Listening to Judge Samuel McAdam during oral arguments in April, it seemed like there was a chance, albeit remote, that he might change his opinion which invalidates the council’s 2017 approval of Trackside. That was not to be – and I think most unfortunately.
As it turns out, I come down in a very similar position as Mayor Brett Lee.
“Although I voted against the Trackside project, I believe the City Council does have discretion to decide as it did on this development issue,” said Davis Mayor Brett Lee. “I am surprised that the court felt otherwise.”
Like the mayor, I opposed Trackside in the fall of 2017. Like the mayor, I do not believe that Judge McAdam got this one right.
As the judge explained in his own ruling (see link): “The proper standard of review is abuse of discretion.”
He wrote, “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.”
“No reasonable person” is the standard. So that means four of the five Davis City Councilmembers were unreasonable in granting this (and even the fifth, Brett Lee, believes that the city had the discretion here). That means none of the city staff were reasonable. None of the dozens of community members who supported this project.
The problem I have with this decision is that it seems subjective. For Judge McAdam it comes down to size.
He wrote that “the failure here is that the mass and scale of the proposed project is not reasonable under the current law and factual circumstances.”
He adds, “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. Trackside would overwhelm the existing residential neighborhood. It would not respect the traditional scale and character of the neighborhood. The record lacks evidentiary support for the City’s decision.”
He pointed out: “Trackside is not consistent with the City of Davis planning provisions governing the transition between the Core Area to the Old East Davis neighborhood. Trackside is twice the size of the nearby Chen Building. It is significantly larger than the McCormick Building and the Roe Building. These smaller buildings are all in the Core Commercial Area, where densification shall occur first. Trackside is four times larger than the current on-site buildings. There are no buildings inside the Core on the Third Street Corridor remotely similar in size.”
My problem here is that the judge is basically deciding what is reasonable, and that in the end is a subjective view.
The city presents what I think is a compelling argument that basically this is a larger lot than usual and therefore, instead of mass and scale, we should be looking at floor area ratio (FAR).
Floor area ratio is the relationship between the total usable floor area and the size of the lot on which the building is located. A higher ratio means that the building is more dense. Higher buildings are going to have a higher ratio.
What the city is arguing here is that the FAR of Trackside is within the guidelines specified in planning documents and the only the reason that the mass and scale are larger than other buildings is that Trackside sits on a larger lot.
The FAR of the building is 1.59. The limits in the zoning are 1.5 – however, with density bonuses for having a plaza and underground parking, it could raise the limit up to as high as 2.0. Without the underground parking, it is at 1.7.
But Judge McAdam rejected that argument. He wrote that “the FAR like the designation of the site as an opportunity site does not change or satisfy the fundamental planning policy that the project’ must be a transition from the Core Commercial Area to the Old East Davis neighborhood.”
He adds, “All of the necessary zoning amendments for the project must be consistent with the fundamental policies set forth in the general plan and the CASP [Core Area Specific Plan].”
The city wants to go about appealing its decision. I get that impulse. But I think they should pause and think about how to move forward.
There were a lot of problems with this process that I think the city needs to re-think in light of this decision. Ultimately I opposed the project not because I thought a four-story building would be inappropriate for this location but rather because I thought the approval ahead of the Downtown Planning process was premature and the housing usage was non-essential.
The city is going through an elaborate planning process for the core that will ultimately result in a new Core Area Specific Plan. The current plan which puts heights in the downtown at two to three stories seems badly out of date.
The ultimate plan will reset the heights not only in the core but also in the transition area. If we think about it this way, if the bulk of buildings in the downtown area are still one to two stories, with a few at three and four, why are we approving a four-story building in the transition area?
However, if we are ultimately looking at the downtown having five- to six-story buildings, suddenly three to four stories makes some sense. That was my thinking in 2017.
Right now, it looks like the DPAC ( Downtown Plan Advisory Committee) is looking at three-story maximum heights in the edge transition areas next to existing neighborhoods.
Clearly that standard is not finalized yet – but, if that’s the case, why are we rushing to approve this project ahead of the DPAC making a determination and the council approving a new CASP?
This never made sense to me. We can make an argument that four stories here makes sense, but it’s harder to do so outside of the planning discussion.
As I have pointed out numerous times before, my other objection to Trackside is high-end luxury apartments do not seem to be our greatest and highest need. Ordinarily I would be disinclined to attempt to micro-manage what a private developer builds – but they have created a huge impact on a neighborhood, they planned poorly and proposed something originally greatly out of proportion with the rest of the downtown, and then backed off to something only marginally so.
This is not a neighborhood fighting against all proposals, as they indicated once again in their latest statement to the Vanguard.
As they said in their statement from President Rhonda Reed, “It was never the neighborhood’s intention to prevent redevelopment of this site. We support infill.”
At this point the city has a choice. They can continue to attempt to pound a square peg into a round hole, double down and appeal the decision – a decision that I agree was wrongly decided – or they can take a new tack.
In my view, they should approve the new downtown plan, invite a new planning proposal, and ask the developers and neighbors to come up with a plan they can both live with. If there is no path forward at this point, then do nothing.
What is emerging from the DPAC at this point does not support four stories at this location. So why are we trying to force a project of this sort that will not solve fundamental housing problems in the city? That has been my question from the start, and, with this court decision, it should be a question that we revisit before pouring more resources after failed policies.
—David M. Greenwald reporting