Commentary: So, Housing in Davis…

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – Put me down in the category—I am skeptical that the city of Davis can meet its housing needs.  That’s my takeaway point after writing earlier this week on the state of the Housing Element.

Davis basically faces two problems simultaneously.  One, it has a lack of vacant sites in town for housing.  Two, anything that requires conversion to urban uses requires a vote of the people and the people have only approved two projects in the last 20 years.

One commenter this week argued that “we have tons of space not related to Measure J.”  We really don’t.

His big suggestion—redevelopment of shopping centers.  Don’t get me wrong, I supported the notion of mixed-use at neighborhood shopping centers.  But as *a* solution to housing not *the* solution to housing.

There are a number of big problems here with relying on this kind of development.  First of all, redevelopment especially right now is extraordinarily expensive.  That’s why we saw the University Commons proposal at seven stories.

In order to get that project you had to have a large, out-of-town and deep-pocketed developer, you had to have a very large project, and, as we saw, it was very controversial.

The council was willing to bite that bullet once—on a 3-2 vote with the tiebreaking vote leaving council and not having to face the voters in the next election.

What did we get out of that?  Rental, student housing.  I don’t have a problem with student housing, I have supported student housing, and student housing makes sense across the street from the university, but let’s not start pretending like that is going to solve our housing problem.

That’s the main problem—this kind of redevelopment is not going to produce housing for families.  It’s not going to produce single-family homes.

Look no further than the Trackside project that now is back on track.  Another incredibly divisive project, it is a large facility and, yet, what do we get out of Trackside?  Twenty-seven units of housing—which is luxury rental housing.

This was a big reason I opposed the project a few years ago—incredibly divisive and did not get us a lot of housing and certainly not the kind of housing that moves the ball forward.

In short, redevelopment outside of the core area is expensive, it will need to be dense and, if it is dense, it will be very controversial.

Second, in the coming months we will see the city hopefully approve the new Downtown Plan.  I have long supported the need for mixed use in the downtown.  But, again, we are talking about redevelopment.  Again, we will be talking about rental housing, perhaps more along the lines of workforce housing.

Again, this will be helpful.  But when this was analyzed a few years ago, construction costs were high and there were questions about whether this will financially pencil out for developers.

There might be some deep-pocketed developers who want to redevelop swaths of downtown.  We have underutilized land space there for sure, but unless we get Redevelopment or some kind of tax increment re-established, I just don’t see it as a large-scale solution.

That leaves us with perhaps some bolder proposals—redevelopment of the Civic Fields along B Street, redevelopment of the District Office or, perhaps the ultimate pipedream, the PG&E yards.

In the end, I know people including myself wanted to avoid peripheral housing, but if you want to bring in single-family homes, if you want to provide housing for families, you have to at some point bite the bullet.

We could see a lot in the way of housing proposed—if the voters are willing to approve.  You have what is now 460 units proposed at DiSC, another 26 acres at Palomino Place, and the biggest proposal at this point is at Shriner’s.  Will any of these get approved?

The biggest common denominator for approving Measure J projects is traffic impacts.  It took a relatively benign proposal for traffic along Covell, for what is now Bretton Woods, and removing access to Richards for Nishi to pass those two projects in 2018.

We will not see the same luxury in 2022 with any of the projects along the Mace-Covell corridor.

So, at this point I see our housing options as expensive, and small infill housing at redevelopment sites or the downtown or greenfield proposals that will require approval by the voters.

Ironically it is easier for the council to simply put Measure J projects on the ballot and punt the issue to the voters.  To this day, I have not seen a single councilmember losing office in Davis for putting such a measure on the ballot.  Whereas infill is incredibly dangerous, since the buck stops with the person voting for the project.

We saw that with the University Commons project.  The two incumbents on the ballot in 2020, Will Arnold and Lucas Frerichs, both voted no and the deciding vote was cast by Brett Lee, exiting council.

Can Davis solve its housing needs?  Yes.  Will it?  Color me skeptical.

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.

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15 Comments

  1. Ron Oertel

    HCD is requiring the Bay Area to accommodate approximately 441,000 additional units.  Approximately 82,000 in San Francisco alone.

