Modified University Commons Project Approved on a 3-2 Vote

By David Greenwald

The council, which prides itself on its ability to find consensus, found itself split on University Commons.  In the initial round, they found themselves with only two supporters—Dan Carson and Gloria Partida.  The other three believed that the project was too large in mass and scale.

Ultimately, Brett Lee proposed a five-story modified proposal.  Even that could not bring Will Arnold and Lucas Frerichs over.  The modified proposal passed on a rare 3-2 vote.

Even before the start of the meeting, there were several key concessions by the applicant.  Affordable housing now had 13 studio units (five percent) for low-income households, and 13 two-bedroom units (another five percent) for middle-income households.

In addition, they offered to reconfigure the bed and bedroom mixes.  They will now cluster the smaller units in one part of the project, offer options for either bed or unit leases depending on the preference of the tenants, affordable units will be unit leases and the number of four-
bedroom units will be limited to 45 percent of 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.”

She noted, “Having housing that appeals to students, will likely be filled with students.”  She noted most importantly that “it will house 826 people.”

While most of the council pushed back against some of the anti-student rhetoric, three of the councilmembers simply believed that the project was “too big for the site.”

Councilmember Will Arnold went further than just size and massing, expressing concerns not only about size and scale, but also the lack of diversity of housing and affordability.

“Students need housing that they can afford,” he said.  “More than what we have in front of us.”

He added, “I’m not there yet, but I’m interested in seeing where we can get to.”

It was Brett Lee who pointed the way to compromise, noting that the “elephant in the room” was the size and mass of the project but at the same time acknowledging the need for more housing in the community.

“We’re a split council at this point,” Lee said.  “I feel this might be a bridge too far for the applicant but I think it is worth an effort to reach consensus among the five of us.  I think seven stories is too large.”

He would suggest they approve the project and say “seven stories is too tall” but “we will approve a five-story project” and allow the applicant to try to make it work.

Listening to the council discussion, 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.”

But, even with these changes, Will Arnold still expressed concerns about affordability and the availability of the units for all renters.

Gloria Partida pushed back, noting that the project was across the street from the university and that no matter the configuration she would expect student renters.

“It would be great if we could get every single thing out of every single project,” she said.  “But every project serves a purpose and this project is in the location that it’s at—and it’s going to serve its purpose.”

A location further away from campus absolutely, she said, would have zero to four bedrooms and much more increased affordability.

She said, “We are opening housing in other parts of the community and moving students to where they are less impactful.”

Brett Lee made several critical points.

“Why can’t it just be like it used to be—a vibrant mall,” he 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,” he 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.”

He did note that from his perspective providing housing that is not going to be solely rental by the bed is critical.

“I do believe we need more housing,” he said.

In the end he said, “I am willing to commit to five stories,” and “that makes me more comfortable.”

The motion was put forward by Dan Carson and Brett Lee.  After some wordsmithing and jockeying, however, Frerichs and Arnold were not willing to support it at this time.  The motion passed 3-2.

—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. Joe Bolte

    It was 110 yesterday. Ash literally fell from the sky. People in Davis sleep in tents and cars, or share single bedroom because of lack of housing.

    It’s hard to think of a more trivial objection than 80 feet being too tall.



    1. Todd Edelman


      Certainly a politician could create a mechanism to make it look like they are asking for a reasonable compromise. Certainly a politician could mistake this suggestion for a tangible compromise — one with good results. Clearly the height issue would be less relevant if the entire structure was moved south, mostly or partly fronting on Russell. That could also give Russell direct retail services, right off the street. But that would be bike and ped-oriented! This is clearly an automobile-focused development! How convenient is the gas station for people storing a vehicle which they will use for everything except for going to campus or possibly going Downtown. Nearly everyone with cars here uses them for most of their trips not to campus. We don’t have a non-campus travel survey! It would look terrible for trips to the store.

    2. Alan Miller

      It was 110 yesterday. Ash literally fell from the sky. People in Davis sleep in tents and cars, or share single bedroom because of lack of housing.

      Objection.  That was SO early 2020.

  2. Bill Marshall

    however, Frerichs and Arnold were not willing to support it at this time.

    The two currently running for election… not saying this is what happened, but it is well known that if you know something will pass, it’s easy to vote in the ‘minority’… a token vote, to curry favor with some elements of your constituency… you can tell those in favor, it was passed on ‘your watch’… to those opposed, you can point to your vote, and say “I tried”… pure political strategy… smart…

      1. Bill Marshall

        Probably posturing… without even without violating Brown Act, folk know how to count noses, wet finger and judge the wind… it is what it is…

  3. Ron Oertel

    So, maybe I’m missing something here, as I only watched the last portion of the meeting.  Here’s what I gathered, but this might be more appropriate to view as “questions”.  I’d look forward to any corrections regarding the following:

    There was no increase in the amount of Affordable units.
    There was no reduction in the number of overall units.
    There was no reduction in the number of 4-bedroom units.
    There was no reduction in the number of floors.
    There was no change to the number of parking spaces.
    There was a reduction in the amount of retail space (on the order of 30,000 square feet, I seem to recall) – as a result of reducing the height by 8 feet.


    1. David Greenwald

      “There was no increase in the amount of Affordable units.”

      They went from none to 26 – 10% of units.

      “There was no reduction in the number of overall units.”

      I don’t recall anyone calling for fewer units, only less height

      “There was no reduction in the number of 4-bedroom units.”

