Sunday Commentary: Process and the Need to Solve Vexing Problems in Davis

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If the facts are on our your side – debate the facts.  If the law is on your side – debate the law.  If neither is on your side – pound on the process.  That’s the rule of thumb in Davis but one thing I’ve learned – critics don’t usually win on process, they win on the merits.

The community has a lot of real challenges right now and, like everyone else, the Davis City Council is struggling to find the sweet spot between change and preservation.  And sometimes they don’t get it right.

The issue of Mace is one of those times.  Here’s the thing – had conditions on Mace Boulevard stayed as they were in 2013, we would not be having this discussion today.  A huge part of the problem on Mace Blvd. has absolutely nothing to do with the redesign.  On the other hand, if we did not have the redesign, the traffic modeling shows that things would be marginally better on Mace.

A few minutes maybe.  A lot of people in their mind seem to conflate the two, but they forget how bad traffic was in January and February of 2017 – before any of the road redesign.

I think in the end Gloria Partida gets it right.  She explained that the alternative they selected “does save time, but it only saves two minutes.

“I went out there on a busy day and I drove both sides,” she explained.  She noted that the north side of Mace “is a mirror image of what it used to be.”  There are four lanes and free right turns.

“There was about a three-minute difference,” she said.  “I sat in traffic on both sides of that.”

She said, “Traffic is just as backed up… on the north side.”

That’s the problem.  The council ultimately decided to do the compromise – they go back to two lanes on Mace, they keep the bike path, and I wonder how much they’ll actually save in terms of time.

My own view is until and unless we fix I-80 – and I’m skeptical now about the Caltrans plan, as I explained yesterday – we are kind of re-arranging the chairs on the Titanic.

In the meantime, the city has had to deal with a number of second order issues – traffic on Mace, downtown parking, green waste pick up at various times, and the homeless respite center.

But that has left the core issues.

Housing is a big one.  As Assistant City Manager Ashley Feeney pointed out at an event on Monday, when the city polled on issues facing the city, the issue of housing affordability was the top issue by far.  And yet there we were on Tuesday with a proposal to do an environmental analysis on a project that could add 76 apartments that are 425 square feet – the type of small, affordable design housing we could really use in this community – and we get bogged down in debates over process.

Could the city have done better on some things?  Yes.  I think City Manager Mike Webb acknowledged that they should have uploaded the documents a lot sooner.  I think there is a legitimate complaint there, because people like me are always looking to see if there are new applications and we would have done a piece on this project a lot sooner.

But the consent issue, I can’t really get excited over.

I think there is a misunderstanding over how the process works and I think it was good for the council to clarify the extent to which the approval of doing environmental review is required versus discretionary.  There has been a sense from many that, if you don’t like a project, stop it before it goes to environmental review rather than go through this whole charade.

But they can’t.

Councilmember Will Arnold had questions about the rules for the city’s process.

“What choice does the city have here to move forward with environmental analysis?” the councilmember asked.  “If I was a project proponent and I wanted to for example take City Hall and turn it into a ten story casino and open air gun range on the roof, the city council would likely summarily deny the project and say we have no interest in it – is that generally correct?”

Mike Webb responded that summarily denying such a project would be within the council’s purview – in part because it’s city-owned property and the applicant would not have ownership stake in it.  The city as property owner must approve of the submittal of an application in the first place.

He explained though, “Generally speaking under California land use law when you have an application for land use entitlement proposed to the city, the city has an obligation to a certain level to review and undertake review of that proposal and bring it forward through a fair hearing process for consideration and analysis.”

He said, “The exception to that can be when there is a general plan amendment that is proposed – the city council is not obligated necessarily to undertake review of that proposal.”

Councilmember Arnold said, “There are fairly narrow circumstances in which we can choose not to move forward with environmental analysis on a project proposal.”

He added, “And this is not one of those circumstances.”

City Attorney Inder Khalsa noted that when a private property owner comes forward “they actually have a state law right to apply to develop their property.”  That doesn’t mean that the city is obligated to approve their project but they do “have a right to file an application and as part of that application we do have to undertake environmental review under state law.”

Will Arnold said, “So this begins analysis of the project – it doesn’t necessarily move project approval forward.”  He said that “we are compelled to do it by law, it costs us nothing because the developer – (it) is part of their fees.”

He said, “Has an item like this ever not been on consent?”

