Commentary: Council Battles Over Building Heights and Process Concerns, But Didn’t Blink in the End

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

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.

Take the letter from John Meyer, President of Old North Davis Neighborhood Association.

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.

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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20 Comments

  1. Ron Oertel

    and while slow growth advocates and near neighbors may rejoice, it means that housing is going to have to go somewhere else.

    Actually, it doesn’t mean that. 

    What it means is that the folks that keep getting elected (not just in Davis, but throughout the state) and their developer friends are going to continue to try to force their views and goals on existing communities – in a state with a declining population and declining housing market.

    In some ways, folks are getting exactly what they deserve in regard to who they’re supporting (locally, at least).

    (At the statewide level, the system itself ensures that ALL of voters’ options are working against them – regardless of claimed political affiliations.)

    If the neighborhood associations got together and dealt with that larger problem, they wouldn’t have to fight these individual battles.

    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.”

    How is even four floors of residential on a commercial site making the neighborhood “better”?  And, what type of precedent is this setting?

    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.”

    Well, how else is it a financial windfall for?  Who else is even pushing for this – other than the usual suspects?

    it is also true that given our housing crisis and need to revitalize the downtown,

    Neither of those terms has any meaning whatsoever, and in fact – may be in opposition to each other depending upon how they’re defined.

    Solutions in search of problems, as usual. The problem being that the “solutions” are what’s harmful, not the claimed/imaginary “problems”.

     

      1. Ron Oertel

        The only thing it “has” to do is to ensure that there’s zoning to accommodate it (especially Affordable housing, as you noted).  It’s an artificial requirement in the first place, and is a direct result of who gets elected to statewide office.

        And when local officials also support the same goal as those state officials, you get this result. (In other words, a war on those who live in or are otherwise associated with a given city.)

        But it’s increasingly-acknowledged that the state’s goals are unrealistic in the first place. The state is going to be under pressure to approve plans (statewide) which have no chance at becoming reality. Especially in the absence of sufficient subsidies to make that happen.

        In any case, how much Affordable housing is being proposed at that site?  And, what type of Affordable housing?  Is it subsidized, or market-rate?  What are the projected rents, if this is supposed to address these artificial requirements?

         

        1. David Greenwald

          Actually the current rules are higher than just showing that there’s zoning to accommodate it. According to HCD, “the jurisdiction must demonstrate the units can be built within the remaining planning period and demonstrate affordability to very low- or low-income households…”

        2. Ron Oertel

          Again, the state is going to have its hands full if they decide to reject plans from throughout the state. Especially if the state does not provide sufficient subsidies to make that happen.

          https://48hills.org/2022/09/the-states-local-housing-goals-are-nothing-more-than-a-farce/

          https://48hills.org/2022/09/the-state-agency-enforcing-housing-rules-doesnt-care-about-affordable-housing/

          I’m actually looking forward to the state approving a “builder’s remedy” in some place like Malibu. Once they start doing stuff like that, you’ll see an entirely different response from those type of communities. (And that’s when I’ll say something like, “you go, girl”.) 🙂

          But truth be told, they won’t need any help from someone like me.

          They’re plenty powerful on their own. (Based upon that same, underlying factor which supports politicians – plenty of money. Ultimately, they won’t fully bite the hand that feeds them, less they be replaced by different zookeepers.)

          I do think that these communities are ultimately going to have to mount more of a statewide effort. But this won’t happen until the state takes further action regarding its war on its own cities. (And overcomes resistance to those who still believe that Democrats do no wrong.)

          In any case, you didn’t respond to my questions regarding the amount of Affordable housing (along with the definitions of that) in regard to this particular proposal.  Has that not been worked out, yet?  Or, are they not providing any?

           

          1. David Greenwald

            That’s a different question. The question before the city is to provide viable housing, which is what they did this week or attempted to. Whether the state can or cannot reject plans is really immaterial to that point – certainly at this point.

        3. Ron Oertel

          You still haven’t answered my question (asked three times, now), which leads me to believe that this entire proposal is market-rate housing.

          And yet, you’re the one who first mentioned Affordable housing requirements, and that this has to be addressed “somewhere”.

          Where, if not at this site? And if it is being addressed at this site, how many units – at what amount of rent, etc.? And if it is included, is it dependent upon state subsidies?

          And how is Affordable measured? Let’s see some dollar figures in regard to maximum rent (initially, and over time).

