Commentary: The Floor Is Moving on the Davis Housing Discussion

Photo by Marcus Lenk on Unsplash

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – Today the Vanguard published a proposal for development planning priorities.  The very fact that the list of signers include some of the current leaders of the slow growth movement and some opponents of recent development projects in and of itself is a tremendous step forward for this community.

It seems to be a clear acknowledgment of the urgency of our housing crisis and the threat it poses to the very future of our community that many have fought so hard to protect.

That I don’t agree with all the proposals should not detract from the fact that they were made and that, in my view, this represents a gamechanger.  The discussion now swings from whether we need to what we need, where we need it, and what it can possibly look like.

I want to be clear—even though I believe we need to move further—that I have the utmost respect for this proposal and believe it puts us in the position to now have an honest and earnest discussion about our future.

With that said, I would like to offer a few key points here.

In my view, I still don’t think we are going to get that far looking only at infill.  Talking with city staff last week, we have now seen the Hibbert proposal drop and there is every expectation that the Davis ACE site will have a housing proposal as well.

But even with those two sites, that is only about one-third of the 1000 units in the downtown.  The city is definitely optimistic they can reach 1000, but remember that 1000 will count for current RHNA, not the next RHNA which is, in my view, the real challenge.

This proposal notes the city-owned parcels on Fifth Street as well as the school district property at 5th and B, which in my discussion with the school district is a clear site for redevelopment.  But even if that occurs, we are looking at a relatively small number of units, perhaps 40 to 60 per the 2007 Housing Element.

Are we really going to get a ton more from infill at this point?  We’ve already lost the mixed-use housing at University Commons.

I am all for dense infill.  But dense infill is likely to be expensive, it is unlikely to appeal to families, and it is difficult to finance—and especially difficult to finance with affordable housing unless we start getting a lot more state and federal money coming in.

I am very pleased to see what seems to be an acknowledgment that we will need peripheral housing.  I think that might be the showstopping, game changing news in this proposal.

I appreciate pushing the density envelope here.  While I generally am supportive of the five projects that have come forward, I do think the density needs to be increased—perhaps by a lot.  One fact that might have limited the density is fear of getting killed on a Measure J vote, so such a proposal is likely to give them cover.

I think there are two key points here that bear more scrutiny.

The first is the question of whether a 25 percent affordable threshold could be reached.

They put this forward, “At least 25% of units permanently affordable to low or very low incomes. This can be accomplished through direct construction of units, land dedicated to nonprofits for affordable housing in parcels of 4 acres of more, and/or use of limited-equity coops or co-housing projects as part of the housing mix of any large project to gain permanent ownership affordability. The majority of affordable housing should be located near transit.”

I have always believed we could reach a higher affordable threshold with land dedication approaches.  The fact that David Thompson has signed off on this proposal gives me a more confidence—as he has forgotten more about limited-equity affordable housing than most of us will ever know.

That said, if it were *that* easy, every peripheral project could get to 25% and we haven’t seen that—even on projects that Thompson himself has worked on.

What seems to be missing here is some sort of Measure J modification or adjustment.  I believe you might be able to get much higher levels of affordable housing if you allowed projects to avoid a Measure J vote.

You’re trading cost for certainty in that trade off.

This biggest carrot might be that implementing such an approach reduces the likelihood for opposition to individual projects that meet these criteria—but there is of course no guarantee that that will happen.

In short, I firmly believe we can ask for more if we reduce uncertainty and reduce costs on the front end.  But that probably needs to be fleshed out.

What is very clear to me is that, in the last week, we have seen two community visions for what a planning process could look like—both are rigorous but both also show us that there is a path forward to addressing housing concerns.

The optimist in me says that the handwriting is on the wall that this community will address its housing needs—but I warn, we are still very, very early.

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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  1. Tim Keller

    “What seems to be missing here is some sort of Measure J modification or adjustment.  I believe you might be able to get much higher levels of affordable housing if you allowed projects to avoid a Measure J vote.”

