Monday Morning Thoughts: Density or Sprawl Debate

By David M. Greenwald

Davis, CA – For a long time the growth question has been framed at density versus sprawl.  With the advent of Measure J, it was argued, the path toward peripheral development has been largely cut off, and therefore the city has focused heavily on infill and increased density to meet its housing needs.

To me there are a lot of problems with this framing of the issue.

First of all, let me say that there has been a conflation between peripheral development and sprawl.  Sprawl is generally depicted as the “uncontrolled expansion of urban areas.”  Moreover, it is a “rapid expansion” that is often characterized by “by low-density residential housing, single-use zoning, and increased reliance on the private automobile for transportation.”

Bottom line is that you can add responsible peripheral development that is by definition not sprawl, but it takes careful planning.

A second problem with this narrative is a good number of people who live in the community simply do not buy into the need for additional housing.  I would argue against that view, but consistently in polling a sizable portion of the population simply opposes all or most new housing.

Third, as we have seen we are running out of open space within the city.  And it will be increasingly difficult and increasingly more expensive to develop infill and densify.  Some have pointed
out that areas like Sacramento are able to do this.  And some have pointed to the regulation-heavy planning process in Davis as a partial culprit, which is why some have pushed for by-right approval processes to streamline the planning process.

My view is that we have probably run out of easy solutions for more housing in Davis, and the remaining projects—with some potential exceptions—are likely to run into controversy.  We see that in the Housing Element process and the acknowledgement of the city that we have run out of sufficient space to easily accommodate current housing requirements.

We saw the push for the changes to the Housing Element to acknowledge at least tacitly some of these challenges.

I found this letter by Ellen Kolarik in the Enterprise interesting

She writes, “I acknowledge that Davis is a racially and economically segregated community” and she notes that her faith “demands” that she support “the building of an adequate supply of affordable housing in this town.”

Here are a few key points that she raises:

First, she supports, “rezoning all the sites identified because the amount of parcels available in our city limits is woefully small and the need is exceedingly large. Rezoning parcels only allows for the possibility that these parcels be used for low-income housing. It does not commit them to that purpose.”

Second, she supports the removal of parking minimums, legalizing the creation of “up to four units on a single-family lot” similar to SB 9, and “finally, given the ‘Not in My Back Yard’ sentiment of many of my neighbors, I support the ‘By-right’ approval process to insure that small infill affordable housing projects can proceed expeditiously.”

Finally, “the Housing Trust Fund should be included as an appendix in the Housing Element. We must also acknowledge that the current balance in the HTF is woefully inadequate to support housing needs in this town. Our city needs to create an income stream to support this fund.”

She concludes: “I acknowledge that these interventions will increase housing density, put more cars on our roads and make parking more difficult for everyone. Taxes to support an HTF will come from our pockets. Nothing comes free. But in the long term, these interventions will invigorate our community with the influx of younger families from diverse economic and racial groups. And that will create a more sustainable and livable Davis. It is also simply the right thing to do.”

This is not a view you generally see in the letters in the Enterprise and probably one that is opposed by a sizable portion of the community.

But, going forward, this appears to be the biggest looming battle.  It figures to start with the Housing Element and perhaps culminate with the new general plan.

I think this community really needs to weigh in on the key questions of how much housing we need and where we are going to go to accommodate it.  The answers will likely vary and there may not be any form of consensus that can develop.  In a way, the easy work has already occurred during the last 20 years—the remaining work will be even more difficult.

Because of that it is vital that we find good processes to include all the voices and reach as fair a decision as we can.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


Support our work – to become a sustaining at $5 – $10- $25 per month hit the link:

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.

Related posts

30 Comments

  1. Ron Oertel

    I find it interesting that the “racial segregation” argument has received any traction, as there’s no evidence whatsoever that allowing more development will lead to more diversity.  (Reminds me of the “green” arguments in support of more development, which takes even more balls to put forth.)

    In any case, here’s another perspective, regarding the efforts by state politicians to force more density:

    Bills addressing affordability are likely to benefit developers more than families.

