By David M. Greenwald
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.