This project really hasn’t gotten as much focus as some others over the years—Nishi, Trackside, the varying versions of DISC—but University Commons may end up being the most polarized of them all.
The public comment ran about 2 to 1 in favor of the project. From the student standpoint, they see housing insecurity—yes, the short term is a bit uncertain with COVID and distance learning, but long term, there have been clear needs.
The business community sees a dying mall and a projection of nearly $1 million in ongoing revenue in a community that is lacking retail space.
But for neighbors and slow growth advocates they see a seven-story wall to their south.
Councilmember Will Arnold’s comments are fairly telling. As we shift to district elections, he represents this district. That makes this all the more interesting—how does he handle this?
His point at the start is interesting: “For the folks saying in public that this type of project is needed in Davis, really the answer is whether a fifth one of these projects is needed in Davis.”
He also pushed back on the housing mix, arguing that we should have zero four-bedroom apartments.
“I’m a proponent for having zero four-bedroom units,” he said. “I want to find a way to get there.”
On the height he pointed out, “Folks called it a seven-story wall. It’s hard to argue with that.”
He also wants to find a way to address that height issue, but said in his conversations with the developer they view that as being “off the table.” He responded, “I think it needs to be on the table.”
This is already an interesting dynamic. After all, you have the students arguing we need more housing near campus and the neighborhood and some of the community members arguing that this is too big and has too many impacts.
Adding to the dynamics of this situation is that the developer has a lot more leverage than they normally would in a land use deal in Davis. Normally, developers are looking at a decent return on investment and face an uphill climb needing to get approval from the council and voters as well.
But in this case, the developer actually holds most of the cards. Brixmor is a big company, they own a lot of these properties—they could probably walk away from this project and flip the property at some point with minimal losses.
The city, on the other hand, stands to lose a lot here. First, during a time when the city coffers stand to be hammered, losing $1 million in revenue is no small matter. And second, this is a property that desperately needs revitalization or it is going to largely become blight. Already the Grad is gone and that space is empty, Forever 21 is gone, World Market is in trouble, so you could be looking at a space that is Trader Joe’s and maybe a few small frontage stores.
The developers were willing to give a little—they gave on affordable, they shifted the mix on mix of rooms, and that was about it.
Will Arnold naturally wants to get some major changes.
Can they move the location of the parking structure so that it is separate from the housing? It would be a major change to the layout, but if they could put four stories of parking behind four stories of housing, they can have the same footprint for commercial, and the same number of housing units without going to seven stories.
I have no idea if that is workable, either financially or with space.
The problem that the city council faces is if they push too far, the developers simply walk away and leave the mall to fail. And that is a losing proposition for this community.
Personally, I push for configurations like I suggested above and stop worrying about the housing mix.
Here’s the thing: students are likely to live there predominantly anyway, given the location of this project—so let them. And then focus efforts on converting older apartments further from campus into workforce and family housing.
—David M. Greenwald reporting