My View: All Commercial University Commons Project Represents Massive Fail of Local Leadership

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

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.

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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  1. Ron Glick

    There might have been 4 or five votes in favor if Brixmor had waited until after the election so some of this falls on the owner and staff for not thinking more strategically.

    Still this is a perfect example of the failure of Measure J and the fallacy that infill is the answer. Infill is popular in theory but not so much in practice. It became the solution after Measure J went into effect because of the additional hurdle winning an election presents. Yet the greatest irony of all is that to preserve farmland we must densify beyond what city residents are willing to accept changing the small town suburban spatial distribution into a more urban setting. In other words we must change the town and its way of life to save it. Reminds me of Hue during Tet where it was said “We had to destroy the village to save it.”

    1. Matt Williams

      Ron said … “ this is a perfect example of the failure of Measure J and the fallacy that infill is the answer.”

      Ron, this is a perfect example of your myopia regarding Measure J.  The reason BrixMor chose not to do the residential is financial costs and financial returns.  That financial hurdle/constraint would exist with or without the neighbors’ opposition.  In fact, the neighbors’ opposition had been resolved.

      Further, as Don Gibson pointed out last week, the recent consultant’s report showed that a “Builders Remedy” project with its minimum threshold of 20% of the units as Affordable has financial costs that do not “pencil out” with sufficient financial returns to be feasible.  Projects with the City’s current Interim Affordable Housing Ordinance threshold of 15% also did not pencil out.  Those financial hurdles/constraints have nothing to do with the presence or absence of Measure J.

    2. Ron Oertel

      “Student” housing has nothing (directly) to do with sprawl or Measure J.

      Sprawl is associated with “family” housing (e.g., Spring Lake, Mace Ranch, etc.).  In other words, single-family housing – with multiple garage spaces, yards, etc. (Which, as a side note, is something that Walter has previously-stated that he objects to.)

      That’s what Measure J helps keep in check, along with developments which increase demand for housing (such as DISC).

      You’d think that the “housing crisis” people would support Measure J, given these undeniable facts. That is, unless they want to provide more housing for (relatively) wealthy Bay Area immigrants. (And you already know what the impact of that is, regarding local housing prices. This type of phenomenon is not unique to Davis.)

      1. David Greenwald

        “You’d think that the “housing crisis” people would support Measure J, given these undeniable facts. ”

        Perhaps then it’s a helpful exercise to better understand and evaluate why they don’t?

        1. Ron Oertel

          It’s not up to me to explain what others believe.

          But there’s certainly a “divide” within the “progressive” community regarding housing (on issues such as rent control, Affordable housing, etc.).

          The market-solution “progressives” sound a lot like development interests, perhaps because that’s what they actually are. All one has to do is to look at “who” financially-supports YIMBY groups, which is something that you don’t have any interest in.

          You can also see it locally, when these same type of people advocate for developments such as DISC, which would increase demand for housing. (While also claiming faux concern regarding local contributions to climate change.)

          They aren’t actually progressives at all, for what that’s worth.

  2. Ron Oertel

    Now we have the worst possible outcome—a prime space across the university will be under-utilized in perpetuity as commercial only.

    And yet, half the time David is complaining about a lack of commercial space.  From a personal perspective, I’m glad that I can continue visiting the mall (e.g., Trader Joe’s) without too much hassle. (It’s already kind of a hassle, to be honest.)

    They’re returning to their original proposal, before staff got involved.

    Who knows if what staff pushed them into would have “penciled out”, in the first place.  There’s also no analysis to show whether or not the subsequent changes actually caused this to not “pencil out”.

    I’m surprised that commercial-only redevelopment “penciled out”.

    Well, here’s an opportunity for UCD to push for more density on their own campus, while the city gets the benefit of a redeveloped commercial mall serving students and others.  That doesn’t sound like a tragedy to me.

    I guess we’ll see if the redeveloped mall can “make up for” the businesses that gave up on it (e.g., World Market), as a result of the housing proposal. Hopefully, this won’t result in a permanent reduction in fiscal benefit to the city, as well.

    And of course, there’s already a lot of new student housing in that area, including Davis Live and whatever they’re building on campus. (I only periodically go down that street to visit Trader Joe’s, but I recall a lot of student housing construction in the area last time I went by.) Perhaps David can list-out all of the new or under-construction student housing developments (on both sides of the street – the campus side, and the city side)?

    By the way, what (exactly) are UCD’s growth plans at this point, in a state with a declining population?

    1. Ron Oertel

      My guess is that the developers looked at all of the new or under-construction student housing that’s already on that street, and decided that the market would not support yet another student housing development.

      Despite the temporary “shortage” caused by UCD’s pursuit of enrollment growth – before all of the already-approved housing comes online.

      Nishi still has to “pencil out”, as well.

      Developers aren’t dumb – they look to the long-term (rather than “temporary” shortages as described above). Especially for rental housing.

      1. Ron Oertel

        Don:  As you’ve noted (regarding DISC), inclusion of housing generally results in a compromise of commercial space (if not an outright reduction in commercial space – which apparently wasn’t the case, here).

        It certainly changes the focus regarding “who” a mall is intended to serve (e.g., existing residents, vs. “new” residents living upstairs).

        It’s probably a lot more expensive and complex to “mix” residential and commercial space, at least. And different types of services are generally needed, as well.

        But I do suspect that developers are much more careful about creating an over-supply of rental property, vs. “for-sale” property.  The reason being that (unlike rental property) “for-sale” property is intended to be sold before a housing market crash occurs.  Sort of a game of “musical chairs”, where they hope to unload their inventory before there’s no chairs (buyers) available to take declining-value inventory off of their hands.

        By the way, how much commercial space will (now) be there, as a result of returning to their original proposal? And is it an increase over what’s there, now?

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