Commentary: Tonight Is the Night for DISC

Ten days ago, in our Saturday column “My View,” I argued that the council needed to get as many thorny issues off the table as possible.  Since then, the city staff and developer have moved the project in the right direction, but there are still thorny issues to address.

In a memo approved with a unanimous vote on Friday, the Natural Resources Commission stated, “We are writing to ask that Council reconsider certain Baseline Features that the Natural Resources Commission (NRC) proposed, but that were not recommended in the staff report to the Planning Commission.”

The NRC then makes the point: “While it is not unusual for staff and commissions to disagree, in this case the NRC feels strongly that its recommendations were not given adequate and informed consideration. In some cases, the staff proposal asked for less than what the Applicant offered in their Sustainability Guiding Principles.”

The NRC proposals call for meeting and exceeding Title 24 in the following five categories: (1) commercial building being all-electric, (2) solar connected energy, (3) parking be EV ready, (4) parking unbundled from rent, and (5) master leasing.

It is important to note that the NRC approved their memo prior to release of the final staff report.

Richard McCann, one of the members of the NRC, in a comment on Monday noted, “The new Staff report goes a long way towards meeting the shortened list of recommendations that the NRC adopted on Friday, which is a positive statement.”

He is concerned, however, that many of these commitments are in the form of “the developer commits to” rather than “the developer shall” language, and thus in his view “are meaningless unless these are included as contractual, enforceable clauses in the Baseline Features.”  He adds, “The City has experienced negotiating away many ‘commitments’ in development agreements that didn’t have teeth. The City needs to show that its willing to stand firm.”

One of the elements recommended by the NRC that is missing from the staff report is “a requirement that commercial development be all-electric unless a tenant has a specific request for a process-specific need to use natural gas. We must avoid installing gas pipelines that will become obsolete in the next couple of decades as we move toward a ‘zero net carbon’ future to fight the climate emergency.”

We largely agree with the comments of Richard McCann here and believe that all NRC-recommended commitments need to be codified into Baseline Project Features, and that the project should be all electric, barring an individual tenant-specific need for natural gas in the tenets business processes.

The issue of the master lease is a bit more tricky.  Realistically, requiring master leasing does not seem to make a ton of intuitive sense.  But the need for as many of the residents as possible to work on site remains.

My suggestion there is now four-fold.  First, all rental periods should be off-cycle from the university—thus they go from February to February rather than begin in September.  Second, the renting should require individual tenants to pass a credit check.  Third, to the extent possible, they should encourage the use of master leasing, but do not require it.

Finally, one of the factors in this project is that since it has such a long build out time and the housing units will not be fully built out until the end of phase three, it means they have time to evaluate.

My suggestion is to include a clause to allow for a ten-year check in on the actual percentage of residents living and working on site and allow for the development agreement to be revisited at that point to consider the inclusion of master leasing requirements.

The recommendation continues to allow that “[t]he rate of housing construction shall be limited to one home per every 2000 square feet of residential space, except for projects that are 100% Affordable.”

By increasing the limit to “one home per 3000,” they can largely take the issue of residential project off the table.  Therefore I recommend the council attempt to move the ball as far as they can from 2000 to 3000—and I believe the actual language should be square feet of COMMERCIAL space, not residential there.

On the 6.8 acres of the Mace 25, the current language is: “A portion of the Ag Buffer was proposed to be located on the city’s property, known as Mace 25. There is no agreement on the project using a portion of Mace 25 as part of the agricultural buffer and the developer understands that they will be obligated to provide the buffer entirely on the DISC site if no agreement is reached in the future. The City is under no obligation to grant an easement on the Mace 25 for the project agricultural buffer.”

While that is better than previous language, our recommendation is remove the 6.8 acres from the discussion of this project and simply have the city consider what to do about Mace 25 at a separate point in time.

On the work force housing the language is: “Work force housing shall be the style of housing which will include a maximum of 3 bedrooms per unit or maximum of 2 bedrooms for rental units.”

Somehow there should be exceptions for co-housing.  In my opinion this is really crucial.  Co-housing is a mechanism that can help employees afford housing costs.  Perhaps this has to be done in conjunction with master leasing, but naturally that would require more than three bedrooms.