          In the absence of that type of information, the so-called “housing crisis” (and “solutions”) such as this are nothing but hot air. (Even with that information, it’s hot air simply because the amount of need is not supported. It’s nothing but the state saying, “here ya go”.)

      2. Richard_McCann

        Ron O

         in a state with a declining population and declining housing market.

        We have presented a number of studies and population forecasts that refute this claim. Please provide valid forecasts from peer reviewed sources, including data showing declining housing prices, that support this assertion. Because this statement is false and holds no weight until you can actually back it up.

        A windfall is a financial payout that produces no benefit in return. The fact is that an extra story will cost the developers more and it provides more housing to the community. So whoever said that there is a windfall to developers is incorrect.

        1. Ron Oertel

          I’ve already posted multiple articles, multiple times regarding (both) the declining population and declining housing prices. (The latter occurring nationwide.)

          This isn’t the type of thing that’s “studied”. It’s simply “reported” as fact as there’s nothing to “study”. (The “cause” might be studied, but even that is usually just theory.)

          Really?  You don’t read the news? I can find literally hundreds of articles regarding both of these issues, simply by performing an Internet search. And again, have posted a sample of them here repeatedly. Why would I bother doing so again, when you purposefully ignore them the previous times?

          Rising interest rates and declining economic activity (and the corresponding impact on the housing market) is literally national news. Anyone selling or shopping for a home already knows this, as do home builders.

          A windfall is a financial payout that produces no benefit in return.

          That is not the definition of a financial windfall.

          The fact is that an extra story will cost the developers more and it provides more housing to the community.

          It brings in more revenue, and provides housing for folks who don’t live in Davis.  (The latter being your “favorite group” I say sarcastically, per your usual comments to me.)

          In fact, developers don’t even build developments in the first place, if there’s no profit to be had.  Are you actually questioning this, as a self-described “professional economist”?

          So whoever said that there is a windfall to developers is incorrect.

          Right – they’d lose money doing this, I say sarcastically.

          You’re a smart guy.  At least put forth some effort regarding your comments.

           

           

        2. Ron Oertel

          In any case, here’s one that I may not have previously posted.  As noted in the article itself, this is a significant change in forecast, from the PPIC:

          Instead of zooming past 40 million to 45 and then 50 million by mid-century, as earlier projections indicated, California may remain stuck just under 40 million indefinitely.

          “California appears to be on the verge of a new demographic era, one in which population declines characterize the state,” PPIC demographer Hans Johnson writes in a new analysis. “Lower levels of international migration, declining birth rates, and increases in deaths all play a role. But the primary driver of the state’s population loss over the past couple years has been the result of California residents moving to other states.”

          https://calmatters.org/commentary/2022/04/california-population-decline/

          The “weird” thing is that the same folks who claim to be concerned about housing shortages are usually the same folks who aren’t happy when population stabilizes. Which maybe isn’t all that “weird”, when you speculate as to their actual motives.

          Pretty much the same type of people who support developments like DISC, while also claiming to be highly concerned about housing shortages and local contributions to climate change. Honestly, I don’t see how those people claim any credibility at all, with a straight face. And yet, those are the people who “represent” Davis on the council. (I’m pretty much in awe, regarding that.) Hats off to them for pulling that off! 🙂

          1. David Greenwald

            Richard: ” Please provide valid forecasts from peer reviewed sources”

            Ron provides a commentary from CalMatters which has an analysis from PPIC. It’s not a peer reviewed study and all he looked at was one area of data – interstate migration over the last two decades. That’s only one variable. But it’s rear-looking analysis, not a future predictor.

        3. Ron Oertel

          ” Please provide valid forecasts from peer reviewed sources”

          As already noted, projections such as this are generally not “peer-reviewed”.

          If you or Richard believe otherwise, put forth a “peer-reviewed” study regarding projections that support what you believe.

          Ron provides a commentary from CalMatters which has an analysis from PPIC. It’s not a peer reviewed study and all he looked at was one area of data – interstate migration over the last two decades. That’s only one variable. But it’s rear-looking analysis, not a future predictor.

          It literally discusses other causes, as well.

          I’ve also posted information such as this:

          The Pew Research Center survey found that among adults who do not already have children, fewer are planning to ever have kids.

          https://kslnewsradio.com/1960317/millennials-dont-have-kids-because-they-dont-want-to/

          The rate at which they’re having kids is nowhere near their own replacement level.  I’ve posted articles showing this, as well. If you look at the dates of multiple sources, you’ll also see that this has been occurring for several years, now.