    How many of these individual communities will do so, without looking to sprawl outward?

    https://abag.ca.gov/sites/default/files/documents/2021-12/Final_RHNA_Allocation_Report_2023-2031-approved_0.pdf

    The same question can be asked of other metropolitan areas along the coast, including Los Angeles.

    When David answers these questions (regarding a comparison with other communities that are also facing the same requirements, but are not planning to sprawl outward), perhaps he’ll have some credibility regarding his “concern” for Davis.

    Actually, the same type of question applies regarding his constant-concern for the city’s fiscal condition (which “coincidentally” he also believes can be “solved by growth”).

     

  2. Ron Oertel

    To this day, I have not seen a single councilmember losing office in Davis for putting such a measure on the ballot.  Whereas infill is incredibly dangerous, since the buck stops with the person voting for the project.

    We saw that with the University Commons project.  The two incumbents on the ballot in 2020, Will Arnold and Lucas Frerichs, both voted no and the deciding vote was cast by Brett Lee, exiting council.

    Given his overall views, Lucas demonstrated a lack of integrity with that vote.  Why do people run for council, if they don’t vote their conscience – even if it costs them an election? Is the job that valuable to them, personally?

    But even worse, why is the Vanguard suggesting that council members vote against their beliefs? (Is that what they teach in political science courses?)

    In any case, let’s see what happens with Gloria, given that she’s going to try to be re-elected in the same district where she’s pushing for so much peripheral development.

  3. Keith Y Echols

    In order to get that project you had to have a large, out-of-town and deep-pocketed developer, 

    Few if any “deep-pocketed developers” are going to risk the Davis market.  There may be some.  But in all likelihood it’s going to take a local developer who can convince some deep pocketed investors that a major infill project can be successful.  It’s also going to take a local to convince outsider investors and developers that something can get past the measure J voters.  Until then it’s going to be hard to keep lining up developers and investors behind what is essentially vaporware until it passes Measure J.

    I can tell you as someone has been part of the annexation and entitlement of property, that to investors it’s considered speculative at best unless you have someone with a successful record at going through that process…especially in a specific market.   I’ve always equated land development with a seed level start up company.  At that stage you’re mostly investing in the people being able to be successful than the actual business idea (yes the business idea/land project is important but since it’s so risky, the people involved are more important).  But now in the case of Davis and peripheral development you add on the extra layer of uncertainty with Measure J which doesn’t have a great record of getting projects approved…it makes an already risky investment speculative.

    It’s going to take locals to make Davis a growth friendly environment.  Yes, local developers (or ones that are familiar with the local market are likely going to have to spearhead….or be the “vanguard” to push projects forward.  But here’s the most important part: it’s going to take CIVIC LEADERSHIP to push a vision of growth forward.  That leadership not only means promoting growth but growth under conditions that the people of Davis will find beneficial or at very least acceptable.  That means that the face of DISC or Trackside or the UMall project can’t be some developer.  In another article David said that the people of Davis don’t trust developers.   And the shouldn’t.  Developers are in it for the money…that’s their function to build stuff for money.  But who the people of Davis should trust are their elected leaders who represent these projects and the conditions that the people want those projects approved.  Bottom line…there needs to be civic leader faces on projects and growth.  But right now, I don’t see civic leader faces on proposed projects.  The only time I ever saw anything remotely close to this is when I briefly talked to then Mayor Brett Davis at the farmers market with a planner there to answer questions about the downtown plan.  That kind of thing is a step in the right direct but 99% of the people there had little idea who or what he was doing there.  Also, to most people the idea of a downtown plan is something off in the distant future (still is) where as promoting a specific project is far more tangible to most people to grasp and get behind (or oppose as is the case in Davis).

    It’s people that ultimately get projects done.  If local developers and the civic leaders show a strong partnership and show some success; then more developers will be willing to look at the local Davis market for projects.

