Officials in the city of Davis are not saying much until the tentative ruling goes before Judge McAdam on April 5 – but they did tell the Vanguard on Wednesday that they are stunned by his planned ruling which invalidates the Trackside development.
“The City disagrees with the tentative ruling,” City Manager Mike Webb stated on the record.
But he did say, “It is not a final decision and we look forward to the opportunity at the April 5th hearing to demonstrate to the Court why reconsideration of its position is warranted.”
Kemble Pope, representing Trackside, LLC, declined comment until after they get to argue before the judge. Meanwhile, Rhonda Reed from the Old East Davis Neighborhood Association said in an email late Wednesday that she had not yet read the tentative ruling.
Judge McAdam, relying heavily on city planning documents, concluded that this was a transition area, and based on the totality of the circumstances in reviewing the entire record, he concluded, “Trackside is not consistent with the City of Davis planning provisions governing the transition between the Core Area to the Old East Davis neighborhood.”
He writes: “Nothing in the Staff Report or record rationally explained how a 47,000 square foot building constituted a transition project.”
In December of 2017, the Davis City Council approved the four-story, 27-unit Trackside infill development. A few weeks later, the Old East Davis Neighborhood Association filed a CEQA suit challenging the city council’s “approval of the Sustainable Communities Environmental Assessment/Initial Study for the Trackside Center Project” and their “approval of Project on the grounds that such approvals violate the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act…”
“The dispute here really centers around whether the City has complied with the General Plan,” Judge McAdam writes in a 16-page tentative ruling. “The trial court must determine whether the City’s decision to approve the Project was arbitrary, capricious and lacking in evidentiary support, unlawful or procedurally unfair.”
He notes, “Under this standard, the Court must defer to the factual findings on consistency of the City unless no reasonable person could have reached the same conclusion on the evidence before it.”
Judge McAdam focuses on the notion of “transition” as an overarching principle that the property here must serve as a “transition” from “the Core Commercial Area to the Old East Davis neighborhood.”
The Core Area Specific Plan (CASP), he says, is intended to promote “building up the downtown core (the area between First and Third streets and D Street and the railroad tracks east of G Street) before greatly increasing densities in the remainder of the core area, thereby protecting existing residential neighborhoods and their character.”
Meanwhile, “The General Plan goes on to state that the Core Area Specific Plan encourages ‘appropriate scale transition between buildings.’”
Judge McAdam also notes: “The Davis Municipal Code also touches on the principle of transition by incorporating restrictive standards set forth in the Davis Downtown and Traditional Residential Neighborhoods Design Guidelines (DTRN).”
Here the judge cites the language that when there are conflicts in the guidelines, “the more restrictive standard shall prevail.”
He writes that “it is (a) fair conclusion that the DTRN guidelines, to the extent they provide detailed direction and restrict the mass and scale of development projects in the transition area, are relevant here.”
As noted by the Petitioner, the guideline for Mixed-Use Design provides that a new building should “maintain the scale of a new structure within the context of existing buildings on the block.”
The key to the suit, however, is that the parties “dispute whether these guidelines are incorporated into the zoning law or not.”
Judge McAdam notes that “many of them are not unequivocal” and “leave some flexibility and even room for interpretation.” He adds, “The Court need not resolve the dispute.” However, he finds that “the guidelines remain highly relevant.”
He writes: “The City asserted that the Project was consistent with the guidelines and that it substantially complied with and relied on them. Under these circumstances, any meaningful evaluation of the Project must assess compliance, at least in broad terms, with the DTRN Guidelines.”
The city, Judge McAdam writes, “relies heavily on a Third Street Corridor Special Character Area Case Study image” to show that the “project is consistent with the guidelines,” arguing that “the image project is virtually interchangeable with Trackside.”
He notes that “it would appear that Trackside would be the largest mixed-use or commercial building in downtown Davis by a longshot,” noting that it is double the size of the Chen Building, 30 percent larger than McCormick, and thus: “There is nothing on the Third Street Corridor that is even remotely near the size of Trackside.”
However, he calls such a reliance on Third Street Corridor case study image “misplaced.”
He also notes along the “railroad corridor” where he situates Trackside that “Trackside would be over 4 times larger than the current commercial buildings.”
The judge concludes: “Based on the totality of circumstances and a review of the entire record, it is the conclusion of this Court that Trackside is not consistent with the City of Davis planning provisions governing the transition between the Core Area to the Old East Davis neighborhood.”
He adds, “Nothing in the Staff Report or record rationally explained how a 47,000 square foot building constituted a transition project.”
Judge McAdam concludes, “There is a compelling case, as the City has made, for a mixed-use, high density residential development at this location near the train station.” However, he believes, “the failure here is that the mass and scale of the proposed project is not reasonable under the current law and factual circumstances. There simply is not a logical and reasoned case to be made that Trackside is a ‘transition’ from the Core Area to the Old East Davis neighborhood. The record lacks evidentiary support for the City’s decision.”
Judge McAdam grants the petition on the Fourth Cause and the city is “to set aside approval of the Final Planned Development (#5-15), Design Review (#5-15) and Demolition (#5-15) and withdraw the Notice of Determination of the Project.”
The court has set aside April 5 at 9 am for the parties to appear and make further argument.
It is believed that such a decision would have far-reaching implications, not only in Davis but across the state, and if this decision holds on April 5, the expectation is that there would be an appeal, probably joined by the state and other planning entities.
—David M. Greenwald reporting