by Benajamin Wynd
Davis, CA – When you type in “University Mall, Davis” on Google, one of the first results is a YouTube video titled, “[DEAD MALL TOUR] University Mall – Davis, CA.” For a town with so much innovation, appetite for business, and active student population, the presence of a “dead” mall is puzzling. However, on August 18, 2020, almost two years ago, the Davis City Council voted 3-2 in favor of redeveloping the decaying University Mall on Russell Boulevard. Developer illustrations show the near-empty mall transforming into a modern, mixed-use hub with housing, office, and retail space. The project titled “University Commons,” is overseen by their 14-year-long owners, Brixmor. Approval of the project wasn’t possible without the owners, Brixmor, making concessions to the council.
A building height reduction of 80 ft to 72 ft was part of these negotiations, providing support from Mayor Partida, Dan Carson, and Brett Lee. Partida names this project an example of smart growth, even saying, “When we talk about smart growth, this is what it looks like.”
She hit back at residents’ criticism of proposed student housing, ensuring people know “this is not the students’ fault.” Dan Carson has been an active proponent of the DiSC project and staunchly pro-development councilmember. He voiced words of excited support when addressing the project’s sustainability, location, and fiscal benefits. The close affirmative vote came with some criticism from opponents on the council. Councilman Will Arnold raised concerns about the building’s height, affordability, and presence of student units. He asserts that housing in this development will be more expensive than what’s currently available already in Davis and it will do nothing to increase affordability. Vice Mayor Frerichs argues that the project’s size doesn’t match the surrounding community, which is an argument that has recently been highly used against DiSC. He says neighbors and residents all across Davis have concerns about size, traffic, etc.
As someone who lives a 1-minute walk from the University Mall, I can see how much underutilized potential there is. The politics of housing in the project are understandably shaky. Ensuring that affordable student housing is constructed is difficult, and promises like that can often slip through the cracks due to developer interests. Keeping developers accountable is a responsibility of students and the city. This prime piece of real estate so close to campus could be a perfect spot for so many students. Aside from the housing aspect, the economic spur and life this project could bring back to Russell is incredible. With the new Shasta Hall building opening in the Cuarto Residence Hall next door to the U-Mall, there’s an increasing number of potential customers and employees for the center. Its close proximity to campus and countless apartment complexes would make sure that a large number of customers arrive via foot or bike, accomplishing one of the city’s many sustainability goals. All of the benefits of this project sound exciting for someone who would be a regular visitor like me. But what happened to University Commons?
Seeing the decaying mall everyday, I wanted to know when development would start or how planning was at least going. Like I previously mentioned, it’s been almost two years since the project was approved. I checked the City of Davis website to look for any information and discovered the last time anything about the project was posted was August 25, 2020. No new information has emerged since the original passing. As of now, my goal isn’t to poke the council for new information or clues about what’s going on. My point of addressing this is about transparency in government. Thousands of students live within 1- to 2-minute walks of this site. Rents across the country are growing at unprecedented rates. As a resident, I feel that it’s important that our council keeps everyone in every part of town able to take a look into what’s going on in their neighborhood. We should be aware of whatever turmoil or cause for stalling is happening behind the scenes. Situations like this are not uncommon due to the bureaucracy of construction and politics of development. But, local government needs to provide transparency on the status of local projects to the thousands of people currently affected, and generations to come who will be affected.