      They set four bedrooms units at 45 percent

      “There was no reduction in the number of floors.”

      One floor of retail, four floor of residential. Height reduction accomplished by putting parking in the back.

      “There was no change to the number of parking spaces.”


      “There was a reduction in the amount of retail space (on the order of 30,000 square feet, I seem to recall) – as a result of reducing the height by 8 feet.”

      Don’t believe that is the case, but didn’t catch the SF

        1. Alan Miller

          > I wonder how the local residents are going to feel about that?

          > I’m going to guess they are not going to like it

          Davis could commission a 72-foot “Black Lives Matter” mural on the north wall of the parking structure.  Problem solved.

        2. Keith Olsen

          Davis could commission a 72-foot “Black Lives Matter” mural on the north wall of the parking structure.  Problem solved.

          Why commission, just do it like they did it on 2nd Street.

    2. Ron Oertel

      In looking at your response, what are you comparing it to?

      For example, the same number of Affordable units existed for the proposal, prior to the meeting.  It seems that you’re confirming that there was no increase from that base number.

      You’re wrong, regarding concerns related to size of the proposal.  It was noted by Brett, for example, that folks generally look at the number of floors, more than a few feet difference in height.

      Again, was there any change regarding the number of floors (or units)?

      Was there any change regarding the number of 4-bedroom units?

      It seems that you’re essentially confirming all of what I understood, above.  With the possible exception of the reduction in retail space (which Will Arnold noted).  However, this was not entirely clear.




        1. Ron Oertel

          Again, I recall that these Affordable units existed within the proposal prior to last night.  In fact, there was lengthy discussion on this blog about it, prior to last night.

          However, I don’t know exactly when, or how it resulted.

          Have they worked anything out to ensure that the city’s Affordable housing fund receives any difference, if they fail to rent those units at an Affordable rate?

          Who checks on, or enforces that?

  4. Ron Oertel

    A location further away from campus absolutely, she said, would have zero to four bedrooms and much more increased affordability.

    Hmm.  What occurred at Sterling?  Or, any of the other recent developments which are farther away?

  5. Ron Oertel

    Watching it – I don’t think anyone knew it would pass until it did.

    I don’t think that anyone realized that Brett and Lucas would switch their positions, at the last minute. Which (as a result) did not change the balance of the vote.

    By the way, it’s still (apparently) 7 floors (at least for those sections above the parking garage area), despite Brett’s “elevator button” analogy.

    The only reduction I recall is the elimination of the second floor of retail space, leaving only one floor of retail space.  (But again, not entirely clear.)

  6. Ron Oertel

    So, in addition to what appears to be a loss of commercial space (compared to the original proposal), the other thing I found somewhat amusing is how the council (especially Dan Carson) appeared to be quite interested in the one-time fees.  Which, I understand – by law, are only intended to offset direct one-time costs from a given proposal.

    I found it particularly amusing when the council inserted some kind of requirement that some percentage of the fees be used in proximity to the site (e.g., within 1/2 mile), rather than the entire amount of fees.

    You’d think that all of those fees would (automatically) be used to offset direct costs of a given development, rather than divvying it out via separate council motion.  (Again, I would think that’s required by law, but there appears to be a great deal of latitude allowed regarding this.)

    On a broader scale – this is a continuation of the “Ponzi scheme”, in which cities continuously seek one-time development fees to offset the ongoing costs of previous developments.

    In a way, I can hardly wait to see the entire scheme collapse under its own weight.  (That’s what occurs to cities, when there’s nothing more in the Ponzi pipeline.)

    The more I learn about local politics, the more I see similarities to how some sausage is made.

    1. Ron Oertel

      This would make a great subject for an article, by the way.

      How much are we talking about, what’s allowed, what isn’t, and any difference between the two.  (I would think that this could start drifting into potential legal matters.)

      For example, I wonder if those neighbors know that only a percentage of the fees might be used within a given proximity of the site, and how far away the rest of it can extend. I certainly don’t know.

      Also wondering if there’s been any legal challenges (not necessarily in Davis), regarding this. I’d certainly be pissed-off if development fees were used for something other than what’s allowed (one-time costs, as a result of a given proposal).

      Simultaneously sad and amusing to see cities fighting over a few peanuts – for too many hungry elephants.  (And sometimes, the peanuts are only “promised”, at that.)

      With most of the peanuts kept by the developers.

  7. Todd Edelman

    Trader Joe’s Trader Joe’s Trader Joe’s? Won’t people grow tired of it? The alternatives? Really far. Car trips to the stores on West Covell, most likely. Brett said retail parking was a good thing!! Shopping bicycle modal share is tiny. Way less than aspirationalized in the Beyond Platinum Science Fiction report of a few years ago.

    The new General Plan needs to require in future EIR’s a no-parking alternative and a housing instead of parking in the same footprint alternative. How much would a deletion of car parking space reduce the price of this re-development? Car parking in structures can cost $50,000 a spot. Sure, the Brixmor will charge residents for that, but it will take years to get it back.

    Again, how many more people could live here if there was very minimal parking for residents, and Trader Joe’s was required to build a structure for its customers, with Brixmor building the housing on top of it?

    In central areas of a town with a housing crisis, surface parking lots are both insane and stupid. Anyone that approves new ones – or keeping them in a re-development – should be ashamed of themselves.

  8. Bill Marshall

    Why commission, just do it like they did it on 2nd Street.

    To finance “starving artists”?  But you’re right, really bad idea… two levels…

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