The second part of the University Commons item is coming back to the council on Tuesday after a nearly month-long interlude following a whopping 100 public comments in the meeting in July. What is quickly forgotten is that two-thirds of those comments were in support of the project.
There are legitimate considerations here—the height of the building, the impact on the neighborhood. In our previous columns, we noted that, despite the seven-story height, the impact on the surrounding area is quite a bit smaller than one might think.
It will be up to the council to determine if seven stories is too big. It will be up to the developer to determine how much ground they can and still have a viable project.
A point we have raised is the broader implications here—it is fine for the community to push back against the neighborhood project, but it is important to have all of the facts at hand. The point we have raised repeatedly here is that (A) the site as currently configured is not viable and likely to remain empty without an influx of new capital investment; (B) The cost of construction and the reality of redevelopment push away from a commercial-only configuration; and that leads to (C) Some sort of mixed-use site.
What we can’t determine without access to a lot more fiscal analysis modeling is how much leeway the developer actually has. Can they separate the apartments from the parking garage and lower the maximum height? Can they reduce the size and still have a viable project?
But aside from legitimate questions, we dip back into this anti-student rhetoric that greatly concerns me.
The thing is that, while I understand the concern that Will Arnold has that this would be the fifth student-oriented housing project that they could potentially approve, this project is basically across the street from the university and is surrounded by other student housing.
To me, that suggests that this project should probably be student housing as well. And if we are concerned that there is too much student housing—I think most students would disagree—then we should start looking at potentially repurposing some of the other apartments that are further away.
There is nothing that says that, for example, Sterling Apartments cannot be repurposed into more traditional rental configurations if in a few years we find, shockingly, that we have too much in the way of student housing.
Meanwhile, we see another op-ed in the local newspaper from Eileen Samitz raising the specter of “mega-dorms.”
She calls the project, “A monolithic mega-dorm fraught with problems.”
She raised some of the issues mentioned in the first part of this column. She added that it “would create enormous impacts in the already heavily trafficked Russell Boulevard corridor and beyond.”
In fact, with relatively small numbers of vehicles and catering to a student population, the EIR found that it was actually unlikely to impact traffic in this area.
But she continued: “The many problems include a ‘rent-by-the bed’ group housing format, including four-bedroom apartments unsuitable for families. The city has approved four mega-dorms in the last few years; there’s no need for a fifth.”
Later she writes that “the council should not approve an exclusionary high-occupancy student bed rental project but instead make the developer provide traditional, smaller apartments to accommodate workforce and families.”
As we can see clearly in the first four paragraphs of her op-ed, a good portion of her complaint is that this housing is for students rather than other groups in town.
The problem of course—and she recognized it back when Davis Live Housing was approved with her support, the location here means that the tenants are invariably going to be students. I think again we need to recognize and embrace that, and if it true that the city has already approved four student housing projects, which they have—Lincoln40, Sterling, Nishi, and Davis Live—maybe instead of arguing we don’t need a fifth, we should be looking at ways to create housing for workforce and families.
However, the location of the workforce housing seems likely to be the new URP mixed-use site, the downtown, and DISC—if any of them get built.
As I have argued previously, the economics of apartments in Davis and their layout make them less than conducive for family housing, we should be looking at affordable housing for families if that is the chief concern.
The other problem here is that there does not seem to be any sort of recognition of the non-viability of the current configuration.
Samitz’ recommendation is, “The developers need to come back with a compatible project, such as the environmentally superior alternatives of either: a) retail-only, which was first sought by the developers; or b) the reduced mixed-use allowed by the current zoning for 53 apartments with retail.”
She argues that the these are environmentally superior alternatives—which I would question. But, regardless, she does not cite any sort of analysis that these are viable. The developer has already stated that the economics of today suggest that a commercial-only redevelopment project would not be fiscally viable.
Can they do a reduced mixed-use alternative? I’m skeptical. We have seen the analysis of just how much redevelopment costs these days with demolition and construction fees. We understand this to be a very expensive project and so, without that analysis, it is hard to know how much smaller they can go and still get the financing.
It would be one thing if we still had redevelopment money. Without it, we really have limited options and, if this project does not get approved, it seems likely that we are looking at a shopping center across from the university that consists of Trader Joe’s, Starbucks and maybe not much else.
Criticizing student housing across from the university just doesn’t make sense to me. Even if you structure it as “traditional” apartments, who do you think will live there? Students.
This is a university town, and I really do not understand why people are so opposed to putting student housing in the town.
—David M. Greenwald reporting