By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – Yesterday’s column focused on the thoughts of law professor Chris Elmendorf and his critique of the Davis Housing Element Draft. He charges that the Davis draft provides an excellent example of how cities abuse the housing element law.
One issue that really stands out, however, is this comment: “Most projects are infill projects that require a General Plan Amendment and zoning amendment.” The city explains, “This is largely a result of the nature of the built-out community, as opposed to a community with a large supply of undeveloped greenfield land that can be more comprehensively planned.”
There are a number of problems with this analysis, one of which of course being that this limitation is self-inflicted. As Elmendorf points out, “Since when does ‘the nature’ of a single-family neighborhood prevent a city from planning for anything else?”
Then he goes on to claim—I think spuriously at best, “The City has experienced steady development of both residential and non-residential uses, indicating the need for a General Plan Amendment and/or zoning amendment that does not constrain development.”
The city really hasn’t had steady development. They did not design, approve, or build a market rate student multi-family housing unit between 2002 and 2017, and only this academic year did Sterling actually come on line. The city has also not approved a peripheral housing development between 2000 and 2018 and still hasn’t broken ground or built a single unit.
A few comments from the Draft Housing Element are illuminating here.
The draft notes: “The City also published the Public Review Draft of the DDSP [Davis Downtown Specific Plan] in Fall 2019. If approved, the plan would allow for as many as 1,000 new residential units of varying sizes and unit types in the downtown area and reduce demand for greenfield development at the edges of the city. Work on the DDSP is continuing into 2021.”
They add, “In 2019, the City published the public review draft of the DDSP, which would allow for intensification of residential development in the downtown area, as well as adaptive reuse of existing buildings without the need for development of greenfield areas. One component of the plan includes a form based code and would allow for a variety of housing types, such as mixed use housing over retail or commercial, rowhouses, townhouses, and accessory dwelling units.”
But this presents a problem. The fiscal analysis shows the problematic nature of relying on such development, because it is not clear that dense infill in the downtown area will actually be fiscally viable.
This is the problem we have raised time and time again. The city is running out of open infill sites. They will increasingly have to rely on some form of redevelopment, either in the downtown or elsewhere. And they appear to be completely punting on peripheral or greenfield development—by design.
They might be able to get away with it in the 2021 to 2028 Housing Element cycle. But even doing that, the city falls shy on the low income requirements.
But the city is effectively punting on this cycle by doing this and puts off the tough questions until 2028—when it is unlikely any of the current staff or council will have to deal with the much harder issues.
The city’s ordinance, of course, advantages infill over peripheral as well. But we have still not dealt with the problem of dwindling infill supply at this point. In theory the DDSP can expand that range, but not if it’s not fiscally feasible—which it appears to not be.
By ordinance the city sets the “an annual average growth guideline of one percent.” It also requires the control of peripheral growth. “Strictly control peripheral units (i.e. units in annexed areas) to a maximum of 60 percent of the one percent growth guideline per year.” Meanwhile, “Manage infill units within the one percent growth guideline per year. Infill may constitute 40 percent of the total units in a year if peripheral units constitute 60 percent and infill units may constitute 100 percent of the total units in a year if peripheral units constitute zero percent.”
Not addressed by anyone—the possibility that at some point there will be minimal numbers of infill units.
So what should the city do here? That’s going to be a big question going forward. But I don’t think they should punt on peripheral development in this housing cycle. Whether they want to annex a swath of land which would necessitate a vote, or go project by project, there should be at least some greenfield development proposed in the housing element.
And, yes, we have Measure J and that will mean that there will be votes. But at some point this issue is going to come to a head, because the city won’t be able to plan appropriate amounts of housing without considering greenfield development.
One commenter noted, “California lost population last year – first time in its entire history.”
There is a problem with that statement. A big reason for the decline in population is due to the cost and lack of availability of housing.
His response: “You say that like it’s a bad thing. That’s actually the way our system is designed.”
Which tells you the exact thinking here.
Besides, as Don Shor pointed out, an article in CNN said that “population growth remains strong in the interior counties of the Sacramento Valley, the Central Valley and the Inland Empire, while coastal and northern counties saw population losses, according to the report.”
And “the report indicated experts anticipated annual growth would resume this year.”
Bottom line, the population growth does not appear to be a get-out-of-jail-free card, and the city should not punt on tough issues that it doesn’t want to have to grapple with.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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