Sunday Commentary: Planning Commission Discussion Highlights Huge Issues in Our Planning System

By David M. Greenwald

It was a 4-3 vote that was actually far closer than even the numerical numbers suggested.  The commission had to pull from consideration recommendations on the architectural site plan and the affordable housing plan just to get a bare majority.  But more than the vote, the discussion highlights the challenges we face making policy decisions right now.

One interesting aspect of the vote is that it really wasn’t about housing or growth/ no-growth.

Commissioner David Robertson was probably most opposed to the project, but even he was quite clear—we need housing.

“Will we ever run out of the need for housing in the city of Davis? Probably not while I’m alive,” he said.

From his standpoint, he was concerned about the lack of city planning and the fact that the housing in his view was unlikely to match up to the employees on the site that it was supposed to serve.

While I agree that we need to somehow get a new General Plan and that we seem to be stuck in the middle of a whole host of things from the Downtown Specific Plan to the Affordable Housing ordinance, the biggest problem is that we have made a series of decisions and continue to try to do everything on every project.

My hope here is to highlight issues that the council ultimately—hopefully sooner than later—needs to resolve.

Point number one: we have largely made the decision to forgo peripheral development in favor of infill.

The community has basically said prioritize infill over peripheral by continuing to support Measure J.  Measure J basically has put an urban limit line around the city that can only be breached with a vote of the voters.  So far that has occurred twice in 20 years.

I am not here to argue against that, though some will—here I’m going to argue that decision has consequences.  It means that as we have housing needs, for the most part we are going to resolve them with infill.  Infill has much more space limitations and requires much greater density to (a) pencil out, and (b) alleviate housing needs.

The consequence of that decision has manifested itself with University Commons and now the proposed mixed-use project at University Research Park.

Infill basically calls for density.  Mark Friedman explained,  “One of the things we wanted to do was to densify the site. We felt it was an environmental good to create a place where people could walk to work.”

But density has costs.  One cost is that near neighbors, in the case of University Commons or the case of Trackside, do not want big buildings in close proximity to the neighborhood.

The other problem, as Mark Friedman noted,  is it is extraordinarily more expensive to build high than it is to spread out.

That has consequences as well.  For one thing, it means that, as we saw with University Commons, you have to have a certain number of residential units to make a vertical mixed-use project pencil out.  The applicant for University Commons, for example, explained they needed four floors of residential for every one floor of commercial.

But it has a second consequence—it makes it harder to have onsite affordable housing.

Why would a mixed-use infill project in an industrial park generate a 4-3 vote by the Planning Commission?  Affordable housing.

Affordable housing was a big sticking point for University Commons as well.  It’s why the faith leaders wrote to the council before and after the vote.  It is why two of the three no votes occurred.

Darryl Rutherford, who has spent his career working on affordable housing, was naturally pushing for it onsite.

He suggested that perhaps the applicant could cut back on the expense of the design and the materials, saying “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.”

But there is another view here and that is the trade off between environment and affordable housing.

As Commissioner Greg Rowe explained it,  “We all need to sort of step back in the concerns we have about affordable housing.”

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 (and this project was CEQA exempt) and they also had a maximum of five percent affordable housing under state law.

This is the point that Mark Friedman made, and then some.  Again, from his perspective, the right thing to do with this site was build in density and that creates cost.

He pointed out that the cost of going up is why the city ordinance had initially exempted vertical mixed-use development having to provide affordable housing. He explained that that was an acknowledgement that this project was more expensive and there were other benefits they chose which outweighed those.

He went further.

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.”

There are always those who are going to shrug about these points.  They will argue that Friedman has the incentive to lower the costs as much as possible and that we can’t take his word for it.

That’s fine, we don’t have to take his exact word for this.  We know it is more expensive to build up.  We know that adding costs to projects lowers their expected return.  The only question is where that choke point is.  And sometimes there are other trade offs that can get you enough ROI (return on investment) to go forward.  Sometimes there aren’t.

That’s why when the state passed laws on transit priority and environmental regulations—they also capped affordable housing to five percent in such projects and Friedman is right, that’s why the city initially exempted vertical mixed-use from having to have affordable housing.

That’s why Will Arnold and others made the point time and time again that 35 percent of zero is still zero.

