By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – The Chiles Ranch project that came before the Planning Commission last week is one of five major projects in the city that have been approved but ground has not broken on them just yet.
While the Planning Commission recommended against an extension on the Development Agreement without updating the terms and conditions, City Manager Mike Webb told the Vanguard on Monday that he expects to sit down with Dan Fouts and his team to figure out what is possible.
Fouts was unavailable last week, so Project Manager Lydia Della-Schlosser presented to the Planning Commission.
She explained the delay, “Our original approvals were received in 2009, but at that time we paused due to the economic conditions of that period’s so-called Great Recession. In 2015, as the economy recovered from the economic cycle, we were fortunate to acquire the entitled land at Grande Village and the El Macero property.”
She said, “For many reasons, we chose to focus on Grande Village and the Villas at El Macero.” They did bring Grande Village and the Villas to completion. However, when they directed their focus back to Chiles Ranch in late 2019, “at that time, COVID came, and sort of threw us all back and because of the extensive uncertainty of how a worldwide pandemic would affect the overall economy and specifically the housing market, we made the business decision to not break ground on Chiles Ranch in 2020 … who would’ve predicted the housing market would take off as it did under these unprecedented times.”
Chiles Ranch may be the longest running unbuilt project, but it is not the only one. Among the others: Trackside, Nishi, Bretton Woods, and University Commons.
Each actually has their own unique challenges. For example, with Trackside, the project was approved several years ago and then a lawsuit by the neighbors was originally successful and only last year did an appellate court overturn that ruling, and only early this spring did the Supreme Court decline to hear the case.
As reported two weeks ago, however, Trackside is now on the market.
“After seven years of navigating risk and overcoming more challenges and delays than we thought possible, this exit strategy finally provides a financial return to our investors,” Kemble Pope told the Vanguard.
He added, “If not for the legal delays, we would have built the project and it would have been occupied for some time. Don’t forget, I started the Meridian Place process about a year after Trackside and it was delivered September 2018.”
The team is hopeful that, with a fully entitled project that has cleared its final legal hurdles, a developer will purchase the property and complete the housing.
Meanwhile the prospects remain uncertain for University Commons. As many probably remember, the project was approved by council on a contentious 3-2 vote only when Brett Lee gained a key concession to lower the building height at the last moment.
Mike Webb told the Vanguard that financing is a problem, but “they know they need it,” meaning the renovation. As some remember, Brixmor, the commercial entity that owns the site, initially wanted to do a redesign and were convinced by the city to look at mixed use—a prospect they ultimately agreed to but it took them out of their comfort zone.
Adding to the challenges were last-second conditions put on by council to gain the approval.
Webb said on Monday they will be meeting with the team again. The question is what they want to do at this point. The options appear to be either just doing the commercial portion of the project as they originally intended or phasing in residential to make it pencil out.
Nishi was the first project approved by the voters and it still has not broken ground. The 2016 project would have featured an R&D component and had access to Richards Blvd. The voters turned that down.
So in 2018, the developers came back with a university-only access project that required a railroad crossing to connect it to campus and that has been the hold up.
“Nishi, it’s just the crossing that is holding things up,” Webb said.
He reported that they are now finally doing well with the railroad and also attempting to figure out the exact landing spot on campus.
“They’ve made significant headway in the last couple of months,” Webb said. “Tim Ruff is sounding optimistic about it.”
The other approved Measure J project is Bretton Woods. Webb said that Bretton is about a “week or two from getting a grading permit.” Once Denova Homes closes escrow, the construction on that project could begin sometime this summer.
At this point, of the five projects, Bretton Woods seems closest to actually breaking ground it seems.
There are two other key land use decisions that the city will have to address. One is the Downtown Plan which was largely completed prior to COVID, but has not formally been approved by council.
Webb did not want to put a firm timetable on it, but it seems that it could go to public review by the end of this month and get to council before the end of summer. That timeline is still tentative however.
Meanwhile the city is still apparently going back and forth with HCD on the Housing Element.
Mike Webb said that they are trying to “better understand the details of what HCD is looking for.” He said that frankly, “a lot of comments left the city scratching their heads.”
Here he noted that Davis is not alone, there are eight other cities in the region having similar problems.
He put no timeline on a preliminary draft response, they want some indication as to whether their draft responses are sufficient.
The Vanguard last week laid out potential problems meeting the affordable housing allotment of just under 1000 affordable units.
“I don’t really think it will be a problem,” Webb said. The city will have to lay out a rationale for the sites that will have to be pursued. But even with the loss DiSC, Webb expects they can lay out enough infill sites to not have a problem meeting the housing needs. Though he did say HCD might want to see a timeline where the housing can be built sooner rather than later in the cycle.
The Vanguard has been warning, however, that the city is running out of infill options and here Mike Webb agrees.
“The next Housing Element cycle, that’s where the community will need to be reengaged,” Webb acknowledged. “I don’t see us infilling our way to a Housing Element next time.”
That means that, by 2029, the city will have to figure out how to get the allotment of affordable housing.
“That’s a key drive to the next General Plan Update,” Webb said. “Looking ahead to the new RHNA cycle.”
The Vanguard noted last week that the voters have been willing to grant housing projects that do not increase traffic concerns. Where that would be is subject to speculation, however.
One approach could be, as the Vanguard has suggested, to lay out in advance potential areas for annexation and conversion of agricultural land.
But Webb remains skeptical.
“I’m not sure the community would have the appetite for approving a ballot measure that’s not completely laid out,” he said of the pre-approval prospects.