Monday Morning Thoughts: Is the Criticism of University Commons Warranted?

We got the first taste of what a debate on the University Commons is going to look like.  Too dense.  Wrong spot.  Should remain commercial.  Not enough parking.  Shouldn’t be student housing.

I want to look first at Eileen Samitz’ critique of the project.  She spoke on Wednesday night and also added her comments in a lengthy post on Nextdoor.  She called this “another Mega-Dorm,” which is an interesting tactic – given that each of the previous projects she so labeled were all approved by council.

With that said, she might gain more traction at this point.  Several on the planning commission, both at their joint meeting with council and last week, indicated that they were about done with student-oriented housing proposals.  The council gave the same indicators as well.

Their problem here is this is right across the street from the university.  What other housing are you really going to put there?  I do think some mix of student and workforce housing makes sense.  With that being said, I’m not sure that the design as proposed would preclude that anyway.

She makes three key points in her post on Nextdoor.

First, “The Russell and Anderson vicinity is already hugely impacted with traffic and this project would make it gridlock. U Mall now is difficult enough to find parking, yet the proposal wanted to add over 46,000 square feet of retail (the size of a Safeway grocery store) adding only 2 more parking spaces to support it!”

The project mostly is going to add students, not retail.  Students that figure not to have cars – given the lack of parking for residents.  With that said, I do think the applicants are going to need to do more to create retail parking and perhaps extend the parking garage for commercial purposes.  It is fixable, but it will take additional resources to fix it.

The next point is interesting: “This project proposal is too large and out of scale for that site, and would be luxury apartments with no affordable housing.”

The second point is absurd.  Trackside had (still has?) luxury apartments.  These aren’t luxury apartments.  They’ll be market rate.  They’ll be new.  But they are not luxury apartments.

The large and out-of-scale argument is curious.

What I find odd is here what Eileen Samitz said about the Davis Live Apartments project – also slated for seven stories and about two blocks away.

“The Oxford Circle Project is a project that seems to be a good project given its location for student-oriented housing.  It makes sense.”  She said, “Many of the students’ needs would be provided right immediately around it.”  She noted that there would be “very little traffic generated” by the project.

She argued that if you were going to go up with more density this was the location to do it.

So why is a location about two blocks away, with only dense student housing in between it, out of character for a neighborhood surrounded by student housing?

This is literally across the street from the university.

She says that “it encourages UCD to continue neglecting to build the needed student housing on its enormous 5,300-acre campus with a 900-acre core campus.”

But, as we know, the university did agree to build more housing on campus, much more than they originally planned – and, from my view, one of the reasons they agreed to go as high as they did is because the city was also doing its share.

Finally, she argues: “The U-Mall needs to redeveloped into an expanded and updated retail center which is the environmentally superior alternative in the EIR, not another mega-dorm, or possibly a dramatically scaled down mixed-use project if the parking and circulation can work. The City needs the sales tax and this site was intended for retail serving the entire community, not serving UCD’s student housing needs.”

The problem of brick and mortar has been well-documented.  Malls across the country are dying.  While there are experts who believe that such retail will never fully die, it will become transformed, and it is hard to square Ms. Samitz’s proposed solution with that reality.

Trader Joe’s has done well at this site.  World Market seems to, as well.  But, for the most part, this mall has (A) been heavily oriented to students and young people for a long time, and (B) been space that’s under-utilized.

So maybe the mall could have expanded to two stories of retail.  It would have to expand its parking to do that, and bring in some stores and businesses that would attract more people from across the community.

The other option is the larger trend we are seeing – mixed-use.  This is basically following a similar concept to what we are seeing with the Downtown Plan – build up, preserve the footprint, and add retail to bring more people in close proximity to the retail in hopes that more people living there means more foot traffic and thus more shopping.

I think it’s reasonable to ask if we have enough parking for the retail, and revise it to better support that retail.

My final point is I was a bit surprised to see the EIR find that the retail-only was the environmentally superior option.  If they are looking simply at the impact on the site itself and the immediate surrounding area, perhaps.

The problem is that putting in more student housing is going to take housing from other areas and put it closer to campus.  That means more students will be living within walking and biking distance of the university, which should reduce VMT.

The EIR modeling doesn’t seem to capture this offset very well – a problem we have seen with previous EIRs.  If mixed-use isn’t generating fewer car trips, then there is either something wrong with the mixed-use or something wrong with the model.  In this case, I would argue the latter is the problem.

Will the council approve another student housing site?  They might not.  But the council should recognize the under-utilized nature of this site and the benefit of more housing across the street from the university.

—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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  1. Richard McCann

    I’ve long thought this may be the most valuable real estate in Davis that is so badly under used. Unfortunately, they won’t be able to take out the Arco station, but they can reduce the expanse of parking that is a pedestrian barrier to UCD students. I’m not sure what project opponents want to replace what’s there, but they need to be clear in their alternative proposal.

    1. Ron Oertel

      An “alternative” already exists – and was deemed the environmentally-superior alternative.

      It also happens to be the original proposal (which – as usual, has now morphed into a student housing development).

      I’d still like to know how these students would be able to cross Russell, without creating major disruption to traffic.

      But perhaps an even bigger issue is the complete lack of Affordable housing (and RHNA requirements that the city must ultimately address).

