By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – I was pleasantly surprised this week to see the proposal for Fourth and G, at 20 percent affordable, for a vertical mixed-use project in the downtown.
I will readily admit that I thought the city’s plan for 1000 units in the downtown by 2029 was not realistic. But here we are, a few months after the Downtown Plan was finalized, and we are already 45 percent there with just three projects along G St.
Perhaps even more surprising is that one of the projects has a 20 percent affordable housing component, which qualifies it for the Builder’s Remedy.
The whole purpose of the Builder’s Remedy—and indeed the updated Downtown Specific Plan—is to provide certainty for people who want to build projects that provide housing.
What it means is that if you meet certain requirements—a big one is the 20 percent affordable component—you can build by right. “By right” basically streamlines the approval process, and it is granted when the development proposal strictly conforms to the zoning and building codes, and therefore can be built without having to go through a discretionary approval.
It’s a trade off. It means if you meet certain standards or parameters, there is no discretion on the part of the city council or the Planning Commission to change the project.
In the past few weeks, we have seen not only the council subcommittee, but individuals and community groups put forward a set of guidelines or a rubric or parameters for a shared vision of what peripheral housing should or could look like.
Some of these conditions are a higher requirement for affordable housing, zero energy and environmental standards, and certain transportation and connectivity requirements.
I have a range of reactions to these proposals.
On the upside, there seems to be an increasing recognition in the community that we have a housing crisis and we need to find ways to build housing.
Further, increasingly, I think people understand that some of that housing at least is going to have to be on the periphery. Even if we get the full 1000 units of housing in the downtown, that housing will count toward to the current Housing Element/RHNA requirements, not the next one.
On the other hand, while I understand that people want to hold Davis to a higher standard, there is a cost trade off.
The more requirements you put on builders and developers, the more upfront costs there are going to be and, thus, while people want affordable housing and do not want additional housing that is unaffordable, some of the requirements here are going to for sure add costs to housing.
But there may be a work around here that provides people with a mechanism by which these high standards can be met with affordability.
One possibility is that we set certain thresholds for peripheral projects that include a 25 percent target for affordable housing, a missing middle component, density requirements, zero energy requirements, and transportation and connectivity—and if the applicant meets that goal, the project can bypass a Measure J vote and be built by right.
That would of course require the voters to approve a modification for Measure J. But it’s the trade off of certain costs versus certainty. You meet certain standards and you don’t have the risk of investing money into a project that never happens, you also avoid the costs of a lengthy planning process and, in exchange, the city gets its high standards.
In short—everyone could win, assuming you set the process up correctly.
The city could also protect its character by either establishing an Urban Limit line that would provide an absolute cap to expansion, or it could simply limit the annual growth rate to one percent or whatever the community desires.
What we have seen very clearly is that by right development can work. It can get us higher standards by trading cost for certainty and avoiding a lengthy, expensive and uncertain planning process, and it can produce the kinds of high-quality projects that the community is looking for.