By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – When we last saw the council, it was around 2 am and the council decided to continue their discussion of Long Range Growth Options until June 20. The item has been agendized for Tuesday, but the staff report offers no additional information.
With the council 4-1 vote against even moving forward with an EIR on Shriner’s and Village Farms, the council is rapidly taking November 2024 out of the picture for a possible Measure J vote. It is perhaps not impossible but may require some sort of truncated process which may not play well with the growth skeptics.
In the interceding time since the council meeting, a couple of key developments have given us a little clarity.
First, we now appear to have three projects in the downtown, though Davis ACE is still not official. But if it happens, they will account for 454 of the 1000 units that were allocated in the Housing Element to Downtown Redevelopment.
That gives us clarity that there is indeed a high demand for housing. At the same time, downtown infill shows us what we can and what we cannot get out of high density infill projects.
We are talking about multihousing projects. Most of that will be rental housing. We did better than expected with 20 percent affordable housing at one of the projects, but clearly this is not going to provide a path to the kind of family housing that we need.
The council and some community groups have pushed for infill as the first priority. I understand that impulse. Such projects will not require a Measure J vote. In the downtown and if they are at least 20 percent affordable, they can be by-right, which means there is not even discretionary approvals.
But on the downside, we would be moving away from family and single-family housing which might meet our legal obligations, but that won’t solve the actual housing crisis in my opinion.
To be clear, I am advocating for strictly single-family housing. I think we need a wide mix of housing from affordable apartments, to townhouses and condos, starter homes, the missing middle all the way up to market rate single-family homes.
In the end, we will need peripheral housing to meet a lot of our housing needs. First of all, in order to reach the affordable housing allotment for 2029’s Housing Element, we are clearly going to need to add close to 1000 affordable housing units. The only reasonable way we will accomplish that is through the kind of housing proposals we are seeing.
For example, Village Farms could provide around one-third of that allotment by itself.
Second, there just are not a ton of infill opportunities left. Even the proposal from Judy Corbett relied on 1400 units at Village Farms, a Measure J project, to make the numbers work.
And third, if you look at a lot of the infill cited by Corbett, they were either already approved or completed, or they were small, or they were multifamily housing.
Unless the community is committed to not building additional housing for families, it is going to need to look to the periphery in order to build at least some of the housing (assuming you can make the numbers work without peripheral housing, with which I strongly disagree).
That leads to the final piece of this puzzle—how do you get peripheral housing in a place like Davis, where each proposal has to go before the voters?
Several points on that.
First, some have suggested we need to have a General Plan update. I agree. But that’s a lengthy process in Davis and while it creates some guidelines and standards, as long as Measure J is in place, each project will have to go before the voters for approval. That will lead to the type of comparative exercises that we saw in a guest piece this week.
Second, we really at this point cannot wait for a full General Plan update, which is why the council is looking at criteria and creating an evaluation rubric.
I think there is some promise and even the potential for consensus that is emerging, not only in what Mayor Will Arnold and Councilmember Bapu Vaitla did, but some of the community-generated ideas.
We could foresee a relatively simple set of basic parameters:
- Higher affordable – at least 25 percent
- Zero net energy/sustainability goals
- Density goals
- Transportation and connectivity goals
Could that then become the basis for some sort of Measure J exemption? A project that meets the set criteria could bypass the need for a Measure J vote? You could put limitations on how many projects could be exempted and even cap the growth rate if you desired to keep the protections in place.
I know I have seen a lot of opposition to tweaking or changing Measure J, but to me at least, it is seems very cumbersome and costly to put every project through a long and expensive Measure J process which would make it more difficult to reach the high affordable and building standards people seem to want.
There is always a tradeoff, and you could tweak Measure J to thread that needle—protect the periphery from runaway growth while giving the community a mechanism by which to ease the housing crisis.
Finally, I think we really need to think about time strategically. The window to make major changes is upon us. The November 2024 ballot is the time to do the heavy lifting. Waiting is not going to lessen the issues, it will just make it harder to be deliberative and thoughtful about them.