Commentary: City, Council Will Now Turn to a General Plan Update

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – It took the city of Davis over four years to complete the Downtown Plan.  While there are definite steps forward here, overall I’m a bit skeptical that this plan is going to produce a lot of housing that the community needs.

The council did stick to its guns on building heights over the loud objection of neighbors.

“We continue to be in a housing crisis,” Vice Mayor Will Arnold said.  “We continue to see the benefits of having folks live near where they shop, where they are able to access transit. We need more housing and more density in this area. So there is whether we end up supporting four stories or five stories as part of the zoning and the decision we make tonight, the benefit of increased density is more folks having an opportunity to live in downtown and all the benefits that come from that.”

Another council member told me privately that given the fact that the community has repeatedly opposed peripheral housing, they were forced to find infill opportunities in the downtown.

The problem of course is that they are only looking at about 1000 units in total in the downtown, only about 83 of those are projected to be Affordable Housing (big “A”).  That’s not going to move the needle much long term.

Moreover, given the precarious financials – high construction and redevelopment costs – how affordable (small a) will the units actually be?

City Manager Mike Webb, as I have noted previously, is worried about the next RHNA cycle.

“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 all leads us the next stage – General Plan Update.

The reality is this – state is continuing to push for more housing.  There is a small contingent of people – probably very small – that don’t believe we actually need additional housing and believe that the state will not be able to enforce its mandates, so I guess, they think the city should just ignore them and hope for the best.

That does not seem like a viable strategy.

On the other side of fence are those who believe that the true problem is Measure J itself.  That the city is artificially constraining development and that the best course of action is to end the city’s seminal land use ordinance.

That’s also a tiny minority.  In 2020, just 17 percent of the voters opposed Measure J.  Clearly ending Measure J is not a viable short-term strategy – and probably not even a viable longer-term strategy.

That leaves us with perhaps a viable middle ground.  Somewhere around 70 percent of the city’s voters according to one recent poll recognize an affordability problem, but around 35 to 40 percent of voters will likely oppose any and all proposed housing projects.

That gives us a viable middle ground but not much margin for error.

So what can we do?  I think the reality is that we are in “mend it – don’t end it” territory with respect to Measure J.  That will invariably tick off both extremes – those who are dead set on repealing it (again only 17 percent voted to oppose Measure J in the last election) and those who demand before council to renew Measure J with only small, technical changes.

My first recommendation here is that any changes to Measure J should take place off cycle.  In other words, don’t wait until 2030 when the whole things come up for renewal to propose changes.  We still have seven years anyway, might as well see if the voters will support some changes.

The most obvious would be some sort of affordable housing modification.  As former Councilmember Dan Carson often pointed out, the previous exceptions to Measure J for affordable housing were largely unworkable.

So that seems like a good place to start.  Will the community support exceptions to Measure J for larger affordable projects?  That might help the city to reach its affordable housing RHNA requirements in the next two cycles.  That’s clearly something to look at.

The second option is more daring and more controversial – can the General Plan set aside property and housing numbers that are pre-approved by voters?  That would of course not necessarily require changes to the actual language of Measure J, but rather a vote of the public to exempt certain land under specified conditions for housing development.

The city would be able have to have slow and managed and well planned growth, but ensure a greater degree of certainty on both ends.  One inducement might be to trade more certainty for a higher percentage of affordable housing – say 35 percent instead of 15 percent for pre-approved land.

That’s a way to make Measure J more workable.  It creates certainty for city planning.  It creates certainty for the voters.  And it gives us more affordable housing and avoids the kind of project by project planning that we have really done over the last 20 years.

I have some doubts that will fly.  But a General Plan that fails to set aside land for housing is doomed to fail to get us out of the piecemeal approach.

But we will see what the council decides in terms of process and what the community agrees to in terms of outcome.

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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13 Comments

  1. Ron Oertel

    There is a small contingent of people – probably very small – that don’t believe we actually need additional housing and believe that the state will not be able to enforce its mandates, 

    As usual, a number of misstatements, above.

    Those who don’t believe that “we” need additional housing are not necessarily the same as those who suspect that the state will not be able to enforce its mandates.  One of these is an opinion, the other is more likely to be a fact.

    so I guess, they think the city should just ignore a them and hope for the best.

    Certainly not something I’ve said, but the city has already submitted a plan that will likely get approved.  And has a history of doing so, as well.

    Davis is not one of the cities that’s actually challenging the state.  For that matter, no city is approving sprawl for the purpose of meeting the state’s mandates.

