By Molly Mermin
I spent several hours the night of July 21st tuned into the Davis City Council meeting, listening to over 100 commenters express their views on the proposed University Commons project. This project would redevelop the University Mall area at the corner of Anderson and Russell, tearing down the aging, mostly-empty mall and replacing it with a mixed-use development.
While it may seem odd for a college student to spend her evening listening to public comment at a City Council meeting, I know how important projects like this are to the lives of my fellow students and the future of this community, and I wanted to see what the public and the City Council thought.
The population of Davis has grown greatly in the past few decades, to the benefit of our local economy. However, Davis has consistently failed to keep up with the increased demand for housing, with the result being an extremely low vacancy rate, causing a myriad of problems for renters that end up affecting the entire community.
I renewed my lease for the upcoming school year back in December, a full eight months before the lease takes effect. Renewing a lease eight months in advance is, unfortunately, standard practice among renters in Davis because quality apartments fill up so quickly.
The housing shortage incentivizes overcrowding, leading to the so-called “mini-dorms”’ that many Davis residents have complained about. Furthermore, many students turn to rent single-family homes in neighborhoods far from campus, where the neighbors may have moved, not expecting to live near so many students.
Some students have even moved out of the city and chosen to commute from Woodland or West Sacramento. Students living far from campus exacerbates traffic, creating a worse community for everyone.
This is not the worst of it, however. 18% of UC Davis students–approximately 6,104 people— have experienced housing insecurity, and 2.6% or 688, report having slept in their cars. Surely, this is something we can all agree on: no one in our community should be housing insecure.
The best way to fix the housing crisis is to build more housing. Although the city has voted to approve several projects in the last few years, it was almost 20 years since the last market-rate apartment was built until Sterling came online this summer.
Troublingly, the Nishi project I voted for in 2018 has not even broken ground, two years after it was approved by the voters. Some have estimated that Davis has a housing deficit of around 5,000 beds, which would still leave us with a housing shortage even if every approved project were built. Statewide, California has an estimated housing shortage of around 2,000,000 units.
The University Commons project would add almost 900 beds, and add them close to campus, where they are needed most. Students living at University Commons would feel little need to drive to campus, with a study finding that those living within 1 mile of campus use a car less than 5% of the time. The EIR found that the average vehicle miles traveled (VMT) would drop to an average of 38 VMT in Davis to 16 for those at University Commons.
If built, University Commons would help decrease traffic in the city, not increase it. Additionally, the University Mall is badly in need of redevelopment, with many of the storefronts empty even before the current recession. A mixed-use development would revitalize the retail portion of the mall, while providing housing where it is needed most.
Many residents of Davis from all stripes seemed to recognize this at the City Council meeting. Students, business owners, renters, homeowners, and neighbors all spoke in favor of the project. I was encouraged to see that comments were 2:1 in favor of the project, but saddened by the reasons a few were against it.
Virulent anti-student rhetoric was spewed by far too many in what I thought was a welcoming college town. Commenters repeatedly echoed the misguided sentiments of the planning commission—that this project is for the students and not the community.
I find it extremely offensive to suggest that students are not part of the community. We live, work, vote, and spend our money here. However, that did not stop commenters from saying the project was “too supportive of students,” or that they did not want to be turned into “a giant dormitory.”
One commenter even said that “we are inundated in this area with student housing, you’re turning our area into a student ghetto.”
I think that one should expect to live near students if one lives near campus. Yet, this project isn’t even encroaching on a single-family-housing neighborhood—it is literally surrounded on three of the four sides by apartments and dorms, with the other side being a Rite Aid.
It’s essential to look at not just the numbers of commenters for or against the project, but critically their reasons. The commenters against the project largely had aesthetic concerns, with many noting the height of the proposed building or parking.
Those in favor were primarily concerned with housing insecurity. They highlighted that the housing shortage in Davis impacts our most vulnerable community members the most—people of color, first-generation students, and low-income people are most at risk of housing insecurity.
I was extremely disappointed to see the Council echo the sentiments of those opposed to the project while ignoring many of the points made by those in favor, even though the opposition was greatly outnumbered.
As a voter in District 2, I’m looking at this upcoming City Council vote closely. Many other students and I are closely following the three upcoming races for City Council. Land use planning is one of the most direct impacts to our lives as students in Davis the City Council can make.
If Davis wants to live its values as a progressive, inclusive city, it will do well to actually be welcoming to all—especially students of color—and to support the members of the community who are being pushed out by expensive housing. I hope that the City Council sees the light on this issue.
Molly Mermin is a UC Davis Student and member of the College Democrats.
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