Another suggestion I have would be to disincentivize people driving to work and parking onsite.  One way to do that would be paid parking.  And a suggestion I would have is paid parking onsite, and that money go to some sort of transit system or improvement of existing transit.

Clearly, since the staff report did not do so, council is going to have to do the last lift—but they are moving in the right direction.

There is one final point that is important to make.  The council can’t require it, but a stronger letter from the university, with concrete technology transfer commitments for the university to be involved in filling the site, would go a long way toward satisfying those who are skeptical about commercial demand.

—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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12 Comments

  1. Ron Oertel

    The council can’t require it, but a stronger letter from the university, with concrete technology transfer commitments for the university to be involved in filling the site,

    They’re already hoping to be “filling the site with concrete” (and asphalt), on prime farmland outside of a logical boundary for the city, with thousands of parking spaces as well.

    That’s the inherent problem.

      1. Ron Oertel

        I was making a pun.

        But, I will be working against this, assuming that the council forces a decision upon the city. I’d certainly rather do something else with my time and energy.

        As a side note, it seems strange to be “working out” primary aspects of the proposal at the last minute, after having more than 10 years to work this out.  Apparently for the sole purpose of getting this on the ballot during a presidential election year – when they’re hoping to have a better chance.  (Which may not be the case regardless, due to the impacts of COVID.)

        I suspect there’s going to be some permanent changes (for the university and the city itself), as a result of COVID.

        1. David Greenwald

          ” it seems strange to be “working out” primary aspects of the proposal at the last minute, after having more than 10 years to work this out. ”

          I wasn’t involved in 2005, but having seen five of these now, each one operate the same way. The council has the final say.

        2. Ron Oertel

          I wasn’t involved in 2005, but having seen five of these now, each one operate the same way.

          I’m not sure which “five” you’re referring to, but regardless – they’ve all failed. Perhaps it’s time for the city to start thinking of something else.

          I haven’t seen one that’s this unsettled, at this late stage.

          Just a couple of days ago, I noticed existing commercial sites that are ripe for redevelopment. Including a couple of spots available for lease or sale (and have been for some time).

          The basic problem remains lack of demand, it seems. With COVID permanently adding to that trend.

          Again, that’s why you’re seeing the housing at the DISC site, instead of maximizing the commercial aspect.

  2. Keith Echols

    Is it a residential unit per 2000 or 3000 LEASED Commercial space?  And if so; leased for what duration?

    If I were a developer that knew that the least risky revenue generating part of my project was the residential component; I’d do my best to build out the commercial component and shoe horn in whomever as commercial tenants just to build out the residential component….regardless of the tenant’s long (relative) term viability.

    And if it doesn’t work out; just tell the city that it isn’t feasible to continue to build out unless you can built out the residential units….the alternative is a half built commercial business park.

    I’m all about New Urbansim.  I sat through numerous SPUR meetings in San Francisco.  I get it; I like walking and riding my bike everywhere too.  But a major new business park on the outskirts of town isn’t where you start with force feeding new urbansist ideas (which in a lot of respects are really very old urbanist ideas).  The number one priority IMO is a successful business park for the city of Davis.  This business park is already going to compete with other business parks in Woodland, Sacramento and possibly on UCD’s own campus?  As far as I can tell there’s nothing special (competitive advantage) about the DISC business park.  All these “sustainability” components just add to the cost of the project which in turn adds to the cost of rent commercial park…which in turn add to the cost of the housing (raising the home prices).  I’m all for sustainability.  But get something planted first.  Approve a future adjacent business park with all of the sustainability components.  I’m telling you; as someone that has worked with start ups…what they want more than anything is cheap square footage and a decent commute (let’s face it the majority of these workers aren’t going to be living Davis).  The Amtrak Shuttle is a good idea…but other than that they can’t widen the causeway.  So what’s left?  Cost effective commercial square footage.

    Separate the housing component from the project. Manipulating live work space planning doesn’t work like that.  These things have to have organic roots…market forces…to drive them.  Build out residential near or next to the commercial park.  But just let the units go up for sale or rent.  If the business park is a success then if the units are desirable, employees will by them.  But if not the units are still rented/purchased.  If the city doesn’t want housing to be approved ahead of successful commercial space development (which I completely agree with) then simply stagger the approval timing of the residential units.   But don’t tie it directly to this specific commercial project.