    Its not just the affordability and risk reduction that comes from transitioning to an urban limit-line approach – its the ability to actually accomplish the urban design goals that we seem to all want.

    If we want bike paths, and plans for transit that make sense, then we need to lay out those paths FIRST before we consider any of the buildings.

    If we want “walkable neighborhoods” then by definition we want a distribution of neighborhood-oriented stores, & barbershops & cafe’s… which means someone needs to decide WHERE those local hubs are going to be…   which is also a master-planning function.

    There is NO way that a collection of 4-5 developers are going to spontaneously each do their part to come up with a nice integrated plan for how our city is going to evolve over the next 30 or so years… not a chance.  That is why we have city planning departments.

    Measure J means “planned by developers” and discourages any investment in planning by the city because the passage of an individual measure J property is anything but certain.   An urban limit line opens the doors to comprehensive long-term planning.

    1. Matt Williams

      its the ability to actually accomplish the urban design goals that we seem to all want.


      What are those urban design goals Tim?  To have urban design goals it requires a Vision, which Davis does not have.

      I suspect you would find considerable diversity in urban design goals if you polled the city’s residents and businesses.  That diversity has been crystal clear in the Mace Mess debacle.  The recent discussions about the proposed widening of I-80 is another example, as is the future of University Mall.

      With that said, what do you personally see as Davis’ urban design goals?

      1. Tim Keller

        With that said, what do you personally see as Davis’ urban design goals?

        Fair question, because I left the detail out..

        There is significant commonality in what is being said including the following:
        (Im basically condensing this from Judy et-al’s list, a few of these are summaries of multiple bullet points)

        1) Upzoning shopping centers and arterial corridors
        2) Reducing parking requirements + policies to reduce motor vehicle use
        3) Infill / Redevelopment as an absolute priority ( we disagree on the word “first” though)
        (The list of target properties for infill / densification are largely the same between Robb and Judy et-al’s proposals)
        4) Efficient use of land ( increased density for any greenfield)
        5) Capital A affordable as part of the mix as well as lower-case A
        6) Build more “missing middle” housing
        7) Make sure we have plenty of  bike paths (which connect)
        8) Planning with GHG emissions in mind
        9) Avoid harming endangered species
        10) Planning for good Transit utilization
        11) Site: Design, neighborhood centers with public spaces.
        12) Revenue positive: housing that pays for itself in the long-term

        I think that is a pretty good list of agreements to start with! 

        Furthermore, if we are able to discuss these issues with THESE results in mind, ( on which we agree) and be then open to the best “how” to achieve them, then I think we can get even further.


      2. Matt Williams

        Tim, I respectfully disagree.  1) 2) and 3) are all tactics, not a goals. 4) can reasonably be considered to be a goal, but it is really hard to quantify both progress toward it and value benchmarks of progress toward it.  5) through 12) are all tactics rather than goals.

        If a publicly traded corporation went to its shareholders and/or to analysts on Wall Street with those goals, the corporate management would be taken to the woodshed.

        1. Tim Keller

          Hey Matt,

          Then we agree on tactics… im not sure if the distinction is important (?)

          Lets discuss over a beer at sudwerk…   Its really the only polite thing to do…

        2. Richard_McCann

          I think what Tim really meant is “objectives” which are task accomplishments rather than “goals” which are end results. Regardless, the objectives are quite similar, and a corporate board would be quite happy to see such a list of objectives. (This is certainly better than what PG&E’s board must be seeing internally these days!)

          I think the unstated task here is creating a larger vision that brings together our mutual goals, as we’ve discussed. Anya and I wrote an article about one possible goal of creating a community centered around sustainable food in 2018, and it had 5 objectives for accomplishing that goal. We need that type of discussion. Having common objectives should lead us towards having common goals.

          And invite me to Sudwerk too.