    Most of the cities that are targeted by the state have no plans (and sometimes – no ability) to expand outward.  And yet, this reality is consistently ignored by David and others, as they continue to push for sprawl beyond the boundaries of Davis.

    Again, this is not a “Davis vs. the state” fight.  The leaders in Davis are pretty much of the same mindset as state officials in the first place.

    We shall see how this unfolds, over the next few years – across the state.

    I suspect that as soon as one of the “builder remedies” is forced upon some wealthy community along the coast, you’ll see the political landscape change. (In fact, I’m not sure that the state has sufficient “courage” to do so, as those communities are also where they get the state and its politicians get their money.)

    But one thing that David is likely correct about is that Davis’ downtown is not likely to change very quickly.

    By the way, how many Affordable housing units is the Hibbert’s site planning to provide? None?

      1. Ron Oertel

        Interesting – I see (especially from the last article) that this is going to be tied-up in legal battles.  And that more than 100 cities (in Southern California alone – including places like Beverly Hills) were out of compliance.

        I also didn’t realize that the “builder’s remedy” has actually been in place since 1990.

        I’ll probably be watching this to see what happens.  Per that last article, it appears that the residents are getting quite “riled up”.  (This is what I expect will happen over the next few years, if these types of proposals actually proceed.) This is also what will need to happen for residents across the state to take power back from housing development interests. (Ultimately, voters do have the ability to change the state constitution, etc.) I suspect that these developers (on the “fringes” of the development community) are going to sink the rest of the “more-responsible” developers, who might prefer to avoid declaring war on residents.

        So I say, “go for it”, of course. 🙂 I think they’re pulling the tail of the tiger.

        Of course, there’s also Affordable housing requirements associated with the builder’s remedy (as well as various deadlines), so that might actually be a hindrance for them.

        But I’m glad to see that the city is “readying itself” for a battle, regarding the period in which they were out of compliance.

        I wonder how Santa Monica ultimately brought themselves “into compliance”, as this is not discussed in the articles.

      2. Ron Oertel

        An interesting article, regarding Santa Monica.  I didn’t realize that the state was requiring cities to “overshoot” what’s actually expected of them, as a result of the following:

        The City cannot control how many units, affordable or market rate, developers choose to build on a certain site. As a result, HCD said that the City’s inventory of possible housing sites did not take into consideration the possibility for 100 percent commercial or 100 percent market rate projects to be constructed on these sites. 

        The City therefore has amended its Housing Element to show capacity for around 13,000 units to address this potential shortfall. And, in order to address the likely shortfall in affordable housing, the City has identified more City owned sites for the production of affordable units.

        But the following is what I expect will ultimately derail the state’s plans – even if cities and residents weren’t already joining together to fight back:

        Councilmember Phil Brock said that the RHNA allocation given to Santa Monica is too high and unreasonable given the fact that the state is not providing funding for cities to meet their mandated housing requirements. 

        https://smdp.com/2022/06/27/council-begrudgingly-adopts-revised-housing-element/

        The key to this, as usual – is “joining together” with others (cities and residents) throughout the state. No single city (or the residents therein) can fight this on their own. That’s what it will take to dislodge the moneyed interests behind this, and their political allies.

        Something similar has happened before – witness Proposition 13, when people were getting “priced out” of their own homes. I’m pretty sure that a lot of interests fought that, and continue to try to do so to this day.

  2. Ron Glick

    The City Council should identify land that should be annexed for housing as part of the General Plan. Its simple and the community can have the debate before hand. Changing Measure J shouldn’t be part of the debate. It complicates everything.

  3. Ron Oertel

    Somewhere around 70 percent of the city’s voters according to one recent poll recognize an affordability problem, but around 35 to 40 percent of voters will likely oppose any and all proposed housing projects.

    Is this a false claim, in regard to “70 percent of voters”?

    What were the methodologies used to ensure that the respondents were voters, and that the results actually represented voters (e.g., vs. those who voluntarily chose to respond to a survey)?

    Those are two vastly different groups. Are you mixing the two?

    For that matter, what were the controls used to ensure that someone didn’t respond to the survey more than once?

  4. Richard_McCann

    Based on the results of the last two Council races and the performances of the No on DiSC candidates, it appears that the “no to development” contingent is only about 15%-25% of the electorate. The remainder are open to other options.

    I don’t think designating specific parcels for development in the GP will necessarily work because that requires that those landowners make a commitment to future development under the specified conditions. Instead, the GP should lay out very specific development baseline conditions that lead to only needing Council approval to move forward, and a Measure J/R/D vote if the developer chooses to deviate. Much easier to construct with many more stakeholders involved.