    As for the affordable housing component; is there a specific goal for affordable housing in this residential project?  What I mean by that is that I do not believe that simply adding affordable housing components to development projects is an effective way to mitigate the affordable housing problem.  I’d argue that it actually makes it worse.  Affordable components of new developments just add to the home prices of the market rate units…thereby raising home prices overall in the city.  But component affordable housing does have it’s uses as a band aid…or if used for a specific purpose; like housing teachers, police, fire fighters other first responders….etc… maybe sold at “workforce housing” rates (120% of median income…or about $73K in Yolo County)….this impacts home prices less (by adding less of the offset to the market rate homes)….(true affordable housing solutions are another more lengthy discussion).

    1. Richard McCann

      I’m all for sustainability.  But get something planted first.  Approve a future adjacent business park with all of the sustainability components. 

      We no longer have this luxury in this climate emergency. ANY new construction creates a legacy problem for at least half a century. We have to include these elements NOW.

      And in any case, few, if any, of the proposed sustainability elements add costs to the project. All electric is now at least cost competitive with standard construction, being micro and EV grid avoids future retrofit costs at a very low initial cost, renewables are cost competitive with conventional sources, on site solar makes financial sense, UCD has been using parking fees successfully for decades. I can go on, but the picture is clear that these are not additional costs.

      1. Keith Echols

        What is the “legacy” problem” you refer to?  How is a project approved now that much more critical than one approved a few years from now?

        What exactly is “all electric” vs. standard construction?  Future retrofit costs?  Aren’t those elective at this point? How exactly are they competitive with conventional sources?  The finance guy in me does not like spending money now.   Money out of pocket now is far more important/valuable and tangible than potential future offsets that in theory should makeup for my present day spending/investment.   I’d rather change things later and spend more in the future.  UCD has parking fees?  UCD has a captive audience/customers/payers.  Where else are they going to go?  On the other hand if you’re choosing business parks….you choose the one that isn’t going to charge you for parking…unless there’s some awesome reason to be there that makes it worth it.

        I used to be up on all this sustainability development stuff about a decade ago.  But I haven’t  heard the hallelujah it’s all now worth it from the developers side yet.  I could be wrong…in fact I hope I am.  I hope you can provide some info that supports your statements about these sustainability components not adding cost to the project.

        Otherwise we’re back to trying to shoehorn all these concepts into a project that will likely hamper it’s success; that all the sustainability stuff is the cart before the horse.  Get the biz parks out there and successful then make them sustainable (or make the future ones sustainable).   If the initial  biz park fails…than all this sustainable stuff will be all for naught.

        1. Ron Oertel

            On the other hand if you’re choosing business parks….you choose the one that isn’t going to charge you for parking…unless there’s some awesome reason to be there that makes it worth it.

          Apparently, you’re not aware of just how “special” Davis is. 😉

          Another commenter noted that this proposal doesn’t actually have enough parking, compared to similar developments.

          Which might make sense, if you’re not actually planning to construct anything beyond the phases which include housing.

          And regarding “free” parking, yet another commenter noted that this could be “made up for” with higher salaries. (Assuming of course, that Davis is particularly “special” as an employer/employment option.)

    2. Don Shor

      Separate the housing component from the project. Manipulating live work space planning doesn’t work like that.  These things have to have organic roots…market forces…to drive them.  Build out residential near or next to the commercial park.  But just let the units go up for sale or rent.  If the business park is a success then if the units are desirable, employees will buy them.  But if not the units are still rented/purchased.

      Agreed.

  3. Don Shor

    I hope that in the discussion tonight, at least one council member will ask which commission recommendations were implemented in the baseline features, which were not, and of those that were disregarded, what was the rationale for failing to include them in the baseline features.

    What is in the measure that goes before the voters, as I understand this, is pretty much inalterable without another vote. Any other type of agreement is, as we have seen, fungible. So if it’s important to the council that this project, say, reflect the recommendations of the Tree Commission or the Natural Resources Commission, they should say so now.

    Nothing wrong with expressing disapproval but nevertheless allowing it to go before the voters. But I do hope the development team understands the difficulty of getting a favorable Measure R vote on a project that had mixed or tepid support from the council.

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