Polling shows that the top issue for Davis is the affordability of housing. The year 2020 figures to be an interesting year for housing issues. We will have the University Commons project coming forward with about 800 or so beds. We will have ARC (Aggie Research Campus) coming forward with 850 units of housing in addition to the 2.6 million square feet of commercial.
We will also have some interesting discussions, long term. We have the renewal of Measure R. We have the approval of the Downtown Plan. And the start perhaps of an update to the General Plan.
I keep pointing out that we have not had a discussion on the renewal of Measure R. In a podcast in November, Mayor Brett Lee basically said he would support a straight renewal of Measure R. I have heard a very small contingent of people who would like to see it go away.
One point that I don’t think enough people have given heed to – it’s not clear where Davis would grow housing even if it could.
I pointed this out in the a piece at the end of September, that because of various conservation easements and other boundaries, Davis is actually very limited in where it can grow in the long term.
To the south, Davis is largely bounded by the county line which functionally prevents the city from growing much further to the south. As we move west, we get UC Davis-owned lands immediately to the south.
Immediately to the west of town there are conservation easements preventing Davis from growing directly west.
To the immediate east, between conservation easements and other barriers, Davis is probably not going to be able to grow directly east.
That largely leaves the Covell Corridor as potential areas for growth. You have the remainder of the Northwest Quadrant to the northwest of the city.
There is a little area between the northern boundary of the city and conservation easements. There is the area that used to be known as Covell Village. And then to the east, you have Signature, Shriner, and Wild Horse Ranch as potential spots for immediate development.
Finally there is the Aggie Research Center proposed property that right now has the 850 units as well as the commercial space. But immediately to the north and east of that is conservation easement.
Realistically, the days of rapid growth in Davis are over. Those worried that Davis will end up destroying the farmland surrounding it are probably off. Those worried that Davis and Woodland will converge or merge have little to fear as well.
The challenge – as it has been for the last 20 years and figures to remain – is how does Davis responsibly grow in a sustainable way to prevent the city from pricing out the middle, specifically the middle class and people in the 30 to 50 age range?
On our podcast I posed the question to Mayor Brett Lee. I would consider Brett Lee a moderate on growth. He was willing to support projects like Nishi, but opposed to projects like Covell Village and the Cannery. He has taken a more skeptical view on some projects and supports a Measure R renewal as currently written.
One point that he made in our conversation is that the city has already approved around 4000 to 4500 beds in student housing. We have not seen the impact of those approvals.
His hope – as well as mine – is that by approving student apartments near campus, it will help to free up the single-family homes in the core of town that have transitioned away from families and toward mini-dorms.
In addition, the Downtown Plan provides for densification of the downtown core, which currently underutilizes land by placing on it single-story and in some cases two-story buildings, and looks to transform that land to perhaps as high as six stories – with several floors of residential above retail, office and flex space.
But while I have long been an advocate of this kind of transformative densification of the core, we have to face some reality – the cost of doing this is prohibitive. That means the process figures to be long and slow. Without the influx of capital – either private capital or redevelopment money – that figures to be a process that we probably won’t see come to fruition in our lifetimes.
The thing that we have to also be concerned about is, as we go more dense, we move away from detached single-family homes, and we are probably also moving away from the realm of families with children.
I see this as a real dilemma for Davis into the future. On the one hand, most people, myself included, would like to see Davis maintain its small town flavor and its urban-farmland interface. On the other hand, the current policies are moving us toward a much more expensive and exclusive community, which is likely to remove the vital force of young families with children and thus eat away at our prized schools.
I suppose this can be a discussion for the General Plan as the community and planners come together to discuss the future – but maintaining that balance has always been a precarious tightrope act, and now the margin for future growth is becoming more and more thin.
—David M. Greenwald reporting