Neither the public nor the Planning Commission liked the University Commons Redevelopment proposal, as the commission unanimously supported a motion to reject all five staff recommendations.
George Phillips, toward the end of the meeting, urged the commission to take action on the project, “understanding that we may have homework to do.”
It was a clean sweep against the project, as 20 of 22 public commenters were opposed to the project on a night when the students—with one or two exceptions—did not show up.
As Commissioner Darryl Rutherford put it, “It’s not a project for the city of Davis as much as it is (for) the students.” He complained that the project team failed to do outreach or listen to neighbors or the community as a whole.
The proposal called for the demolition of the majority of the existing University Mall building for redevelopment as a dense, mixed-use project.
The project includes 264 new multi-family residential units and around 136,000 square feet of retail space—about 50 percent larger than the existing commercial footprint. This does not include the separate 13,000-foot Trader Joe’s building which will remain untouched.
There would also be a three-level parking structure that contains 533 parking spaces and which would be situated on the west portion of the site, with an additional 160 surface parking spaces.
Among the complaints were size, massing, the fact that it is another student-oriented proposal, and traffic impacts.
“This is a large and complex proposal,” Commissioner Emily Shandy said. “I tend to share the community’s concerns that have been voiced about the need for student-oriented housing of this nature and complex of this size that is rented by the bed at this point.”
“We’re being asked to do a lot as a community to accept a project that in my mind hasn’t really given back much to us as a community overall,” Darryl Rutherford said. “I’m a little disappointed in what we’re seeing here. This is another student-oriented project which we have said for several months now… that we really don’t want to see more student-oriented type projects. We’d like to see a mix.”
He suggested something more like traditional housing that could actually house families and workers.
Consultants pointed out in response to questions from David Robertson that the project is projected to generate about $650,000 per year in sales tax. And Ashley Feeney estimated about $250,000 in property taxes.
Commissioner Robertson, though, was concerned with some of the mitigations to the impacts.
“I need to be sure that the mitigations are going to occur,” Robertson said. “If they’re not going to occur, then they’re not mitigations.”
He added, “I’m not anxious to approve another student housing project.”
In the wake of a determination that the project would pay $600,000 into the affordable housing in lieu fees, that calculates to $125,000 per year for five years.
Darryl Rutherford said, “I’m appalled by the development agreement… We are giving away so much… and we’re getting a bunch of student-oriented housing out of it, that doesn’t necessarily benefit all of the community of Davis, the long term residents.
“I think this $600,000 is a slap in the face,” he added.
Stephen Mikesell said, “I look on the university mall as a gem—a retail gem in the city of Davis. It hurts me to think that that retail, which serves all the community, would be damaged in any way by this redevelopment.”
He added, “If I thought that this was going to become predominantly an office complex or a fitness center complex, which we would lose this retail, which is a great value to the citizens… then I would hate to see that go away.”
Emily Shandy said, “This isn’t an inappropriate site for redevelopment that is mixed-use that includes some housing, but this specific proposal may not be the most appropriate.”
Greg Rowe really unloaded on the project and UC Davis.
“I think what we’re hearing is a lot of angst from the citizens of Davis about the absolute total refusal of UCD historically to meet the housing goals that they’ve set in their own planning documents,” he began. “As a result there’s a spillover of thousands of students into the community that compete for scarce housing.”
He told George Phillips, “I think your client has been completely tone-deaf in this” emphasis on student housing, in the face of Planning Commission, Community and Council beliefs that there have been a lot of projects oriented toward student housing in the last few years.
“From a housing perspective, I think this is probably the most ill-conceived project imaginable,” he said. “Trying to put 900 students in that kind of space.”
On the affordable issue, he said he appreciated the difficulties of vertical mixed use, but argued, “Brixmor is getting away scot-free.
“This is the type of thing that Davis has experienced over and over again from developers—hide the ball, bait and switch, tell us one thing now, come back with something different later,” he said.
Rowe noted that currently 91 percent of all rental units in Davis are three bedrooms or less. “Yet this project is proposing 66 units, 25 percent of the project total, for four or five bedrooms. That’s only appealable to one demographic—students trying to share a lot of bedrooms, trying to save money.”
He added, “I think it’s ironic that they’re proposing seven stories when UC Davis absolutely categorically refuses to build housing of that height on their campus—why should the community sustain that if UC Davis won’t do the same?
“It seems like we’re bending over backwards to meet UCD’s deficiencies in building housing,” he said.
George Phillips, representing the applicants, did respond to some of these points.
He noted that Brixmor has owned the site for approximately 15 years.
“They recognize the need to revitalize the site to make it and keep it that gem that Commissioner Mikesell mentioned,” he said. “That is the whole goal here.”
To accomplish that, though, he said, “requires the residential component frankly, because without the residential component, the revitalization of the commercial is extremely difficult if not impossible with today’s economics.”
He pointed out that, from the standpoint of scale, “the commissioners know that Davis Live was approved three doors down and is seven stories—so there’s precedent.”
He said, “It’s of that scale.”
The public and some of the commissioners had traffic concerns, but George Phillips pointed out, “It’s not supported by the traffic analysis.”
Existing conditions, plus project, according to the traffic analysis, shows “there are no significant impacts to surrounding intersections,” George Phillips argued. “The traffic issues are not as serious as the concerns raised.”
He added, on the VMT, that “there is no better demonstration that this site is being developed appropriately at the intensity it’s being developed, other than by the VMT numbers.”
Phillips also noted that the vertical mixed-use exemption was there for a reason and the reason is the challenge of the economics.
The commission voted to oppose all five of the staff recommendations. The applicant has a choice at this point—to move forward in June to the City Council or take the advice of the commission and go back to the drawing board and revise it.
—David M. Greenwald reporting