Planning Commission Rejects University Commons Proposal, Developer to Decide Next Steps


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

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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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45 thoughts on “Planning Commission Rejects University Commons Proposal, Developer to Decide Next Steps”

  1. Bill Marshall

    “Brixmor is getting away scott free.”

    Who is Scott?  The correct term is ‘scot free’… the dumbing down of American English…

      1. Bill Marshall

        Appreciate that, and acknowledge it was ‘not on your watch’… author is who I aimed it at… one of the reasons I retired early was being ‘responsible’ for cleaning up errors by others… it drains me.

        Cathy, you are not perfect, but you are ‘golden’ (maybe add some precious stones)… and, underappreciated… best to you and yours… be well, happy, and sane… thinking you are already doing the last…

        1. Keith Olsen

          one of the reasons I retired early was being ‘responsible’ for cleaning up errors by others… it drains me.

          It drains all of us too.

  2. Ron Oertel

    Well, that certainly got its booty-kicked.  More so than I would have imagined.

    And this, despite the Vanguard’s support for it.  (I didn’t see all of it, but I heard later that the developer “thanked” the Vanguard.)  😉

    But, this article does capture what occurred.

    From article:  “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.




  3. Jeff Boone

    See!  We don’t need Measure J/R.  We have plenty of anti-development muscle in the Planning Commission.  All the no-growers and NIMBYs should relax.

    1. Ron Oertel

      Though they didn’t like this particular proposal, I don’t have the same impression of the planning commissioners as you do.

      Not even close, actually.

      Nor do I assume that the site won’t ultimately be redeveloped.

  4. Keith Echols

    So what exactly is “student housing” for this project?

    I think in the past few days, I’ve made it completely clear that I want students on campus.

    But why not simply have the builder build professional grade market rate condos?  The kind that professionals can and want to live in. 1-3 bedroom 2 bath units with all the ameneties a profesional wants (work out area, pool…etc…..if that’ possible with this mixed use project.)

    If students can come up with the cash to live there…fine it’s they’re free to do so.  Let the market price out the students.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      Keep in mind, you literally have students across the street living in UCD housing. So the idea that you want students living on campus means being on the other side of Russell and you have a project that is surrounded by other predominantly student apartments.

      1. Keith Echols

        The line has to be drawn somewhere.  It seems the city of Davis doesn’t want to suppport student housing within it’s city limits.

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          I’m not sure how you arrive at that conclusion, the city has approved around 4000 students beds in the city limits. There are pockets of the community who oppose it, but those pockets have been out-voted by a good margin.

      2. Keith Echols

        “I’m a little disappointed in what we’re seeing here,” said Commissioner Rutherford.  “This is another student oriented project,” he said adding that planning commissioners have been saying for months that new housing proposals in Davis should focus on families and local workers” –Davis Enterprise

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          Same quote is in here: “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.”

        2. Keith Echols

          The question is what does he mean by “a mix”.  To me it sounds like he feels they’ve approved enough student housing and would like family housing….I guess to even out “the mix”?  Which to me means they’re not looking to approve any more student housing projects….at least not in the near future.

          I don’t know what “the mix” is in context.  Was he simply referring to the mix of residential and commercial units available?  In which case “the mix” doesn’t have anything to do with student housing in particular and his earlier words stand on their own.

          Do you have anymore info that provides more context or background to the planning commissions’ intentions in this regard?

  5. Richard McCann

    Our most affordable housing for middle income housing in Davis is sitting in the many duplexes that are currently occupied by student tenants. The most cost efficient way to create more middle income housing in Davis is to build student apartments that gets students out of those duplexes. Putting those apartments next to campus is the surest way to attract those students.

    UCD looks like it will build substantial housing on campus, but regardless, the university is both a relatively poor and expensive landlord. The university is an educational institution, not a housing agency. Plus, as part of students’ education, they must learn how to live in a community as adults with adult responsibilities, not baby sitting. That means that the city must host a substantial portion of student housing. It’s part of our responsibility as a college community. We get both benefits and responsibilities.

