Commentary: The U-Mall is Dying – How Can We Save It?

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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


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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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22 thoughts on “Commentary: The U-Mall is Dying – How Can We Save It?”

  1. Tia Will

    David

    “or perhaps allow for older apartments further from campus to close down and get redeveloped as more family and workforce oriented housing.”

    And your proposed funding source for that would be?

     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.

    Say from the Lincoln Forty project, or other more distant dorms? Not sure how that will help with work force or family housing. Spoken only semi-facetiously.

     

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      The point I’m trying to make here is that if you build this project and demands starts to dry up in terms of enrollment, it probably puts more students nearer to campus and frees up other areas of town for different renter groups. I’m not anticipating that will happen, but if it did…

    2. Richard McCann

      And your proposed funding source for that would be?

      From private investment. That’s how the market works. We cannot control every, or even most, decisions about investment and purchasing in our economy, so we need to understand how economic market forces generally work (and have done reasonably well). A shift in demand from one location to another causes the value of the former location to fall, making it more economically feasible to construct less costly structures at that location. We don’t need to identify a specific pot of money and direct it to the solution in most cases. We’ve tried that experiment, both in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and they were failures. (see https://mcubedecon.com/2014/07/06/how-do-we-best-induce-technological-innovation-weve-already-run-that-experiment/) We have to trust decentralized decisions, with some guidance.

      1. Alan Miller

        and yet no market-rate apartments have been built this century.  This is called twisting the market, so private de-centralized investment can’t work.  Thank you:

        • Measure R

        • “Affordable” (subsidized) Housing

        1. Richard McCann

          Yes, Measure R is significant part of this problem. We have several large apartment buildings being built around town. They are aimed at students, and as I’ve pointed out, our affordable housing for working families was already built in the 1960s and 70s in the duplexes and smaller houses around town. We need to get students out of them.

        2. Ron Oertel

          Measure R has absolutely nothing to do with University Mall (and student housing within the city, in general).

          Nor does it have anything to do with student housing on campus.

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            I don’t think that’s a fair statement. The issue of student housing is complicated by Measure R which largely limits if not prevents housing on the periphery. So that has forced more infill housing and more density.

        3. Richard McCann

          Ron O

          You’re living a fantasy. Measure R restricts housing supply, which causes housing prices to increase in Davis. We now command an 85% premium over Woodland and West Sac according to Zoom. That was only 50% in 2007, and less pre-2000. You’re in denial of reality. If you can produce an economic study that supports the position that growth controls have no effect on property values, we might be able to have a discussion, but without any evidence you’re claim is completely empty.

          I’ve commented elsewhere that not all students will live on campus, and as part of their education, upper class students need to live off campus to become true adults. And UC isn’t a particularly good landlord either (and I’ve known that since I went to Cal 40 years ago.)

        4. Ron Glick

          Measure R has nothing to do with these things if you don’t believe in unintended consequences or chaos theory.

          Perhaps you believe in anti-chaos theory: If a butterfly flaps its wings outside the city it has no impact inside the city.

        5. Ron Oertel

          You’re living a fantasy. Measure R restricts housing supply, which causes housing prices to increase in Davis. We now command an 85% premium over Woodland and West Sac according to Zoom.

          That is a lie.

          That was only 50% in 2007, and less pre-2000. You’re in denial of reality. If you can produce an economic study that supports the position that growth controls have no effect on property values, we might be able to have a discussion, but without any evidence you’re claim is completely empty.

          Another commenter (who has been banned on here) has already presented information showing that the areas which pursue development have had the fastest increase in housing prices.

          You have seen that information (and engaged in a debate with that commenter), so you know this already.

          But, it is likely that vast amounts of new housing in nearby communities is hold down prices in Davis, as well.

          The reason that there was a lack of construction during the period of the Great Recession is pretty obvious.

          I’ve commented elsewhere that not all students will live on campus, and as part of their education, upper class students need to live off campus to become true adults. And UC isn’t a particularly good landlord either (and I’ve known that since I went to Cal 40 years ago.)

