Sunday Commentary: The University Commons ‘Wall’ Impact Has Been Greatly Overstated

One of the biggest complaints about the University Commons project has been “size, scale, and height of the project.”  Critics have a point here—the project is projected to have three stories of parking with four stories of residential on top.

But the impact of that height might be overstated, as I will attempt to show.

According to the staff report: “The new mixed use building would stretch across the rear portion of the property and would be up to 80 feet tall with as many as 7 levels.”

Staff acknowledges that this would be larger and taller than the surrounding development, which is largely three- or four-story apartments mixed with low-density development and low-rise buildings.

However, as I have pointed out: “The Davis Live Project, which is nearby and currently under construction, is of a similar height with 7 stories.”

Critics, such as Eileen Samitz, disagree with this characterization.  She noted that one difference is that Davis Live is only a single building on a small parcel.

She writes in a comment on the Vanguard that “studies were done to assure that there were no shadowing or privacy issues, and it was designed accordingly.”

On the other hand, she points out, “This ‘University Commons’ project, in contrast, is the equivalent of nine or ten 7-story buildings lined up like a wall and even longer than the wall effect of Sterling Apartments on 5th Street as well as a few stories taller.”

She continues: “What about the enormous shadow that this monolithic building will cast on nearby homes? I guess adding solar will not be an option for nearby houses, no less the privacy issues expected since this U-Mall project is enormous horizontally, as well as vertically. So yes, it is far too big and out of scale.”

While a large percentage of the public commenters supported the project, Councilmember Will Arnold noted, “Folks called it a seven-story wall. It’s hard to argue with that.”

Certainly, this CGI (computer generated image) of the proposal is imposing.

I have seen ideas to move it more toward Russell and have suggested moving the project forward and putting the parking garage behind it.

But the reality is that the actual visual impact of the development is going to be far less than critics believe.

The biggest factor is that people underestimate how rapidly vertical impact is diminished by horizontal spacing.  I will discuss this point shortly.

But first, understand that the buildings most immediately surrounding it are in fact commercial or apartments.  You have the University Court across the street on Sycamore, the Davis Chinese Christian Church across the street on Anderson.  Behind it you have the Sycamore Lane Apartments and also the Davis Medical Center.  If you go up Hawthorn Lane, you hit the Episcopal Church and the STEAC center.  You have to get all the way up to Mulberry Lane before you hit single-family homes with a rear view of the project.

According to the city, those are 500 feet of horizontal distance away.

It would probably serve the developers and community well if they want to do some sort of computer simulation to show what the visual impact of the height is likely to be, depending on the vantage point.

This is what Trackside originally did.

Back in July of 2015, I went out to the site and took photos of the 4th and G parking structure.  The parking structure at the high point goes to about 72 feet according to my discussion with the Trackside developers at the time.  I grant that this did not show the impact of the full structure, but it gives everyone an idea of how quickly the impact fades.

The first photo shows me taking a shot of the structure from the train tracks – that is probably within 50 feet of the structure and shows how big an immediate impact.

A view of the parking structure from the far corner of I and 4th attempts to show a limited impact of a tall building for most neighbors

But here is what happens when you get just a block away from the structure – this is taken from the far corner of I and 4th attempts to show a limited impact of a tall building for most neighbors.

Notice that at this point I have to shoot under the tree to get the structure insight and if I move down the block, it would be largely blocked by existing housing.

At 500 feet (probably twice the distance from this photo) with rows of apartment buildings, residents won’t even see it.  The only people who are going to see the building itself are going to be living in apartments – and they will most likely never experience the change of circumstances.

The biggest impacts will be from Russell, but even that impact will be mitigated by how far the structure is set back from the street.  The impact of Sterling is going to be larger because it is right on the street whereas this will be set back a good distance from Russell.  The other impacts will be on Sycamore and Anderson – that will have an impact on the street – but not from a lot of residents in their homes and moreover, the side impacts will not be the length of the “wall” but simply of the side profile.

In short, this “Wall” concept is not going to impact anyone living to the north of the project in single-family homes – they won’t even see the project.

—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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23 Comments

  1. Don Shor

    Determining the shadow pattern of trees is done quite regularly. Calculating the shadow depends on the latitude. Greatest impact is to the north at the winter solstice.

    I think you will find that no single-family houses would be in the shadow of this building.

    https://planetcalc.com/1875/

     

  2. Ron Glick

    “In short, this “Wall” concept is not going to impact anyone living to the north of the project in single-family homes –”

    I don’t  see the importance of impacts on single family homes 500 feet away. I think the impact in question is if the apartments to the north will  get any sunlight in winter? I think that is a legitimate point of discussion. Did the EIR address this impact, and, if so, are there ways to mitigate it?