    I am a Black grandparent, homeowner and member of the Altadena Town Council. I grew up in a single-family home, and my husband and I have lived in our house in Altadena for more than two decades. Homeownership helped my family build wealth and provide stable, quality housing, and gave us our piece of the American Dream. But state and local politicians are threatening homeownership among the Black community by damaging single-family zoning laws.

    Elected officials say that more housing needs to be built to address the housing affordability crisis, but their harmful agenda is based on failed trickle-down policy.

    https://www.msn.com/en-us/money/realestate/zoning-changes-could-put-a-hurt-on-black-homeownership/ar-AAKK4dg?ocid=msedgdhp

    1. David Greenwald

      “I find it interesting that the “racial segregation” argument has received any traction, as there’s no evidence whatsoever that allowing more development will lead to more diversity. ”

      Perhaps it’s because we *know* that not adding housing will keep things largely as they are.

    2. Bill Marshall

      Please keep in mind, it was/is conservative, particularly conservative Republicans, who posited, and espouse(d) “trickle down” theories and policies… going back at least 40+ years… (there are some ‘seeds’ that go back centuries before)…

      trickle down economics’ – Bing

      Theory being if the rich are taxed less, ‘everyone’s boat will float’.

      I only remind folk of that, given it was “bolded” in a previous post.

      Many of us ‘were present’ when the term first came into common usage… I was ~ 30… was a skeptic of the theory then, and remain so… it has a mixed history, but failures exceeded successes by a pretty good margin, over the years… in this context (the current thread), the term does not seem to apply…

    3. Ron Oertel

      Perhaps it’s because we *know* that not adding housing will keep things largely as they are.

      I don’t think so, over time. Unless there continues to be a wage gap.

      The point of this person’s article is that the density efforts will change future homeowners into future (permanent) renters, as single-family housing is replaced with denser rental housing.
      I

      1. David Greenwald

        She also put forward the notion of affordable housing. It seems to me that providing more density and more affordable housing are plausible paths to increased diversity whereas the status quo is a likely barrier to it.

        1. Ron Oertel

          The primary point of her article remains the same.  Single-family dwellings are generally not replaced by Affordable housing.

          She also advocated for stronger tenant protections.  Not sure if she was implying stronger rent control.

          Personally, I think rent control works better than Affordable housing, as there are no income limitations to be concerned with.

          Affordable housing can “trap” people into limiting their income, though I don’t know what “follow-up” is performed to ensure that individual income does not rise above the limitation.  Is there some kind of annual reporting that’s generally required to remain qualified, on an individual basis?

          1. David Greenwald

            You’re making a lot of assertions without backing evidence, most affordable housing is rental, so I fail to see how it traps people. Please provide evidence supporting your views.

        2. Ron Oertel

          What assertions do you think I’m making, for which you believe evidence shows otherwise?  For example, do you think “Affordable” (or “affordable”) housing is generally going to be replacing single-family dwellings as a result of what state politicians are proposing?

          There’s plenty of evidence (some of which you’ve repeatedly cited yourself), which suggests that this does not “pencil out”.

          Also, the question I already asked you provides “evidence” of how Affordable housing can trap people.

          Is there some kind of annual reporting that’s generally required to remain qualified (for Affordable housing), on an individual basis?

          If such reporting does exist, this would provide an incentive to “limit” one’s income, to avoid vacating their subsidized home. If that’s not a life-altering trap, I don’t know what is. And if folks who occupy Affordable housing are already disproportionately “people of color”, the result of that trap will continue.

        3. Richard_McCann

          Ron O

          There you go again… You argue elsewhere that higher real estate prices in California are leading to a decrease in population and therefore a decrease in demand, so market forces are working. But then you argue here that increased supply will not lead to lower prices that make housing more affordable, therefore market forces do not work. You’re not unique in this distorted view of how the world actually works–the letter you quote has the same problem. This cognitive dissonance reflects a lack of understanding of basic economic principles.

  2. Tia Will

     I acknowledge that these interventions will increase housing density, put more cars on our roads and make parking more difficult for everyone.”

