Wednesday night’s Planning Commission meeting was truncated before it even started, as three members, citing advice from the city attorney, recused themselves due to potential conflicts that arose because they donated to the Paul’s Place project beforehand. Gone were Cheryl Essex, Stephen Mikesell and Darryl Rutherford. With alternate Emily Shandy unavailable, that left the commission with just four members—a bare minimum for a quorum.
The commission listened to a presentation and some critical public comments before quickly making the decision to recommend the council approve the mitigated negative declaration.
Paul’s Place calls for replacing the existing single-story 2,800-square-foot structure that currently serves as transitional housing and homeless services facility, and expanding it to a 16,928-square-foot, four-story facility that would serve the homeless and be multi-functional.
As redeveloped, the facility would provide additional housing and allow for expanded services for institutional non-profit and residential uses.
The single-story existing facility has a resource center, and one bathroom and shower for day use, along with limited community and kitchen facilities. There is one bedroom with four beds with a bathroom to house four women, and three bedrooms with a bathroom to house eight men. There is also a staff bedroom with a bathroom.
The General Plan designation of the project site is Residential Medium High Density. The existing facility is consistent with the existing land use designation which allows for residential and institutional uses. “The proposed project would continue the existing use, but in a larger facility with additional housing and beds and improved homeless services.”
City Staffer Eric Lee noted that the project had received an unusually large amount of email comments—over 100. He characterized the majority of them as being supportive of the project.
However, on Wednesday, of the public commenters who called in, many complained about the physical size, scale and location, and also questioned the number of residents planned for the project, given the infection potential posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
One commenter urged the Planning Commission to “consider the many negative consequences both for the homeless and for the city of Davis.”
He argued that “50 percent of the homeless have mental illness, it is better from them to be distributed in smaller care facilities.” He said that Paul’s Place will have 15 mentally ill individuals on the site, where “six is the national average (and) is better for their care and costs less too.”
Another caller agreed that we need safe spaces for the homeless and mentally ill. However, she argued, “I do not feel that the Paul’s Place proposal has adequately considered the potentially negative impact a project of this size and concentration could have on the residents themselves as well as on the surrounding community.”
She argues this is larger than Pine Tree Gardens and that facility has over twice the number of mentally ill clients as “recommended in the scientific literature.”
She also cited the impact of COVID-19 on the community, and added that “the homeless are at higher risk for infection of COVID-19.” She asked, “How can you assure us, if this project is accepted, that concentrating 32 homeless people in this same large building, where half of the folks will be mentally ill and initially not be medicated, will be safe for them?”
In responding to the concerns by the public, Bill Pride, the Director of Davis Community Meals and Housing, pointed out that thus far there have been no homeless individuals in this community diagnosed with COVID.
He added, “I think the new building will actually be more effective at dealing with COVID and those kind of pandemic issues, because at that time instead of having three to four folks living in a bedroom with each other, they’ll all have individual bedrooms so they can actually have them shelter in place better than we currently can have.”
Commissioner Greg Rowe pointed out that“the negative comments are to some degree not germane in terms of asking us to not accept the CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] document.” The kinds of things cited, like the degree of mental illness or concentration of people with communicable diseases, “really aren’t germane to the environmental documents.”
He added that “one of the things that needs to be kept in mind is this new facility is going to take some time to build, probably going to be a year or year and a half before it’s ready to start operating,” and he views the COVID crisis as “we’re dealing with a temporary virus situation that I don’t think should be a cause to slow anything down, much less a project that is as valuable and important as this.”
He said, “I’m fully confident that the objections that we’ve heard can be fully addressed.”
Bill Pride said, “We are committed that we will help solve people’s homeless issues, and give them the services they need to move from being homeless to being housed, but we will also make sure that everybody who’s involved in doing that—volunteers, staff, clients and neighbors—are all kept whole and all kept safe.”
Greg Rowe said he was very strongly impacted by one of the messages he received from the community which came from a case manager at a facility, and “it really went into detail about the great need to really expand the effectiveness and the efficiency of the programs offered at the facility; it was the most compelling message of all the messages I received.”
David Robertson added, “This is exciting and I hope that other communities will take an opportunity once it’s open and operational to see what can be done with the vision that this whole group has put together.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting