By Robb Davis
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s and do not represent the views of his employer or any community organization of which he is a member.
The City of Davis cannot successfully fulfill its RHNA requirements without a concerted effort to change the housing development landscape in the City. This paper lays out a four-part conceptual approach that the City Council could use to begin to address our housing challenges immediately. One element would require a citizen’s vote, and another, as we shall see, would require working with public and private partners. Two could be addressed relatively quickly through zoning decisions and requests for proposals to develop City-owned land.
1. Amend Measure D (formerly Measures J and R) to permit peripheral development to move forward without a citizen’s vote under specific conditions.
Currently, any development that re-designates land from agricultural or open space to urban uses requires a citizen’s vote on project baseline features. In addition, if the land designation is changed from agriculture to another use, City Code requires land mitigation whereby nearby land is placed in permanent agriculture or other easements, precluding future development.
There are, presumably, many ways to amend Measure D. A straightforward way to do it would involve two critical components: defining minimum project development standards that would exempt projects from a citizen’s vote and creating an urban limit line.
Component one, defining a set of minimum project development standards, means that projects that achieve the minimum standards would be exempt from a Measure D vote. Property owners/developers could eschew the minimums and bring forward projects subject to Measure D if they chose.
Amending Measure D would require a vote of citizens, but it is arguably better than the current approach, which leads to uncertainty, one-off poorly planned projects, and costly and divisive campaigns.
Minimum development standards—which the City Council would take the lead in developing with Commission and citizen input could include the following:
- Minimum average development density for the project as a whole
- Minimum housing stock sustainability features
- Minimum affordable housing requirements, which could be met via internal land-dedication sites.
- Specific connectivity agreements to ensure secure bike/ped connections to the current City.
- Specific, and possibly ongoing, financial commitments to ensuring transit connectivity for all residents to significant transit hubs within the City.
These minimum standards would be enshrined in development agreements (DA). DAs could be subject to amendment, but under no circumstances could DA amendment lead to outcomes that would violate any of the minimum standards.
In addition to stating development minimums, the Measure D amendment could and should contain a second component: the definition and approval of an “urban limit line” that would clarify the limits to which future developments can extend. The amendment could be written so that future changes to the urban limit line would require a super-majority vote of citizens.
The value of an urban limit line is twofold: 1) it would allow citizens to visualize the eventual footprint of the City; 2) it would incentivize landholders outside the line to accept agriculture or other easements on their properties because the incentive to wait for land speculation will be reduced/eliminated.
While separate from Measure D, the amendment process would also be an appropriate time to revisit the City’s “Right to Farm” code that sets mitigation requirements for any land removed from agricultural uses. Knowing the urban limit line, the City Council could incentivize the acquisition of easements that meet specific criteria in terms of location and type (ag, riparian, etc.)
The details of the “minimums” will require significant deliberation with citizens and property owners whose properties would be eligible for development under Measure D exemptions. The urban limit line, too, will require community engagement.
2. Rezone specific current commercial sites to allow housing development by right if specified density goals are achieved.
In recent years, the City Council has rezoned specific commercial sites to permit housing development. There remain opportunities in this domain, and the City Council could act quickly to identify key areas and develop criteria that would allow rapid greenfield or redevelopment of current sites. An initial list could include the following:
- All properties fronting I-80 south of the freeway between Mace Boulevard and Pole Line Road. This includes the so-called Panatoni property and parcels west of Hyatt Place.
- The entire “Interland” property area west of Pole Line and on the north side of Cowell Boulevard.
- Davis Commons parking areas
- All shopping centers, including West Lake shopping center, 8th Street Manor shopping center, the so-called “Co-op shopping center” along G Street, Market Place, Target, and both shopping centers anchored by Nugget Markets.
This rezoning action could/should be accompanied by a city ordinance eliminating parking minimums city-wide.
The key to this action is to set stringent minimum density requirements while eliminating height limits in these areas.
And, while controversial, the City could eliminate inclusionary housing requirements in these rezoned areas, requiring instead minimum and annual financial contributions from these projects to the City’s Housing Trust Fund. This elimination recognizes that the optimal way to produce affordable housing is to use land dedication sites that can be 100% affordable in perpetuity. It acknowledges that including affordable housing in market-rate infill projects is a barrier to creating housing and has only VERY rarely been how permanently affordable housing has been developed in Davis’ history.
3. Designate key City-owned properties to develop permanently affordable rental units and release requests for proposals (RFPs) for their development in a phased approach.
Throughout Davis’ history, most permanently affordable rental units have been developed on land-dedication sites. The developers sometimes ceded the property to the City (Creekside is a recent example). In other cases, the developers selected a non-profit developer to develop the property (Sterling is a recent example).
The need for affordable rental housing is broad and deep—broad in terms of the different types of housing products that are needed and deep in terms of the sheer length of waiting lists for these products.
In recent years land-dedication sites and city-owned land have brought a variety of permanently affordable products to market:
- Family-oriented 2–4-bedroom units for low-income levels
- Smaller 1–2-bedroom units for low and very low-income levels with designated “permanent supportive” housing units for those at risk of homelessness or already unhoused.
- Vertical tiny homes for similar populations.
City-owned sites, like land dedication sites, allow non-profit and other developers to seek tax credit financing of projects. Recent experience demonstrates how relatively quickly they can obtain the funding given the City’s compact nature and the significant links to transit in all parts of town.
The City owns properties for which it could quickly develop RFPs to seek developers for each site. The City Council should state its intent to develop specific sites, state each site’s density and intended use (senior, special needs, permanent supportive, family, etc.), and issue RFPs.
The City should think carefully about how it can use selection processes to meet the needs of lower-income Davis-based or UC Davis employees who do not currently live in the City. The City can set parameters for “lottery” selections for those accessing affordable sites. It can, for example, give more weight to those who can demonstrate Davis-based employment, for example.
Some City-owned sites will require longer-term planning because the City currently uses them for various functions. Here are some of the City-owned sites that could be candidates for development. Most of them will meet with significant community push-back:
- Baseball fields behind City Hall and adjacent to the County offices on B Street
- City-owned property on 5th Street between D and E Streets, home currently to a small single-family residence and a City Fire Station—which the City would need to move.
- The parcel on the southwest corner of F and Anderson—is currently developed as open space, requiring reimbursement to the Open Space fund.
- Three downtown parking lots on F and G Streets—the redevelopment of the former Ace Hardware building on 3rd at H Streets could open one of these naturally for development as an affordable project.
- The Corporation Yard on the north side of 5th Street between L and the public gardens would require moving the much-scaled-down use of the property. One candidate for moving the Yard would be City-owned property at the old landfill—the current home of Davis Paintball and a go-cart track.
- City offices on the south side of 5th between the PG&E yard and commercial building next to Pole Line—would require moving office, perhaps done in coordination with a Corp Yard move.
- The recently acquired parcel on the corner of H and 11th Street (1101). This site has been housing residents who have moved into the newly developed Paul’s Place. A similar structure, perhaps for a permanent, year-round shelter, could be built at 1101.
In addition to these, and more controversially, the City could designate portions of current parks for development into affordable housing. The development of City parks is NOT unprecedented, as evidenced by the Yolo Library on 14th Street and the current proposal to develop another library at Walnut Park in South Davis. The idea would be to select a few large parks and develop a street-fronting portion of each. Top candidates include:
- Walnut Park in South Davis—area fronting Lillard next to Montgomery Elementary School—a perfect site to build migrant farm-worker housing that could double as a cold weather shelter in the winter.
- Arroyo Park in West Davis—area fronting Hampton Drive
- Northstar Park in North Davis—area just off Anderson Road
- Mace Ranch Park—area fronting Alhambra behind Korematsu Elementary School
4. Negotiate with public and private entities to obtain land from them or encourage/incentivize them to develop the land themselves (either market-rate or affordable)
There are many “strategic” parcels in Davis that the City does not control but on which it could seek to encourage housing development. There are at least four distinct “partners” that the City could approach about partnering to create more housing:
- The University of California at Davis. While there might be state-law limitations on the ability of the University to cede property to the City, the City should explore options with UC Davis specifically to use a limited amount of University property to develop permanently affordable housing. This housing could use a lottery system that weights applicants higher for UC Davis employment (or studies, if possible). There are two key locations that the City should target for this negotiation, and both are greenfield areas:
- i.) A relatively narrow strip along the entire property fronting Russell Boulevard between Highway 113 and Olive Lane.
- ii.) Properties at 1002, 1036, and 1140 on Research Park Drive in South Davis.
- Pacific Gas and Electric. While obtaining the current PG&E yard has been a chimera of many in Davis for many years, it is clear that PG&E has no intent to relinquish it en toto. However, the City should engage PG&E to see if they would be willing to develop or cede to the City a narrow parcel fronting 5th Street along the north side of their property from L Street to the City-owned land to the east.
- Religious congregations with currently-unused property. Several churches have developable land they hold against future expansion needs or for which they have no planned use. At least one congregation has approached the City about developing housing on its property: Davis Community Church has expressed interest in seeing housing developed along the north side of its property between B and C Streets. Other congregations that the City should approach include the University Covenant Church in East Davis at Mace Boulevard, the United Methodist Church on Anderson Boulevard, and the Newman Center at the corner of D and 5th Streets. These congregations may be willing to focus on providing affordable and possibly special needs-affordable housing.
- Davis Joint Unified School District. In addition to the current DJUSD administration building at 5th and B Streets (a site currently occupied but has been the subject of a redevelopment study), several schools have large fields adjacent to their facilities that they may be willing to offer for development. Of note is the large field on Drexel at Holmes Junior High.
Densifying Davis to face its current housing crisis requires a multi-faceted approach. The four elements outlined here offer a way forward to address this crisis.
 Strictly speaking, the City may be able to fulfill its requirements in this round (though that is debated), it will not be able to do so in the next round. In addition, the intent of RHNA is to achieve actual increases in housing—both market rate and affordable. Given the paucity of developable land within the current city boundaries, it is highly unlikely that it can fulfill the intent of the requirements in this round and, therefore, some fundamental actions are necessary.
 Any discussion about urban limit lines or streamlined annexation would require engagement and negotiation with LAFCO and Yolo County. With project minimums laid out, it should be possible to negotiate more uniform tax sharing agreements with the County—agreements that have been challenging given the “one-off” nature of Measure D proposals.