    While I appreciate and share Ellen’s concern for the lack of affordable housing in Davis, I wish those who are opining in favor of the steps she espouses would do more than just acknowledge some of the adverse effects. Surely it is incumbent upon thoughtful advocates to do more than just acknowledge, but rather to also propose what mitigating steps they would take. It is not enough to cite poor consequences that will affect us all and then just verbally shrug. We have seen this approach multiple times in Davis, my favorite example being the Cannery.

  3. Robb Davis

    By the way, I am not mocking Christians or Christianity here, I am mocking people who use their “faith” as an excuse for their political and social beliefs, as if  THEIR GOD has the correct answer, while OUR GODS are all wrong.

    Wait, what?  You spend a whole thread mocking her and then you close by saying you’re not?  How about this: each of us has a set of values, beliefs, hunches—whatever—that inform our political and other convictions and actions.  An honest person tries to spend time articulating and teasing out their values so they can ascertain whether what they are doing/advocating for aligns with those values.  That does not mean their values are “right” in some absolute way.  The integrity comes from identifying and being honest about motivations.

    This person is merely saying (without getting into specifics) that their faith informs their views on this particular issue.  They are not saying you must accept their faith.  They are not suggesting their faith is normative for you.  They are merely saying “my faith suggests I should do X or support Y.  I am putting that out there to be honest about my motivations.”

    Your page-long ridicule of that is really unfortunate.

  4. Edgar Wai

    If you accept that Davis has a mission to support the university, then you could reach a conclusion that Davis has a priority to house the transient student body MORE SO than housing permanent university staff and people who work in the city (including city worker and other private businesses). The lowest priority are people who do not study or work in Davis. Those people can be absorbed by other cities that do not have a university.

    The city mission can be described as providing a productive environment to get people educated with minimal debts. The secondary mission is to let people who work in Davis live in Davis to minimize environmental impact.

    If the university has a department of social service or homeless intervention graduate group, then it would make sense to have research homeless shelters. Simply providing affordable housing is not a primary mission of Davis and that conflicts with the actual primary mission of providing an efficient environment for the students.

    1. Tim Keller

      Every decision comes with tradeoffs.

      I Echo Dr. Will’s remark that just citing the problems of a particular proposed solution is not helpful.   If you want to have actual productive debate, put forward alternative ideas, and state why the tradeoffs of your solution are better than the proposal.

      The biggest problem that Davis has is that for so long it hasn’t actually been “density versus sprawl” – the biggest problem is that people have simply said “NO” to both, which has created its own tradeoffs, lots of people having to commute, ridiculous housing prices etc.

      I think that David’s other point that “peripheral development does not equal sprawl” is spot on.   I dont want sprawl either… but some horizontal expansion makes sense.  If you just look at the map of davis and where our major arterial roads are, you see lots of common-sense places where we can round out our city and provided significant amounts of much-needed housing.

      Ultimately, we need housing Period.  We need more R&D / commercial space too, Period.    We shouldnt be picking one or the other, we need all of the above, and because of decades of just saying “no” and making the process itself far too arduous, we have gotten ourselves into a situation where only 25% of the people who work here can live here.

      For a city that has a bike as its symbol, and has a long tradition of at least paying lip service to environmental values, forcing all of those people to commute in by car is simply shameful.

      1. Matt Williams

        The biggest problem that Davis has is that for so long it hasn’t actually been “density versus sprawl” – the biggest problem is that people have simply said “NO” to both, which has created its own tradeoffs, lots of people having to commute, ridiculous housing prices etc.

        I was struck by the three bolded words Tim Keller used in his comment.  So I went out to the Zillow Market Value Index (ZHVI) and selected all the California cities.  ZHVI’s average home value for Davis at the end of December 2020 was $751,691, which put Davis in 263rd place fore all California cities.  263rd does not seem to me to be “ridiculously” high.  Atherton, with an average home value of $6,808,390 does seem to qualify as “ridiculous.”  In the Sacramento Metro Region, Davis was 9th.

      2. Matt Williams

        We need more R&D / commercial space too, Period.

