By David M. Greenwald
There are reasons why we all live in Davis. For me, it’s about two things primarily—maybe three. First, the schools. I have told my stories too many times on here, but we are reminded on a daily basis as parents how amazing it is to deal with schools where your children matter and they aren’t simply widgets to be pushed through.
But second, as someone who has lived in a number of big cities at various times in my life, I greatly prefer a relatively small town to the hustle and bustle of the big city. So when I first started getting active in the community after my time as a graduate student was winding down, one of my big priorities was to preserve that small town atmosphere of Davis.
In the valley, we have seen many cities and communities explode with population growth and, in 2000, Davis seemed to be heading in that direction. But the voters passed Measure J as a way to put a brake on growth.
But I think too many people, myself as well, have fallen into the trap of believing that we can somehow keep Davis as it is—or even as it was when you first moved here. I get it, it’s a great place to live. But I think we have been sold a bit of a false vision here.
Davis is vastly different than it was when I moved here in 1996, and Davis in 1996 was vastly different than things were in the 1970s when people who came here fifty years ago moved here.
We don’t have the option of staying as we are. Life doesn’t work that way.
We basically—and I am oversimplifying for the purpose of illustrating this point—have three paths forward. And yes, we have some mixed paths. Option 1 is we do not build new housing. Option 2 is we build out. Option 3 is build up.
Each option has some benefits, but each one has drawbacks. No matter which path we choose we will have fundamental change to the community.
The downside of no new housing that we make this community unaffordable to anyone other than the wealthy who can purchase million dollar homes. Part of the problem—I would argue—with the current debate over growth is that there is a false sense of the world by those who purchased their homes 30, 40 or 50 years ago0—when they could do so at less than $100,000—and those who have to purchase their homes now.
A lot of the folks who have lived in this community for a long time could not afford housing if they graduated from the university today. That is going to mean fundamental change to who lives in this community, but it also creates a distorted sense for the issues.
We have largely avoided and precluded Option 2 with Measure J. But if we voted to end Measure J, we would see the resumption of building of single-family homes on the periphery, the city would likely grow outward, and the farmland and ag-urban boundary would begin to diminish.
Finally we have Option 3 where we build up. That means more density. More infill.
Because of Measure J, we have largely punted on peripheral growth. Yes, we passed Nishi in 2018, but in reality that is more infill in both location and function than peripheral. So really the only peripheral growth we have seen in the last 20 years is a part of the Cannery on the edge of town with single-family homes, and Bretton Woods—which has yet to be built.
Otherwise, we are really debating over no housing and infill. And for a long time, we had, for most intents and purposes, settled on no housing.
Infill has the advantage of keeping the contours of the city, but it starts changing the interior.
The comments from the URP discussion at the Planning Commission last week are telling.
Emily Shandy had one of the great quotes of the day: “I am disappointed that this is yet another project coming before us that’s sort of an island of buildings in the middle of a sea of parking.”
Darryl Rutherford said, “The design seems a little odd—pretty industrial.” He added, “It just doesn’t have a Davis feel to me.”
He noted the attempt to move to a “more modern design” but he said, “It still doesn’t seem to fit the community.”
The complaint: this building is ugly. While Mark Friedman pushed back saying he promised to build a beautiful project, the critics here are probably right.
We are plopping down a dense, mixed-use building in the middle of a technology park that has already been built out in the middle of town. What are we expecting here?
Aesthetics aside, though, there is a policy angle to all of this. The critics of the University Commons called it a monstrosity, and they worried about how it would impact the character of the community.
One person wrote that “the City Council’s job is to protect the integrity of Davis IN THE LONG TERM.” Another wrote: “The project needs to be much more down-sized as well as compatible with the surrounding neighborhoods and cause fewer impacts.”
Another: “I am deeply concerned and appalled by the projected plans for a tall monstrosity that does not take into account the needs of the entire community.”
We need to fully recognize that this is a consequence of a conscious decision—we have decided not to grow outward. We have recognized that if we build zero housing, we have problems. So we are starting to build upwards.
We are going to have people concerned with too much density. People concerned that we are building housing that is too high. And concerned that these projects don’t look like Davis and will change the character of this town.
At this point, Ron Glick or someone else will shout—No on Measure J, defeat Measure D.
Look, I’ve always favored Measure J for a variety of reasons, but I do think we made a massive mistake not having a broader community discussion.
We should have taken the time to model what this town will look like under the three scenarios I laid out. What does it look like if we simply stop building housing? What does it look like in 30 years if we build outward at the rate of one percent per year? And what does it look like in 30 years if we densify at the rate of one percent per year?
Shouldn’t we be able to make educated decisions and know what we are getting into? It is unfortunate that we are practicing planning by necessity and crisis rather than through … I don’t know … careful planning.
—David M. Greenwald reporting