By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – A week or so ago, we people were asking for more commentary on the council candidates’ positions on issues. We now have a huge volume of material to parse through—last week’s three forums yielded roughly 20,000 words on key issues.
One of the most important issues facing the Davis Community is the issue of housing. After the loss of DiSC in both 2020 and 2022, the pendulum has seemingly swung back toward infill and away from peripheral housing.
When the candidates were asked about what type of residential development they favored, the answer focused toward infill and affordability.
Gloria Partida: “I always advocate for the missing middle because that is an area where we don’t have enough housing. I think that for a long time we built, you know, lots of McMansions and housing was really big and unaffordable. It became unaffordable. And so I think the move back to building smaller units, to building stack flats and condominiums and denser housing is the way to go for us because we have our downtown plan that advocates for that type of housing.”
Adam Morrill: “I would push for mandatory 35% being affordable as far as not big ‘a’ affordable, but affordable for a certain price point within the community and pushing for townhomes, condos.”
Kelsey Fortune: “I really would like for us to focus on infill. It creates opportunities for the city to increase its tax base without increasing infrastructure and maintenance costs. Things like our downtown plan that will, you know, build up multiple different types of housing within the core of our community. Apartments, condos, town homes, you know, denser, denser housing near where people want to live is hugely important.”
Dan Carson: “I think we need to move forward on both market rate and affordable housing because, from an economic perspective, adding units, adding supply makes a huge difference. I’ve fought the good fight, won some, lost some for housing projects at the ballot at the council.”
Bapu Vaitla: “I think the focus initially should be infill housing, downtown dense, affordable climate friendly, transit linked infill. And we have some policy levers to make that happen, including increasing density bonuses, reducing, eliminating parking minimums, fast tracking permitting for developments with a high affordable percentage up zoning to allow these kind of modest increases in density and height.”
Or, as Bapu Vaitla put in another forum, “we need to focus on dense, climate friendly, affordable transit linked infill in our downtown.”
Dan Carson also pushed in the downtown, “We are nearing completion of a new plan for our downtown that will add 1000 market rate and other types of units for about 2200 people over time.”
There was also a push for updating the General Plan.
Adam Morrill, “We need to update our general plan to include those areas so that we don’t result in a patchwork of sprawl, unconnected communities. That’s just not sustainable. It’s not good policy. So in addition to updating a general plan.”
He later added, “First off, we need to make the necessary updates to the general plan. We can’t keep adding, amending peripheral development that just results in patchwork and sprawl. That’s the first thing that needs to be done.”
He wasn’t alone. Bapu Vaitla added, “I would just say in terms of our vision overall, we need a general plan update. If we as a city do not say what the character of our city is as far as housing, what we want to see, then we won’t attract the kind of developers, nonprofit developers, affordable housing developers that fit that vision of equity and sustainability.”
He later added, “The big thing though, is having a general plan update that sets the character our vision for housing in the city.”
What about peripheral development?
Adam Morrill acknowledged, “With regard to any future peripheral development, which is going to be necessary. Davis needs to grow.”
Kelsey Fortune made it clear that she favored infill projects “rather than focusing on peripheral projects.”
All of the candidates acknowledged the need for housing. But the push for that housing was quite clearly away from housing on the periphery that tends to be contentious and requires approval of the voters.
How realistic is that? That’s a big question.
Dan Carson for instance touted the fact the city is moving toward approving the downtown plan adding 1000 market rate—and the city is clearly counting on the downtown not only for market rate, but to fulfill its allotment of low- and very low-income housing as required under RHNA.
But how realistic is that? The fiscal analysis performed several years ago suggests that downtown mixed use is going to have to be for sale, relatively large units and dense to pencil out for the developers. And the opportunities for low- and very low-income units are going to be very limited.
Unless RDA or some other form of subsidized housing comes forward, I think it’s questionable that the city can redevelop.
City Manager Mike Webb a few months ago told me that, while he thought we could reach our RHNA allotments for this cycle, he thinks it will be hard to impossible to infill our way out in the next cycle.
The problem the city faces is that the amount of available vacant land is limited and redevelopment and densification is very expensive not to mention contentious.
We saw this with University Commons. The project was approved by the last council—but because it was dense infill, it needed to be seven stories which drew a lot of criticism for near neighbors.
We now have the announcement that housing is off the table—much to the chagrin of some of the candidates.
We reported problems with this project back in June.
Here is what I wrote:
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.
We now know that they decided to do commercial only. Everyone is lamenting this. I see this as the failure of our process though—the developers in order to get the project approved put forward a project that would not pencil out. The result is the loss of a huge opportunity for dense, infill housing.
I have had some interesting conversations in the past week about possible ways forward overall with good, dense infill housing that can perhaps rebuild community trust—that’s what is lacking and it doesn’t help that the Downtown Plan has been delayed as long as it has or that we still don’t have a community vision or General Plan update.
Housing is highly needed, but unfortunately it is not going to become less contentious, and it will be up to the next council to figure out ways to thread that needle.