        Here is a question for Tim Keller … If the Vision for Davis is to be a bedroom community for people who work outside the City Limits, then why does Davis need more R&D  / Commercial space? 

        Even if one accepts that Tim Keller’s statement is true, why can’t that “more R&D and commercial space” be satisfied with the refurbishment ot some of the abundance of vacant commercial space that currently exists in Davis.  That is what Ag Start did … refurbish / repurpose existing vacant commercial space.

    2. Ron Oertel

      I think that David’s other point that “peripheral development does not equal sprawl” is spot on.   I dont want sprawl either… but some horizontal expansion makes sense. 

      Oh, well as long as it’s called “horizontal expansion”, I feel much better about it.  Why didn’t someone think of this before?

      (My fifth and last comment for today. See you tomorrow!)

      1. Richard_McCann

        Again, here’s the definition of urban sprawl. Importantly, it is NOT just expansion beyond current city limits which is your apparent definition:

        Urban sprawl (also known as suburban sprawl or urban encroachment[1]) is the unrestricted growth in many urban areas of housing, commercial development, and roads over large expanses of land, with little concern for urban planning.[2] 

    3. Bill Marshall

      If you accept that Davis has a mission to support the university, then you could reach a conclusion that Davis has a priority to house the transient student body MORE SO than housing permanent university staff and people who work in the city (including city worker and other private businesses).

      Just weird posit.  Many levels.

      There is no such thing as a ‘permanent’ resident, UCD faculty, staff, City staff, DJUSD (which you left out, unless you believe they are a private business)… unless of course you are referring to the folk who permanently ‘reside’ @ 820 Pole Line Road…

      By your apparent metric, those lucky

      … university staff and people who work in the city (including city worker and other private businesses). 

      who have housing in Davis should relinquish their housing when they retire?

      The city mission can be described as providing a productive environment to get people educated with minimal debts. The secondary mission is to let people who work in Davis live in Davis to minimize environmental impact.

      Secondary?  Je ne suis pas du tout d’accord…

       

      1. Edgar Wai

        That comment is for those assuming a no growth position while accepting a no growth mission.

        So yes, if a person is pro university but anti growth, then the conclusion is that retired people should leave if there aren’t enough housing for students. The operation is identical to how the University would make rules for it’s dorms. It is not for retirees. Housing retirees is not the primary mission.

        If you are pro univeraity, anti growth, and pro retirees, then you would get to a conclusion of pro satellite campus and pro remote learning. (Reduce the demand for student housing while supporting education.)

        If you are not anti growth then just build. It is a lot simpler that way.

  5. Keith Y Echols

    I saw Tim Keller’s article.  I applaud anyone who questions very idea of growth and the effort he put into making his points.  But I mostly disagree with the majority of his points.

    I’m going to write pretty much what I’ve written in the past starting with: residential growth is not fait accompli. Residential growth should have a purpose.  Unfortunately, there are (as usual these days) two extreme sides to this issue: the NIMBYs (who at least are rational to a degree but tend to be dogmatic about anti-growth) and the moral imperative (clutching their pearls and thinking of the children) we need to build housing for the poor folks that can’t live in the great and glorious Davis!

    Secondly, the idea that people work in Davis and live somewhere else is something to be fixed.  No, it’s a good thing.  It means that some other community needs to provide (pay for) services for that person (and their family) while their work provides economic benefits for the city of Davis.

    Then we get to the magic words that progressives love when talking about land use and growth; “DENSITY!” “INFILL!” “MASS TRANSIT!”  “MIXED USE!”  “KALE GARDENS!”  All in a wiccan pentagram for urban planner progressive druids to dance and chant to.  Now, I’m not against any of these things (well…except maybe kale)….in fact I like urban density.  I miss taking the N Judah to work and being able to walk to restaurants and entertainment.  But I don’t believe these things are some overarching plan for a small town like Davis.  Light rail inside Davis?  That’s ridiculous.  A more robust bus service that comes along every 10 minutes that covers the city…so I could just hop on an express near F street to CONVIENTLY get to downtown would make more sense.

