My View: Unable to Compel Housing at U-Mall, the City Loses Ideal Spot for Mixed Use

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

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.

As it turns out, there was nothing that either the Planning Commission or City Council could do about it.

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.

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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17 Comments

  1. Walter Shwe

    Bravo David. If NIMBYs consider this term to derogatory, then don’t act as NIMBYs. It’s not rocket science.

    Before Ron Oertel chimes in, shouldn’t he be much more concerned with the community he does live in than one he definitely does not reside in. Once again I find it exceedingly ironic that his own city has a clear practice of urban sprawl and over development depending on your perspective. Before he says that I should be concerned about the environmental consequences of urban sprawl, there will be environmental consequences irregardless of where people choose to live. People have to live somewhere, else we perish.

  2. Ron Glick

    “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 simple answer is we aren’t going to get a meaningful amount of housing for the child bearing cohort we desire through densification. Locally, densification was the response to Measure J, not its supplement. It has always been great in theory but unpopular in practice. None of this should surprise anyone. For those who support Measure J and densification I would simply ask have you had enough failure to address our housing demand yet?

  3. Jim Frame

    For those who support Measure J and densification I would simply ask have you had enough failure to address our housing demand yet?

    From my perspective Measure J has been successful at keeping some bad proposals from becoming reality, so “failure” isn’t a word I associate with Measure J.

    With regard to housing demand, there’s demand that I’d like to see met (affordable), and demand that I don’t see a need to accommodate (large expensive houses).  I believe that action at the state level is going to be required in order to accomplish the former.

     

  4. Don Sherman

    OK, David, great investigative journalism!

    Now we understand Brixmore can not be compelled to do anything other than that for which they applied and received approval under existing law. My question is this: Has anyone representing UCD, the City of Davis, Yolo County, or, for that matter, the State of California offered their good offices to discuss with Brixmore what adjustments need be made or help they could provide to make the originally approved commercial/residential project financially feasible?

    Granted, conditions have changed since the original proposal was approved. Now, let’s talk.

    What was then the world’s tallest building was completed, an amazing story of a hundred stories, in the depths of the Depression.

     

  5. Ron Oertel

    Davis, CA – Score another “victory” for the NIMBY’s in this town.

    Yay?

    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.

    Brixmor wasn’t the party that proposed residential development at the site in the first place.

    It’s entirely possible that the residential component simply didn’t pencil out – even if “tweaked” again.

    Or perhaps it was just beyond their specialty / area of expertise. They are not residential (or apparently even “mixed-use”) developers.

    In addition, perhaps the projections show that there isn’t sufficient market demand, given all of the other student housing under construction or planned.

    But, I guess it’s a lot easier to call the neighbors NIMBYs.

    As a side note, one of those opposed to this proposal was a strong proponent of the Davis Live student housing development, and of course – has been a primary force behind more student housing on campus.

  6. Ron Oertel

    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.

    The only “crisis” is the one that’s been self-inflicted by the unbending school district, itself. And now, they’re trying to “inflict” it upon the community at large.

    And why wouldn’t they, when the council is on their side? Well, there’s that pesky Measure J which might be in their way regarding their desire for more sprawl. Not to worry, though – the council is attempting to undermine that, as well.

    This type of thing will never, ever end – when there’s vested interests who believe they have a chance to do an end-run around a community, to suit their own interests.

    1. Walter Shwe

      This type of thing will never, ever end – when there’s vested interests who believe they have a chance to do an end-run around a community, to suit their own interests.

      The supposed end run Ron Oertel is referring to is only for a specific set of Davis residents, not all Davis residents. The housing tyranny and environmental injustice of Measure J is once again in full display totally thanks to Davis NIMBY’s. University Mall would have been a perfect place to site a decidedly non-sprawl housing development consisting of both affordable and market rate apartments and condominiums.

      I guess Ron doesn’t give 2 cents about the continuing sprawl and development in his own community. Instead he repeatedly comments about a city where he doesn’t even live in. For all we know he has never resided in Davis or attended UC Davis. Yet…

    2. Walter Shwe

      This type of thing will never, ever end – when there’s vested interests who believe they have a chance to do an end-run around a community, to suit their own interests.

