By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – Earlier this week, I ran the column, “The Future of Davis Is on the Line This Week, Stay Tuned.” That caused at least one person to snicker about the title, but if anything it might be an understatement given what has now transpired.
On Tuesday night, the council made two critical decisions with respect to housing—they failed to get the votes to hear the appeal on University Commons when Gloria Partida, surprisingly, voted against even hearing the appeal from colleague Bapu Vaitla.
This was followed by the decision by council not to attempt to proceed with any of the Measure J project submissions for the November 2024 ballot.
These decisions by council were made all the more important by the letter from HCD that was dated April 3 (Monday) and received on Tuesday (April 4), informing the city that they need to continue to revise the Housing Element.
Of particular interest is the fact that the decision not to go forward with mixed use housing at University Mall was a critical part of the decision by HCD not to certify the city’s Housing Element.
HCD wrote, “In accordance with public comment received by HCD, it appears University Commons, a project set to develop 264 units of mixed-income housing will no longer have a residential component.”
They add, “The absence of residential units from this project would require the City to identify additional sites to accommodate a revised shortfall of 485 units of lower-income housing and 227 units of above-moderate housing. The element must be revised to address this shortfall.”
This is not a minor deal—as I will explain later, it is now unclear where the city will find those additional units in order to be in compliance with State Housing laws. More on that shortly.
However, the immediate question that many people in the community had yesterday was the old: what did they know and when did they know it?
I confirmed with both Vice Mayor Josh Chapman and Councilmember Gloria Partida that neither were aware of the letter on Tuesday and both told me explicitly that they first heard about it and read it on Wednesday after the council meeting.
While Partida, in an extensive conversation with me on Thursday, maintains that it would not have changed her vote, I think from a public process standpoint this is problematic.
The city received the letter on Tuesday, but staff was preparing for a council meeting that had multiple lengthy and meaty items on the agenda.
Nevertheless, the city was in possession of the letter at that point which made explicit reference to a project which was on the agenda for that night and the council and public should have been aware of the direct implications of the decision made by council with respect to the housing element.
Talking with Partida, as she noted on Tuesday night, she simply did not believe that granting the hearing on the appeal would change anything, that the council had no way to discuss let alone compel the developer to build housing on the site.
I respectfully disagree somewhat here.
As both Will Arnold and Josh Chapman noted, there is a real procedural concern here that a member of the public can directly appeal a project and a councilmember has to recuse himself and get council approval.
And because there were only three members to decide to hear the project, it gave Councilmember Partida virtual veto power over whether to even hear the appeal. Obviously that is a problematic process.
The problem is that because the site is zoned commercial, the property owners have the right to develop a project that adheres to current zoning and there is really little to nothing the city or city council can do about that.
Going forward, Partida and her colleagues have already talked about changing the zoning for commercial redevelopment projects to require a mixed-use component.
It is disappointing that Brixmor was not even willing to perhaps do a compromise and build the commercial component at the street, and the parking in the back, where a housing component might have been added at a later point when the construction market was more amenable to such a project.
Going forward the city is now in a fairly serious quandary.
The city now has a shortfall of 485 units of lower-income housing and 227 units of above-moderate housing.
Where are they going to find land inside the current city limits to accommodate that housing? I was already skeptical of the city using about 1000 units in the downtown to meet some of the current housing requirements as well. While there is a project moving forward on the site that is known as the Hibbert site, that would only amount to about one-quarter of the necessary units.
While the city does not have to have the units built in the current RHNA period that ends in just five years now, it does have to show that it is feasible.
The second portion of the housing discussion on Tuesday, at least in the short term, shut down another avenue.
The council also decided not to consider any of the Measure J projects for 2024.
Would that decision have been made knowing what we know now?
Bapu Vaitla, who just came onto the council in the last several months, noted, “I’m very very concerned about the revenue side of what’s happening in the city.”
As such he noted, “To me, in terms of the November 2024 ballot, that is my priority, to ensure that the fiscal needs that are unmet right now are met to carry out a community engagement process that’s robust, that’s authentic, that will culminate in a revenue measure, is gonna require a lot of staff time.”
Would that calculation have changed knowing that HCD has ruled the city is not in compliance with state housing laws?
Already, the council understood that in the longer term, in order to meet state housing requirements, they are going to have to go outside the current boundaries.
As Mayor Will Arnold warned, “This is a long-term process that we will be participating in that it will hopefully culminate in at least one of these passing and being built, and then another one, and then another one so that we can meet what I imagine will be our 2030 RHNA requirement that is going to require that we go outside of our current city boundaries to meet those numbers.”
There is a bigger implication here as well: what does this mean for Measure J itself?
Measure J is already on the radar of HCD as an impediment to housing.
Last fall they wrote, “Measure J poses a constraint to the development of housing by requiring voter approval of any land use designation change from agricultural, open space, or urban reserve land use to an urban use designation. Since the ordinance was enacted in March of 2000, four of the six proposed rezones have failed.”
The city responded, “While Measure J adds costs, extends processing times, and has been used to halt development projects that would convert agricultural land to urban development, it is only a constraint to meeting housing needs if the city lacks sufficient infill housing sites.”
The added, “Had DISC passed, the City would have substantially more units to help meet the sixth-cycle RHNA. The City will need to rezone additional sites to meet the RHNA…”
The city continued, “The City has identified sufficient candidate rezone sites within its limits to meet the RHNA, averting the need for a Measure J vote. In addition, adoption of the Downtown Davis Specific Plan will increase infill potential within the City by allowing for increased building heights and higher density development.”
Another Measure J vote has since failed since that letter was issue. And now with the loss of the University Commons project, they might not have sufficient sites that are viable and project-ready in the city.
One of the big questions now is whether the state will come in and take on Measure J, ruling it an impermissible barrier to housing, or whether one of the project applicants who are in a holding pattern right now might initiate their own process.
The implications here are vast and we will now see how the city and the state responds.