    1. Keith Echols

      I continue to not understand why people believe the city of Davis owes it to UCD to house it’s students.  Life learning is not an official part of curriculum and should not be the burden of the city of Davis.  UCD and the city of Davis are separate entities.

      1. David Greenwald Post author

        “I continue to not understand why people believe the city of Davis owes it to UCD to house it’s students. ”

        UC Davis hires a good percentage of Davis residents. UCD fuels the local economy. Not sure why providing housing is seen as some sort of burden. Have you considered that if you don’t like students, maybe you shouldn’t live in a college town?

        1. Ron Oertel

          Have you considered that if you don’t like students, maybe you shouldn’t live in a college town?

          This is actually a form of online bullying, of the type that occurs too often on here.

          Nothing in Keith E.’s 3:47 p.m. comment (above) should generate this type of comment, in response.

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            You’ve missed the last few days of discussion apparently when he called students a pestilence and has doubled down on the view. There is nothing bullying here, he’s made it clear over the course of a few dozen posts he doesn’t want to live by students and thinks they should be housed exclusively on campus. Given that, I would think Davis is probably not the best place for someone with those concerns to live.

        2. Ron Oertel

          I didn’t “miss it”.

          But, he never said that he “didn’t like students”.

          And, his 3:47 p.m. comment above was appropriate (and is not all that different from what others have noted).

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            He made his views very clear – he loves students, doesn’t want to live near them. Not an option if you live in Davis.

        3. Ron Oertel

          Given that, I would think Davis is probably not the best place for someone with those concerns to live.

          Not for you to say, in regard to advocacy regarding planning decisions.

          You are, in fact, crossing the line into online bullying. Started in the other article, actually.

        4. Ron Oertel

          He also didn’t actually say this, as I recall:

          ” . . . and thinks they should be housed exclusively on campus.”

          In any case, I see nothing “wrong” with his 3:47 p.m. comment, above.

        5. Keith Echols

          UC Davis isn’t going anywhere.  They’re still going to hire locals if it suites their needs without the city taking on their burden of housing their students.

          I don’t believe in “college towns”.  I believe cities and community culture changes over time.  The city of Davis is evolving due to the growth of the surrounding area weather it wants to or not.

          I live here.  I own here.  These transient residents are of lesser importance than long term residence in terms of city financials and cultural maturity of the city.

    2. Don Gibson

      Thank you Richard for these points. Unfortunatly it seems lost on the Planning Commission that the high demand pushes students unto the “mini-dorms”, duplexes, other cities (ie new communters on I-80) and homes that would be good for young families.

      If you don’t like living next to students then build a place for them to live next to campus.

  6. Dianne C Tobias

    Call me naive but how did the project get this far and go down so completely?  Were there indications along the way? If so why weren’t there changes made? And I didn’t watch or am up to speed on this but did the staff report recommend passing it. Sounds like it from the article. If so how could staff not sense the opposition?

    1. Keith Echols

      The two issues the planning commission had appear to be the student housing element and the affordable housing in lieu fee.  If there was some disconnect between the staff and the commission I think it’s safe to say it was on those two points.

  7. Ron Oertel

    Appreciate the link that Keith E., provided above.  I just looked at the Enterprise article, and noted the following:

    “Still, despite commissioners’ unanimous opposition, mall owners Brixmor Property Group indicated they plan to proceed to the City Council next month seeking approval.”

    “We still very much want to move the project along and have a lot to address between now and the council meeting,” said Brixmor representative George Phillips.”

    So, it appears that they’re going to present this to the council, directly – without going back to the planning commission.

    Not sure what kind of significant changes they plan to make (or how they’ll “sell” that claim), prior to the council meeting.  Perhaps they’re hoping that some on the council are more receptive to the proposal in the first place.

    Not sure how they’d be able to make significant changes so quickly, unless they had a “backup plan” already in place.


    1. David Greenwald Post author

      “So, it appears that they’re going to present this to the council, directly – without going back to the planning commission.”

      They definitely are not going back to the planning commission. What they end up doing I don’t think has been decided.