    1. David Greenwald

      I don’t know how you can do that, without designating parcels. And I agree, you would have to get approval from landowners to do it. You would probably need to do it on an eight year cycle. That’s assuming you could get support for such an endeavor.

    2. Don Shor

      Based on the results of the last two Council races and the performances of the No on DiSC candidates, it appears that the “no to development” contingent is only about 15%-25% of the electorate. The remainder are open to other options.

      To the best of my knowledge, there hasn’t been a slow-growth candidate elected to the city council since 2008 when Sue Greenwald was elected to her third term.

  5. Don Shor

    We’ve got at least three development projects ready to move toward the ballot, at least conceptually so far. So I don’t really see any need to pre-approve anything. Voters have approved a couple of housing projects by sizable margins, so local developers see what needs to be done to get approval and appear to be ready to work within the existing constraints.

    Economic development? No. The voters seem pretty clear on that. So any economic development is going to have to be within the city limits. To that extent, the more housing proposed for downtown, the less the economic benefits to the city of redevelopment projects therein. I suggest we stop trying to crowd a bunch of housing in downtown, that we stop trying to squeeze affordable housing there, and focus on improving the business climate in the downtown.

    Affordable housing in any quantity is going to be stand-alone and funded by state and federal funds primarily. That isn’t subject to Measure J. The city just needs to work to find parcels and get them ready. Peripheral is fine so long as basic amenities are nearby. Downtown is not a logical place for affordable housing units, and insisting on them costs the city long-term revenues.

    I really hope that the council will look at other approaches now. Pushing for high percentages of affordable units in conventional housing developments, and especially in any housing proposed downtown, is likelier to kill the projects. I suspect for some that may be the goal. Others just see developers as having unlimited resources or expect a willingness to take a lower profit margin. But if you want affordable units, you have to work with the people who actually fund them and build them.

     

    1. Ron Oertel

      Economic development? No. The voters seem pretty clear on that.

      Actually, there haven’t really been any such proposals.

      The only thing that’s been put forth is housing proposals, disguised as economic development.  Economic development (in the form of a sprawling business park) apparently doesn’t “pencil out”.

      That’s why DISC will now be what the developers wanted all along – a 100% housing proposal.

      So any economic development is going to have to be within the city limits. To that extent, the more housing proposed for downtown, the less the economic benefits to the city of redevelopment projects therein.

      Probably true.

      I suggest we stop trying to crowd a bunch of housing in downtown, that we stop trying to squeeze affordable housing there, and focus on improving the business climate in the downtown.

      I’d suggest that too, but it seems to me that the Hibbert’s site (for example) could accommodate a pretty large 100% Affordable housing complex.

      Affordable housing in any quantity is going to be stand-alone and funded by state and federal funds primarily.

      That’s right.  (See Hibbert’s site, as an example.)  Though I don’t know if government funds can be used for a “mixed” housing development within the city.  (Maybe.)

      That isn’t subject to Measure J. The city just needs to work to find parcels and get them ready.

      True – Measure J doesn’t apply regarding peripheral Affordable housing developments.

      Then again, Hibbert’s seems to be one such opportunity that’s already within the city.

      Downtown is not a logical place for affordable housing units, and insisting on them costs the city long-term revenues.

      It is, if government funds them.  (See your comment above, regarding “who” funds Affordable housing developments.)

      Though “wherever” Affordable housing complexes are located – they’re a fiscal drain on the city if they’re exempt from property taxes. And that would apply to any peripheral sites that are subsequently included in the city.

      Truth be told, they’re also probably a drain on the fiscal health of the school system.

      Perhaps that’s another justification for cities to challenge these mandates from the state, unless the state is going to assume ALL of the costs.

      I really hope that the council will look at other approaches now. Pushing for high percentages of affordable units in conventional housing developments, and especially in any housing proposed downtown, is likelier to kill the projects.

      Again, not if government funds them.

      I suspect for some that may be the goal.

      That would be my personal goal, but I suspect I’m in the minority regarding that.

      Others just see developers as having unlimited resources or expect a willingness to take a lower profit margin. But if you want affordable units, you have to work with the people who actually fund them and build them.

      Again, that would be the government – as you already noted.

      One thing to note is that government funds are not unlimited.  Therefore, any Affordable housing funds used in Davis are then not available to other cities, which might have a bigger “need”.  (Has anyone even thought about that?)

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