We can’t solve the housing problems by making projects so infeasible that nobody builds them and, yes, other than a few people in this community, everyone I think understands that we need housing.

So how do we accomplish that?  For one thing, we need the council to understand that there is a trade off between density and big “A” affordability and that as long as we have no RDA, it’s going to be challenging to get big “A” affordable in some of these projects.

But, second, they have done us no favors by continuing to pass an interim ordinance rather than to say we will have a five percent affordable housing requirement for all vertical mixed-use and we will have 15 percent for all other projects.

If you have a set policy then the Planning Commission has an easy decision to make on URP—it either meets it or it doesn’t.  As you stand now, you put the commissioners in a bad position of having to weigh in with their own opinions on affordable housing rather than be guided by city council policies.

You have to understand, however, that if you are going to set that policy, you may not get any more vertical mixed-use projects coming forward.  I know for a fact that the URP project would not go forward with such a requirement.

So it is a trade off and it is a trade off we need to understand and appreciate.  One final point I would make is that the vast majority of those who participate in these discussions and who make these decision have secure and stable housing, and so there is a privilege advantage that the haves make the decisions for the have nots.

In a time when we desperately need housing and affordable housing, a planning process would likely delay building new housing.  That’s the downside.  The upside is that maybe we can come up with a plan to create enough affordable housing to allow us to have some projects that don’t need to have it onsite in order to meet our overall goals.

Regardless of where you come down on this stuff, I think the conversation that the Planning Commission had, starting with the commissioner comments, was excellent and everyone involved in these issues needs to think about this as the weighing of competing needs rather yes versus no.

—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. Ron Glick

    “The community has basically said prioritize infill over peripheral by continuing to support Measure J.  Measure J basically has put an urban limit line around the city that can only be breached with a vote of the voters.  So far that has occurred twice in 20 years.”

    From Miller Drive to Olive Drive, from UMall to URP, from B St. to Trackside,  from mini-dorms to mega-dorms, Measure J means infill coming to a parcel near you.

    Vote no on Measure J/R renewal. Vote no on D.

    By the way, while the city gets forever more crowded with projects that look more and more like post WWII Soviet efficiency style East Block Mid-Century modern cube shaped tenements, just outside the limit line in all directions lie 40 acre estates with real mansions. Not the faux McMansions formerly known as single family homes that are loathed within the city. Measure J insures that the future of Davis looks like a landscape out of Blade Runner. Only horizontal instead of vertical. With homeless people scattered among us living along the railroad tracks or the highway right of way and everyone else crammed into ever smaller spaces.

    1. David Greenwald

      Wouldn’t it be interesting Ron Glick, if you or someone opposed to Measure J, simply modeled what three scenarios look like – Measure J scenario with infill, Measure J scenario with no housing, and a No Measure J scenario and then asked the voters to choose their own path? Right now, simply yelling Vote no on Measure D is futile. But also, we are blind as a bat and have no plain whatsoever to move forward.

      1. Ron Glick

        All of that should have been done by the staff and Council before placing renewal on the ballot. Now we have a binary choice of yes or no. Only with no do we get a second chance at having an honest discussion of what we want the future to look like. A yes vote means a future as I have described above. A few fabulously wealthy people living outside the city limit and most everyone else crammed together in some sort of pseudo utopian, limits to growth, post modern ghetto mixed in with mid-century modern single family homes bought mostly with inherited money or occupied by grown children living in the house they grew up in.

        1. David Greenwald

          Yes – I called for a lot of things in the year leading up to this one. I got accused of trying to undermine Measure J, but no traction with the city or anyone else trying to take the lead on this.

        2. Richard McCann


          I think your ambivalence about Measure J undermined your message that we needed to have a plan going forward before deciding these issues. You left the default as renewal regardless. A full throated opposition to renewal UNLESS there is a  plan would have been much more effective.

          1. David Greenwald

            That’s a fair criticism though it wasn’t my intent to leave the default as renewal, just my anticipation that is what will take place. I think my point though was that we should have come up with a plan prior to putting the renewal on the ballot – and I actually argued that in real time with few takers and a lot of pushback.

  2. Alan Miller

    It was a 4-3 vote that was actually far closer than even the numerical numbers suggested.

    Yes, please tell us what the non-numerical numbers suggest . . .