    2. Bill Marshall

      In effect, the going to CC is an “appeal”… hope everyone believes in that ‘right’… constitutionally based… if not believing, then you have no ‘right’ to believe in appeal in civil or criminal matters… you can’t have your Kate and Edith too…

      Remember, under law, PC is advisory, not legislative.

      It is an “un-elected” body…

  8. Ron Glick

    If they go directly to the CC without significantly addressing the issues raised by the Planning Commission my guess is this is DOA. Its five months before the election. Who is going to vote yes? The CC totally folded on any significant change to J/R. Anyone truly believe the CC will lead on Brixmor and ignore the PC?

    The Planning Commission wants more family housing according to Rutherford. I ask where? At U Mall? Completely laughable. I’m sure Mr. Eichols will be first in line for a condo across the street from UCD in a giant redeveloped community shopping center.

    If you truly believe that we need more family housing you recognize the need to build it on the periphery and don’t expect that with J/R in place. Davis is currently built out. Almost anyplace you add in the city means increased density. Families prefer single family homes not density of the type available around U Mall.

    I guess the PC is saying they want more projects like Trackside. I’m sure that is going to go over well.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      There have been a number of projects that weren’t put forward by the Planning Commission that have been approved by the council. There will be some changes for sure. But with district elections, most of the council is not going impacted by it. Brett Lee’s district is there however. But Lucas who is up, is in another part of town. And the fifth district doesn’t have a council member.

      1. Ron Glick

        Count to three David tell me how you get there. If Will is still thinking about running I’d guess he’d be a no. So then you need Lucas who is up for re-election and is the liaison to the PC, Carson who was party to a lawsuit that complained about traffic on Russell and Gloria. The traffic from West Davis on Russell is a major concern for Carson’s constituents so my guess is without any cover from the PC he is a no too. My whip count says not this year.

        I wouldn’t even be surprised if Brixmor doesn’t put the entire project on hold until after the pandemic and better clarity about the local rental market comes into view. They have cut the dividend and tapped the credit line to keep the balance sheet solvent and talked about not having any debt to rollover until 2022. They don’t seem likely to be in a rush right now to take on big new liabilities. Brixmor’s CEO said that U Mall is the company’s number one redevelopment opportunity. My guess is  they will take more time and put off forcing the issue.

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          Lucas, Carson, Partida and Arnold on a compromise motion. Brett unsure perhaps a no.

          They go at least to unit rentals and fewer 4/5 bedroom apartments. Maybe reduced height and density. Probably more affordable units.

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            Keep in mind this: you are talking about $1 million (just under) in annual revenue for the city. And the project is not viable fiscally without the housing. So the council is going to approve something.

      2. Bill Marshall

        Ron G.

        I acknowledge the ‘political fix’ is “on”… rational consideration is a bridge too far… the PC arguments are weak… yet, you’re likely correct that it will be DOA @ CC… for politics…

        I need to be clear… if the proposal fails, or succeeds, I don’t care… could live with status quo, or the proposal…

        The process is questionable, as it appears it is more political than rational (I abhor that, as to land use… violates the Fifth Amendment, at least in spirit) decisions… since the project was recommended denied by PC, same meeting they supported J/R renewal, perhaps we should put the project on the ballot… why not?  Looks like it will be all ‘political’ anyway (more is the pity)…

  9. Bill Marshall

    Perhaps an interesting question…probably un-answerable… in the commission appointments process, each successful commissioner had one or more ‘champions’… it is not a rational process, except on “face”… political… others “spin” it differently, using ‘best and brightest’ lingo… but that ain’t “real”… I could easily cite examples… folk who were chosen for their views rather than their expertise…

    For the current PC members, who were their ‘champions’?

    Saying that, there is one PC commissioner that I know has valid creds… a SME… there have been, and probably are, some ‘political hacks’ on the multituninous commissions… a ‘dark underbelly’ that even the VG dare not explore… if one thinks that all the commissions are only filled by well-qualified, unbiased, adults… well good luck with that belief and your belief in Santa, the Easter bunny, etc.  There is another world… called ‘Reality’…

    The majority of commissioners are well-meaning, but many have strong biases, and tend to be ‘political’… that’s why they were appointed…

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