Commentary: Where Is the City Going to Go with University Commons?

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

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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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  1. JosephBiello

    That 7 story “wall” is going to only block the parking lot of the apartments immediately to the north of it.     The neighbors (I being one of them) think its a great idea.   I walk to that mall regularly from the north side (its back).  It is so ugly behind the mall that any change will be an improvement for the neighbors to the north.

    The answer to Will Arnold’s question is – YES, we do need another one of these.   This kind of housing takes the pressure off of single family houses elsewhere in Davis (which are used as student housing now) and allows for young families to move back into Davis.

    Does anyone see that young faculty families CANNOT move into town because of housing prices?  Nor can young staff members and their families?   You want to reduce traffic in this town, you build dense, and close for young students and researchers (i.e. UNIVERSITY COMMONS) thereby allowing for existing rental houses to be returned to the single family market.   Of course it is far too late to expect these houses to become affordable as starter homes – but if we don’t try, we will see a continued drop in the faction of Davis resident children in our school district, meaning more traffic coming into town because we can’t support our existing infrastructure (i.e. the schools).

    Excellent project.  Excellent location.  The opposition needs to be called out as being disingenuous about the height and traffic issues. I am not worried a tiny bit about the light at Sycamore and Russell – geez, if it becomes a problem, we can enter that neighborhood from Covell and Russell or 8th and Russell. We can’t make every tiny inconvenience into a show stopper for every interesting project. [I saw in yesterday’s comments that people were quibbling about the details of the design on the property! ]


    David, you should go take a picture of the BACK of the current Mall to respond to the people who say the new structure would be “a terrible wall”.   They have no idea what it looks like now.





    1. Alan Miller

      This post annoys me.  So ur a supporter.  THE neighbors?  No, some of the neighbors.  And because the service alley looks like S right now, you compare an 80′ wall to a 15′ wall?  That’s not even logical.  OK, you like the project . . . goodie gumdrops 4u..

  2. Keith Echols

    Are the for market units in this project really intended for students?  Assuming it’s something like affordable housing; unless special arrangements are made to reserve units for students (including pricing) then newly developed for market housing units are generally more expensive than existing older ones in other areas of the city.

    Why is Will Arnold against the 4 unit apartments?  Is it because they’re upper end housing (meant for larger numbered or richer tenants)?  Or is it because they may become Dorm like with 4 students living in a 4 bedroom unit (which I wonder might still be more expensive than renting rooms in other areas of Davis)?

    IMO the city needs the retail component.  The housing on it’s own…not so much.  But I wonder if it’s the housing component that makes this mixed used project pencil for the developer?  If the housing is what gets the retail part of the project work…fine, I guess…..   But I wonder if a more aggressive retail focused project work better?

      1. Keith Echols

        “Upper End” in terms of cost (I don’t know about luxury…though I think this project says they’ll have a swimming pool and gym?).  They’re bigger.  Bigger means they’ll cost more than smaller units.  Being new means they’ll likely cost more than most existing units elsewhere in town.

  3. Ron Oertel

    A question (for David, or anyone else who knows the answer):

    Yesterday, there was an article from a guest commenter who suggested that the city (somehow) convince large landlords within the city to essentially “cancel the rent” (void lease agreements without penalty, I assume), since many of the existing apartments won’t be needed for the foreseeable future (due to Covid).

    Several other student commenters at the recent council meeting suggested the same thing.

    My question is, does UCD allow its renters to cancel their leases in this situation, without penalty?  (I recall reading about a loss of revenue at UCD, due to cancelled residential lease agreements.)

    1. Ron Oertel

      Here is one related article:

       However we didn’t realize that being off-campus means we are not insured for anything if COVID were to hit,” said Angela Saha, a sophomore at UCR.

      Here’s another one:

       UC Irvine recently modified its policy to allow students to cancel before Sept. 1 for a full refund.

      Pretty tough for off-campus student housing (like the proposed University Commons proposal) to compete with that! Perhaps they should pursue a little more diversity/stability, regarding their target market of renters. (Assuming that housing is approved within the mall, in the first place.)

      I would imagine that at least some students are happy that they signed leases on campus, rather than off-campus.

      Not sure of the situation regarding cancellation of residential leases on UCD’s campus.



      1. David Greenwald

        I think if we’re still dealing with this covid stuff in five years or however long it takes to build this, refund policy is the least of our problems.

        1. Ron Oertel

          It’s certainly an example of where publicly-funded universities can act in the best interests of students, compared to private developers.

          And, it demonstrates to private developers that perhaps the student market is not as stable as it seemed.

          It also seems to me that university towns are much more likely to pressure private developers (in such situations), if their complexes are filled with nothing but students.

          The least of the concerns (especially “right now”) is to build more student housing within the city – in addition to Sterling, Lincoln40, Davis Live, Nishi, Chiles Road apartments, etc.  Not to mention everything on campus that hasn’t come online, yet. (Note that much of the housing planned for campus doesn’t even have a “timeline”, yet. Perhaps moving up that timeline is where the focus should be.)

          Seemed to me that Sterling was constructed pretty quickly, after approval.  (And, they had to tear down some pretty nice and new structures to do so.)

          It also seems to me that Covid is “kick-starting” a trend toward more online learning and working.  And, the technology is now there to accomplish that.

          My thought (regarding University Mall) is that commercial does not necessarily have to be limited to retail.


  4. David Greenwald

    Meanwhile the bigger threat… From the Sac Biz Journal: “The pandemic is a multifaceted threat that has mall owners in free fall, and some experts believe it will be the final death blow to hundreds of shopping malls across the country.”

    I think people need to recognize that the choice may be between this proposal and a hole in the ground, not this proposal and something better.

    1. Keith Echols

      The University Mall won’t stay a hole in the ground.  The real estate is too valuable.  What about class A office space?  That might be a good productive use for the property.  Students aren’t going to be completely remotely located from campus indefinitely so I’m guessing retail will still work.

      Heck, if it gets desperate and the price is cheap enough…I’ve been thinking about a retail to self storage conversion project.

      Did the Grad ever consider opening up elsewhere?

      1. Ron Glick

        Office space is likely one of the classes of real estate that will stay contracted after the pandemic. Too many people have found the benefits of working from home compelling enough to want to continue doing so.


        1. Keith Echols

          I’m willing to bet that if this pandemic keeps going, that some entrepreneurial person will start designing and redesigning offices that have ways of maintaining social distancing and effective ventilation.

          Anyone old enough to remember “Get Smart” with the Cone of Silence?  Two cones come down over the speakers to communicate.  Those cones were connected by an open tube.  But replace that tube with a two way radio and you’ve got personal office shielding.   “Get Smart” was ahead of it’s time.  I’m sure someone has invented a cellular shoe phone.

  5. Ron Glick

    “Yesterday, there was an article from a guest commenter who suggested that the city (somehow) convince large landlords within the city to essentially “cancel the rent” (void lease agreements without penalty, I assume), since many of the existing apartments won’t be needed for the foreseeable future (due to Covid).”

    My reading was that the landlord was unwilling to renegotiate. When the market shifted from landlord advantage to renter advantage hardball landlords should be addressed by hardball renters. There are lots of things the renters can do to bring intransigent landlords to the table.

      1. Ron Glick

        I’m not a lawyer so I don’t want to start giving legal advice even on a blog because it would likely be wrong. However there are legal aid and tenant rights groups who do know this area of law and who can advise people.  It likely won’t cost you more to talk to someone at legal aid about what your rights are. Then once you know your options you can select a scenario for going forward.

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