Commentary: Can the Community Support Dense Residential and Mixed-Use in the Downtown?

Last week the Davis Downtown Plan Advisory Committee (DPAC) met to consider a number of recommendations that could form the basis for a draft Downtown Plan.  Among their recommendations in general was support increasing intensity in the core, but not in transition areas or along the periphery of the core.

Thus they supported increasing the intensity for a flex district of Main Street Large on G Street from 2nd to 5th Streets.  They also supported increasing the intensity at Davis Commons, and the Hibbert Lumber sites.

However, they did not support changes to properties along University and Rice Lane.  They also passed a motion to more clearly address the number of stories, with a maximum of three stories, to address the concerns in the edge transition areas next to existing neighborhoods.

This suggests, at least preliminarily, that there will be greater density within the core, but that the DPAC wanted to limit height to three stories in transition areas and leave areas like University Avenue and Rice Lane alone for now.

As noted in previous accounts, one of the bigger debates will be over the nature of the Davis Downtown Plan.  There are a number of very interesting issues that need to be parsed – among them is densification and the creation of urban-style, mixed-use housing in the core.

From our discussion yesterday regarding growth in Davis, we argued that while Davis has a number of acute housing needs, it also increasingly lacks locations to put those housing needs.  The periphery seems increasingly unlikely, despite voter approval for WDAAC (West Davis Active Adult Community) last November.  There appear to be dwindling residential infill sites available.

Measure R may not prevent another peripheral project, but, given the lack of new proposals on the periphery and the general reluctance of Davis residents to develop agricultural land, we see it unlikely that there will be a major new peripheral development any time soon.

Along the same lines, there remain some rather acute housing needs in Davis.  For the most part, with the approval of everything from Sterling to Lincoln40 to Davis Live to Nishi, we think student housing needs have come close to satisfaction.

However, the need for housing for people who currently work in Davis, but live elsewhere, remains high.  Among those are young workers who seek employment in Davis’ emerging tech industry.

Housing in the downtown figures to be small and dense, but amenable to workforce housing needs.

Given the cost of housing, we will likely be looking at greater intensity and density for development in the core.

But there is cost and risk.  Last summer, Matt Kowta from BAE Urban Economics told the Vanguard, “While variance from project to project could be significant, I think the financial analysis demonstrates that it will be challenging for developers to put together feasible projects in the downtown area, particularly if they have to acquire sites in the open market that most likely include an existing structure with some economic life left.”

The analysis shows that if the city wants redevelopment, they are going to have to reduce costs and risks.

Among the requirements will be increased densities that enable developers to achieve greater efficiencies of scale on the limited number of available sites, including better spreading of the high cost of site acquisition.

We see this most clearly in some of the recommendations for staff.  For instance, staff recommends designating G St from 2nd to 5th Street as “Main Street Large.”  The DPAC supported this move.

Staff explains: “A number of properties within the proposed Main Street Large zone have been recently developed or improved or are historical Landmark sites and are not likely to be redeveloped.”

However, they note, it also “offers additional opportunity for redevelopment and greater development intensity.” The area is part of the city’s traditional commercial district and includes a number of large parcels. “The G Street area is proximate to the Amtrak station, a major community transportation asset. Staff feels that greater intensity and density should be allocated in the downtown plan near the station to promote transit-oriented development.”

Staff adds: “The G Street area offers some of the greatest potential for redevelopment given that several parcels include lower intensity buildings that have depreciated over time, larger parking lot fields, and several of the parcels are larger and/or under single ownership.

“The G Street area is envisioned to be a mixed-use flex district within the Draft Downtown Plan.”

From my standpoint, I am reluctant to go further out onto the periphery and believe that building mixed use in the downtown not only helps to fill our housing needs, but also helps with economic development and the overall downtown economy.

But to do so, we have to be willing to go up – densify, and I think there will be a lot of reluctance to do that.

Can we build buildings in the downtown with street level retail or restaurants, second level office or flex space, and third to potentially sixth level residential?

We’ll see.  It seems like the compromise here might be to contain that development within the site, with a transition area limited to three stories.  We shall see.

—David M. Greenwald reporting 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. Ron Oertel

    Strange, how most downtowns were once viewed as places of business.  One only has to look at most cities, to see high-rise/multi-story office buildings filled with commercial activity – not residences.

    I guess that type of development is now “out-of-style”, in some quarters. While simultaneously claiming that there’s a “shortage” of commercial space.

      1. Ron Oertel

        The city absolutely loses opportunities for more commercial space, as a result of dedicating much of the new space for residential usage. It’s called “opportunity cost”.

