He called the project “a textbook example of an exclusionary housing program with locational restrictions, with clear, on the face of it, disparate impacts. That is, these aren’t necessarily discriminatory by intent, but they are discriminatory effects.”
Jason Taormino also lost focus during one of the audience questions. At one point he quipped that his opponents apparently saw “no good in the world.”
He later said: “I’m not exactly sure why they were opposed to student housing before and they were opposed to workforce housing before and they were opposed to senior housing now. I’m not sure what they’ll be opposed to next time. But they always seem to be opposed to something and never seem to be helping other people. I guess it’s because their lives are so good and they’re afraid that if somehow somebody else has more, they’re going to have less.”
Is any of this helpful for those in this community trying to decide whether this project will help or hurt our future? Probably not. It is too bad, because there were moments of well articulated points on both sides, but too often this conservation devolved into attacks. Attacks on the project by the opposition, and attacks on the opponents by the proponents.
It is easy to point the finger at one side or another depending on your perspective, but, from my perspective, this process is left wanting. Focus on the question: will Davis be better off ten years from now if this project gets built – why or why not?
Measure R is a strangely iterative process, whereby past discussions and failures lead to improvements in proposals but also more coarse discourse. Is this a process that is working or one where we would like to see things change? That’s a question for two years from now when Measure R comes up for a vote.
—David M. Greenwald reporting