Commentary: What’s Happening to University Mall?

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.

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  1. Alan Miller

    What’s the status of U-Mall ?

    What’s the status of Nishi ?

    What’s the status of the Olive – Pole Line bike connector?

    All about the same.  Stalled, like a bad takeoff.

    She hit back at residents’ criticism of proposed student housing and ensuring people know “this is not the students’ fault.”

    We knew.

    Carson has been an active proponent of the DiSC project

    Saves the world!

    and staunchly pro-development councilmember. 

    Yet ironically, literally, a NIMBYer.  Not as a perjorative, as a fact.  Like opposes nearby.

    He voiced words of excited support when addressing the project’s sustainability, location, and fiscal benefits.

    It’s sustainable!  It’s near campus!  It will make money!   Hal-a-freakin’-lutely.

    1. Mark West

      “What’s the status of the Olive – Pole Line bike connector?”

      I walked the completed route yesterday so you will need to pick a new example.

  2. Jim Frame

    Not specific to the UM project (UM in this case being University Mall, though I’m typing this in Ann Arbor, home of the *real* UM [Go Blue!]), but I’ve always found the city’s website unhelpful for finding project status information.  The search feature results usually have such a low signal-to-noise ratio that they’re functionally useless.

    One would think that a simple process for logging and publishing brief update information every time a change to project status occurs — basically a blog — would be easy to design and implement without materially burdening staff, but maybe my outsider perspective is too unrealistic.

  3. Ron Glick

    I think demolition is scheduled to start next year. After that begins figure about two years to completion. Meanwhile there is a cool half size Sistine Chapel ceiling replica on display where World Market was located. Tickets are $20.50. A fraction of the cost of a ticket to Rome.

  4. Keith Y Echols

     For a town with so much innovation, appetite for business,

    Wait…what?  Are you talking about an alternate universe Davis?  Bizarro World (not the comics shop) Davis?

     Keeping developers accountable is a responsibility of students and the city. 

    And this attitude is why we can’t have nice new things in Davis.  If you want nice new things you have to go in with the attitude of WORKING WITH THE DEVELOPERS.  Yes you “hold them accountable” by coming up with an agreement that works for both parties.  But if that attitude from the outset is we want what we want and we’re going to hold you accountable….well ya know what…you can take your property and shove off!  And on campus students need to stay the @#$% out of the process.

    All that being said, while I generally oppose student focused planning by the city.  There’s are areas of the city that I think it makes sense.  As long as there is a commercial component to attract sales tax revenue to pay for it self….or hopefully be revenue positive…then I’m in favor of student focused mixed use development in that area of Davis.

  5. Ron Oertel

    I’m curious regarding the status of the Chiles Ranch development.  It’s been well-over a decade since a developer purchased that large property, with plans to build a bunch of small single-family houses.

    At one point, I recall that they were going to rebuild something that resembled the horse barn, as sort of a community amenity. Not sure, but I think those plans were unfortunately dropped.

    Man, I can’t help but think of the prior history of that property, every time I see it. I’m sure that most of you are familiar with that.

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