        There’s no way to determine if your “targeted population” will actually occupy such residential space.  Could be seniors, could be those who work in Sacramento, etc. (I question your characterization of the “emerging tech industry”, as well. Let’s see it “emerge” downtown, then.)

        For sure, it would be those with money, as it’s probably the most expensive place to build residences.

        1. David Greenwald

          They don’t with this – ground floor remains commercial, as does the second floor with office and flex space.  You only start putting residential on the third floor.  Most of these buildings don’t have a third floor.

          There is no targeted population, you put supply out there that fits a given need for workforce housing.

        2. Ron Oertel

          Again, those upper floors are normally dedicated for commercial usage, in most cities.  If they’re dedicated for residential usage instead, there is a “loss” of potential commercial space.

          Regarding “targeted populations”, you’re the one who stated the following:

          “However, the need for housing for people who currently work in Davis, but live elsewhere, remains high.  Among those are young workers who seek employment in Davis’ emerging tech industry.”

          There’s probably a greater “need” (defined as “market demand”) from seniors and those who work at in Sacramento, to occupy such expensive space. Perhaps some UCD professors, as well.

        3. David Greenwald

          “Again, those upper floors are normally dedicated for commercial usage, in most cities. ”

          Right now those upper floor don’t exist.  So you’re not taking away existing commercial space.

        4. Ron Oertel

          The subject of the article refers to allowing changes to downtown.  Perhaps the change could be allowing commercial buildings of a larger size.

        5. Ron Oertel

          Also, if expensive residences are allowed, I look forward to the time when there’s inevitable conflicts between residential and commercial activities/neighbors.  (And, I suspect that the “loser” will generally be the commercial activity.)

          As a side note, it’s fortunate that there’s no congestion/parking problems downtown already. Or, extended periods of construction that disrupts traffic and business. (Oh, wait!) 😉

        6. Ron Glick

          Actually in downtown Davis we have lost much housing to commercial uses. Look at how many businesses are in old houses in and around downtown.

        7. Ron Oertel

          There have been some older, single-family houses that were converted to commercial usage as the area changed and grew over the years.  No one would build a single-family house downtown, these days.

          Regardless, there certainly is an opportunity cost to adding residential, vs. commercial space downtown.  And, a whole host of other ramifications of doing so.

          Mostly, I just wanted to point this out for those who (no doubt) will soon repeatedly continue to claim that there’s a lack of commercial space. (Depends upon the day, regarding which “crisis” will be reported upon. And, which resulting “crisis” from following the recommended course of action will be downplayed.) 😉

        8. Craig Ross

          “Mostly, I just wanted to point this out for those who (no doubt) will soon repeatedly continue to claim that there’s a lack of commercial space. ”

          Once again, you’re misstating facts.  There is a lack of vacant commercially zoned space in the city.  There is an even greater lack of vacant commercially zoned space that can become the type of commercial development people are talking about.  The downtown does not fit that category.  The downtown is looking at expanding commercial space while at the same time, adding housing above to make better use of land.  You’re either not understanding this stuff or intentionally prevaricating.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Your 8:59 post is patently untrue… from colonial times, forward, mixed use was the norm in downtowns… shopkeepers lived above their business… historically, look at any major City… it’s history…

      1. Ron Oertel

        “shopkeepers lived above their business… historically, look at any major City”

        Indeed – look at them.  They’re primarily full of office buildings, downtown.  A prime example is on the other side of the causeway.  Another example is 100 miles west of here (San Francisco).

        There are no “shopkeepers” living in high-rise office buildings.

        Seems like you oppose everything I say, even when it’s obvious to anyone with eyes.

      1. Ron Oertel

        Davis could allow more dense commercial development, if it chose to do so.  Are there no mid-sized commercial buildings in existence in the United States? (Perhaps even within Davis and/or the region?)

        I’m pretty sure that we know what developers prefer to build (residential, not commercial). But that doesn’t mean that their preferences must be accommodated.

        I’ll try to remind everyone of the efforts to residentialize the downtown area, if/when there’s a peripheral development proposal. (Which will likely include housing, as well.)

        1. Ron Oertel

          By the way, one of the suggestions that was made at a council meeting (in reference to the city’s examination of existing commercial space) was that “under-utilized” space be examined.

          It wasn’t my suggestion, but it was a good one. I guess we’ll see if the city does this, before launching into a full-scale assault regarding support for a peripheral development.

          Perhaps those behind MRIC are getting “cold feet”, as it was previously-reported on here that a proposal was imminent.

          Perhaps we’ll get a much-appreciated break regarding this, for awhile.

