Sunday Commentary: Downtown Plan Has Some Good Features, but It Won’t Solve Our Housing Crisis

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – This week the Davis City Council finally—emphasis on finally—approved the Downtown Plan.  Even taking into consideration the pandemic, this is a process that began in 2018.  We can now finally move to what figures to be an even more contentious General Plan update.

I remain concerned about the health and vitality of the downtown.  This plan is probably not going to solve those problems—but for the most part it allows city government to at the very least get out of the way of at least some of them.

As Sustainable Growth Yolo noted in a tweet earlier this week, the plan includes: “upzoning sections up to 7 stories,” “elimination of parking minimums” and “form-based codes for by right approval.”

They called this a good start and remarked, “Hopefully they can consider these ideas city wide soon.

“This is going in the right direction but doesn’t go far enough,” they tweeted before the vote.

I have a few concerns here—as I have noted.

In general I think we have a huge amount of space that is underutilized in the downtown.  I know a lot of people worry that there are going to be a ton of very tall buildings in the downtown that will detract from the small town feel.

I think they should probably worry about the vacant store fronts and declining retail base in the downtown undermining the character of the core area of this community.

Moreover, this is not going to be a quick and rapid transformation.  In fact, I wonder how feasible any type of redevelopment is going to be given the costs of construction.  I kept asking city staff and council members if we can even build housing in the core, and they kept insisting that we can and that there are applicants ready to propose projects as soon as the plan is finalized.  We shall see.

As I have noted a number of times in the last few months, the pro formas done by Bay Area Economics are not encouraging.  Only dense projects with owner-occupied units seem to pan out financially for builders, and that was in 2018.  We know that the economics and costs are far worse now than they were four years ago.

It was encouraging to hear Vice Mayor Will Arnold, who will be mayor next month, remind the community that we’re in a housing crisis.

But it was discouraging that many on the council told me that they recognize that, with the community reluctance to build on the periphery, we have to go dense in the core.

That sounds good, but as we know from the plans—we are really looking at about 1000 or so units in the downtown if fully built out, probably over the next two decades.

During the campaign, Former Councilmember Dan Carson noted, “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.”

That sounds good—again, if built.  But that 1000 market rate units represents only about half the required allotment over the next RHNA cycle.  While we are fine at this point for market rate units, it illustrates that while the downtown is a good source for housing units, it’s also not a game changer.

More concerning is the 930 low- and very low-income unit allocation in the RHNA this cycle.

The city is required to build 580 very low and 350 low-income units for a total of 930 low-income units.  In the pipeline, the city lists 284 very low and 37 low-income units.  They are also planning on 83 additional units at vacant or underutilized sites and 54 ADUs to create a total capacity of 458 or 472 short of the requirement.

As noted in the housing element, “the City of Davis has a shortfall of 472 units to accommodate its lower-income RHNA (930 units). Per State law, the City must rezone land within three years of the Housing Element adoption deadline that allows at least 30 units per acre with a minimum density of 20 units per acre.”

But perhaps we should be skeptical of even that 472 shortfall number.  Of the 83 units at vacant and undertilized sites, the city is relying on downtown redevelopment for all of them.

I’m still not convinced that we can get to 930 this cycle.  But even if we do, we might have a bigger problem next cycle.

City Manager Mike Webb, as I have noted previously, is less optimistic 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.”

There are some people I think who are counting on the state to not be able to enforce what they consider to be unrealistic housing numbers.  From the city perspective, they really can’t count on that.

And even if they can, the city council understands that we do have a housing crisis, not only statewide but also in this community.  Community members have consistently cited lack of affordability in housing as a top problem facing this community.  What they are actually willing to do about it is an open question and is driving part of what the discussion should be going forward.

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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9 Comments

  1. Ron Oertel

    As Sustainable Growth Yolo noted in a tweet earlier this week, the plan includes: “upzoning sections up to 7 stories,” “elimination of parking minimums” and “form-based codes for by right approval.

    This is a local YIMBY/student group, whose members have demonstrated outright hostility to the community.  Why would anyone listen to them? Some of them have likely moved on by now.

    Who, exactly is being quoted on their behalf? Who is putting out the referenced tweets, for example?

    It was encouraging to hear Vice Mayor Will Arnold, who will be Mayor next month, remind the community that we’re in a housing crisis.

    How is Mr. Arnold (whose father was a founder of a local real estate brokerage) defining a “housing crisis”? And since that’s not actually defined, how are he and others attempting to “solve” it?

    There is a significant housing market correction occurring, which might turn into a housing crash.  But probably not a real crash in Davis, at least.

    The city is required to build 580 very low and 350 low income units for a total of 930 low income units.  In the pipeline, the city lists 284 very low and 37 low income units.  They are also planning on 83 additional units at vacant or underutilized sites and 54 ADUs to create a total capacity of 458 or 472 short of the requirement.