Mike Webb said, not in terms of authorization for environmental analysis.

“That fits my definition of routine,” said Will Arnold.  “This is a routine action that we are compelled to do, but compels us to do nothing.”  He concluded, “I disagree with the assertion that this does not belong on the consent calendar.”

Clearly there are debates on the merits of this project – whether you can have workforce housing that restricts car ownerships/usage, whether creating 425 square foot units is going to make them more affordable, etc.

Let’s have that debate.  I’m a little tired of the process complaints.  If an item is on consent – have it pulled if you want it discussed.  The city is now on notice that it needs to be as transparent as possible or they will get hammered.

But at the end of the day, we still have a low vacancy rate and increasing housing prices that are first order issues which need to be addressed.  That should be our focus.  Everything else is getting lost in the weeds.

—David M. Greenwald 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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18 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: Process and the Need to Solve Vexing Problems in Davis”

  1. Rik Keller

    The Vanguard states in its guiding principles that “The Vanguard believes that in order for citizens to monitor their government, they must know what their government is doing,” but then in this article complains that “I’m a little tired of the process complaints” that involve transparency and openness 

    Let’s talk about process:

    1) Will Arnold taking about the ARC EIR on 10/8 as described in the Vanguard: “He said as soon as the city got the information they put it out there.  “If that’s not transparency, if that’s not us doing our due diligence I don’t know what is.”

    Compare this to the City sitting on the Olive Dr. project application for months  and not posting materials until the Friday afternoon before a Council meeting Tuesday. While this would seem to violate his own definition of transparency and due diligence, Will Arnold then rudely compared the citizens who bring up this problem with the process to Flat Earthers. Terrible communication process from a City that made a big show of improving its communication.

    2) On the Mage Mesa, as described  in the Vanguard, Mayor Brett Lee stated “ Previously, when this came to council before, “we had no objective information.  We had no traffic studies.  We had no traffic models.  We got it wrong before.“We had this corridor that had much lower traffic volumes and in the past five years it has dramatically changed,” he pointed out.
    The City proceeded with a massive project without adequate process and without studies beforehand, and wasted tremendous amounts of $ and tim .. Citizens  should get up in front of Council and advocate for discussion and vetting before the Council approves “routine” things on the consent calendar like project studies without discussion. Just think about the better project outcomes that could be achieved and the money that could be saved!

    3) On the I-80 fixes, the Vanguard describes an “open house” where no presentation were made “While the format of the meeting was less than desirable, the solution they offer does not appear to address the major problem along this corridor.” The format itself did not allow the provision of sufficient information so that the Vanguard would not make unwarranted statements unsupported by data or evidence about what the “real problem” is. Terrible process leading to misleading discussion.

    Finally, no critics of the City’s flawed process and lack of transparency have been stating that environmental review shouldn’t be done in the first place. To devote the amount of sisvdctgst this article does to this canard and to uncritically repeat the strawman arguments by City officials and staff is disingenuous at best.

  2. Darell Dickey

    >> The issue of Mace is one of those times.  Here’s the thing – had conditions on Mace Boulevard stayed as they were in 2013, we would not be having this discussion today. <<

    And lost in almost every discussion re. Mace: Had conditions stayed the same on Mace, our Pioneer school kids would still be holding onto the shortest straw. After the redesign, at least our kids are now holding the next longer straw. And at some point we need to address the purpose of the redesign vs what we are constantly doing now: Timing how long it takes a vehicle to get from intersection to intersection during peak commute time as the main metric that informs the *next* redesign of the corridor.

    Yeah, I get that the traffic is bad for a few hours per week. It’s bad all over the city during the congested times on I-80. I think that we can make Mace marginally better for that all-important drive-time. But it needs to be much better for our kids to safely and comfortably get to school. It wasn’t done correctly the first time, and it doesn’t appear to be happening this second time. How do I say this delicately? Cycling on and across Mace sucked before the redesign. It sucks a bit less now. It needs to stop sucking. And those who are in charge are only talking about how to move the cars faster, in the face of massive congestion on I-80 and all of our other roads that feed it.

    Summary: We have folks complaining that when they drive their kids to school (!) there are sometimes too many cars on the road slowing them down. Then they’ll say something along the lines of: That just isn’t safe!