  2. Matt Williams

    Whoa David.  The DPAC did not finalize its recommendations last Thursday.

    The next DPAC meeting is June 22nd , with plenty of further topics to be discussed … the Central Park area, the balance and flow between east (the Amtrak Station) and west (Central Park and the UCD Campus Gateway), Fiscal Feasibility, Sustainability, Affordable Housing, Parking, and Transportation were all topics that were supposed to be discussed last Thursday, but were deferred until June 22nd.

    Responding to DPAC’s formal request earlier this year (or was it late last year?) a Fiscal Feasibility presentation by Matt Kowta of Bay Area Economics (bae) to a joint meeting of the Planning Commission and the Finance and Budget Commission (FBC) has been scheduled for Wednesday, May 22nd in Council Chambers.  After Matt makes his presentation, focusing on the assumptions he used in the ten (10) scenarios he included in the April 2018 DPAC Fiscal Feasibility Analysis (see, in which nine of the ten scenarios were “Not Feasible.” (Table 14 on page 38 of that analysis report provided below)
    The Planning Commissioners, FBC Commissioners and DPAC Chair Meg Arnold will discuss those assumptions and other possible scenarios with Matt and City Staff after Matt’s presentation, and then prepare a report for delivery to DPAC for its consideration.

    So, lots of work to do yet.

      1. Matt Williams

        We can agree to disagree on that David, but your statement above appears to clarify your intent, even if your article is unclear on that score.

        What your article says is “Among their recommendations in general was support increasing intensity in the core, but not in transition areas or along the periphery of the core.” That statement is factually inaccurate.

    1. Robert Canning

      I don’t think David said they finalized anything.  The word he used was “supported”. And they “passed a motion” to clarify the number of stories in some areas.

      1. Matt Williams

        That is correct Robert, and recommendation 1, which DPAC passed, increased the number of stories. Recommendation 3, which DPAC passed, increased the number of stories. Recommendation 4, which DPAC passed, left the number of stories unchanged. Recommendation 7, which DPAC passed, increased the number of stories.

        The John Meyer recommendation to create the Transition Form-Based Zone between the Old East Davis neighborhood and the north-south railroad tracks did reduce the Maximum Stories from 4 to 3.   As John said in his recommendation it was time to offer an olive branch compromise to the OEDNA and deal with that half-block wide, two-blocks tall area as separate from the rest of the Downtown planning area.

  3. Alan Miller

    Among their recommendations in general was support increasing intensity in the core, but not in transition areas or along the periphery of the core.

    Increasing transition areas from where they are today to three stories is a massive increase of ‘intensity’, to use your word, for those properties.

    1. David Greenwald

      You have to know that was going to happen given that the previous plan was talking about two to three stories in the downtown. That’s just outdated.

    2. Matt Williams

      Alan, the suggestion by John Meyer to make the half block wide transition area to the east of the railroad tracks between Downtown and Old East Davis a designation of its own with a Maximum height of three stories is consistent with the current M-U zoning of that transition area.  The Old East Davis Neighborhood already has three story residences within its boundaries, so the three story Maximun height is not a massive increase in “intensity” by itself.  John also suggested that it was imperative to establish design guidelines in addition to height that specifically avoided an unbroken “visual wall” through the use of setbacks, etc.  Three stories is consistent with the majority (but not all, because that document is internally inconsistent, and even self-contradicting) of the controlling language in the existing Davis Downtown and Traditional Residential Neighborhoods Design Guidelines.

      John’s suggestions were memorialized into a motion and passed by DPAC.


      1. Alan Miller

        Yes MW, I know.  I was sitting right behind you.

        You seem to think my statement is against this.  Three stories, as adopted, is appropriate for the transition zone.

        My beef was DG’s statement that going to three stories was not an “increase in intensity”, whatever intensity is.  Assuming he means density, it is a great increase compared to what is there now.

        I fully support what John Meyer proposed and what was adopted by the DPAC, regarding the transition zones.

  4. Bill Marshall

    Noting that Rice Ln and University Ave are both the homes of the ‘sources’ of the ‘progressive’ element in town, and also seem to be the most ‘preservationists’ (irony? inconsistency?) in town… same can be said of many in “Old East” and “Old North”…

    The most beneficial places to densify (‘progressives’ don’t want “sprawl”), are abutting UCD… A St., B St., Rice Lane, University Ave, “Old East”, “Old North”, and most property on Russell…

    State College, PA started dealing with this issue in the mid-60’s… we’re 50+ years behind that curve…

    Hypocrisy runs rampant… led by folk who have either ‘got in early’ and want to maintain their advantage (and wish to exclude others), or “newbies” who want to pull up the drawbridge after they crossed “the moat” (and wish to exclude others)…

    We’re seeing the ‘power’ of past CC members, and other “progressives” in play with the ‘limits’ being set against logical planning… they want ‘theirs’ (and then some?), expect a solution to any issues (particularly City revenue streams), and no “growth” (adds to inconvenience).

