As expected, the University Commons Redevelopment project drew a huge amount of public comments—which ran roughly two to one in favor of the project. But the council expressed serious concerns, and with the clock ticking toward 1 am on Wednesday morning, they agreed to continue the item to August 18.
By our count there were nearly 100 comments, with about two-thirds of them were in favor of the project.
“When I first moved to Davis for school, it was extremely difficult to find housing,” one student said in comments fairly typical of the student perspective. “I had to live far from campus and spend a large portion of my day on the bus constantly commuting to school—back and forth.”
She eventually bought a car because, for her, depending on public transit just was not working.
She indicated that a serious problem in Davis is overcrowding resulting from the deficiency of roughly 4400 housing units in town, even after approving several projects.
“University Commons can help counteract this,” she said. “It’s viable housing because it provides housing without using farmland, the location is right next to campus and it will limit the need for buying and using cars.”
Joe DiNunzio, the Chamber President, expressed the strong support of the Chamber. He cited two reasons. “The first is the opportunity for growth in retail,” he said. He noted the opportunity to generate sales tax revenue, “something that has been a significant challenge for our community.” He went on to cite the opportunity for enhanced retail experiences to allow “all people to shop local.”
Second, he cited the need for housing “where the housing shortage has been a significant challenge” and this would “provide student housing that is conveniently located across from campus,” which would also free up 300 single-family houses that are currently occupied with student rentals.
On the other hand, Ron Oertel said, “I oppose the megadorm that they are looking to build” and said, “I’m concerned with the loss of the commercial space,” noting “there is no reason that it must remain retail.”
Larry Guenther noted that are many aspects of this project he liked, but said, “I do have serious problems with the project as it stands.” He argued, “By-the-bed renting increases per bed costs and reduces the flexibility of the units. Mass and scale must be both appropriate and appropriately placed with regard to existing neighborhoods.”
The council clearly had areas of concern as well.
Will Arnold noted that his major concern is the proposed housing unit mix, not just the size and scope, which he also had concerns about.
“We’ve approved a lot of these developments over the course of these many years,” he said, “taking the housing crisis head-on, including a number of very big projects that are these purpose-built group housing, student complexes.”
He said, “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 was also very direct in saying four-bedroom apartments need to be off the table.
“I’m a proponent for having zero four-bedroom units,” he said. “I want to find a way to get there.”
He added, including four-bedroom units “just doesn’t provide the diversity of housing needs that I think made very clear is what we’re looking for going for—and the council has made very clear that that’s what we want.”
He is also concerned with size and massing.
“I too am concerned about the height,” he said. “Folks called it a seven-story wall. It’s hard to argue with that.”
He 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.”
Brett Lee also focused on the issue of the rental types—beds versus bedrooms versus units.
He said, “I am concerned that by the very nature of the structure of the leasing agreement precludes non-students or folks that would actually like to have a full two bedroom unit or four bedroom unit for themselves and their family.”
He had a mixed view on traffic impacts.
Councilmember Lee said, “I know some folks are focused on the impacts of having so many people living on this site. I think I tilt a little bit more toward these are folks that already live somewhere and so their net journeys are probably somewhat reduced to what they are currently doing in terms of their driving patterns and commute patterns.”
But he did have concerns with access to the mall itself, arguing that it wasn’t clear what the plan was to make it that people entering the mall have a smooth way of doing so.
Councilmember Lee also addressed an issue with the university that some people have, “why isn’t UCD housing more people on campus,” but he pointed out that the university has committed in a binding MOU to 15,000 student beds on campus.
“The public really isn’t aware of the strength of the MOU that it signed about a year and a half ago,” he said. “This MOU is different. This one is a legally binding MOU.”
He said, “This is not an aspirational MOU.”
There are also concerned about the lack of community gathering spaces.
Will Arnold expressed the concern that “I as much as anyone recognize the sad state of affairs of all of our malls.” He said “the mall is not where folks go.” But “it used to be a community gathering places.”
Lucas Frerichs noted that, often, revised malls have public spaces and he said he didn’t see that in the current proposal.
“Any kind of density situation regardless of location—how do we maximize public spaces?” he asked.
As Will Arnold said, “Lucas had the line of the night in saying, for something called the University Commons, where are the commons?”
The applicants have now had a chance to hear council’s initial feedback and will have four weeks until August 18 to perhaps address those concerns.
—-David M. Greenwald reporting