    1. Darell Dickey

      The process failure *before* the current design is obvious. The process failure for the next “fix” is that the wrong questions are being asked, and the wrong goal is being set.

      1. Rik Keller

        Darell: you rightly point to multiple facets of process failure and the importance of getting it right.

        Meanwhile Greenwald complains about complaints about process as if process isn’t crucial to getting projects right in the first place, and as if open and transparent government isn’t a key component to getting it right:  “If facts are on our your side – debate the facts.  If the law is on your side – debate the law.  If neither is on your side – pound on the process.”

    2. Bill Marshall

      Darell… consider adding to your summary, that many of those parents driving their kids to school do so because they are concerned about all the cars along the route!  The Pogo thing… then complain about the delay as well as the safety…

      Your other points are well taken, as well…

  3. Rik Keller

    If the Vanguard wants to have an honest discussion about complaints about process, it should accurately represent what people are saying. In this article, we get direct quotes from people responding to the complaints, and we get the Vanguard’s own editorializing, but no direct or accurate citations of the complaints themselves.

    Here is one:

    The Council knows very well how the Consent Calendar works, but for those who don’t: Consent items are meant to be for things that are uncontroversial. Unless the item is pulled, Consent items do not have a staff presentation, do not have a separate time for public comments, and do not have discussion or questions from the Council. This is what makes them different from regular Agenda items.

     
    Here’s another way to put the point: regular Agenda items are heard about and discussed during a council meeting, watched by many in person and at home. Consent items are words in a document on a website that are often not read and may or may not be reported on by the local media. Thus, they receive much less attention and exposure.
     
    That is the sense in which big items are – yes – smuggled onto the Consent Calendar. Putting things on Consent meets the technical and legal definition of “communication,” but it doesn’t come close to meeting the expanded communication that the City said it was committing to back in September. It doesn’t inform and engage the community.
     

     
    The City’s position seems to be that if they are not actually approving a project, but just putting something in motion, like an environmental review, then it doesn’t need to be a regular agenda item and it’s fine to have it on Consent.
    But what about when it’s a new project that no one has heard about? Or a project with vague details? That was the case with the revised proposal for a 200 acre business park outside of Mace Curve, and that is the case with the Olive Drive proposal today.

    Note that—contrary to the misrepresentations of City staff and officials—there was  no suggestion that the environmental review not be done. What was asked for was presentation on the project to let citizens know it was moving forward, and for clarification on the vague parts.

    The fact that not all the documents were up on the website 72 hours before the meeting, as they are supposed to be by law, should be been enough on its own to make the item controversial.

    The City’s communication process has been woefully flawed, and—as it has it in the past—this is likely to lead to sub-optional project outcomes.

  4. Rik Keller

    The Vanguard is so predictable. In the discussion section of the 11/22 article on the Caltrans  “open house,” I stated:
    “Alan M.’s comment would apply equally to the “open house” format for the public ARC CEQA scoping meeting scheduled for Monday, December 2, with the added bonus of it being on an inconvenient day after an extended major holiday when they are likely to get the least turnout.  And this is a meeting that was only hastily added after citizens got in front of Council to complain about the process. Straight out of the ol’ playbook, indeed.

    The Vanguard should write about what a terrible process this is, but instead we’re likely to get an article complaining about anybody stating that it is a terrible process.”

    And two days later, we get exactly that.

  5. Rik Keller

    The article tries to insinuate that the facts are not on the side of those who have commented about the Olive Lane project, for example. However this is contrary to actual facts and contrary to the pattern of misinformation that the Vanguard has already produced about the project.

    First, the project documents were only posted on the Friday afternoon before the  Council meeting on Tuesday. There was hardly time to look at and comment about any facts about the project.

    Additionally, while this article quotes the City Manager saying the the project us “affordable by design,” a phrase that has been uncritically and eagerly echoed by the Vanguard repeatedly, there have been no figures released about the actual projected rents of the units. And, in this fact-feee environment, the Vanguard itself has made ludicrous guesses about rent levels that don’t pass the smell test.

    In the discussion about the Council meeting, the Vanguard has also neglected to mention the critical fact that the City Manager said it would be fine to have the item on the main agenda.

