In all of this discussion over University Commons, there is not sufficient recognition of a very simple fact—the University Mall is dying. It has actually been dying for a very long period of time, but with the very popular Graduate and Trader Joe’s, we don’t think of it in that way.
The reality is that retail malls are a dinosaur, they were in trouble long before COVID hit and it figures that COVID will likely be the death knell for many of them.
So for all of the talk about “Community Gems” there has not been enough real recognition that this is a resource that is about to die. The current form is not sustainable and it is not clear that many people who are fighting against the current project recognize this.
The developers indicated that they needed to modernize the largely inefficient one-story building and the only way to do that in the current fiscal and economic landscape is with housing.
Thus for those pushing for an improved retail-only center alternative, I think they have to face the fact that in this climate that is an impossibility. Whether that was the case five years ago I can’t say. I know when we evaluated building costs for the downtown two years ago, they found costs to be extremely high and figured, without size and density, it would be hard to finance.
There is a lot of pushback over the structure of the housing. Some are arguing that it is just another version of a mega-dorm. They see the bed rental structure with the large number of four-bedroom apartments as being yet another student-oriented apartment building.
They point out that the city has already approved around 4000 beds in the city, and that we need more traditional housing.
First of all, I would say I remain troubled by some of the anti-student views expressed on this site and in the community. I don’t think the individual who referred to students as a “Pestilence” or argued basically that they should stay on campus recognized how impactful his comments would be.
While I can see the argument that we need housing that doesn’t strictly cater to students as solid reasoning, when you consider location here—across the street from the university and surrounded basically by student housing—I’m not sure why you would expect families to move into this spot.
More realistically, I would argue that you can use this as a move up. Students move from existing student housing, or perhaps allow for older apartments further from campus to close down and get redeveloped as more family and workforce oriented housing.
It just doesn’t seem practical to expect that this isn’t going to be student-oriented housing.
That said, I don’t have a problem with shifting the housing types to fewer bedrooms and unit rentals—I don’t think most students care that much, and it might quell some community concerns.
I see the arguments that University Commons is too large.
While I am not wedded to the notion that it must be a certain height, I do find the objection odd. We have seen people pushing for more density on campus—which, again, is across the street.
Recently I saw Eileen Samitz write: “The University Commons proposal at 7-stories and its enormous mass ‘wall effect’ is far too large and out of scale with its surroundings.”
I find it odd because Davis Live housing is a literal stone’s throw (if you’re Tom Brady) away, and Eileen Samitz was supportive of that project.
Keep in mind her comments on Davis Live Apartments: “The Oxford Circle Project is a project that seems to be a good project given its location for student-oriented housing. It makes sense.” She said, “Many of the students’ needs would be provided right immediately around it.” She noted that there would be “very little traffic generated” by the project.
She said, “If ever there was a place for dense student housing…”
Can’t we say the exact same thing about University Commons?
Final point I want to address is this one: “With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to spread, it is clear that not nearly as many UCD students will be returning to campus. Therefore, building more mega-dorm group housing makes no sense.”
I saw forms of this argument over the weekend.
While I tend to still take the view that the impacts of COVID are likely to temporary, let us say that UC Davis is going to downsize as the result of the pandemic and reduce the size of their campus.
I think the worst-case scenario with fewer students is highly unlikely, but in the case that occurs, students will move into student housing closer to campus where they can bike and walk and not have to drive and that will open up housing further away from campus—housing that people say we need anyway.
What’s the rush? Housing is never rushed. It always takes a lot of time. I first sat down and met with the developers on that project in 2017—that was three years ago. By no measure can you say that the project was rushed.
If it is approved tomorrow, it probably won’t be built for at least three to five years. The current circumstances will likely be long gone. And the reality is that we are always behind the trend in terms of the need for housing.
In the end, there are probably a lot of tweaks that can occur to make this project better and more stomachable for the community. But the problem that we face is that the current usage of the mall has probably long since expired and this is probably the only chance for next few decades to modernize it. We need to take advantage of that.
—David M. Greenwald reporting