By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – Davis continues to suffer from a housing crisis. In fact, there are problems still with student housing—as we discovered last month when students were forced to camp out in frigid temperatures to find scant housing opportunities in Davis for the next school year.
That makes the loss of several hundred potential units across the street from the university all the more devastating.
If Davis is going to solve its housing crisis under the current restraints, it will have to take advantage of the rare opportunities for large, dense infill development.
And yet, instead of embodying hope that Davis can overcome its obstacles, the ultimate failure of University Commons demonstrates the exact opposite.
Originally Brixmor had intended to revitalize the University Mall which was fast descending into dilapidation and disuse. Moreover, a single-story strip mall across the street from the university was not the best land usage even under the best of conditions.
To their credit, city staff recognized this and pushed for Brixmor to do more—and out came a proposal for a seven-story, mixed-use development complete with four stories (264 units of apartments, over retail and office space) and a three-story parking garage.
Given the location, it made sense to focus on students and staff—though at that point the council wanted housing that could attract or at least serve a wider group of renters.
As the Enterprise put it, “It turned out that that housing component wasn’t popular with everyone and the size and mass of the proposal drew objections, particularly from residents living nearby.”
If anything, that represents an understatement. What resulted was a contentious, and rare split council vote with the ultimate approval coming from Mayor Brett Lee at the time, who agreed to support the project only after the size was reduced from 80 feet to 72 feet.
Will Arnold and Lucas Frerichs, about to face a 2020 reelection battle, both opposed the project as proposed.
But the changes negotiated on the fly made a difficult project apparently impossible to finance.
And so, two years after gaining the narrowest of approvals, Brixmor pulled the plug on mixed use and will return to their original goal of simply redeveloping the mall as commercial only.
Going before the planning commission now on March 8, Brixmor returns with a project now known as the Davis Collection: “The University Mall redevelopment project would entail the demolition of the existing enclosed mall, consisting of approximately 96,680 SF, and construct a 90,228 SF outdoor retail venue to create a vibrant retail / entertainment environment to cultivate a true sense of community. Upon completion, the overall retail offering would total 114,456 SF including the existing Trader Joe’s Market. Two new outparcel restaurant / retail pad buildings will include approx. 16,000 SF adjacent to Russell Blvd.”
While it has been clear from the start that the commercial entity right now needed revitalization, I see this as a major fail at this point for a city that is lacking vacant parcels and had a golden opportunity to put in housing across the street from the university.
There simply are not an abundance of 8.25-acre parcels, especially adjacent to the university and within walking/biking distance from downtown.
In a community where every development is a battle, and every peripheral development requires voter approval, there really is no making up for this loss.
What went wrong?
From the start, people in the nearby area utterly objected to the size and scope of proposal. For those who argue that it could have been paired down or shifted to the south, they are not taking into account financing and infrastructure costs that were prohibitive.
As we have seen all over, being able to pencil out with sufficient rate of return to get financing is dicey under the best of circumstances; it was impossible when the council attempted to micromanage the project from the dais.
Projections of the impact of the size and scope would have been extremely limited. People vastly overestimated the impact and many who objected to the project would not have been impacted at all.
It was an easy project for the naysayers to attack, even though if we want to have dense housing in Davis, the two places that make the absolute most sense are in the core and next to the university. Many have pushed for the university to build dense housing, seven stories or higher on campus, and then objected when the seven stories were across from campus.
The timing was also bad. The project was hugely unpopular in the area adjacent to the proposal, and the newly installed district election system meant that three councilmembers potentially facing reelection represented places around the project.
The two who ultimately ran for reelection opposed the project while a third, Brett Lee, declined to seek a third term.
Without district elections, this might have been a solid 4-1 or 5-0 vote without the need to compromise and the project might have gone forward.
This failure represents a perfect example of the perfect being the enemy of the group, and failure of the community to recognize the limitations of design review during times of housing crises, sky high construction costs, and limited city options for housing.
Now we have the worst possible outcome—a prime space across the university will be under-utilized in perpetuity as commercial only. No 264 units of housing—800 or so students will not have beds across from the university where they would have been able to attend classes without clogging the roadways.
Those students still will attend the university, which means they will either have to double or triple up with other students, wait in long lines for limited housing opportunities, or worse yet for all involved, commute in their cars from out of town.
If Davis wants to preserve farmland and limit its outward expansion, these kinds of failures cannot happen.
But no one is thinking that way. The near neighbors are thinking they dodged a bullet, while the city is now scrambling to figure out where to put additional housing.
One need look only at the artist rendering of the new proposal to see the wasted opportunity here.