by David M. Greenwald
How deep does the pushback against University Commons go, I asked on Tuesday night. Pretty deep was the answer—hundreds of emails, door-to-door leaflets in multiple neighborhoods, and mostly not the usual suspects.
It remains to be seen if lowering the height of the building by about 10 percent will quell concerns. The height is now equal to the highest point on the Fourth and G parking garage and, despite claims to the contrary from the U-Mall neighborhood, the parking garage does not dominate the landscape in Old East Davis and the University Commons will not dominate the landscape north of Russell between Sycamore and Anderson.
The city provided the Vanguard with the emails that were received on Tuesday—there were a lot and they ran at least 10 to 1 against the project. That the project was considered by many to be too big for the site and the neighborhood seems to be a matter of course. The degree to which the objections were not just to size but to type of housing was rather remarkable, especially in a university town heavily tilted toward UC Davis.
I was surprised by the number of UC Davis faculty and employees objecting to the idea that the city should consider student housing across the street from the university.
As one person wrote, almost apologetically, “I may sound like a curmudgeon, but I simply do not think it is essential for students to live across the street from campus.”
She added, “I rode a bus to my college 5 miles each way in a large urban area and I survived.”
Another person over on A Street added, “Allocating 45% of the project to renting per bed will create a mega dorm beholden to the whims of the seasonal student population.”
The anti-student sentiment was so virulent that, almost to a person, the council felt compelled to push back against it—irrespective of their ultimate vote on the project.
Gloria Partida said, “I was really taken aback at the hostility aimed at the students. I know that there is a long and deep-seated frustration at the university for increasing enrollment while not providing housing, but this is not the students’ fault.”
She was not alone in those concerns.
Lucas Frerichs pointed out that people said things “about how we shouldn’t give consideration to student opinions due to their transient nature—that is something that I find frankly appalling.”
Gloria Partida added, “That we don’t want (students) to live in our neighborhoods is unconscionable.”
Brett Lee said, “There’s this underlying notion that there is this blame on the university.” He noted the MOU signed by the city is “legally binding” not “an aspirational we hope to” that requires the university to provide one one-campus housing unit for each student added over and above what is already planned.
“This idea that by approving these projects we’re ‘letting the university off the hook’ is incorrect,” he said.
The entire opposition to this project seems laced with problems and misunderstandings. We saw the rhetoric of “mega-dorm” thrown in throughout, it was language even picked up by the faith community which wrote: “We urge you not to approve this plan and the EIR; we need a project that makes more affordable housing possible and avoids a mega-dorm for the affluent.”
That was in an email from Rev. Dr. Chris Neufeld-Erdman that was signed onto and re-sent by others.
Beyond simply the size, the notion that this would be student housing was a sentiment overwhelmingly punctuated in these emails.
The university should be building this housing, many argued, and should instead have housing for families and employees.
There seems little in the way of consideration as Mayor Partida put it: “Having housing that appeals to students, will likely be filled with students.” Especially across the street from the university.
The city got a key concession from the developer—they agreed to allow tenants to rent either by the unit or the bed, which will allow more flexibility of who can rent there. But make no mistake, whether this was a bunch of four-bedrooms or a bunch of studios, across the street from the university students are going to be the primary renters.
Aside from the overwhelming sentiment that people wanted students housed on campus, there seemed to be another notion—now is the wrong time.
One person wrote: “Dorms belong on campus. Apartments that rent by the apartment, affordable, and open to families or whoever else might want and be able to rent them is what we need. Especially now! We don’t even know how many or when students might be living in Davis year-long.”
There seems to be a lack of recognition that this project is not going to be built now—it is a several year process. Throughout this process, people have played up the uncertainty of whether students will return to campus.
That seems to be ignoring what is happening across the country. This week, several universities that have tried to remain open for on-campus learning have had to shut down the on-campus portion.
I saw on the news yesterday student after student complaining that distance learning is no replacement for on-campus, in-person experience.
The New York Times on Tuesday ran a story that noted students are asking if college is becoming “glorified Skype.” The Times writes, “Incensed at paying face-to-face prices for education that is increasingly online, students and their parents are demanding tuition rebates, increased financial aid, reduced fees and leaves of absences to compensate for what they feel will be a diminished college experience.”
This doesn’t sound like the beginning of a movement away from in-person college experience—it sounds like the exact opposite, and yet Davis residents seem to have missed this debate, in part because the decision was made in California, almost without fanfare for the fall term.
The biggest problem with the pushback seemed the lack of awareness of just what the stakes were.
Some in the public were under the mistaken notion that we could simply leave it as it was. Others somehow believed that the project could get voted down and there could be a smaller project in its wake.
The reality is that the mall is dying and the applicants were ready to walk away.
The idea that this could remain the same was layered in nostalgia and fantasy. Malls across the country are dying.
“Why can’t it just be like it used to be—a vibrant mall,” one said, noting that this is one of the key criticisms of the project. “The retail equation doesn’t work the same way.
“The idea that Brixmor is going to plop a lot of money down and look to the glory days of the 1980s, that’s just not going to happen,” another said. “We see the devastation that retail is experiencing. In order to make it work, it needs to be a mixed-use project.
“This idea that it’s this wonderful gem of a mall,” he said. “Well kinda, I have rosy retrospection as well, but currently it’s on a path that doesn’t look that promising.”
One family wrote: “We have found out that thriving businesses with critical local goods such as Cost Plus World Market will be driven away.” Apparently they were unaware that World Market started the year on the brink of bankruptcy.
The Vanguard meanwhile confirmed on Wednesday that the applicants would have simply walked away without a workable compromise in place.
On Tuesday Bill Brown, representing Brixmor, explained the realities of financing. He explained that in order to underwrite the redevelopment, they need one level of retail and four levels of residential.
“Redevelopment is expressive, we have an existing asset that’s being devalued every day,” he said. “It takes a lot to underwrite the new expense for redevelopment.
“This is a very tight site,” he said, noting that they can’t simply spread this out across the site. He said he believed this was a great location across from a world-class university.
He noted, “I believe we can cut the height from 80 feet to 72. Take 10 percent of the height off it and still have the same cross-section. Still need the one level of retail. Still need four levels of residential And tuck that parking in the rear. It will take some redesign and it will take some program manipulation a bit.”
Otherwise, he noted that “we might have to table it,” saying that they have looked at the financials of this for seven months and “driven these numbers to the ground.”
If Brixmor walked away from this redevelopment, the city would not only be looking at the potential loss of nearly $1 million in tax revenue, they would be looking a shopping center that was largely not functional—you are probably looking at Trader Joe’s and Starbucks and not much else.
The mixed-use project gives them a chance to restructure this site and make it work for today’s economics. For all of the fears about traffic impacts, the city confirmed on Tuesday that the traffic impacts of these changes will be less than six seconds at most intersections. Close proximity to campus could actually have a positive impact by pulling more cars off the road.
And for all the fears about huge sight-line impacts, the reduced size and overall scale of the project should provide the neighbors with far less in the way of impacts than they fear.
—David M. Greenwald reporting