By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – Score another “victory” for the NIMBY’s in this town. When Brixmor came forward with a proposal for mixed use at the underutilized University Mall site, the neighbors, along with slow growth activists in town, hemmed and hawed.
The result was an ill-considered compromise that was crafted on the fly without sufficient study or examination. That compromise gained a bare majority 3-2 vote of the council with both Lucas Frerichs and Will Arnold opposing it.
The problem is that the result of that problematic process was something that proved unworkable and Brixmor could not find a builder that was interested in building the approved project.
Brixmor went back to the drawing board, came up with a revised plan for commercial only and submitted it to the city.
According to the city, “A property owner has the right to build or improve their property, within the regulations of the local zoning code, which in this instance allows retail-only or mixed-use.”
The City has had multiple conversations with Brixmor in an attempt to figure out “what, if any, City support would assist in bringing the housing portion of the project to fruition.”
The answer is none.
“The property owner at University Mall has consistently told the City that they will not build mixed-use and they will pursue retail-only. The City does not have the authority to force the property owner at University Mall to build mixed-use apartments or housing if they are proposing development that is within the current zoning requirements and standards,” the City explained.
The zoning on the property allows for mixed-use, but “does not mandate residential.” And there is “no legal basis for the City to impose such a mandate.”
The Planning Commission on Wednesday reluctantly approved the project design on Wednesday.
That’s the final step unless the decision “is appealed to the City Council.”
But even that would not change anything, “It should be noted that both the Planning Commission and the City Council only have legal authority to act on the design of the proposed retail-only project, and do not have the authority to deny the proposal due to lack of a housing component.”
So congratulations to the near neighbors, they have won this battle. Unfortunately, I think we all lose.
Here we are, with an eight-acre (and change) property across the street from the university, and we will not be building vitally needed student housing on it.
If we can’t get high density infill across from the university, where are we going to get it? For a long time, the city, recognizing the difficulty of building out with a town that has Measure J, has made a concerted effort to densify.
The two most logical areas for that are the downtown and the area adjacent to the university.
If the community does not want to continue building outward, it must find ways to build upward. Taking a property of this size off the housing market is a disaster for that approach.
In a recent interview, Senator Scott Wiener lamented the court decision with respect to Berkeley and CEQA.
In a comment that applies to this property as much as to the Berkeley issue, he explained, “Putting student housing on campus is one of the most climate friendly things you can do.”
He added, “Those students are probably not going to have a car. They’re going to walk to school, walk to eat, walk to the library, they’ll be able to walk everywhere or take a bus. Why would we want to make them live further away from campus where they might drive more?”
Putting student housing at U-Mall would have been as good as putting it on campus. They could have walked or biked across the street. There would have been limited cars. And it would have provided about 800 additional and vitally needed beds.
The housing crisis in Davis is far from over. Just a month ago, we had students describing having to camp out all night to wait in line to rent student housing for next year.
Moreover, the city isn’t just facing a student housing crisis—they are facing a family housing crisis. That was the take-home message from Tuesday’s presentation by DJUSD Superintendent Matt Best.
As board member Joe DiNunzio put it, “We’re nearing a tipping point.” He said, “I think we are coming very close to the ceiling on the number of non-resident students we have. And if those numbers do in fact fall, then it’s going to have a huge impact on our ability to maintain the school system that we currently have.”
The chief culprit—the cost of housing.
Hiram Jackson, who is a new member of the school board, noted that the demographer was asked “did lower cost housing tend to bring more school going families than more expensive housing? And of course, his answer was yes, that was his experience.”
Jackson said, “I’m concerned that we’re bringing about an economic segregation in Davis. Basically, we’re pricing out lower income people or middle income people even.”
The school district and city vowed to work with each other to find ways to build housing that families can live in.
As Mayor Will Arnold put it, “this is in my mind, the beginning of a, of a beautiful friendship that we can work together and really hammer this home to our community, how absolutely critical and central it is that we provide the space, for folks who want to live here and teach here, folks who want to live here and, and go to school here.”
But while both governing bodies recognize the problem—the solution is going to be more difficult than simple recognition. The experience with University Mall shows just how difficult it is going to be to thread community concerns about density, size, and mass of infill projects against the costs of land and construction.
At the same time, there is the omnipresent problem of building peripheral housing in Davis. And the high costs of land and construction will also make affordable housing difficult to build.
How the city plans to solve the housing crisis in light of the latest setback will go a long way toward painting a picture of what this community looks like into the future.