By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – The city of Davis has managed to approve the next housing element. In January or so it will work on approving a downtown specific plan, at some point a permanent affordable housing ordinance and finally a general plan update.
At some point down the line the chickens will have to come home to roost. We are going to have to figure out how and where to put new housing and that is a difficult problem—more so for Davis for a few reasons than elsewhere.
For some the answer to this problem begins and ends with Measure J. They have a point, but it is not the full story and doesn’t lend itself to solving our problem.
In March of 2000, the city of Davis’ voters approved Measure J by about 1400 votes—53.6 to 46.3 percent. That created the right to vote on peripheral projects and the result was that only six projects have come forward over the near 21 years and only two of those have been approved. A seventh project could come to a vote in June.
Ten years later, the opposition to the project dropped off and just 3187 votes opposed it—the margin was over 7000 votes and it was a 76.7 to 23.3 outcome.
As these things go, if you are wanting to end Measure J this is not a favorable trend.
If you are looking to solve our housing problem now, this is a waste of time to even really discuss. What we do need to do is figure it out within the current system—that is clearly going to be the law of the land for the foreseeable future, how and where do we create more housing opportunities.
Bend it or amend it, don’t end it…
One approach I appreciated from the spring came from the proposals from Sustainable Growth Yolo. For all of the criticism they got from the slow growth community, their proposal was actually very pragmatic. Nowhere on their list did they propose ending Measure J.
My top preference is the pre-approval proposal. I first proposed that about five years ago after the first Nishi project was defeated and there were questions about whether the voters would ever approve a Measure J vote.
They have since approved two —but the more I look at those votes, the more I believe those are largely the exceptions rather than the rule. More on that in a moment.
The nice thing about pre-approval is that you don’t need to change Measure J at all. You simply put the land that you want to consider for development up for a vote to annex. You will still need things like baseline features and an EIR, but if the voters approve that land, then you go through the normal entitlement process.
Councilmember Dan Carson points out that nothing would stop the voters from putting the project on the ballot after the fact—he’s correct, but how many infill projects have been put on the ballot since 2000? Zero. Might go to court, but Measure J hasn’t stopped them from going to court either.
The problem of course is that the slow growth supporters came out strongly against pre-approval as an end run around Measure J. But guess what, given that you don’t need to change Measure J, that is not the case.
If you can’t make pre-approval work, how are you expecting to end Measure J? Pre-approval would help for better planning—do it with the next General Plan update, get buy-in from the public, both sides of the room, and see if it works. Worst case scenario, it fails. At least you will have tried.
Yesterday, we talked about affordable housing subsidized housing—Dan Carson has proposed a modification to Measure J to allow for more subsidized, inclusionary housing projects to be Measure J-exempt.
“The exemptions written by the original drafters of J/R/D were fine in concept, but have so many strings attached that they are unusable–and have never been used. We could fix this by removing the problematic language,” said Dan Carson in June.
“For example, in order to use the affordable housing exception, an applicant would have to prove that no other site anywhere in the city is available for affordable housing—a daunting if not impossible barrier,” he pointed out.
So far, any hint at modifying Measure J has drawn strong opposition, but it has been narrow opposition. At some point, you have to see how deep this opposition actually goes.
Beyond that, I am not sure there is a lot the city can do at this point.
Aside from a revised DISC, there are two potential projects, one at Wild Horse Ranch, where the last proposal went down to a huge defeat, and one in the Northwest Quadrant.
The second DISC will be an interesting test—can any project that triggers concerns about traffic (realistic ones anyway) pass a vote? That has been the key factor in the six previous votes. Nishi in 2018 took traffic off the table by making it university-only access, and WDAAC never drew traffic concerns.
The four projects that triggered traffic concerns all lost, although Nishi and DISC were at least close and drew a second vote.
If that’s the case, going west of Sutter and north of Covell might be the only viable path forward for additional housing in the next generation.
The other proposals from Sustainable Growth Yolo don’t particularly move the needle much—although I think making strip malls into mixed use is a good interim step. Unless construction costs go down, true redevelopment even of the downtown is largely going to be rare, if not altogether off the table.