      The supposed end run Ron Oertel is referring to is only for a specific set of Davis residents, not all Davis residents. The housing tyranny and environmental injustice of Measure J is once again in full display totally thanks to Davis NIMBY’s. University Mall would have been a perfect place to site a decidedly non-sprawl housing development consisting of both affordable and market rate apartments and condominiums.

      I guess Ron doesn’t give 2 cents about the continuing sprawl and development in his own community. Instead he repeatedly comments about a city where he doesn’t even live in.

      1. Ron Oertel

        The housing tyranny and environmental injustice of Measure J is once again in full display totally thanks to Davis NIMBY’s.

        You already know that Measure J has nothing to do with the University Mall proposal.  Why are you implying that it does?

        I guess Ron doesn’t give 2 cents about the continuing sprawl and development in his own community. Instead he repeatedly comments about a city where he doesn’t even live in.

        You guess wrong.  Nor do you know what communities I have connections to, or how.  For that matter, input is not limited in the manner you’re suggesting in the first place.

        Also, there is a residential address which appears to be just outside of Davis city limits in a house worth almost $1.5 million.  Some sources state that you currently live there, while other sources show that it is a former address.

        Perhaps you should think twice about repeated attempts to dox anyone, especially when it has nothing to do with the points made on here.
         

        1. David Greenwald

          “You already know that Measure J has nothing to do with the University Mall proposal. Why are you implying that it does?”

          What do you mean it has *nothing* to do with U-Mall? One of the reasons why having a mixed-use infill project is so important there is the difficulty of building housing on the periphery. So while Measure J doesn’t directly affect UMall, it makes it more important.

        2. Ron Oertel

          What do you mean it has *nothing* to do with U-Mall? One of the reasons why having a mixed-use infill project is so important there is the difficulty of building housing on the periphery. So while Measure J doesn’t directly affect UMall, it makes it more important.

          The type of proposal at University Mall (essentially student housing) would not be appropriate outside of city limits.  Even more so if it reduced or eliminated parking (both for residents, and those visiting the mall).

          As you state, it’s right across the street from the University.

          This is one proposal in which I did not fully understand the opposition to it, though it does not appear that opposition is what caused it to fail.  Let’s not forget that a mixed-use development was actually approved by the council, after it was unanimously rejected by the planning commission (as I recall).

          Though for me personally (and for the sake of the city), I like the idea of a refurbished commercial mall. I’m surprised that it penciled-out.

          Davis is fortunate to have an interested commercial owner, interested in strengthening retail (and possibly restaurant) business.

          I suppose that in this case, proximity to the university is primarily what’s keeping that mall alive. If something like this was located in the interior of any other valley city, it would have been closed by now. (And a mall built outside of town, instead – which would also probably be struggling, by this point.)

  7. Ron Glick

    Davis doesn’t want to grow up. Davis doesn’t want to grow out. Davis has a growing, world class, multi-billion dollar university on its border. Davis doesn’t want to change but is changing in a way that the people of Davis don’t truly like. What is Davis to do? Poor Davis.

      1. Ron Glick

        But you and the rest who support Measure J have done the exact opposite. You have planned for Davis not to change. Sadly those who are getting dumped on as a result are hardly the ones who have resisted change. For the most part they have property values that have skyrocketed. The ones who have been dumped on are the poor, students, kids who grew up here who can’t afford to live here, young UCD employed who have or want to have families, city employees etc. The list goes on.

  8. Walter Shwe

    Also, there is a residential address which appears to be just outside of Davis city limits in a house worth almost $1.5 million. Some sources state that you currently live there, while other sources show that it is a former address.

    If your assertion doesn’t constitute doxing, I don’t know what does. Other commentators on this site have posted the community where Ron Oertel lives. I just took the ball and ran with it so to speak. I never revealed anything more that what others have already revealed. You violate your own so called “rules” repeatedly here.

    Dox: search for and publish private or identifying information about (a particular individual) on the internet, typically with malicious intent.

    How does the value of where people reside have even the slightest to do with the type(s) of development that should be built on the University Mall site? Should I post the current street address and value of the property where I believe that you live? You did that to me. I bet if I did, you would cry foul. You complain that Measure J doesn’t have anything to do with the University Mall site, yet you post information about me that doesn’t have anything to do with University Mall.

    1. Moderator

      This is the last comment in this vein that will be allowed on this thread.

      We strongly suggest that people use the Ignore Commenter button when they find themselves frustrated by another commenter.

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