Davis – In 2016, the Davis City Council put Nishi on the ballot. It was a good project that would add student housing while at the same time add 300,000 square feet of R&D space that the city desperately needed. But at the ballot box it fell short.
It lost primarily for two reasons. First, while I think there was a strong plan to deal with traffic on Richards including $10 million that would go to create a way for university traffic to bypass the Richards Tunnel, the voters were not quite convinced. There was little the city or developers could do about that issue.
However, the affordable housing issue was self-inflicted. No onsite affordable housing. The city did get $1 million in lieu fees but, as opponents correctly pointed out, that was a pittance compared to the amount a project of that size should generate.
In a close election, that issue lost the support of progressive voices otherwise concerned with the lack of student housing, and probably was just enough to create the 700-vote defeat.
That is the lesson of the last defeat of a Measure R project—take every issue off the table. There are issues that you cannot control, but remove the ones that you can.
The question that the city council now faces is whether they can do the same for DISC (Davis Innovation & Sustainability Campus).
There are intractable issues with DISC. It is a large project on the periphery. And, despite efforts at mitigation, those concerned with traffic on Mace will have plenty of reason to vote against the project.
Those will be thorny and contentious issues.
But perhaps not intractable.
As Greg Rowe pointed out in his comments on Wednesday, “I still have questions about the 24,000 trips per day, but the thing is that’s 20 to 25 years from now. To me there is time for the city, council, Caltrans and the Developer to figure that out.”
He is correct, but as with Nishi, the voters do not seem inclined to want to allow the process to work itself out down the line—they want more certainty. There is not much the project can do at this point, so the focus of the developers and the city should be on addressing what they can.
They did a good job of getting the issue of drainage off the table and, for the most part, they have addressed affordable housing with a commitment for a large onsite project.
But there is more that the city and developer have to do in the final two weeks.
First, get the issue of the 6.8-acre city-owned parcel off the table.
As Commissioner Emily Shandy put it, “I continue to struggle with the conservation easement on the Mace 25 parcel.” She noted that she heard a lot of justification for why it’s legal, but she said, “I have not really heard anything to help me understand why this is so important to this project that it is worth all of these circular conversations when, from where I am sitting, we have heard loud and clear from the community already that this is not how the Davis community wants that city land that was purchased with that funding to be used.”
She called it a “puzzling choice to be bickering over this six-acre easement.”
I agree. As Greg Rowe put it, “I still think the developer, if they want to get past the Measure R vote, they should really think seriously about taking those seven acres off the table.”
I went back and forth with planning staff on this issue—they are arguing planning principles. You can have the greatest planning in the world, but if you can’t get it past a vote, you have nothing.
Second, the issue of 60 percent housing filled by employees is not intractable. I don’t understand why this is such a big issue.
First of all, they can master lease some of the housing. That means if you have a big employer, they take out a lease and then sublease it to their employees. Perfectly legal. UC Davis does it all the time.
Second, you can make it so students are less likely to move in. I actually don’t have that much of a concern that students will move here—it’s a distance from campus and there will be other housing built that is much closer to campus. But it’s a political issue. So take the leasing off cycle and require people living there to pass credit checks.
Finally, the baseline features that require three bedrooms or less are unfortunate because it takes off the table the possibility of co-housing. Co-housing is a good way to, first of all, ensure that the workers are living onsite but also to improve affordability.
Bottom line—you won’t be able to ensure that people live and work onsite, but you can do more than you’re doing.
Third, listen to the recommendations of the Tree Commission and the Natural Resources Commission.
During the Planning Commission meeting I listened as staff was arguing that the issues of trees are something that are part of the building process, not the project baseline features. I get it. If this were an infill project, I would agree. But this is a Measure R vote. Draft up project baseline features to ensure that the concerns of the Tree Commission is met, while making it general enough that it doesn’t encumber build out.
The issue that appears to have the most potential to be the affordable housing issue of 2020 are the recommendations by the NRC. Here’s the thing: the project wants to tout itself as a great sustainability plan but right now it doesn’t even have support of the more pro-development elements of the NRC. That’s going to be a huge problem that will undermine a core message.
I asked which of the issues were considered deal-breakers, and was sent six.
First, all onsite commercial buildings shall be all-electric. Fossil fuels (e.g., natural gas, propane) shall only be allowed for manufacturing processes as specified by a tenant.
Second, In anticipation of improved solar connected energy storage, the project shall be designed and pre-wired for future microgrid capacity and energy storage.
Third, all commercial and residential parking areas shall be EV ready, equipped with infrastructure designed to facilitate installation of EV charging stations as demand grows.
Fourth, parking costs shall be unbundled from the cost of other goods and services. A separate fee shall be charged for all parking spaces (commercial and residential).
Five, to provide an opportunity for a car-free lifestyle, parking associated with multifamily rental housing will be unbundled. Multifamily rental units will be charged for parking separate from rent.
Six, the developer shall require employer master leasing of all rental housing and ownership of a portion of the single-family housing units and require employment for residency. These requirements shall be dependent upon a minimum firm size, to be designated by the City.
Of those six, I think the last one is the only one that should be in question.
Staff responded that “this request jeopardizes overall project feasibility and is more than the market will bear.” The NRC responds that “many Bay Area companies are master leasing for employee housing.”
I don’t know if I go as far as to require all rental housing to be master leased, but I agree, as mentioned above, that the issue of housing is vitally important and the city needs to go much further in addressing that.
Bottom line: this project is not going to be a slam dunk no matter what. But the developer, if they want a reasonable chance of the measure passing at the polls, needs to finish the process and take most of these issues of the table. I only really see one that could be a difficult lift.
—David M. Greenwald reporting