    Specifically, when asked by Lucas Frerichs if there was anything that prohibits the City from taking up “routine regular or non controversial” items “on the agenda instead of placing it on the consent calendar,” Webb stated, “As long as the discussion is kept to the analysis and the process being undertaken for the analysis, there is NOTHING TO PRECLUDE the City Council from saying let’s have this as a discussion item to walk through that in more detail for example, THAT WOULD BE PERFECTLY FINE.”

     

     

    1. Bill Marshall

       “As long as the discussion is kept to the analysis and the process being undertaken for the analysis, there is NOTHING TO PRECLUDE the City Council from saying let’s have this as a discussion item to walk through that in more detail for example, THAT WOULD BE PERFECTLY FINE.”

      Which is consistent with what I have posted several times… always available to pull items from the Consent Calendar… needing to put every item, or just the ones you feel strongly about on the regular agenda is a “process abuse”… if you really want to pursue this, run for CC… all you need to do, to pull a Consent Calendar item s to talk to a CC member or CM, and request it.   Simple.

      You have easy administrative remedies… use them, as you feel fit.  BUT, there is(are) a perfectly valid reason(s) for having a consent calendar… you do not need 3 day notice to have an item ‘pulled’… you can actually request it up to the moment the CC acts… simple.

      Seems like you just want things important to Rik on the exclusion list… I really do not care to support that… you have so any “remedies”…

       

       

      1. Bill Marshall

        Seems like you just want “things important to Rik” on the exclusion list…

        Revised… you can always ask to the item to be called up… no sympathy if you do not avail yourself of that… and, please recall there are “ministerial” actions, and “policy/legislative” actions… ministerial actions “require” approval, unless someone can credibly do a “is there any legitimate/credible reason to deny this… ?” thingy.

        Public Comment is free-form…

  6. Alan Miller

    had conditions on Mace Boulevard stayed as they were in 2013, we would not be having this discussion today.

    We’ be talking about the ugly concrete modern art part.

  7. Alan Miller

    I think in the end Gloria Partida gets it right.  She explained that the alternative they selected “does save time, but it only saves two minutes.

    “I went out there on a busy day and I drove both sides,” she explained.  She noted that the north side of Mace “is a mirror image of what it used to be.”  There are four lanes and free right turns.

    “There was about a three-minute difference,” she said.  “I sat in traffic on both sides of that.”

    She said, “Traffic is just as backed up… on the north side.”

    Glad you understood that.  Because I didn’t at the time, and reading it, I still don’t.

  8. Alan Miller

    at the end of the day, we still have a low vacancy rate and increasing housing prices that are first order issues which need to be addressed.  That should be our focus.  Everything else is getting lost in the weeds.

    This is a really weird article.  It’s like an “Olive Drive Project” sandwich with “Don’t Criticize Process” bread.  WTF?

    And that end part.  That’s the problem with so many so focused on housing.  I don’t agree with the “never builds”, but you “build anythings” are so blind.  Other stuff matters, and if you forget that, well just stack-n-pack Davis and it will look like sh*t.  Congratulations:  In the 60’s it was “It Takes Paradise to Put Up a Parking Lot”, in Davis in the near 2020’s, the line should be:  “It Takes the People’s Republic of Davis to Put Up an Apartment Building WITHOUT a Parking Lot”.

    Twist-O-Matic,  Buzz Buddy!  Have we no name?

  9. David Grundler

    The issue of Mace is one of those times.  Here’s the thing – had conditions on Mace Boulevard stayed as they were in 2013, we would not be having this discussion today.  A huge part of the problem on Mace Blvd. has absolutely nothing to do with the redesign.  On the other hand, if we did not have the redesign, the traffic modeling shows that things would be marginally better on Mace.

    I keep seeing this exact argument come up time and again and is abjectly false.  Traffic did back up on occasion prior to the redesign. I have posts going back well before the redesign talking about how they need to heavily meter traffic entering the freeway by the fruit stand because that is what causes the traffic to slow on the freeway which causes more people to exit to bypass it, creating a feedback loop.

    When traffic did back up well south on Mace before the redesign, if you were going anywhere other than toward Sacramento, you could still get by as the freeway traffic would queue up in the right lane. Sure, there were the a-holes that would stay to the left until the last minute and cut in, but the left lane generally moved. Now, all traffic is held hostage to the Sacramento bound traffic because there is only one lane. That is a direct result of the redesign.  Without the redesign, things might be marginally better for people heading toward sac, but things would be significantly better for traffic not heading toward sac.

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