    1. Don Shor

      I think the impact in question is if the apartments to the north will get any sunlight in winter?

      No, those apartments will be completely shaded.

      … are there ways to mitigate it?

      Lower rent for those apartments.

    2. JosephBiello

      Ron, enough with the kidding around.  Most of those apartments face inward anyway.  There is a parking lot to the south of those apartments and a delivery lane currently to the north of the mall.

       

      (BTW, I just measured on google earth and the current footprint of the building is 550 feet from the back of the Mulberry lane houses)

      Assuming the mall stays on the same footprint (but I think it is moving north a few dozen feet) then it is 100 feet from the nearest apartment.   At 80 feet height this makes an angle of  39 degrees with the horizon.

      The sun, at its zenith during the winter solstice is at about 28 degrees.  So, yes, those students will not be getting direct sunlight into their houses for a very small portion of the year.

      Your next door neighbor’s 2 story house would cover about the same amount of sun.

       

       

       

       

      1. Ron Glick

        Thanks for doing the math Joe. Looking at a satellite photo it appears that sun will come in from both east and west on the edges of the property so the sunless footprint will be small during the solar minimum days near the solstice. Also students usually leave for the holidays so the chances of vitamin D deficiency leading to Ricketts is low if those units are occupied by students. This being Davis the CC should make the U Mall owners provide vitamin D for the neighborhood in perpetuity.

         

  3. JosephBiello

    The slightest bit of trigonometry will show the reader that 80 feet (or even 100 feet) elevation viewed from the backs of the houses on Mulberry (500 feet away)  has the same “shadow” as fence of height 1 foot  as viewed from 6’3”  away.  So look at the difference between a 6 foot fence and a 7 foot fence and that will be  the  “visual impact” for the houses on Mulberry.

    Having very close friends on that southern end of Mulberry I can assure you that there will be NO visual impact whatsoever.

    Furthermore, all you naysayers can go take a walk and look at the atrocious back of that building as it stands right now.   Blight is the only word that should be used for the back of this mall in its current incarnation.

    Enough with this nonsense argument.  Those of you with “nostalgia for the old Davis” need to stop filibustering every interesting proposal.

    As a close neighbor, a resident who uses the Sycamore and Russell intersection DAILY, and one who walks with his children to that mall at least once per week, I am excited to support this development.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    1. Alan Miller

      Furthermore, all you naysayers can go take a walk and look at the atrocious back of that building as it stands right now.   Blight is the only word that should be used for the back of this mall in its current incarnation.

      Naaaaaaaaaaay!   Good Lord, what does the alleyway along the north side of the current mall have to do with anything?  The current condition of the alleyway is irrelevant to: “a wall or not a wall — that is the question”.  The use of the word ‘blight’ is motive suspicion.

  4. Dave Hart

    I agree that the worry over the height of the building is overstated.  And while Davis has a tradition of ranch style spread out development that we all have grown to love so much, this higher density construction is exciting to me.  Yeah, I like it.  It’s as if our city can be something more than a ranch style suburb.  I do think the idea of placing the building along Russell should be explored for its visual impact as well.  In any case, as the right wingers used to say about large water projects, “build it, dam it.”

    1. Alan Miller

      as the right wingers used to say about large water projects, “build it, dam it.”

      Looking at the sheer size and solid block quality of the project, perhaps it should be repurposed as a plug for a canyon for the next state water project — hot dam!

  5. Tia Will

    David

    I believe that you, and perhaps everyone trying to minimize the impact of a building of very different height in the neighborhood speak with such certainty is because you and they are not affected by it.

    The Lincoln Forty is 1/2 block and across the railroad tracks from my home. I would love to invite you to my place to see for yourself what the impacts actually are when you spend a lot, and in the time of COVID-19, I mean a lot of time sitting on your front porch. I supported the project because I felt it served a greater need than mine. But please do not try to minimize the change to my life and that of my neighbors when at the end of the day, you go back to your unaffected home.

    1. David Greenwald

      I have driven by your house many times as I drive down third street to downtown, I can see Lincoln40. That said my only point is that most people are not going to see University Commons from their home.

      1. Alan Miller

        This is what Trackside originally did.

        And it has gone so well for them.

        most people are not going to see University Commons from their home..

        Hey, Sarah Palin could see Russia from her house.

      2. Tia Will

        David

        Your post highlights the intent of mine. Most people will only drive past these much larger structures and as such may note the building, but it will not impact them in any way. My point is precisely that. Those people tend to favor such projects while not acknowledging the degree of impact on the minority.