     I don’t have a problem with student housing, I have supported student housing, and student housing makes sense across the street from the university, 

    I have a problem with student housing.  Once again, why is the city subsidizing UCD (remember that any new housing costs the city money to provide ongoing services and maintenance)?  If the housing had been affordable housing for all (including students) then some of the problem with HCD allotment of housing might have been avoided….or at least lessened.  And I also support student housing near UCD.  But I’d support it if it had a significant enough of a commercial component to at least pay for itself or maybe even be a net plus benefit for the city.

    1. Mark West

       “extra layer of uncertainty with Measure J which doesn’t have a great record of getting projects approved”

      There really is no uncertainty here. The next time a Measure J project breaks ground will be the first time. Two decades of success preventing development. The metrics that we should be using on all of our development projects, both redevelopment infill and on the periphery, are projects completed and new homes created. Not projects approved or promised.

       

      1. Keith Y Echols

        There really is no uncertainty here. The next time a Measure J project breaks ground will be the first time. Two decades of success preventing development. 

        I’m not sure what your point is.  I was highlighting the limits of Measure J for new development through understatement.

        The metrics that we should be using on all of our development projects, both redevelopment infill and on the periphery, are projects completed and new homes created. Not projects approved or promised.

        Who’s “we”?  I’m not sure you got the point of my comment.  New projects get STARTED by speculative investors and developers.  The higher the risk the less likely they’re going to move forward with a new project.  Measure J adds another level of risk (again, understatement).  You don’t get new homes created (and I’m not a fan of new homes created) without projects being approved first

        And “we” need to be mindful of the $$$ to and from the city when it comes to growth and development….not a simplistic; we need housing for the sake of housing sentiment.  Yes, we need more affordable housing.  Yes we need to meet the RHNA allotment goals.  But we also have to figure out how to do that in a way that works best for the city….again…housing is a cost to the city.

    2. Richard_McCann

      Keith E

      First I agree with your opening comment. It will take civic leadership that doesn’t seem apparent here or on developing a sustainable (in several ways) economic vision. This is going to take making bold moves and perhaps overcoming City staff resistance.

      Once again, why is the city subsidizing UCD

      Let’s start with the fact that state taxpayers have “subsidized” the development of Davis through spending at UCD over the past century. We only need to look at Dixon to see the alternative outcome. In return, we have an obligation to provide support for UCD as a community. No one has presented a valid argument that rebuts this premise. Some have tried to dig into the UC budget to claim that taxpayers aren’t really contributing that much, but I’ve pointed out the fault in that analysis and it also ignore the fact that the state has directed the economic spending by students and staff to Davis. The fact that they may not be spending as much here as we would like isn’t there fault–it’s ours for failing to offer enough to them.

      The existence of UCD is one of the key factors that drives our residential property values about 85% higher than nearby Yolo cities. Our school district benefits from UCD’s presence by bringing a highly educated parents which is shown in repeated studies to be the single most important factor in student success–and that success further pads our property values–it increases our wealth. That we turn around and “subsidize” housing for UCD students and staff is in fact just in part capturing for state taxpayers the positive economic externality that they have provided to Davis residents.

      Finally (and not aimed at Keith’s comment but at what others have written elsewhere), requiring students and staff to live on campus rather than in the community disenfranchises them from making decisions in the community that they are surrounded by and otherwise participate in. In others that suggestion is akin to creating a ghetto where the residents are excluded from voting. Does that sound familiar?

       

      1. Ron Oertel

        Seems to me that if there’s a “state expectation” (as you claim) that Davis should provide housing for students (rather then the entity that actually receives the funds), then the state’s HCD should provide full RHNA credit for any/all type of student housing.

        And yet, they don’t.

        In addition, UCD accommodates non-resident students, which (according to your argument regarding taxpayers) Davis would have no responsibility to house.

      2. Richard_McCann

        For a comparison with Dixon, historic populations:

        1890 Davis 547  Dixon  1,082

        1920 Davis 939  Dixon 926

        1940 Davis 1,672  Dixon 1,108

        1950 Davis 3,554  Dixon 1,714

        1960 Davis  8,910 Dixon 2,970

        2020 Davis 66,850  Dixon 18,988

        Growth 1950-2020:

        Davis 4.3%/yr  Dixon 3.5%

        Cumulative +70% higher growth

      3. Ron Oertel

        Cumulative +70% higher growth

        Sounds like Dixon isn’t “doing its part”. But, I suspect that Woodland is, lately.