        3. Tim Keller

          Ill send both of you a text to confirm beer time…

          For people who aren’t Matt and Richard:

          While its a little weird to set up a beer meeting in the vanguard comments… I do want to mention that I originally had a chance to meet Matt in person because we arranged to do so initially in the vanguard comment section a couple of years ago, and we found that while we dont agree on everything, we CAN talk about these issues, and it helps to do so.

          After the DiSC I have been able to meet similar with a number of people who were on the other side of that issue and have productive discussions.    I REALLY think that most of us are not so far out-of-sync as we might otherwise think… and the best way to discover that is by sitting down and just listening to each-other…

          If anyone reading this wants to join that conversation, feel free to email me tkeller (at)

        4. Matt Williams

          I second Tim’s comment above.  I could have used e-mail or text to discuss the details of getting together, but chose to do it here because I too feel broadening the conversation is (and has been) productive.  During our Sudwerk conversations during the DiSC election, I met at least a dozen entrepreneurs who were part of the local Davis innovation economy.  It was a great way to build a balanced perspective … and get an understanding of the potential of economic development in that sector if Davis and/or the developer actually had an Economic Development Plan for doing so.

  2. Richard_McCann

    I agree that the ball has suddenly moved forward significantly after being stalled for years. Negotiating over how Measure J/R/D looks going forward must be on the table because all of this will be fruitless if developers see the vote at the end of the approval process as a deal breaker.

    It’s also pretty clear that City planners have had little interest in actively planning the new developments since Measure J was adopted. But if you look at West Sac for example, Southport was laid out in detail by their city planners before it was developed.

  3. Don Shor

    Great to see these discussions and various detailed proposals. With respect to the ongoing discussions of walkable neighborhoods and infill, I suggest everyone take some time to read the existing General Plan. One of the reasons I’m reluctant to embrace the various visioning processes that have been proposed in the past is that much of this is already there.

    GOAL UD 1. Encourage community design throughout the City that helps to build community, encourage human interaction and support non-automobile transportation.

    Policy UD 1.1 Promote urban/community design which is human-scaled, comfortable, safe and conducive to pedestrian use.

    Standards a. New neighborhoods shall be designed so that daily shopping errands and trips to community facilities can generally be completed within easy walking and biking distances.


     h. Pedestrian-oriented design is encouraged in the allocation of space, building size and placement, site enhancement, open space design, connection to pedestrian/bikeways and site amenities.

    i. New development should include pedestrian-attracting public spaces that provide informal areas for people of all ages to interact with one another and with nature.

    j. New buildings should be integrated with open space to enhance living and working areas.

    k. In commercial and light industrial areas, buildings and their entries should be designed to minimize distance to public transit.

    m. Walled and gated neighborhoods are discouraged.


    o. Develop flexible street design standards that provide adequate bicycle and pedestrian safety, emergency vehicle access, and strong aesthetic qualities in rights-of-way that are as narrow as possible.


    q. Install tree-shaded benches throughout Davis.

    r. Utilize on-street parking to provide a physical and visual barrier between autos and pedestrians, where appropriate.

    Policy UD 2.4 Create affordable and multi-family residential areas that include innovative designs and on-site open space amenities that are linked with public bicycle/pedestrian ways, neighborhood centers and transit stops.

    Also of note:

    Infill Potential

    In January 1996, [emphasis added] at the request of General Plan committees, the City completed an “Infill Potential Study” as a technical analysis supporting the General Plan Update.

    The study examined the potential for infill development as an alternative to accommodating growth through expansions to City boundaries…..

