By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – One of the key questions facing communities like Davis will be how it can meet the housing demands that are expected grow over the next ten years—even as population growth, at least temporarily, slowed in the wake of the pandemic.
Sustainable Growth Yolo on Monday held a webinar and, later in the week, released a statement on the Housing Element which concluded that “the current draft of the Davis Housing Element does not go nearly far enough to address the city’s severe housing affordability crisis, and if adopted in its current form, will only further exacerbate housing inequity in Davis and the Yolo County region.”
(You can watch the video and look at their full list of recommendations – here).
The group makes a number of recommendations. They seek to eliminate parking minimums, fully fund the housing trust fund, rezone all strip malls to mixed use, include city-owned underutilized locations in the site inventory and legalize a small increase in density in residential areas.
I am interested to see the rezoning of strip malls to mixed use. We saw a big battle last year over the University Mall.
The group writes: “In the sites inventory, the draft housing element includes only one property to be rezoned as mixed-use. Together the Westlake Shopping Center, The Marketplace on Covell, Davis Manor, and Target Shopping Center have 16.5 acres of underused surface parking. By rezoning these properties for mixed-use, the city will immediately create the opportunity for denser and often more affordable housing to be developed with minimal impact.”
We saw with the U-Mall this could be a win-win. It could increase the viability of the strip mall sites—many like Westlake, we know have long struggled. It could also provide housing and improve greatly city revenues, as U-Mall was projected to do.
But another of the more interesting proposals is the by-right approval process.
What they say: “Davis currently has an approval process consisting of multiple public hearings and veto-holding unelected commissions, resulting in not only a decrease in approved housing projects but even housing proposals.
“Uncertain processes lead to long politically contentious meetings, ultimately delaying projects and adding significant development costs.
“For example, the Sterling Apartment complex was first proposed to be a four to five story project with 203 units, but through the public hearing, the process was reduced to a mere 160 units. Plaza 2555 was first proposed with 646 bedrooms, but later reduced to 500 beds after a two-year delay between the penultimate public hearing and approval by council.
“Allowing projects to avoid the extended public hearing process if they meet the local zoning and Affordable Housing ordinance adds certainty and stability to the process, which will increase development and bring down costs.”
It is an interesting thought, but as I understand it, one of the big problems is the out-of-date General Plan—which, if updated, could streamline the process.
As Robb Davis put it in a comment on Monday during the webinar, “Do you think that moving to ‘by right’ development can have a serious impact here in the absence of a General Plan update? Experience of recent large projects shows that they ALL required General Plan amendments.”
That is clearly a problem that would have to be grappled with. It would probably require the city to do update its General Plan—something that it is seeking to do anyway.
An issue that the group did not address that would be related to not only this issue, but also serves as a constraint on housing development, is financial viability.
As Greg Rowe, who chairs the Housing Element Committee as well as sits on the Planning Commission, noted in a comment, “Financial viability is a big challenge to higher density. For example, the draft Davis Housing Element says that almost 800 housing units will be built in the downtown area. However, a (2018) financial analysis found that of 5 different development prototypes, none would be feasible in downtown Davis w/o very high subsidies, ranging from $50,000 to $135,000/unit.”
This is what the Bay Area Economics group found when they were asked to analyze financial viability of redevelopment in the downtown back in June 2018.
They studied 10 scenarios and found that 10 were infeasible financially.
They concluded: “These results indicate that under current conditions, it will be very difficult for developers to undertake projects similar to the prototype projects, with a few exceptions. As mentioned previously, it appears that a medium-sized mixed-use project incorporating high density for-sale residential units could be feasible.”
BAE concluded that “development feasibility in Downtown Davis is challenging under current conditions.”
However, and this plays into the by-rights potential, they found also that a huge mitigation would be finding a way to reduce time and risk for the developers.
BAE suggests providing “clear planning guidelines,” limiting discretionary decision-making, providing environmental clearance such as Specific Plan EIRs, providing fast-track path to entitlements, and to “follow through with streamlines and efficient building permit and inspection procedures.”
A by-rights process could accomplish that.
But in order to even have that be possible is to get the General Plan updated and stipulate under what conditions redevelopment and infill can be by right.
That of course will not satisfy those who believe that Measure R needs to be done away with or drastically altered in order to facilitate the development of new housing, but this could be a start.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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