  2. Eileen Samitz


     To begin with, it would be nice if you posted a more representative illustration of the project instead of displaying the overshadowed footprint of the project. So, I am emailing you a more representative illustration, so please post it since there is no option for me to post it here.

    First, you missed my point about the parking issue. The point I was making is that there is not enough parking being planned for the project. Consider the retail alone for instance, where currently it is difficult to find parking with the existing amount of retail. Yet, the proposal is adding 46,237 more sq. ft. of retail but only adding a 2 more parking spaces to support that large amount of retail space.  How is that supposed to work?

    Second, these are luxury apartments with a rooftop pool and recreation area (which, by the way, will likely resonate noise near and far). You conveniently do not mention that there is no affordable housing. So, this project provides no affordable housing which in turn does nothing to address the affordable housing RHNA requirements that the City has been assigned.

    Third, on the height of the buildings, the Davis Live project was only one building on a small parcel and the studies were done to assure that there were no shadowing or privacy issues, and it was designed accordingly. This “University Commons” project, in contrast, is the equivalent of nine or ten 7-story buildings lined up like a wall and even longer than the wall effect of Sterling apartments on 5th street as well as a few stories taller! What about the enormous shadow that this monolithic building will cast on nearby homes? I guess adding solar will not be an option for nearby houses no less the privacy issues expected since this U-Mall project is enormous horizontally, as well as vertically. So yes, it is far too big and out of scale.

    The issue here is that this project is absurd, particularly since the City has already approved almost 4,000 student beds in the City. UCD needs to step up by producing far more housing then they are talking about because they have plenty of free land, which is the most expensive cost in building new housing. On-campus student housing, also provides the added benefit of greatly reduced traffic, circulation, and other environmental impacts on the City.

    UCD is the largest UC with over 5,300 acres with a 900-acre campus and needs to provide the needed student housing it has grossly neglected to provide for years.

    U-Mall needs to be a commercial only updated retail center to serve the entire community with adequate parking. Davis had few retail sites left and this is one of the most important sites. The City needs the sales tax from merchandise selling stores, not more fast food and coffee houses which do not yield nearly the same sales tax as merchandise. Brick and mortar stores are having their difficulties but providing fewer of these stores in Davis is not the solution. Losing merchandise stores just forces everyone to drive to other cities increasing impacts environmentally and loses needed sales tax for the City.  I covered this in my article referenced on nextdoor posted on the Davisite to clarify all of this.

    Finally, as inconvenient as it is for you, the fact is that the retail-only and the scaled down mixed-use alternative are are both environmentally superior to the proposed monolithic U-Mall mega-dorm regarding air quality, traffic, circulation greenhouse gases and energy. The bottom line is the U-Mall proposal is a lose-lose not only for the City but environmentally due to its many impacts.

      1. Eileen Samitz

        Thank you Don for posting this illustration that gives everyone more of an idea of that this 7-story U-Mall “University Commons” proposal really looks like. To describe it as monolithic is an understatement.

    1. Todd Edelman

      Shadowing issues ARE very important: It’s clear that even in the current old-school plan the locations for the parking and buildings could be swapped, though it brings housing closer to the noisy street (it’s unclear if an over-pressured, sealed design will be part of the residential part of the proposal…). That would eliminate the shadow issue.

      The larger shadow – we’re talking Mordor-like shadow, my loves – is that the proposal is garbage, as I’ve been saying for a month. With buildings-for-people-living and buildings-for-people-working-or-shopping-etc. instead of the Climate-insulting and inhumane nonsense of ground-level parking lots in a community and state with a horrendous housing crisis, re-development here doesn’t need to go so high, at least at the north end of the property (with attention, taller building facades directly on Russell could absorb traffic noise.). A new design would allow all residences on the property to get at least some direct sun all year round.

      The current plan blocks some sun at this time of year to north of the property and gives residents with south-facing windows a view of the parking lot as all those vehicles reflect radiant energy into their windows.

    1. Rik Keller

      Ron G.; that’s a good read. And it does lay out the story of decades of low-density suburbanization and the shift of retail from dense core areas to sea-of-parking-lot big box stores.

      From a larger perspective, looking at recent development proposals: the ARC business/office park proposes more of that retrograde model: highway-oriented and vast parking lots so that it will draw a very large proportion of its employees as commuters from other areas in the region who will then spend much of the money they make elsewhere.

      But to get back to U-Mall: this is an huge opportunity to replace a retrograde strip mall-type configuration surrounded by parking with something more innovative. But instead, while it does add some incremental retail square footage to the existing configuration,  the proposal actually takes away commercial development capacity—simply redeveloping are area with commercial/retail at the max capacity allowed by existing zoning would yield more.

      And as Planning Commissioner Greg Rowe stated, it is really focused on student housing high-rises and is just masquerading as retail. Let’s keep in mind also, that student retail spending per capital is a small fraction of other households in the city. So to the extent that the city takes on UCD’s responsibility to provide student housing, it is losing out on the opportunity to add housing for households that generate higher revenue for the city. [Note: I think the city of Davis does have the responsibility to provide for a fair Shaw of student housing, but the scales need to tip back dramatically to UC Davis]

      If the project really densified the retail and also added office uses, the fiscal benefits to the City could be substantial. That’s a lost opportunity. Design-wise, the project also maintains a huge parking frontage on Russell, which seems like another lost opportunity to move forward and discard the old suburban strip mall typology.

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