    This is a factually and demonstrably false statement.

    The city does not have to build any of these units, nor do they have to ensure that they’re built.

    There are some people I think who are counting on the state to not be able to enforce what they consider to be unrealistic housing numbers.  From the city perspective, they really can’t count on that.

    And even if they can, the city council understands that we do have a housing crisis not only statewide but in this community.

    The state literally won’t be able to do so, statewide.  Much of this is also dependent upon subsidies from the state itself.

    Community members have consistently cited lack of affordability in housing as a top problem facing this community.

    Are you referring to the annual survey?  What was the methodology used for that survey?  (For example, were the respondents essentially self-selected – based upon their willingness to respond to it in the first place?  And, how well did the local blogs fare in that survey, in regard to the question regarding news sources?)

    And yet, we never hear from those who supposedly are experiencing challenges regarding affordability, other than from students/local YIMBY groups.  Why is that, do you suppose? Could it be because they don’t actually exist?

    And yet, the city council has decided to force massive changes upon the city, without even defining the “problem” or how what they propose will “solve” the supposed problem.

     

  2. Jim Frame

    Measure J came about — and has been consistently reapproved — because city councils have demonstrated repeatedly that they are willing to approve projects that the voters don’t want.  The CC works for the voters, not the other way around, but they need guardrails.

  3. Richard_McCann

    Disclaimer: Ron Oertel is a resident of Woodland with no apparent ties to Davis other than as a occasional visitor. His opinions expressed here cannot reflect the views of Davis residents, workers, business owners or UCD students. 

    1. Ron Oertel

      Disclaimer:  Richard McCann continues with trolling comments, serving no purpose whatsoever.

      He resorts to this approach when he has nothing to say. In other words, in every article he chooses to comment on.

      His views do not reflect the 83% of voters who support Measure J.  He claims to knows “better” than those folks, and seeks to disenfranchise them.

      Strangely-enough, he also wants to “enfranchise” those who don’t live in the city at all, and instead live on campus.

      (Though another disclaimer is needed here, since those who live on campus are not “disenfranchised” at all – they can and do vote. As with anyone in Woodland or elsewhere.)

      Richard McCann is is own worst enemy, when it comes to his developer advocacy. His motives regarding this are not clear, though one might suspect that it has something to do with his business interests.

      It’s perhaps not a surprise that he was appointed to a city commission, given the views and connections of some council members. Peas in a pod, as it were – though probably more than “two” in this case.

  4. Ron Oertel

    In response to Mr. Shew’s comment, I just came-across the following article which pretty-clearly shows what city councils “do” in the absence of something like Measure J. Again, this is in direct opposition to what voters apparently wanted.

    https://www.cbs8.com/article/news/local/judge-orders-city-santee-take-back-approval-long-planned-fanita-ranch-project/509-faf31109-97aa-4f59-ab42-ba22226b3e70

    Alternatively, you can look at something like the destruction of the valley between Vacaville and Fairfield.  Are you all aware of this (including what appears to be the resulting “need”) to engage in freeway re-construction in that area?

    Here’s a “glowing article” regarding the destruction of that valley, which is highly-visible from I-80.  (In case you haven’t already been stuck in the resulting freeway impairment.)

    https://www.northbaybusinessjournal.com/article/industrynews/construction-starts-on-large-vacaville-housing-commercial-project/

    Of course, in the absence of something like Measure J, the city totally-ignored the concerns of those with a different vision:

    https://patch.com/california/dixon/vacaville-approves-development-lagoon-valley-citizens-petitioning-save-park-0

    In other words, “business as usual”, which (as it continues) is also directly-leading to climate change. (As if that’s the “only” environmental concern in the first place.)

    I am sorry for the “social justice warriors” who have abandoned all environmental concerns. Except for their stated concerns regarding climate change, which directly-contradict what they claim to support.

    1. Ron Oertel

      I originally saw that voters rejected the San Diego sprawl (in the corresponding San Diego newspaper), but I don’t have a subscription to read the article.

      However, I did find this:

      https://www.sdearthtimes.com/cut_to_chase/ctc_97.html

      Again, that council “approved” the development – apparently BEFORE the voters rejected it. I’m gathering that it’s tied up in some kind of legal challenge, now.

      In any case, too late for “Lagoon Valley” (between Vacaville and Fairfield.) So sad.

      Why is it that those who get elected (and run for office in the first place) don’t actually represent those who elected them?

      I think there’s more than one reason for this. None of them “good” reasons.

      And (as usual), those who challenge “business as usual” are the ones who are attacked, mocked, etc.

      That’s what happens when there’s big money involved. (But as usual, that money is not going to “you” or “me”. It’s going to the type of people who have no need to comment on here.)

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