By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – When they first rolled out the sequencing here, it made a little bit of sense—the city of Davis would roll out the Downtown Plan first and then roll into a General Plan update. A big problem now is that we still don’t have the Downtown Plan done—I’m told by city officials early 2022 now—and at this point, we should probably re-think some of it in light of COVID-inspired changes.
The bigger problem is probably what that does to a General Plan update—which is desperately needed and, because it is likely to represent an all-out war, I’m sure the city officials are not that anxious to get it underway.
In the meantime, we have approved a Housing Element that doesn’t make a ton of sense, which establishes housing for the next eight years—again, outside of a broader community discussion and a General Plan update.
The city has included plans to add housing for which there is no room, there is no fiscal feasibility and for which they cannot likely get through a vote.
At some point, there has to be a reckoning that the infill locations which we have relied on for our housing with very few exceptions over the last 20 years is essentially gone. I think the city wanted to think about housing in the core, but the feasibility of that housing—absence subsidies—seems unlikely.
In the meantime, we are about to head to another election cycle where there is likely to be at least one Measure J project on the ballot, with no clear community direction except for their project by project opposition to any and all new development—housing or not.
But it’s a whole lot worse than that. At this rate, we probably won’t have a new General Plan approved until 2025 at the earliest—halfway through the next RHNA (Regional Housing Needs Allocation) cycle, with the state raining down pressure to build housing, and Davis still operating under a quarter-century old plan from another world.
But wait, it is worse than that. The dam on Measure J projects is about to break loose and we could see at least four by 2024—again, all of them before the General Plan is done.
Slow-growthers want to preserve this community. I hear all the time that they don’t want this community to look like Elk Grove or Natomas.
Okay, but the reality is that by trying to preserve the community, you’re actually still changing it.
This past week the council heard caller after caller calling to return Mace Blvd. back to the way it was. But the reality is that Mace, as people knew it ten years ago, does not exist anymore. The reason for that is a combination of factors—mainly that I-80 is impacting the entire corridor from Dixon to Sacramento and Waze apps are redirecting traffic, trying to bypass that bottleneck, through Mace which is creating its own bottleneck
The city has made plans—and I think the lack of speed on this is a legitimate complaint—to alter the design, but at the end of the day, they will make changes on the margins.
We have seen the city over the last 20 years increasingly struggle to generate city revenue. When they have asked the voters for new taxes to fund basic infrastructure, the voters voted it down. When they have asked for the voters to approve economic development, the voters voted it down (twice).
Housing remains problematic as well. The voters have thus far voted down four of the six Measure J projects before. The city has approved and built one major single-family housing site in the last 20 years.
That fact is dramatically changing the nature of this city—housing is getting more expensive, and we are seeing fewer families with children moving into town. That is leading to declining enrollment and more stress on the schools.
You can argue that this change is okay—but you can’t argue that it represents a major change in the community many claim to want to preserve.
There is no magic bullet here. But we are seeing very drastic changes to Davis and what troubles me is that most of these changes are happening as the result of lack of action rather than the result of carefully discussed planning.
We hear the council comments that we operate in a time of COVID for nearly the past two years. But the problem is that the city was dragging its heels before COVID happened. And, frankly, COVID makes community discussion more feasible, not less. The city could have a series of presentations and discussions over Zoom that frankly are easier for families and people to attend than it was in the old days when we had to crowd into a public space for a few hours.
Part of my problem—the public, when we examined polling from a few years ago, had only a cursory understanding of the looming problems.
For instance, one poll found that housing and lack of affordable housing were tops on the list—and then the voters went and voted down the largest affordable housing proposal the city has ever seen.
At the same time, however, they have consistently overestimated the health of city finances. Most respondents have said that city finances are good to fair, while the reality is that we have a balanced budget on paper only and it’s held together with silly string and deferred maintenance on critical infrastructure.
With monies coming available from the state and feds, we might get a break on infrastructure and affordable housing—although that money might unfortunately be just a drop in the bucket compared to what our built up needs are.
But the bigger issue is that there needs to be an honest discussion with the community about our challenges, but our leaders do not have the incentive to give that talk—and those who have in the past have been either ignored or have exaggerated the problem to the extent that they were not deemed credible.