By David M. Greenwald
How divided was the Planning Commission on Wednesday over the University Research Park Mixed-Use project? They recommended approval by a 4-3 vote, after pulling out the affordable housing and architectural site plan.
The project is located in a vacant lot along Research Park Drive to the south of I-80. The proposal will consist of four buildings—each just under 30,000 square feet with four floors of residential apartment units over one floor of office/open plan tech space.
The project proposed a total of 160 dwelling units, including 32 studio units, 96 one-bedroom units, and 32 two-bedroom units.
The project is planned to provide a total of 138,431 square feet of residential space and 26,912 square feet of office/open plan tech space. The proposed building’s height is 60 feet.
Two of the biggest hurdles proved to be the affordable housing plan and the overall architectural site plan.
On affordable housing, the city made the determination that the project “qualifies for the Vertical Mixed Use Exemption pursuant to Section 18.05.080 of the City’s Municipal Code that was in effect for this project at the time of the application submittal in March 2018.”
“Although the City’s Affordable Housing Ordinance was amended in January 2019 with current requirements which included revisions to the exemptions, the proposed project was submitted prior to the amendments,” the city staff reasons, but they will require under the Sustainable Communities Project guidelines that “the provision of affordable housing be included as part of the project, regardless of local waivers. Therefore, the applicant has proposed that the payment of in-lieu fees to satisfy the requirement for affordable housing.”
Emily Shandy said, “I share the concerns raised previously about affordable housing in this project. I have a strong preference to see those affordable units included on site in this project. That’s the main sticking point for me on this one.”
Darryl Rutherford expressed frustration on the affordable housing after speaking to Mark Friedman of Fulcrum, and he felt there was a real need to include housing on site.
He suggested that perhaps the applicant could cut back on the expense of the design and the materials, and “maybe if we reduced that… we could actually meet the inclusionary affordable housing component that this commission, the social services commission and many many people in this community want to see.”
He said this is “incumbent upon the developers who are asking the city to do a lot.”
Ultimately he said he couldn’t support the project without “more benefits given back to the community” in the form of meeting an affordable housing commitment.”
But Greg Rowe argued, “We all need to sort of step back in the concerns we have about affordable housing.” He noted that this was the outcome of attempting to address the issue of climate change and encouraging transit priority projects.
He noted that this was the result the state streamlining CEQA projects that demonstrating they would reduce VMT by being near high quality transit. Part of that trade off is reduced CEQA requirements (for which this project was CEQA exempt) and they also had a maximum of five percent affordable housing under state law.
“It’s a trade off,” he said. “We may not be happy with that… but that’s what our state legislature decided they wanted.” He said, “It’s a balancing act. It is what it is.”
Emily Shandy added, “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.”
Herman Boschken, who ultimately provided the deciding vote on the project, called it “a very sterile design,” which he compared to Russian Housing where he spent some time. “There is nothing much redeeming about the architectural style.”
Boschken noted that, given the close proximity to campus, “it is an open question as to who will live there” and he went so far as to argue if housing for students got tight, this could become a student housing project.
“I’m inclined to approve the project,” he concluded. “But I’m not completely happy with it.”
On the other hand, David Robertson was strongly opposed to it from the get go.
For one thing, he was angry that the city keeps pushing forward these projects without updating their overall planning.
He acknowledged that we need housing now and will need housing after this project.
“Will we ever run out of the need for housing in the city of Davis? Probably not while I’m alive,” he said. “When are we going to start addressing the issues on a broader scale of what is it we’re trying to achieve as a city? Or are we just going to keep proposing housing and hope that it matches up?”
He said, “This to me is a city issue.” But he noted that this project is actually 80 percent housing and 20 percent office space. “We’re going to build more housing and think that somehow it’s going to match up with the paltry amount of non-residential that’s being put on this site.”
But Greg Rowe had a different take, noting how “lucky we are that Mr. Friedman’s company bought this property back in 2016,” because UC Davis offered almost as much money for this entire business park. Had they successful in doing that, “that would have been the loss of millions in property tax revenue for this city” and this “is proposing to move forward with something that is pretty positive, pretty progressive.”
Steve Mikesell also noted his agreement with Greg Rowe and disagreement with David Robertson. “We make a mistake thinking about this as only a housing project,” he said.
He sees it as an extension of the research park that is immediately adjacent to it.
“We need to think of this as one piece of one part of the Interland Property,” he said, noting that there are plans to upgrade it over time.
He noted that this is a local company, not a NYSE property. “We are absolutely as lucky as can be that not only did the university not buy this parcel, but it is a developer who is as well respected as Mark Friedman and Fulcrum,” he said. “I have a lot of trust about the way they are putting this together.”
While Mikesell said he felt good about the design of the project, others disagreed and, in fact, pulled out the approval of the site design from their recommendations.
Emily Shandy said, “The more projects we accept that we don’t really feel are the best projects for this community at that location at this time, the more of those… subpar projects we accept, the lower we’re setting the bar for the next project that comes before us.”
Mark Friedman, the applicant, pushed back on some of these comments. One of the conundrums they have is how to meet many competing objectives.
“When we put this project together we were very focused on a number of benefits that we thought were important to the community,” Friedman explained. “One of the things we wanted to do was the densify the site. We felt it was an environmental good to create a place where people could walk to work.”
He noted that it is extraordinarily more expensive to build high than is to spread out. This was acknowledged in the city ordinance that had exempted mixed use development from having to provide affordable housing. That was an acknowledgement that this project was more expensive and there were other benefits that they chose that outweighed those.
He said that he could agree to add more affordable housing and other bells and whistles, “but all I’m doing is getting further from the feasibility and farther away from delivering housing.”
He told David Robertson that he appreciates his comments, “But quite frankly I don’t understand how the community is better off, how you solve your housing problems by making projects so infeasible that nobody builds them.”
Friedman put it bluntly, “I ask you to vote this project up or down. I promise that it will be beautiful if you allow us to build it. But I’m not willing to redesign it.”
Ultimately the motion would pass 4-3 with Robertson, Rutherford and Shandy opposing it.
—David M. Greenwald reporting