    Should Davis promote urban density development?  Sure to a certain degree that fits the available sites and the ability to provide infrastructure (roads, police, fire etc…).  But here’s the thing…you have to consider the market you’re in.  You can’t just chant and dance around the urban progressive pentagram and make urban density happen.  Davis is to a certain degree has been it’s own little island in terms of population and economy because of UCD.  But now more than before, Davis is part of the larger Sacramento metro region.  You gotta know your target markets.  Look around at what sells in this region; SINGLE FAMILY HOUSES.  People with families move to places with good schools and where they can buy a good home (it’s why Spring Lake exists…Davis Schools and Woodland housing prices).  Usually that means homes with yards.  Not condos and apartments and especially homes not built over stores.  You know who rents and buys those urban residential units?  Young professionals.  And they want to be near restaurants, coffee shops, bars, entertainment…and other young professionals.  If they have to live in the Sacramento area, they’re going to live in downtown Sacramento….not podunk Davis.  So Urban Density and Infill should not be some master growth plan for Davis.  IMO, planned urban density should be done in pockets and grow from there….but not to the exclusion/detriment of other forms of development.

    So, let me once again reiterate my belief: Growth should be a benefit for existing residents of Davis.  Does that make me a NIMBY?  Yes and no.  I’m okay with growth as long as there’s a good reason for it.  With no other considerations: residential population is a cost to the community so residential growth is a cost to the existing community.   So planned residential growth should provide a tangible benefit for the community to offset it’s cost to the community.

    That brings me to my overarching urban plan: RESIDENTIAL GROWTH SHOULD ONLY HAPPEN IN AN EFFORT TO SUPPORT ECONOMIC GROWTH.  Or to put it another way, encourage economic growth first (commercial real estate development, incentivize business growth and development…etc…) then plan urban growth to support that economic growth when it becomes necessary (ie..business push the community for housing) or that it shows a tangible benefit (new infrastructure like major roads, sewer, water plants and pipeline growth, a new fire house or police station), a new park or community center).

    1. Tim Keller

      So, let me once again reiterate my belief: Growth should be a benefit for existing residents of Davis.  Does that make me a NIMBY?  Yes and no.

      That really is the dividing line isnt it?   One side is more about individual rights and the other is more about general human rights.

      The former says ” this is MY town, and I get to decide if other people get to share it or not”   The other says ” If you work in this town, you should be able to live in this town”

      I obviously believe the latter, and think the former is a textbook example of privilege.

      Also, I see people commuting in from outside as a very bad thing, where you don’t, and that is also interesting.

      Secondly, the idea that people work in Davis and live somewhere else is something to be fixed.  No, it’s a good thing.  It means that some other community needs to provide (pay for) services for that person (and their family) while their work provides economic benefits for the city of Davis.

      Unfortunatley, that isn’t how it works.   Cities are funded by property taxes and sales taxes mostly.   When people come here to work, and then go home, they are taking money OUT of our economy, not leaving it behind.

      Which leads me to a place where I think we agree:

      RESIDENTIAL GROWTH SHOULD ONLY HAPPEN IN AN EFFORT TO SUPPORT ECONOMIC GROWTH.

      The city has been hemorrhaging economic activity for a LONG time.   I am a veteran / victim of this.  I started a company 10 years ago that could not find adequate commercial space in Davis, so we set up elsewhere.   That meant commuting for a lot of my team, all of whom started out our journey in Davis, and that had it’s own costs.

      University research and the smart people who come here because of the university are an incredible driver for new economic activity, but our choice to not grow has kept us from realizing the economic benefit of such.      I think it would be interesting to take a sober look at different scenarios for “economic growth” with different mixes of development – use dispassionate numbers to determine what is the best economic path for the city, AND include the environmental externalities as well.

      I think that if we can put some of those scenarios on the board and pick from them, and understand what all of the options are, then we will be able to make the right choice about how this city should grow.

      1. Bill Marshall

        The former says ” this is MY town, and I get to decide if other people get to share it or not”   The other says ” If you work in this town, you should be able to live in this town”

        You have captured the crux of the matter… I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count all the times folk have approached the City Council, opposing a housing project, saying, “I’m a long-term resident of 5 (or 3-7) years, and I oppose adding new residents/housing!”