    When my grandfather passed, his house, across the street from Penn State (think Russell Blvd… almost exactly the same), was “re-purposed”… torn down, and along with adjacent properties, made into student-oriented apartments [mid 1960’s]

    Rice Lane, University Ave, Downtown, Old East, Old North, Russell Blvd corridor, should remain “in play” for redevelopment… unless we cater to the “progressive”/preservationist/NIMBY’s… which will probably happen…


    1. Alan Miller

      WM, your statements on this are not only offensive, but incorrect.

      Old East is already one of the densest neighborhoods in town, with multiple apartment complexes.  The Design Guidelines do not stop redevelopment, they clarify how and where it will occur.

      Redevelopment and infill are important.  So is historic and neighborhood preservation and character, even if you and others don’t think so.  The Design Guidelines strike a balance.  There is big difference between guiding growth and scraping the neighborhood for the advantage of greed.

      As you know, the neighborhood supports a reasonable transition zone along the tracks, similar to that adopted last week by DPAC, and has supported many infill projects and worked with several developers.

      I personally worked with the developers of Lincoln40, a five-story project that, while not in Old East is only 150′ away. This project will be visible from six of my windows, and the main view out half of those windows, and will be just 150′ from my residence.  This project is considered one of the top relievers of the student housing shortage, will be one of the largest buildings in Davis, and we and I did not oppose it.  I would hardly call that a no-growth or anti-development stance.

    2. Mark West

      “The most beneficial places to densify (‘progressives’ don’t want “sprawl”), are abutting UCD… A St., B St., Rice Lane, University Ave, “Old East”, “Old North”, and most property on Russell…”

      As was specified in the 1961 CASP.


      “State College, PA started dealing with this issue in the mid-60’s… we’re 50+ years behind that curve…”

      We were ahead of State College by a few years in terms of planning, we just failed to implement…

  5. Mark West

    It is as if the people involved in this process (CM, Staff, DPAC) don’t remember that the City has a multi-million dollar annual deficit and hundreds of millions in unfunded obligations. The financial analysis is now more than a year old and clearly indicates that redevelopment projects don’t become financially feasible until you reach a minimum of four stories, yet we are still discussing implementing limits of three stories or fewer for most of the core area. The financial analysis should have been the first step in this process, and that analysis should have been used to specify the minimum level for redevelopment limits, which means that a three-story or lower limit should have been completely precluded from consideration.

    All the current recommendations will do is enshrine the protection of the status quo and throw away the City’s most immediate means of addressing our fiscal shortfall.  What a waste of time and resources.

      1. Ron Oertel

        I would consider these people to be working for a technology company, even if they’re referred to as “contractors” (e.g., to avoid full compensation).

        This strike seems to be timed with the IPO that’s going to make a select few even richer, at the top.

        Some things never change (but are further enabled by technology).

        1. Craig Ross

          I don’t think most young people would consider Uber to be high tech.  High tech is like coding or manufacturing.  Uber is simply a delivery method that disrupted an existing industry (Taxis).

        2. Ron Oertel

          “Disruption” means that folks lost jobs as a result of technology.  To be replaced by “contractors” – at least for now. (Many of these folks seem pretty “young”, by the way.)

          “Like so many California families, Karim Bayumi of Anaheim, his wife and two young children are doing everything they can to scrape by.”

          “Bayumi drives for a large rideshare company as his primary source of income. On March 11, Bayumi’s rate was cut from 80 cents a mile to 60 cents a mile, just barely above the government mileage reimbursement rate. No warning. No explanation. In an instant, a chunk of his income just disappeared.”

        3. Craig Ross

          Disruption: “a process whereby a smaller company with fewer resources is able to successfully challenge established incumbent businesses”

  6. Jim Frame

    No one would build a single-family house downtown, these days.

    Randy and Lynn Yackzan did, just a couple of years ago.  D Street between Third and Fourth.

    1. Ron Oertel

      Thanks, Jim.  That is interesting.

      How about if we just say that new single-family dwellings are probably an endangered species, downtown.  And, where they do exist, ADU’s are being added – as in your example below.