  3. Ron Oertel

    “Will we ever run out of the need for housing in the city of Davis? Probably not while I’m alive,” he said.

    There’s lots of housing in the city of Davis.

    If one is referring to adding new residents (in addition to the growth that’s already occurred), perhaps they need to address the purpose of that (which would include an examination of the drivers of it, and how much of that the city has already accommodated).

    There are, for example, RHNA requirements (which the city had already exceeded).

    Stating that there’s a “need” for more housing is not a particularly useful claim, and is an attempt to create pressure to “approve everything” within the control of city officials. That’s how you get butt-ugly, oversized buildings without sufficient Affordable housing, for example.

    1. Ron Oertel

      It’s also the process by which the city continues to convert commercial sites to residential (though there hasn’t been much commercial demand demonstrated in the first place).

  4. Matt Williams

    There are three important points (project design alternatives) that this article … and our planning process … miss.

    First, is that the quickest way to reduce the cost of any individual housing project is to reduce the size of the individual units.  Using University commons as an example, if the size of the proposed 264 units is reduced by 10%, the number of units that can fit into the same square footage goes up to 293 units.  The rent for each unit can come down 10% … $2,229 per month comes down to $2,006 per month, but the total revenue for the project for the landlord/developer stays the same.

    Second, reduce the luxuriousness of the individual units. Providing one bathroom per bedroom is very expensive to build.  Reduce the number of bathrooms and the cost to build the project goes down.  In addition reducing the number of bathrooms increases the number of bedrooms that can be built.  I’m going to guess that for every three bathrooms that are eliminated, you get one additional bedroom.  Bedrooms generate revenue for the landlord/developer.  Bedrooms are also cheaper to build than bathrooms.  So less bathrooms means more revenue and less cost for the developer/landlord.

    Third, move from parking minimums to parking maximums for projects where proximity to the campus or proximity to public transit is high.  Sterling could have been built with only ADA and visitor parking spaces because it is directly on the Unitrans direct route to and from campus.  University Commons could have been built with no resident parking because it is immediately across the street from the UCD campus.  Davis Live could also.  If the proposed mixed-use project at University Research Park is getting a “transit proximity” waiver as a result of the state streamlining CEQA projects that demonstrating they would reduce VMT by being near high quality transit, thenm it needs to ensure that the high quality transit is being used by its residents.

    The University Commons proposal includes 233 resident parking spaces. Using the following graphic, one can see that the 14 parking spaces in the graphic take up between 4,000 square feet and 4,660 square feet depending on how wide each space is (the travel lane is at least 11 feet in the graphic.  233 total spaces divided by 14 equals 17 iterations of the graphic, which means between 68,000 square feet and 79,000 square feet devoted to parking.

    How many additional units can be fit into 68,000 square feet?  Every one of those additional units is revenue producing for the developer/landlord.  Every one of those additional units is additional available housing in a housing shortage … and the avoided costs to the developer/landlord for not building a parking space make the net costs of building each additional bedroom and unit lower.

    The burden that comes with providing no parking spaces for the residents of a project are enforcement of parking regulations by the City … ideally in close cooperation with UCD.  The fear is that student residents will still bring cars to Davis and park them in residential neighborhoods.  The simple solution to that is to make the nearby neighborhoods to the project restricted parking for the residents of those neighborhoods and their guests.  The City would have to devote resources to aggressively patrolling the parking in those residential neighborhoods (license scanning vehicles and human beings to drive them) and giving out parking tickets to vehicles parking there that do not have a connection to the neighborhood.  Making the parking fines progressive would also be a deterrent, as would sharing computerized data with TAPS about UCD student and UCD employee vehicle registrations and parking tickets issued.  Collaboration with CalTrans about vehicle information of the parking offenders and cross-referencing that information with UCD student enrollment data would also be useful.

    Bottom-line, all those steps would make new-construction housing more affordable for the tenants, and would shore up the P&L for the developers/landlords of such projects.


  5. Alan Miller

    in the case of University Commons or the case of Trackside, do not want big buildings in close proximity to the neighborhood.

    ??? – Trackside (roughly 50′ high) is proposed across a narrow alleyway from one story residences.  University commons (72′-80′) is proposed a few blocks away from most of the neighborhoods that were concerned about it – I’d venture to say in the first case it was about looming, in the second case, mostly about bringing so many new residents into the area (despite some saying it was too high).