        They used traffic, ‘sustainability’, ‘quality of life’ as their foils… the logic seems to be “I’ve got mine, the H-E-double toothpicks with the rest of folk”… tragic perspective…

        I’ve only been in Davis for 42 (if you count UCD, on-campus, 45) years, so I’m a ‘newbie‘ compared to many folk I know… just glad ‘they’ hadn’t pulled the drawbridge up… I have zero (actually, less than zero) respect for folk who came here, in new housing, 15 years ago (or less), and want to pull up the drawbridge…

        I welcome new folk… existing or new housing… as Will Rogers quipped, “a stranger is just a friend I haven’t met yet”… our doggie has same view, except when it comes to squirrels…

    2. Edgar Wai

      Secondly, the idea that people work in Davis and live somewhere else is something to be fixed.  No, it’s a good thing.  It means that some other community needs to provide (pay for) services for that person (and their family) while their work provides economic benefits for the city of Davis.

      In the principle of “let people help each other”, one would first ask those workers whether they prefer to commute or live in Davis. For each workers who says they prefer to live in Davis, providing housing I Davis for them is considered help, block them from getting housing in Davis is anti help.

      People who are anti help deserve to receive no help according to reciprocation. People who try to keep others out deserve to be kept out.

      Therefore, if you want no growth but want to help, the conclusion is densification. Then you can help those who want to live in Davis and those who want to keep Davis not widening.

      1. Keith Y Echols

        As for deciding who gets to live here, that’s the heart of segregation. Choosing that rationale reveals oneself as a racist bigot. Is that truly what you believe? I suggest reexamining your viewpoint for what it implies.

        Wow…the wokeness of the comment just blows me away.  I never said anything about who gets to live here.  In fact the only person that has mentioned anything about who gets to live here is Tim Keller who believes if you work in Davis, you should be able to live in Davis.

        I think you’re confusing race with economics.  By that thinking, nothing should be built that is outside of the purchase power of any economically disadvantaged group.

        If we extend your way of thinking to Tim Keller’s belief; then housing is to people who can work in Davis.  Those that can afford to buy here and hold those white collar jobs….what is their racial make up?  Is the philosophy of people who work in Davis should be able to live in Davis excluding/segregating some races and other special populations?   As Tim puts it there are a lot of smart people coming out of UCD…his point is to capture that economically and for them to be housed in Davis (if they want to live here).  Let’s assume those smart industrious people are grad students.  Here’s the racial/ethnic make up of the grad student population.

        Race/Ethnicity
        Number

        Asian
        8,354

        Hispanic
        7,011

        White
        6,910

        International
        5,087

        Multi-Ethnic
        1,655

        Black or African American
        631

        Unknown
        373

        Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander
        108

        Hmm….are we segregating some races if our intention is for people that work in Davis should be able to live in Davis?

        Or we could just approve new housing and build, build build without thought to the existing community and the impacts of all that new housing?  Economically disadvantaged people are still going to be left out…which tends to impact some races more than others.

        Or we could grow with the intention of economic growth without favoring one race or another.

    3. Richard_McCann

      Secondly, the idea that people work in Davis and live somewhere else is something to be fixed.

      This is environmentally damaging (for air quality as well as for the climate). That’s the true imperative driving this discussion.

      The proliferation of higher density housing in West Sacramento and Midtown belies the claim about SF housing being the only vibrant market segment in the region.

      As for deciding who gets to live here, that’s the heart of segregation. Choosing that rationale reveals oneself as a racist bigot. Is that truly what you believe? I suggest reexamining your viewpoint for what it implies.

  6. Ron Glick

    We should give up on deciding who should live where and let people make their own decision for their own reasons.

    What we should be doing is building more housing because there is demand for housing and housing is a basic good for humans.

    Many places in the region and state have failed to build the housing needed to have a healthy housing market. Davis, because of Measures J, R and D is one of the worst in the region. What I find sad are the many shameless ways that people in Davis rationalize their selfishness.

     

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
$ USD
Sign up for