      Probably not very many families moving into downtown anymore.  To be honest, I don’t think anything will stop the minidorm phenomenon. Certainly the properties are becoming more valuable, though. (Perhaps little consolation for those trying to maintain a traditional home, there.)

      1. David Greenwald

        What will stop the minidorm phenomenon is having sufficient student housing – until them there is an economic incentive for people to do it.

        1. Ron Oertel

          Having “sufficient” housing won’t change this situation.  Students will still pursue minidorms based upon price, freedom, parking availability, etc.


        2. Craig Ross

          Most students would prefer to live in an apartment in a student oriented apartment complex that they can rent by the bed.  You might want to talk to actual students before making assertions like that.

        3. Ron Oertel

          Let me know when you can speak on behalf of all students.

          Mini-dorms essentially allow “renting by the bed”, as well. With less oversight/more freedom, parking, and perhaps most importantly – probably a lower price.

          We shall see what happens, when the megadorms open.

        4. Richard McCann

          “Let me know when you can speak on behalf of all students.”

          First, he’s not speaking on behalf of ALL students–so turn off your hyperbole.

          Second, it looks like you’re trying to speak on “behalf of all students.” Do you have any connection with UCD students at all? Living in crowded minidorms isn’t desirable for the younger people that I know–they want some connection with their house/dorm mates.

          But I agree the market will settle whether the new developments will pull enough demand out that the market rents fall for student housing and minidorms become family housing instead.

        5. Ron Oertel

          Richard:  “First, he’s not speaking on behalf of ALL students–so turn off your hyperbole.”

          Craig:  “I think I can speak for a lot of students – since I speak to a lot more than you.”

          Neither one of you have any idea how many students I speak to.  There are recent students in my own family.  I was a student, not so long ago.

          Regarding representing the views of students, I recall quite a controversy between students, regarding this issue:

          “The Ethnic and Cultural Affairs Commission deleted its post after ASUCD student body president Michael Gofman condemned it Friday night on Facebook. Gofman described the ECAC’s post as “disgusting” and urged the commission to take it down and issue an apology.”

          Richard: Living in crowded minidorms isn’t desirable for the younger people that I know–they want some connection with their house/dorm mates.

          Hence the reason that some of us were advocating for more housing on campus (which can be reserved for students). Any market-rate housing built downtown is likely to be too expensive for students.

        6. Ron Oertel

          Richard: “Living in crowded minidorms isn’t desirable for the younger people that I know–they want some connection with their house/dorm mates.”

          Living in mini-dorms likely ENCOURAGES connections between house/dorm mates – more than any other living situation.  In fact, groups of friends can rent a house, together.

          Let me know when either one of you puts forth a LOGICAL argument – let alone trying to speak on behalf of students. Neither one of you are serving your development activisms very well, at this point.

        7. Craig Ross

          I view it the opposite.  Moving into a house that was build for four or five and is holding twice that is a great way to lose friends.  You get no privacy, no personal space, there are fights and arguments over noise and possessions and bills and food.  It’s a horrible situation to live in.

        8. Ron Oertel

          Minidorms and megadorms provide essentially the same living situation (renting a room).

          One of the reasons that I don’t believe you speak for all students is because most of them are probably too busy STUDYING to comment on here regularly (or WORKING full-time, after graduation).  I sincerely hope that you didn’t study something which doesn’t lead to a good career.

          Most of the commenters on here are likely past their prime working years.

        9. Craig Ross

          They don’t.  First of all, an apartment is specifically designed to go two to a room.

          Second, my buddy lived in a house with 12 people, he shared a living room – each had a mattress and sheet separated the room between the two.

        10. Ron Oertel

          Not sure, but I believe are laws regarding the number of occupants – based upon number of bedrooms.

          Regardless, your example is a reason that mini-dorms will remain less-expensive (for those willing to put up with such situations), than megadorms (which I assume will enforce occupancy limits).

  7. Jim Frame

    The most beneficial places to densify (‘progressives’ don’t want “sprawl”), are abutting UCD… A St., B St., Rice Lane, University Ave, “Old East”, “Old North”, and most property on Russell…

    A Street and Miller Drive are actively densifying, mostly via room additions and ADUs.  I hopeful that the additional bedrooms can coexist with the owner-occupied places (like mine), though I’d like to see the city limit the number of preferential-zone parking permits to encourage some car-free residents.

    We currently have 4 students in the 3/2 house next door, with a 2-bedroom ADU under construction.  The guys who are there now are fine — one of them is the owner’s son (his name is actually on the deed so they benefit from owner-occupied status), but when he graduates and we have 5 bedrooms with no owner occupant next door, I’m a little concerned about the result.

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