Pretty much everything went wrong last week at the Planning Commission, but ultimately while there are very likely to be some major changes to the University Commons project, the council is going to have to approve it in similar form to how it is now.
At the core is the dilemma that the council has to deal with—the site is not viable now, and in order to finance a $200 million redevelopment project they have to have housing, and housing across the street from the university is going to be primarily student housing, whether you have one bedroom apartments or five.
The biggest thing is that the combined property and sales tax projects will be nearly $1 million. With a city that lacks clear paths to revenue, how are they going to say no in the end?
In addition to the fiscal impact, here are five key points that point the way.
Point 1: the U-Mall is dying. The Grad is gone. Most businesses are not in great shape. New businesses are reluctant to come in.
Some on the commission argued this is a community gem—first of all I just don’t see it. With the exception of Trader Joe’s, which would have worked anywhere in town, the University Mall has been a place where even established companies have not survived.
Even if you do believe that it’s a gem, it won’t be without serious upgrades. There is no doubt it is a prime location and could become a gem. But not without significant redevelopment.
There is a letter in the Enterprise that laid this out: “According to the commission, the project will damage the ‘retail gem’ of Davis, the existing University Mall. Wrong. The University Mall is a dying mall in a dying retail landscape. The new project will include exactly the kinds of retail that are currently viable at the University Mall. Cost Plus is on its way to bankruptcy, and we all know what happened to Forever 21.”
For 25 years since I moved here, I have watched this as an under-utilized location. This is a chance to change it—but that requires capital.
Point 2: Redevelopment requires residential. This is a $200 million project. Maybe if we had RDA still, we could help finance it. But we don’t. No one seems to want to believe the economic realities despite numerous pro-formas and analyses. The bottom line is construction is expensive, land is expansive, demolish and rebuild is very expensive and commercial by itself is difficult to finance.
Some have inferred this to mean there is no commercial demand. That’s not it. The applicants fully believe that they will have the space filled before they re-open. The issue is financing and getting the money upfront to do the infrastructure and construction.
George Phillips, representing the applicants, 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.”
The public will remain skeptical on this point, but the Council won’t. They know this is true and it, along with the projected revenue, will push them to approve this project.
Point 3: I get that the council wants to draw the line on student housing in light of the 4000 or so beds they have approved over the last three years. But that goal has to meet reality.
The project is across the street from the university. And the project is itself surrounded by student housing.
I get that some people want to keep student housing growth on campus. But let’s be realistic—that ship has sailed. What the goal should be is keep students near campus so that single family homes are opened to families and other residents. And so that students don’t have to drive to school. That makes sense. If this project was at the Market Place or Second Street Crossing, then I would agree it shouldn’t be designed as student housing—but across from the entrance to the university? Come on.
If they want to turn these into smaller units—one to three bedrooms—and unit leases, fine. The students are fine with that and it really won’t change anything.
The bottom line: who is going to move into U-Mall? Students. We should have no illusions, housing across from campus will be primarily student housing. And let it be.
Point 4: It’s too tall.
Is the height negotiable? I don’t know. But this isn’t really a seven-story student housing building. It’s more like four stories which is about typical. The difference is they have two to three stories of parking underneath. Can they shift that? I don’t know.
But this whole height thing is a bit of a red herring. People have been trying to push for density on campus—what’s wrong with it across the street?
Besides, the weirdest part of this is no one objected to Davis Live Housing literally down the street. When they approved seven-story Davis Live across the street last year, even Eileen Samitz said it was okay. Now she is strongly opposed. Her reasoning made sense last year, I don’t understand her view of the difference.
Point 5: It will add traffic.
George Phillips made this key point last week: “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.”
Consider that a shrinking number of students have vehicles, it’s across the street from the university and parking will be limited not only on site but in the neighborhoods. If you want to have a car, don’t live across the street from the university. Pretty simple.
The bottom line here I think is the economic point—this is a dying mall and those who try to save the mall by killing this project will make sure that we have a thriving Trader Joe’s and Starbucks and not much else at the mall.
If we want to revitalize it, right now that takes housing.
The council is going to see the logic of this and the influx of $1 million in tax revenue and they are not going to say no.
—David M. Greenwald reporting