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.
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