By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – If Tuesday was a look toward the future of this community, I was disappointed to see people getting hung up on battles over building heights. We are talking about a community that has for the most part opposed peripheral development – first by imposing Measure J and then by repeatedly voting down most Measure J projects.
Given the housing crisis and need for additional housing and general lack of open space within the city, the only recourse for the city is to build up.
As we saw with University Commons, sometimes when we attempt to micromanage projects and fight over building heights, we end up with community harm. As a result a perfect place for infill, mixed use housing in Davis is now going to be commercial only.
And while slow growth advocates and near neighbors may rejoice, it means that housing is going to have to go somewhere else.
The next battleground for housing is going to be the downtown. There was not nearly enough discussion on Tuesday whether mixed-use will be feasible in the downtown. There was a lot of discussion over a fifth story at Hibbert and potentially three stories on the West side of G St north of Fifth Street.
He wrote, “As a member of the DPAC, I recall some of the primary objectives of the project were to bring more certainty to both residents and the development community about what is allowed within certain land-use designations. It was also careful to recognize the need for transitions between more intensive development and existing neighborhoods.”
On Hibbert, he argued, “During the planning process, many in our neighborhood believed that a 4-story project as allowed in the draft plan is too intense for this area as it would be adjacent to one-story buildings.”
He noted a request by the developer to allow for a five story project to which the neighborhood responded, “We believe such a change removes any ability for a thoughtful transition between more intensive development and the existing neighborhood (the reason the current designation was chosen). Therefore, we support the land-use designation currently shown in the draft plan.”
In terms of the west side of G Street on the 500-600 block, “we support the land-use designation currently shown in the draft plan.”
Others had similar concerns with one family noting that they support infill development at Hibbert “up to 4 stories” and on the west side of G Street “up to two stories.”
I thought Vice Mayor Will Arnold made a number of really strong points.
Apparently one story for the neighbors made a huge difference.
But as Arnold pointed out, “Once we get to this point in the discussion where we’re talking about one floor, eight feet with a setback, we’re really on the margins of that point.” He said, “It’s not like we’re deciding should it be two stories or should it be 50 stories.”
He said, “I just don’t think that one floor is going to be the difference between the quality of a neighborhood or not.” He later added, “I mean, talking big cities, small towns, and I don’t come away ever from those experiences thinking, man, if it was just one floor shorter, we would sure have a nice neighborhood here.”
Mayor Lucas Frerichs added, “if this is going to be allowed to be four stories” that with setbacks and such, “a fifth story is not something that is unreasonable.”
I think that’s about right. At the end of the day, most infill projects get a lot of opposition during the planning phase, but the actual impact on the neighborhoods and the community generally speaking is minimal at most.
For a community that is reluctant to develop outward where the near-neighbor impact is a lot less, there has to be some give and take.
“We continue to be in a housing crisis,” 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.”
There were two boogeymen in this process.
One of them is the notion that the extra floor has been driven by financial interests to the developers.
Will Arnold noted, “it was implied by at least one public commenter that the only benefit of adding an additional story is financial windfall to the developer.”
One letter to council noted: “When the Draft DDSP came out in October 2019 I agreed with the zoning of the west side of G Street/500-600-Sweet Briar blocks as Neighborhood Small, up to 2 stories and the east side of G Street between 5th and 7th as Main Street Medium, up to 4 stories which includes the Hibbert site because it was necessary to comprise and allow for higher density housing within Downtown Davis.
“Developers, however, are now leading the conversation requesting that the Hibbert Site be zoned Main Street Medium – 5 stories and if a Density Bonus is applied in the future there is the potential of making it 6 stories and west side G Street/600 block as Neighborhood Medium, 3 stories. These are not thoughtful transitions. This is not what Old North Davis residents had envisioned and agreed to for this transitional area. These Developers have had 3 years to submit their requests. Accepting these last minute revisions to the Final Draft- DDSP eliminates necessary transitions between high density housing and the existing Old North Davis neighborhood and violates the thoughtful 5 year process between the City of Davis and its citizens and the Guiding Policies presented in the DDSP…”
I thought Will Arnold did a good job pointing out that while it is might be true that the developers benefit from these proposals, it is also true that given our housing crisis and need to revitalize the downtown, they are far from the only ones.
There was not enough discussion in my view that this is hardly going to be a financial windfall for developers. If anything the proformas done show that these projects are only marginally going to pencil out.
In fact, I am skeptical that we will see a lot of actual projects that get built – at least in the short term.
The only debate point I am completely sick of is the notion that this was somehow bad process.
If anything the process was way too dragged out. They had a citizen group, public meetings, consultant reports over a period of years.
Vice Mayor Arnold noted that “several public commenters indicated that they took issue with the idea that council and the planning planning commission would potentially deviate in any meanful way from the draft.”
He said, “I take a little bit of issue with that, um, insofar as this is our very first official bite at the apple here as the elected representatives of the citizens of Davis. The idea that we would receive a draft and that our only appropriate role would be to rubber stamp it I take some issue with.”
In the end, as Will Arnold said, “It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that that’s what are some of the remaining issues that we are considering here would be surrounding building heights.”
For once I was grateful that the council did not back down. We’ll see if anything can actually get built, but at least we have a process in place to allow for the revitalization of downtown.