    The study identified the potential for more than 1,000 residential units and 300,000 square feet of retail and office use beyond those in the 1987 General Plan. The study also indicated that the following factors make financial feasibility difficult for an infill project: high cost of land; large differences in values per square foot between detached and attached single-family homes; the lack of a difference in impact fees based on the size of the unit; the small difference between development fees for infill projects and peripheral growth areas; and parking requirements versus available space. [emphasis added]


    Further of note:

    The land use map has been created to implement the following principles, which form the foundation for land use planning in Davis: [excerpts]

    Focus growth inward to accommodate population increases. Infill development is supported as an appropriate means of meeting some [emphasis added] of the city’s housing needs.

    Create and maintain housing patterns that promote energy conserving transportation methods.

    Support the opportunity for efficient public transit by siting large apartment complexes on arterial streets, in the core and near neighborhood centers and the University.

    Site local services, retail and recreation strategically to minimize the lengths of trips and to facilitate walking, bicycling and transit use as alternatives to auto use.

    And of special interest for those seeking walkable neighborhoods:

    All neighborhoods, both new and existing, should include a centrally located hub or activity node within walking distance of housing in the neighborhood, as illustrated in Figures 9 and 10. Transit stops, neighborhood commercial uses and activity centers should be in this hub. Hubs should be designed to support transit, pedestrian and bicycle travel, and to serve neighborhood needs.

    Designate neighborhood shopping centers and, where feasible, create a neighborhood activity center in each neighborhood area.

    Focus community-serving retail shopping uses in the Core Area and to a limited extent in areas designated Neighborhood Retail and General Commercial.

    So, 27 years ago infill was evaluated. Plus ca change, c’est la meme chose.

    Neighborhood shopping and amenities are specifically considered to be planning goals. Some of our neighborhood shopping centers appear to be prospering, others don’t. The main difference, IMO, is location: those on busy streets with lots of car traffic do well. Those on side streets don’t. But a more expert analysis might be in order.

    The full General Plan can be found here:

    1. Colin Walsh

      Don, you are right about the quality of the existing general plan. there are many broad principles spelled out in there that the city should be following. Updating the general plan need not throw any of that out, but rather can serve to endorse it. What is needed however are revisions to municipal code that take specific steps to require what was spelled out in the groups publication earlier today.

      What is not needed is revision to measure J/R/D to get this done and I reject the notion that anything I signed on to suggests removing the citizens right to vote on peripheral development. Rather I would suggest, (speaking for my self) that at most the proposed outline of development guidelines could be seen as a road map to smoother approval of a future project. In actuality though for a truly smooth process a better community engagement process – like in updating the general plan is what is actually needed.

  4. David Thompson

    David Greenwald provides an extensive review and appropriate critique of the recommendations of a number of different perspectives. These conversation were occurring due to the dramatic increase of RHNA numbers and passage of the hammers being applied to jurisdictions which did not meet the state’s targets. The state’s turndown of the Davis application initiated an immediate “Builders Remedy” application which foregoes various city steps and requires only 20% of units set aside for low income. This could mean that no VLI unit be built and the RHNA goal is 580 units.

    If we don’t meet those sites Davis may permanently be out of compliance and we could be forced into annexing new development to meet the RHNA numbers only by adding more sprawl.

    Alan Pryor kicked off these recent conversations with his comments that we now have to consider a peripheral development to meet RHNA. I may not have captured Alan’s perspective correctly but you can find it on the Vanguard.

    What then followed is a robust discussion initiated by Stephen Wheeler among a number of different voices about what can we do within the city to meet the RHNA numbers. And if  there is to be annexation how should we set better goals for densification, sustainable development and more capacity for affordable housing for VLI and LI households. If we don’t meet the existing and the next RHNA numbers we might be forced into continuing sprawl for the next ten to twenty years.

    None of us wanted that outcome.

    VLI units need major subsidies on larger free parcels or dedicated city land. Those VLI units cannot be done on smaller projects.

    However, three acres at 30 units per acre = 90 units or four acres of land at 40 units per acre =160 units of VLI and LI is where our success will be in meeting our RHNA numbers.

    There is much to be done and limited opportunities and resources so our plans need to be effective and efficient.

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