        The existence of UCD is one of the key factors that drives our residential property values about 85% higher than nearby Yolo cities.

        Factually incorrect.

         

      4. Keith Y Echols

        . In return, we have an obligation to provide support for UCD as a community.

        Wait…Whaaat???   UCD is not in the city boundaries.  UCD is not subject to the city or it’s voters political will.  It does not pay property taxes that support the city.  Sales tax on UCD property does not support the city.  UCD is an independent operating entity outside of the city’s jurisdiction.

        The only thing left is irrational sentimentality.  The belief in some magical intangible obligation to UCD by the city.  

        The existence of UCD is one of the key factors that drives our residential property values about 85% higher than nearby Yolo cities.

        So what.  UCD is next door to Davis.  Woodland is close to Sacramento, should Woodland go out of it’s way to support the city of Sacramento or the state government?   Should Woodland create housing for Sac city and state government employees?  Winters is near Lake Berryessa.  Should Winters create housing solely to support Lake Berryessa’s tourism efforts?  I mean I’m sure Winters benefits from Lake Berryessa being near by.  Winters is also near Vacaville.  When Vacaville’s bio tech center goes fully operational, I’m sure Winter’s homes will go up in value.  I know…Winters should go out of it’s way to house employees of those biotech companies from Vacaville….I mean I know it will cost the city of Winters to support those homes….but Winters should be grateful that Vacaville has a new biotech center and Winter’ home prices will rise accordingly (that’s sarcasm).

        Finally (and not aimed at Keith’s comment but at what others have written elsewhere), requiring students and staff to live on campus rather than in the community disenfranchises them from making decisions in the community that they are surrounded by and otherwise participate in.

        Students are like everyone else.  If they can afford to live here great.  If not…go where you can afford to live.  They shouldn’t get special treatment.

    3. Alan Miller

      CIVIC LEADERSHIP . . .  not only means promoting growth but growth under conditions that the people of Davis will find beneficial or at very least acceptable.  That means that the face . . .  Trackside . . . can’t be some developer.

      Hmmmmm . . .

  4. hansenrobj

    Twenty-seven units of housing—which is luxury rental housing.

    Yeah, seeing new developments like that is one of the most frustrating things about the housing/homeless issue.

  5. Todd Edelman

    I’m the

    commenter

    and I – very clearly – did not say that re-development on parking lots is THE solution – I made explicit the complements to this strategy – and it was about spaces much more empty than University Mall, i.e. no large scale demolition.

    Hundreds of millions of families live in dense, multi-story housing all over the world. Not only in large cities. It is inherently sustainable, even more so with modern technology and building practices. The kids in these families are fine, they play at home, in nearby parks – or if their leaders are especially enlightened – in the places between buildings commonly known as streets*.  The dogs in these families are fine, too. Like kids they don’t need personal yards, only exercise, socializing and safe spaces. I lived in “family houses” and I lived in multiple cities in large apartment buildings with families as neighbors. Shade impacts could be easily minimized if tall buildings are positioned much better – for example at University Commons if located abutting Russell. (Housing on the parking lots in my examples can be sited similarly – it helps that most are adjacent to wide arterials.  Again, this development can help save the planet.

    The traffic problem with peripheral development isn’t just about adding VMT, pollution, danger etc., but that it puts all the good modes for transportation – transit, cycling and especially walking – in the extreme minority. This is not explicit enough – especially in the popular conversation in local media. I live in the periphery in southeast Davis and that’s what it’s like – most drive everywhere if they have the choice – I get the strong sense that some of the modest housing around here doesn’t support Nugget – and don’t forget that the proposed DISC doesn’t connect to Nugget by any means other than private automobile.

    How do we solve these issues in Davis? By creating a new and amazing General Plan? How do we do the opposite? By perpetually delaying a new General Plan and intentionally limiting formal community involvement and transparency, e.g. in the Reimagine Russell process.

    * Streets are sadly – and all too often – designed to be or allowed to degrade into stroads.

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