By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – In January, UC Davis students camped out in front of apartments overnight in frigid temperatures waiting for the rental offices to open. Make no mistake—while the city and university have both approved and built new housing in recent years, we remain in a housing crisis.
So it should be alarming that a prime cite for redevelopment, 8.25 acres at University Mall, across the street from the university with an approved project, wants to backtrack and go to commercial-only.
The revised project will come before the Planning Commission this week. It seems to me that the city ought to look at ways to keep this as housing. While having a viable commercial project there is important, the city has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to create dense housing on an underutilized property across from the university and it’s about to slip through our fingers.
We are not going to get another bite at the apple here.
In August 2020, the City Council approved the University Commons project for the multi-story development with a retail podium and parking structure and up to 4 stories of residential uses above. It allowed demolition of the University Mall building.
It was a contentious vote for sure, ending up 3-2 with the deciding vote cast by former Mayor Brett Lee as a compromise.
“Following the rezone approval, the applicant attempted to assemble the mixed-use project, which required a developer for the residential portion of it. Despite their best efforts, they were unable to find a suitable or interested partner,” the staff report notes.
As a result, “the applicant chose move forward to redevelop and revitalize the site for the community with the proposed retail-only project.”
We get it, Brixmor is a commercial developer. The only reason they came forward with a mixed-use project was prodding by the city.
But there is a reason the city saw the need for mixed-use here—the property is fairly large and across the street from the university. This was a prime-opportunity to densify the city with significant mixed-use housing that would have minimal impacts on traffic.
Staff notes, “If the project is approved, the applicant expects to proceed to construction documents in the very near future.”
They explain, “The currently proposed retail-only project is within the scope of the approved University Commons mixed-use project. However, build-out of the full mixed-use development with residential floors above the retail and garage levels is still allowed under the General Plan and Zoning of the site and Development Agreement.”
So at this point, what should the city do?
It’s worth noting that, while the city seems in need for additional student housing, constructing housing right now is difficult—construction is expensive, there remain supply-chain issues, and financing is difficult given high interest rates.
It seems to me that we need to ask some very fundamental questions, starting with this—if housing can’t be built at this location, what makes us think that we can get mixed-use housing in the core?
Second, is this a matter that the compromise that enabled the 3-2 approval took the project out of the realm of being viable? Is this a permanent problem, or will the full mixed-use project as proposed by the applicants in August 2020 work? In other words, can the applicants revise back to the original design?
Another question is: can the project be done in phases? Can they do the commercial project immediately and then follow it up with the residential portion?
There would seem to be critical questions that the Planning Commission and eventually the city council need to get answers for—what is possible at this point, and how can we salvage some sort of mixed-use project to bring us desperately needed housing across the street from the university?
Earlier this week there was an op-ed which argued that before we should consider peripheral housing, we ought to densify our existing areas. It is hard to imagine a better location or more perfect opportunity than the University Mall.
And yet, if the staff recommendation is followed, we are giving it up without even a murmur of protest.
That decision is perhaps made easier by the fact that the project was so controversial in the first place. But what is clear is if the city’s vision is for a denser, more compact city rather than additional peripheral growth, then these are eggs we are going to have to crack.
At the very least, we need to explore our options here, because unfortunately we are not going to get another shot at it, and there are not many other sites like this—both in size and location within the existing community.
In the end, maybe the only way forward is to move forward with this commercial-only proposal, but it seems we should concede that point as a last resort.