For better or for worse, we entered Davis with a key question: “Can Davis Pass a Measure R Vote?” However, as I pointed out in an October 2017 column, it really wasn’t the most accurate question in the world. After all, in 1995, the city voters held a special municipal election in which (ironically enough) Measure R was on the ballot by citizen petition but ended up with enough votes to ratify approval of the project after a hotly contested election.
Five years later the voters passed Measure J by a 53.6-46.3 margin. The first two Measure J votes went down overwhelmingly. It would be seven years between Measure P (which lost by a 3 to 1 margin) and Measure A (which lost by 700 votes).
That set up 2018 with the question brewing – can Davis ever pass one of these? In 2018, of course, Davis would pass not one but two Measure R votes and pass them overwhelmingly.
In June Measure J got just over 60 percent of the vote to win overwhelmingly. In November, the margin narrowed slight but Measure L still passed by a more than 11 point margin. Suddenly the voters had answered a key question – Measure R votes can succeed in Davis.
We have asked the question a number of times – why these projects? Why did they succeed while others before them failed and like most such questions, the answer is somewhat complicated.
The first point is that Measure X in 2005 had two major things going against it. In 2005, Davis was coming off a period of major growth which is what led to the 2000 passage of Measure J in the first place. The second factor is that no one had really had to run a campaign for a project like this before.
The project size of over 2000 units, even phased in over time seemed enormous. The project was located (much like the original Nishi) in a congested corridor and there didn’t seem like realistic plans to deal with traffic impacts.
The result was overwhelming defeat for Covell Village in 2005.
Four years later, the Measure P project was plagued with different problems. If Measure P had come in 2018, it may well have passed. It was relatively small. It was very sustainable. However, it did have two major things going against it – first the near neighbors badly opposed a project there. Second, it was in the heart of the great recession and the collapse of the housing market.
The two factors reinforced each other and the project went down by an astounding 3 to 1 margin.
That led to many people believing more than anything that a housing project could not pass in Davis. It would be seven years before anyone tried again.
The Nishi project in 2016 was one we expected to pass. Student housing by this point was a clear need. The project also provided R&D space. They attempted to fix Richards Blvd by creating a new path from Richards directly to campus.
But there were two problems that ultimately sunk the project. First, instead of building on-site affordable housing, they first attempted to utilize the vertical mixed-use exemption and then they added $1 million for in-lieu of affordable housing fees. That caused a swath of younger more progressive voters to turn against the project.
Second, despite plans to work around and fix Richards with $23 million in improvements plus grant funding for the redesign, the voters leery of traffic impacts turned against the project.
I think but for the contested Hillary Clinton – Bernie Sanders race, the project still may have passed. But it went down by 700 votes.
The two projects that passed this year were obviously very different in key ways. One was student housing, the other was senior housing. One was rental apartments, the other was primarily single family detached homes.
But there were similarities. Neither one had near neighbor impacts. That eliminated key sources of opposition. Second, the traffic impacts were minimal. Nishi intentionally avoided Richards Blvd, the second time around. WDAAC had traffic analysis conclude maybe ten second impacts on a stretch of road that is not really a thoroughfare for most residents of the community.
Both projects addressed affordable housing needs – Nishi by providing it for students and WDAAC by creating the largest affordable housing site in the city.
It is not that either project didn’t have opposition, but rather neither seemed to have opposition that went deeper than an immediate core of voters.
In both cases the elections were heated and hotly contested, but contrary to perhaps expectations of many observers, in the end, the position of the voters seemed to be that we needed housing unless there was a compelling reason to oppose that housing – and for the vast majority in both votes, there simply wasn’t.
The question that voters will have to answer: does Measure R work as designed and should it remain as it has for nearly two decades or are there modification needed.
As we presented in November, Councilmember Dan Carson told the Vanguard, “Measure J and R can work, at least if the losing side does not try to nullify the election results with legal actions that are at odds with the spirit of Measure J and R.”
But not everyone agreed that Measure R worked. As one commenter put it, “I think Measure R didn’t work in this case as imo the project didn’t deliver the type of housing that Davis really needed, was exclusionary and not dense enough.”
Another person I ran into, an adamant opponent of Measure R who voted no on the project, told me that Measure R was supposed to prevent these types of projects from being approved because it should discourage low density peripheral projects.
But as I pointed out at the time, viewing Measure R was outcome-based rather than process-based is a mistake.
As I have mentioned I do have concerns about Measure R as a process.
I think we need to ask tough questions headed into 2020.
One question is whether Measure R is producing better projects than would exist without Measure R? Nishi is an interesting case study. Some would argue that the 2016 version that lost was a better project than the 2018 version that won. That was a case that the opposition tried to make in 2018 (ironically several of the people doing that actually opposed both).
Others argued with less traffic impacts, a focus on student housing, and on-site affordable housing, the 2018 version was better.
Absent Measure R would we have a better project there? Hard to know.
My biggest problem with Measure R has been the increasingly hostile nature of the campaigns – even in the face of relatively overwhelming votes.
Both sides have learned over the course of five Measure R campaigns how to run them. Proponents have learned to avoid traffic and near neighbor impacts in order to win while the opposition has learned that in order to defeat Measure R project, you must attack them.
They are terrible by nature. You have to attack the integrity of the process. You have to attack the integrity of developers. You have to attack everything.
Colin Walsh tried to do that with Nishi, and finally Sandy Whitcombe had enough and labeled his attacks “Weird Red Herrings.” Even some of his allies on that day admitted that they cringed at some of his claims. His attacks, as it turned out, did not work.
But that approach did not work with Nishi and it was approved easily. And it didn’t work with Measure L, it was also approved easily.
Are these kinds of attacks good for the community? Good for good planning? Or does it subtract from the process.
We now know that projects can pass Measure R votes. The question over the next 18 months therefore will probably focus on whether the current process for conducting Measure R elections is the best we can do, or whether there are improvements that can occur with the process.
–_David M. Greenwald reporting