          In any case, the days of big growth are over in California.  The powers that be are not happy about this, and will continue to try to return to a totally-unsustainable pursuit.  But there’s increasing evidence that this isn’t working for them, anymore.

          It’s actually a very substantial/significant shift.

          There’s also evidence that as living expenses rise (including the cost of having kids), people choose to have fewer kids. Especially when combined with relative lack of wage growth. (Duh.)

  2. Jim Frame

    I haven’t followed the DDSP process very closely, but I’m concerned that so much time and effort by many people was put into the draft parameters, only to have the council change them at the end of the process in response to a developer’s request.  Will Arnold’s statement that this was the council’s first bite of the apple didn’t ring true; if he or any other council member believed the draft height limits were to restrictive, he could have raised the issue during the workshops or other public input opportunities.

    And where was the developer during all that time? Coming forward now and claiming that 4 stories doesn’t pencil out strikes me as disingenuous.

    So if 5 stories is now okay, how about 6?  How about 10? Why bother with a long arduous public process if you’re not going to honor it in the end?

    I disagree with David’s claim that it wasn’t bad process; I think that’s exactly what it was.

    1. Ron Oertel

      I agree.

      And perhaps more importantly, it sounds like the neighbors were (overall) supportive of 4 stories (and were as usual – caught off-guard by a developer proposal to push for more). Of course, the developers/owners know what kind of a council they have, so why not (from their perspective).

      In any case, the neighbors are more “generous” than I would have been, in regard to what I would support (if it more-directly impacted me). I’d support a lumberyard and adjacent hardware store (and I have done so, directly).

      I’d also support Co-Op right across the street (and often do so), but not sure if I will as much after this thing is built.

      But at least they’re not going to ruin the Trader Joe mall, so far at least.

      It does remind me of Trackside, in that those neighbors were also supportive of 3 stories, there.  And I clearly recall Will Arnold asking the neighbors (unexpectedly, at a council meeting) if they determined whether or not that “penciled out”.  (As if they’re in a position to suddenly do so.)

      As Yogi Berra (and Alan Miller) might say, it’s “deja vu, all over again”.

      But I (sort of) don’t have much empathy for anyone voting for these folks, who then aren’t happy with what they do.  (It’s not as if these representatives “hide” who they are, or what they support.)

      Again, seems to me that neighbors would do better if they didn’t “trust” the process in the first place. It’s as if they keep getting suckered into that.

    2. Mark West

      “Why bother with a long arduous public process if you’re not going to honor it in the end?”

      The DDSP planning process largely concluded 2-3 years ago, and in the meantime we have seen several significant events that have directly impacted development costs. Extensive local forest fires which drove up the costs of building supplies and labor, a global pandemic and subsequent supply chain crises, a war in Europe, and now the recent increases in inflation and costs of borrowing.

      In my view, what is disingenuous (and extremely short-sighted) is the idea that the downtown plan (or any other plan for that matter) should somehow be set in stone without an opportunity for the CC, citizens, or developers to request or make adjustments in response to the economic realities of the day.

      The reality in this case though was that there were several people during the DDSP process, including the City’s consultants, who stated that the height limitations would severely impact the financial viability of redevelopment. The problem was that at the time, the committee, and many in the community, did not listen (or simply did not care).

       

      1. David Greenwald

        I don’t really get the complaint here. The consultant and advisory committee made a series of recommendations a few years ago, then the policymakers take the recommendations, make some modifications and pass the final policy. That’s how every public process works.

        1. Mark West

          “I don’t really get the complaint here.”

          I don’t know about Jim, but in my experience, most complaints about process arise because someone is not happy with a decision, and they see complaining about the process as being more socially acceptable than admitting their opposition to change.

  3. Dave Hart

    The Hibbert site could easily be six stories and work well there.  Hopefully, the council will understand five or six stories is no big deal and is totally appropriate for the downtown along the rail line.

  4. Jim Frame

    I don’t really get the complaint here.

    The complaint is that hundreds of person hours were invested in drafting the plan, only to have the electeds scuttle important elements of it at the end.  If “that’s how every public process works,” why bother with the process?  In my opinion, the CC broke faith with the community by overriding the height limit.

    This action is a good example of  the reason we have Measure J.

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