        1. David Greenwald

          I think that’s fair.  On the other hand, every project is going to have some impacts on surrounding areas.  The goal of the council should be to minimize them.  My point in writing this article was to try to put into perspective the impact of this project – the designation of the “wall” I think is misleading and implies a much greater impact.  On the other hand it is a trade off.  Currently the building is not in great condition and likely to deteriorate without an influx of capitol.  The council will look to further reduce the impacts of the project which is a good idea.  We will see how far they can go and still have a project that is viable.

    2. Dave Hart

      As David commented, the Univ. Mall project is not in anyone’s back yard.  I think you will find that once the Lincoln 40 project is built, it will be not so long before you cease to pay attention to it.  When the Sterling project started up along a route I frequent, I had a similar thought as you have expressed.  As the months have passed, it doesn’t seem as imposing.  After a time, it will be nothing out of the ordinary.  Humans adapt and all of us, unless we are very protected behind some kind of wall eventually have to come to terms with changes in our environment that we are initially not in favor of.   We’re talking about badly needed housing and economic development, not a high security prison or an oil refinery.  The University Mall was a glorified strip mall and now there is a chance to do something better.  I hope the community gets past the “not like it used to be” stage and can step back and take the longer view.

    3. Dave Hart

      BTW, Tia, I did consider the possibility I was being unduly dismissive of your concern about the height of the Lincoln 40 complex so I jumped on my bike out here near Mace Ranch and rode down to the foot of I, J and K Streets to take a gander across the RR tracks.  I am glad to say I can double down on my earlier comment. There is no solar shadow to anyone north of the tracks at any time of the year.  It is only visible from the front porches of houses on J Street.  Lincoln 40 does obscure some very ugly telephone and power switching gear on the east end of the development and maybe along Olive Drive.  It’s not as tall as the trees on its northern boundary that mask it somewhat from view.  Even with the scaffolding it’s an improvement over what was there and I predict the neighbors north of the tracks who live on that one block of J Street will come to forget they ever hated it.

  6. Eileen Samitz

    David,

     I find it astonishing that you are trying to diminish the enormity of this 7-story monolithic mega-dorm.  You have the luxury of not living anywhere near it, so you conveniently dismiss its mass and scale which are completely out of proportion while you also ignore the overwhelming impacts it would bring.

     Meanwhile, let’s for the moment focus on the height shadowing impacts you raised. You clearly are not objective on this at all, because if you were you would be raising comments and question such as:

    1) Sun height during winter solstice shouldn’t only be looked at high noon.

    2) Why are the apartments to the north being in a shadow considered irrelevant? Look at the significant shadow darkness during the winter solstice imposed on the apartment complex to immediate north. Do these significant impacts on these renters not count?

    3) Even the interior courtyards in apartments to the north get completely shaded. 

    4) Some single family-houses on the east side of Anderson would get impacted by the shadow in the afternoon, even in the summer.

    Attached are the actually shadow studies images done on the project. Take a look at the impacts particularly during the winter. ( I have sent the images to you and Don to post here).

  7. Ron Glick

    “You have the luxury of not living anywhere near it, so you conveniently dismiss its mass and scale which are completely out of proportion while you also ignore the overwhelming impacts it would bring.”

    Eileen do you live anywhere near it? I do. I’m curious because you raise the issue with David. I live less than a mile away. I would go there regularly before the pandemic sequestered me. Should we limit opinions to only those that live nearby? How far away do you think appropriate?

    1. Tia Will

      Ron

      One does not have to live next to a building oneself to realize the impacts it may have on others. We had this discussion many times with regard to Trackside. A certain very Frank poster told me several times that I should not worry about it because it would not affect my property directly. If my only concern were myself, I would not ever engage on the Vanguard or openly oppose any project before the city. I would be much more inclined to work “behind the scenes”, but from my perspective, if an issue affects any of us, it affects all of us, and some are much more willing to speak out than others.

  8. Ron Glick

    “1) Sun height during winter solstice shouldn’t only be looked at high noon.”

    The shadow study doesn’t only look at noon.

    “2) Why are the apartments to the north being in a shadow considered irrelevant? Look at the significant shadow darkness during the winter solstice imposed on the apartment complex to immediate north. Do these significant impacts on these renters not count?”

    I agree that the renters living to the north should not be considered irrelevant and pointed it out above. However, after looking at the shadow study I’m not sure the impact is a deal breaker. First because light comes in from the east and west most of the neighboring property still gets some sunlight. Second, if students live there they will likely not be around at the winter solstice. So, some of the days of limited sunlight will coincide with days of limited occupancy. Even if the decision makers think this is an important impact they could ask for mitigations to let more light into that area.

    “4) Some single family-houses on the east side of Anderson would get impacted by the shadow in the afternoon, even in the summer.”

    Shadow in the afternoon in summer is the hottest time of the hottest days. The cooling effect of that shadow could be considered a plus.

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