          There’s a “true adult” in the other article today, suggesting that students should be able to cancel their leases without considering the impact that would have.

          But again, Measure R has nothing to do with student housing. No one should be pushing for student housing outside of city limits.

          If one is concerned about creating housing shortages, they should oppose DISC.

           

        6. Don Shor

          You’re living a fantasy. Measure R restricts housing supply, which causes housing prices to increase in Davis. We now command an 85% premium over Woodland and West Sac according to Zoom.

          That is a lie.

          Here are the current numbers per Zillow.

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            Don – It looks to me like it wasn’t a lie, it was an exaggeration and a slight one – 85 vs. 81 and 74? Or am I reading that wrong?

          2. Don Shor

            Correct. Davis home prices per Zillow are 54% higher than Dixon, 81% higher than West Sac, and 74% higher than Woodland.
            Preventing peripheral housing growth was the specific goal of Measure J. The consequence of that is certainly restricted housing supply, and the logical consequence of that is higher home prices in Davis than surrounding areas. Some of us have been observing that disparity for decades now, going back in my case to the mid-1980’s when we were in the market. The disparity in home prices has steadily increased.
            The argument that has been put forth here repeatedly in the past has had to do with the percentages of housing cost increase. Housing and rent prices in some nearby communities have, at times, increased at a higher percentage than they have in Davis.
            In any of these discussions, I think it’s important to compare apples to apples.

        7. Ron Oertel

          The disparity in home prices has steadily increased.

          That is another lie, to which you won’t allow evidence to be presented which directly contradicts that claim.

          Please let me know if you change your mind, and will allow me to present it.

        8. Ron Oertel

          Thought I’d go ahead and check the current (as of January of this year) difference in price per square foot between Davis and West Sacramento, as well.

          It’s approximately 49%.  (Quite a difference, compared to Don’s 81% claim.)

          Now again, you’d need to compare that pre Measure J, and post Measure J to have any clue whatsoever, as to a possible association with Measure J.

  2. Ron Glick

    “I haven’t seen anyone suggest that student housing should be located outside of city limits.”

    What about all the people who say UCD should house students instead of the city?

  3. Eileen Samitz

     

    David,

    I don’t read the Vanguard anymore since there is so much misinformation and disinformation, but I was informed that you keep bringing up a specious comparison which is simply wrong that needs to be set straight. The Davis Live project is not the same as the University Commons project because while it has a similar height, the University Commons is roughly 7-8 times the mass. Davis Live is a 1-acre project, but in contrast, the University Commons project is a massive project shoe-horned onto an 8.25-acre site which spans virtually the entire width of Russell between Sycamore and Anderson.

    So, this is a size and mass issue, not simply a height issue. University Commons is also further to the east where the traffic and congestion is already terrible along Russell – particularly at Sycamore and Anderson, and adding 894 residents as pedestrians, on bicycles or in cars into the area will obviously significantly worsen the situation which the EIR states as “significant and unavoidable.”  This is not the case with Davis Live.

    Further, Davis Live has only 440 beds, while University Commons proposes 894, which is more than twice as many beds. So no, the projects are vastly different plus the traffic and circulation impacts are significant and unavoidable with University Commons because it is a mixed-use project with a huge commercial component. University Commons 150,000 sq. ft. of commercial would generate an enormous amount of traffic as well as circulation issues, as well as its 894 residential component, unlike Davis Live which is a significantly smaller residential-only project with less than half the beds on a much smaller parcel.

    This “spin” that you continue to write David, is precisely why I don’t read the Vanguard and therefore rarely post, but in this case the record needs to be set straight. Also, why not show a more representative image like the one I am trying to post of this monolithic mega-dorm, rather than the “thumbnail” images showing a ground level entryway of one store which does not at all show the massiveness of this project?  I am submitting a University Commons image from the EIR which should be posted and used for any future Vanguard article to display more accurately what the University Commons project would actually look like.

    1. Alan Miller

      I don’t read the Vanguard anymore since there is so much misinformation and disinformation,

      I sense a “but” coming . . .

      but . . .

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