By David M. Greenwald
Usually the second reading of a project—even a controversial one like University Commons—is routine. But University Commons was anything but, drawing an hour’s worth of comments from the public and several council members as they reaffirmed their 3-2 vote on the consent item, with Arnold and Frerichs voting against and Partida, Lee and Carson voting for proceeding with the project.
Councilmember Brett Lee made some extended comments, noting that he is “not a big fan of rent by the bed.” He noted in a discussion on Lincoln40 a few years ago that Lucas Frerichs and Will Arnold “correctly pointed out that location matters.”
Lee argued, “I don’t (see) this (project) as a mega-dorm because (there are) both options for renters for the market rate units—either rent by the bed if that’s your preference or rent by the unit, if that’s your preference.”
He noted by allowing both rent by the bed and unit rentals “allows for faculty or staff or retirees or anyone who wants to be located by the university—it will be a university-oriented apartment because it will cost a premium to be so close.”
Lee also addressed the modest change in height from 80 feet to 72 feet.
“I think what that misses is the very real change of what was on paper, a seven-story development being limited to five stories,” he said. “That’s a dramatic change.
“The thing that we voted on was very different from what was presented to the planning commission some weeks ago,” he said. “These are not the same proposals.”
He also noted the difference between big “A” affordable and “colloquial” affordable. He noted that West Village apartments rent at $2500 for a two bedroom, so “this idea that the market rates are so out of step with the market—I don’t believe is borne out by what we see for the Sterling Units and also for the West Village units.
“Obviously these are more expensive than the average, but this would be just like West Village and just like Sterling, this would be one of the brand new fancy apartments,” he added.
Mayor Gloria Partida pushed back as well. She responded to the faith leaders, noting that “the city should pledge to building affordable housing. That should be one of the key motivators when we look at our housing policies.”
She noted that the community as whole “has a hard time understanding why we can’t just build what’s desired, what fits, what’s in keeping with what’s charming, and placing a price on it that we all feel good about.”
Partida said building this project “as hard as it is to accept” is “part of the concentrated strategy to provide people with places to live and create a community that offers affordability. We are not saying that every door will be affordable, what we are saying is that every project will contribute to affordability in the city.”
She noted that “some of these more expensive rents offset affordable rents in our community.”
Citing a report from the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley, she noted that a barrier to affordable housing “is that many communities are hostile to apartments.” She noted policies “intended to limit the development of multi-family buildings” and “local governments often restrict building heights or apartment densities to a degree that makes financial development infeasible.”
She said that what we have right now “is children sleeping in families’ living rooms” and us “losing our middle class and young families.”
The public comments were a mix between those who urged the council to reconsider and reject the proposal and those who urged the council to stay the course.
Dan Berman noted that University Commons was “already on a downward slide” and will “just become a crowded mess whose only virtue is to line the pockets of its owners.” He said making a profit “should not be at the expense of beauty and proportionality.
He concluded his public comment by saying, “Why UC Davis which has the largest footprint in the University of California system, cannot figure out how to build student housing and other facilities on campus is beyond me.”
Mark Estremera strongly urged the three members of council who voted last week to approve the project “to reconsider based on the objections of the Planning Commission and the Davis residents who have voiced opposition to a project that doesn’t meet the needs of Davis residents and the Davis plan.”
Allison Olson, on the other hand, urged the approval of the project. She noted that she has lived in Woodland since 2017, having moved there when they adopted a daughter from China—needing a bigger home, they moved from Davis.
“We realized that remaining in Davis was not within our reach with so few homes at this level of price range for families like mine,” she said. She thought that with two incomes they could afford to live in Davis, but “instead we just put miles on our cars from Woodland to Davis to spend time with family and friends.” She said, “This is not our preference both for costs and impacts and climate change.”
Cory Koehler from the Davis Chamber said, “The project is needed to address the demand for housing, jobs and the additional tax revenue that the city would receive from the project.”
Kyle Krueger, ASUCD President, appreciated the support “of more student housing right at the doorstep of the UC Davis campus.” He said students have the opinion that “we need more housing in the city of Davis, we need it now.”
He lamented that “a small but vocal group continues to use anti-student retorts and take every opportunity to stop more housing for students.” He noted, “In the meantime, there are thousands of students who are trapped in unaffordable leases and forced to live far away from campus.”
The Vice President of UAW 5810, which represents 1500 researchers at UC Davis, was also in favor of the project. He said they supported it “because there isn’t an adequate housing supply in Davis” and “people have to drive from far away and it’s really expensive.”
However, a 25-year resident said, “I’m appalled by the plans for a tall monstrosity. It will be a huge eyesore and lead to parking and traffic nightmares.”
Eileen Samitz reiterated “there is no real effective affordable housing in this project.” She said, “None of this is affordable if you look at the numbers.” She said, “The project is primarily rent by the bed.” She added that “the city has already approved 3,888 new beds, which are also rent by the bed, which does nothing to help our workforce and families.”
Greg Rowe, a planning commissioner, said, “I would like the council to think about the demographics involved with approving a fifth large student housing project. 2019 saw the lowest number of births in the United States in the last 35 years. It’s a trend that’s been continuing for the last four or five years.”
He argued, in 20 to 25 years, “[t]here’s going to be a very small cohort of young people entering college.” He argued, therefore, that the city has approved five large rent by the bed housing projects “for which there may not be very much demand.”
Adam Hatefi, a UC Davis student, said, “The level of anti-student rhetoric that has been said, and the things that have been said, are incredibly offensive and frankly unexpected from the people who live in the city with students.”
He called it “cheap,” “offensive” and “I wish we could be there in person so these things could be said to our faces.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting