At last week’s Planning Commission meeting where the commission unanimously rejected the University Commons redevelopment proposal, there was a notable element missing from the public comment period. Only two students showed up and the opposition outnumbered proponents by a 20-2 margin.
Despite the setback, the project is still likely to come before the council this month and, if it does, the message sent on Tuesday during public comment at the council meeting demonstrated that students will likely not be standing on the sidelines if the matter comes back.
While the issue of re-opening the pools clearly dominated the general public comment period, at least 10 to 15 students also spoke out in favor of the University Commons proposal.
Jacob Hertzman, a second-year student at UC Davis, drawing on the homelessness problem, noted that the housing crisis has impacted the entire city.
“Rent is getting much higher, as there are hardly any vacancies in Davis,” he said. “I share a 100-square-foot bedroom and still pay $500 a month and there’s really nowhere better to go.” He added, “I’m sure many other students are in the same state.”
On University Commons, he said, “Those few hundred units of housing can be crucial to helping students find decent and affordable places to live.”
Andy Fell, who many know as a university spokesperson in the news center, speaking in a personal capacity joined many of the students in support of the project.
“It’s the right project in absolutely the right place for Davis,” he said, noting that “housing like this will draw students out of the other single family homes, freeing up more rental housing for working families and other people.”
Fell also noted that retail malls are dying, and “trying to fill the mall with the same retail we’ve seen the past is not going to work. This mall needs retail that will attract students, the main audience for these type of retail stores from the campus and from other housing nearby.”
He said this will revitalize the entire area “instead of having a dying mall.”
A graduate student in biochemistry noted how “tight and expensive the housing market here is.
“I was very surprised to find out that the Planning Commission rejected the proposed University Mall redevelopment,” he said. “Davis needs more housing for all types of people including the campus community. Rents went up over five percent this year. UC Davis vacancy rate has been between 0 and one percent for the last six years.
“It was surprising to find out that a project that would build housing immediately next to campus was rejected,” he said.
Ally O’Brien, a junior at UC Davis who works in the student executive office, also supported the project, noting how difficult it was to find decently priced student housing in the Davis area right now.
She noted a number of her friends live in Woodland, unable to find housing in Davis, and commute to and from campus each day.
“That obviously creates a lot of extra traffic in Davis,” she said, “but it also causes a lot of stress for them.”
The need to commute home each day has strained their social lives and created other stressors that students who are able to live in town and bike and walk to campus do not face.
She noted that many people do not want students to spread out far from campus. “For the most part students want that too,” she said. “For the most part we don’t want to live far away from campus—so we can truly be part of the school community.”
University Commons, she said, fills that need and would alleviate the need to drive to campus.
Another student emphasized, “I think it’s really unfortunate that students have to convert their living rooms into extra bedrooms to rent out in order to afford rent.”
She called for the city to build more housing close to campus like the University Commons project.
Brooke Pritchard pushed for more housing for students in Davis.
“It is especially important that we all have a place where we can live, especially with corona and the uncertainty of what’s going on,” she said, noting that young students are struggling to find jobs in order to afford their rent.
Maya, a second year student at UC Davis and a member of the campus environmental policy and planning commission, expressed concern about the housing situation, noting the increase in rent and the difficulty of finding places to live for many students.
“My friends have had to deal with inadequate landlords who take advantage of the tight housing market,” she said. “This is wrong, we are part of the Davis community too.”
She said, “I’m lucky, I have been able to stay in my apartment for over a year, but I know people who have faced housing insecurity and their college career has suffered as a result.”
She said, “We need more affordable housing in Davis and having it close to campus will reduce traffic as well.”
Don Gibson, who was one of the two students to speak at public comment last week, is a recent PhD graduate and served as chair of the UC Davis advocacy group on housing.
“Last Wednesday I was shocked at the outright dismissal of the university commons project by the Planning Commission,” he said. “Davis and all of California is still in a massive statewide housing shortage. Yet this shortage was ignored by the opponents of the project and barely mentioned by the commissioners.”
He noted that this project is on a transit line and literally across the street from campus, which he said meant that many students can walk or bike to campus “and not be dependent on a car.”
Don Gibson noted with irony that at the same time the commission rejected staff recommendations to move forward on University Commons, the commission voted to move forward with Measure R.
“They recommended continuation of Measure R, a very restrictive land use measure,” he said. “Yet one of the concerns brought up by people on all sides was affordability—well if you’re not going to build on ag land, and you’re not going to build on infill, then housing will only continue to get more expensive in Davis, drowning people in all classes from students to workforce to young families.”
He said, “Worst of all I heard some comments that we need housing for ‘the community’—not for students. It’s almost, sometimes, I hear that students are not part of this community.”
The incoming ASUCD President, Kyle Krueger, said, “Usually it is difficult for me to represent all 30,000 students with a single voice,” noting that he cannot claim to know how all the students feel on a given issue and students often disagree.
“Over the past week, every student that I’ve talked to has overwhelmingly expressed disappointment and frustration with the Planning Commission vote,” he said. He said, “Every student that I’ve talked to has expressed the need to have more housing now.”
Krueger talked about students struggling because they have to start their housing search in January or February to find a place for the fall and other students are forced to drive 20 miles or more to get to campus on a daily basis. Others are juggling classwork with multiple part-time jobs, living paycheck to paycheck in a single room with multiple roommates.
“This is all because the housing prices in Davis are wholly unaffordable,” he said.
Francois Kaepplin, the legislative director for ASUCD, said of the vote, “I am beyond shocked. This is a project that is across the street from campus surrounded by student housing and in many ways is similar to Davis Live which passed last year.
“This is a project (as much) for the city of Davis as it is for the UC Davis students,” he said. “We are a part of the Davis community and we help to make it what it is today—whether people know it or not.”
He argued that the reason the U-Mall is a “gem” is “because of students.”
Gwen Coder, the external Vice President of the Graduate Student Association, said a mixed-use infill project would be a great use at this space, noting that the proximity to campus will reduce the need for cars to commute, “making this project environmentally friendly.”
She said she regretted the lack of the student voice present at last week’s Planning Commission meeting, which she said “conflicted with our own GSA meeting.
“I feel the need to comment on the language I have seen in regards to this and other housing projects,” she said, noting “an online commenter on the Vanguard last week referred to students as a ‘pestilence’ and students have been referred to as public nuisances.
“I think we all recognize that the student population is much more diverse than the remainder of Davis residents,” she said. “Given what is playing out around our country right now and as a person of Jewish descent, I cannot state strongly enough that these dog whistlers uttered at students are abhorrent and I’m appalled to see them discussed so casually in these issues.”
The project is expected to come to council some time this month—whether there will be changes remains to be seen.
—David M. Greeenwald reporting