    1. Ron Glick

      I agree Alan. Trackside loomed over the neighbors. It was about scale as the judge correctly decided. UMall its more about the locals sharing or ceding territory with more people.

  6. Alan Miller

    One final point I would make is that the vast majority of those who participate in these discussions and who make these decision have secure and stable housing, and so there is a privilege advantage that the haves make the decisions for the have nots.

    Yeah, haves, you privileged, so shaddup and let the have-nots make the housing decisions

  7. Alan Miller

    While I agree that we need to somehow get a new General Plan . . .

    Yeah *some* – *how* . . .

    Since the City, and the Haves, haven’t been about to pull it off, maybe we should try letting the Have Nots write the new General Plan.  It couldn’t be any worse than the current strategy:  “Let’s Do It Next Year”, followed a year later by “Let’s Do It Next Year”.  Lather . . . Rinse . . . Repeat

    1. Bill Marshall

      Interesting thought… the previous GP’s I was involved with (as staff) were definitely dominated by the “haves”… and the upper echelon “haves”, at that…

      1. Doby Fleeman

        Interesting point, it’s certainly one aspect to be considered – right along with an updated definition of what it means to be a “stakeholder” – but regardless of the makeup of the committee:

        — When was this last Comprehensive Plan completed – what year?  Not talking about an “elements” update, but a full-blown Comprehensive General Plan process.

        — How much of the focus of that “process” addressed what to be considering when the City approached “full buildout” and how that might play out – or was that deemed to be “over the planning horizon”?

        — How much of the analysis was devoted to future-weighted projection of City age, occupation, economic, and spending demographics of the resulting population?

        — How much consideration was directed towards recognizing the need for a balance between “Commercial/industrial zone uses” within the City versus “Residential and Multifamily Housing zoning uses” – and why it was an important topic to be considered?   How was the issue of projected DJUSD enrollment factored into the study plan and what did it conclude?

        — How much of that planning discussion was devoted to a combined City and Region-serving Transportation Analysis and Plan and it’s implications for City infrastructure investment and development needs during the planning horizon?  Did the Transportation Element at the time identify and discuss projected in-bound and out-bound commuter vehicle flows in connection with projected employment patterns?

        — Lastly, from a Municipal Financial Sustainability standpoint, I have to assume that the project was completed prior to 2000 – otherwise, how did the discussion factor-in and conclude with respect to the year 2000 reformulation of employee benefit multipliers and their inevitable impact on City’s long term revenue needs?

        Discussions about affordable housing (which it used to be), programs to feed and house the homeless (which didn’t used to be much of an issue)  and preservation of adjacent farmland are all important and legitimate topics – but the exclusion of all other issues and where the new investment (both private and city) is to come from – if not from new development?

        Thanks, and don’t expect you to remember it all, but any insights would be helpful for the larger discussion about timing and need for a New General Plan?

        1. Don Shor

          I don’t think most people are aware of the planning commission’s role in developing and upholding the General Plan:

          Serves as the advisory agency to hear subdivision matters.

          Serves as the advisory agency to hear general plan amendment applications that also request zoning or subdivision approvals.

          Develops and maintains a general plan and such specific plans as may be necessary or desirable.

          Determines the consistency of any project with the general plan using the criteria approved by the City Council.

          Investigates and reports to the City Council regarding means of implementing the general plan.

          Consults with and advises public officials and agencies, public utility companies, civic, educational and other professional organizations and citizens, generally, regarding implementation of the general plan and specific plans.

          Makes general plan findings on development applications.

          Reviews and makes recommendations to the City Council on amendments to the general and specific plans.


        2. Doby Fleeman


          Thanks very much for the update on Planning Commission’s role in City of Davis General Plan process.

          Here’s hoping we, as a community, can find the time and resources to acquaint ourselves with the Office of the Governor’s latest guidance on the General Plan Process for communities:

          Chapter 2 – A Vision for Long Range Planning is even more engaging:

  8. Jim Frame

    Note to the editor:  It wasn’t until the 11th paragraph of this article that I figured out *which* project it was referring to.  That could have been remedied with a mention in the headline.

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