Sunday Commentary: The Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good

Orchard Park photographed on August 12, 2023.

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – Yesterday’s column, while acknowledging progress made by the university on student housing, nevertheless lamented that there was not sufficient quantities of it to address the current student housing crisis—and perhaps as important, they have farmed out the management to private companies who have basically mismanaged the housing.

No one at all cared about the latter point and, while some acknowledged the former, a lot of comments focused on my point: “I’m not one of those who is likely going to lament that Orchard was not seven stories.  I also disagree with those—strongly—who argue that new housing should be exclusively on the UC Davis campus and that the city of Davis has no obligation to student housing.”

One person noted, “You are excusing UCD for building low-density student housing, rather than higher density student housing like the other UCs are doing. Meanwhile, you advocate for higher-density housing in the City. So, you are using a double standard that the City needs to build high densities, yet it is ok for UCD to continue under-performing compared to the other UCs (and the City), by continuing to build low-density student housing.”

I don’t think this is a fair characterization of my position.

First of all, I have not uniformly taken the position that the city needs to build higher-density housing.

The issue is far more complex than more is better.

I do believe we should zone for higher density housing to be allowable so that if an applicant wishes to propose such housing, it facilitates approval and production.

There are certainly advantages to building higher density housing for students—especially near the campus.

But for other housing needs in the city, I am less than convinced that high density housing is the way to solve our needs.

Moreover, I have generally taken the position that the perfect is the enemy of the good and that what we ought to do is approve housing proposals that are “good enough” and not nitpick projects to the point where it delays production or even causes the housing not to be built.

That works both ways.  Neighbors and others complaining about density led to compromise with University Commons that led to no housing.  Obviously from my perspective that’s a bad outcome.  That student housing will ultimately have to be built somewhere else—on campus or in the community.

In the meantime, students are hurting for housing and that is a direct result of attacking a dense project.

On the other hand, we have Nishi which is also still not built.  The first iteration had traffic concerns causing the voters to vote it down in 2016.  Two years later, a campus-only version came back, and some still attacked it for not being dense enough.

I supported the 2018 version even though I knew denser would be better and I felt that it lost some key features that I would have preferred—namely the innovation space.

But even there, the fact that it was forced to have only campus access has continued to delay the project.

Housing delayed is housing denied.  We need more housing in this community whether it be on campus or off campus—and both projects I just mentioned are adjacent to campus in good locations overall for housing, but the wont of the perfect has led to them not getting built (as of yet).

So no, I don’t uniformly believe we need more density, what I believe is we need to stop putting up barriers to new housing.

That’s basically where I come down on housing at UC Davis.

Comparing UC Davis to other UCs might not be especially helpful when talking about density.  Obviously if you have limited land available, as is the case for many of the UCs, or the cost of land is high, then you need to go density.

This is the key point I was trying to make in the comments yesterday.  The per unit cost of housing is sometimes seen as u-shaped—the cost of housing goes down per floor up until a certain point, and then it starts going up again because of materials and other considerations.

But if you have limited or costly land to acquire, then those considerations will override concerns about cost.

I think the comment made by Tim Keller was spot on.

He notes, “You can only build a wooden structure so high.”

But more importantly perhaps, “it is likely the LACK of a high land cost for the university that led them to make that decision…   it is cheaper to build less expensive per square foot structures on more land… IF you have the land.”

His bottom line is mine: “For us, how well the UC manages its land use (and how tall they build) matters less than whether or not they hit their agreed targets.”

He said it better than I did in the comments, but I agree 100 percent.  UC Davis has not been great at meeting their housing obligations and they deserve criticism for that.  But as long as they meet their housing obligations, I am not about to try to micromanage how they do it.

They have to budget and finance their costs.  I’m not in the room when they do that nor is any community member.

The only thing that would come from attempting to force UC Davis to increase density is probably delaying the construction of housing—and that is the one outcome I don’t want to see.

I would like to see them build more housing on campus, but they have plenty of space to do exactly that, even at four stories.

My bigger concern is that they build it and that they not subcontract it out to sketchy private companies.

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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26 Comments

  1. Ron Glick

    “Housing delayed is housing denied.”

    “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

    You’re doing my lines. After so many years your learning curve is reaching inflection. Still supporting Measure J?

  2. Ron Oertel

    Still supporting Measure J?

    No, he doesn’t.  Said so right in this blog.

    I’d retitle the article to state, “The Vanguard is the Enemy of Davis”.

    But per the article itself, I guess we’ll hear no more about a “housing crisis”.

  3. Keith Y Echols

    Your reasoning is like: your neighbor’s house has a broken water pipe that is flooding your home.  They say they’ve fixed 75% of the problem.  That’s a “good solution” but not a perfect one (one where your neighbor no longer floods your home).

    Keep in mind, I advocate that the city of Davis should create a student quarter of focused and dedicated student commercial retail, entertainment and housing.  But that’s because I think it makes economic sense and will benefit the existing residents of Davis.

    But I get your point about being realistic and taking what you can get.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t push for better solutions.

    1. Ron Oertel

      Keep in mind, I advocate that the city of Davis should create a student quarter of focused and dedicated student commercial retail, entertainment and housing. 

      As implied/noted in Taormino’s recent article, that’s what the entire downtown will consist of.  As he noted, there is no market for massive apartment complexes downtown – other than for students.

      Of course, he went so far as to state that those apartments shouldn’t even “count” in regard to RHNA targets.

    2. Richard McCann

      Keith E

      You’re analogy is incorrect. Either water is flowing or it’s not. The fact is that we will always have students living in town in Davis. Using your analogy, the neighbor’s pipe will always be leaking into your yard no matter what they do. So your analogy is not constructive in the discussion.

      And the real question is whether there is a “problem.” As I’ve pointed out several times, other large public universities housing only about 30% of their students on campus. UCD has already exceeded that level, so by any reasonable benchmark, and “problem” has already been resolved. UCD is now going above and beyond.

      The better solution is to address how we will better integrate students, faculty and staff into our community rather than acting to protect our privileges that have been created by the existence of a state-funded university in our midst. Tim Keller’s and Rob Davis’ proposals are good starting points for discussion.

  4. Eileen Samitz

    Richard,

    First, actually Keith’s analogy is correct, however your analogy is not correct, and the solution is that UCD needs to step up to fix the leak that they are causing. The City has already approved more than 4,000 mega-dorm beds in Davis, so UCD needs to step-up to fix the problem that they are responsible for. Solano Park’s redevelopment being planned is UCD’s opportunity to get it right this time, to build higher density student housing on campus.

    Second, your point of how much on campus housing is provided in other states is irrelevant. What is relevant is UCD is the only UC not committed to providing at least 50% on campus housing.  This is inexcusable since UCD has over 5,300 acres and a 900-core campus, the largest in the UC system.

    Third, contrary to “privilege” due to UCD the City has unfortunately inherited UCD’s impacts on our infrastructure, and on our workers and families being pushed out of the City’s housing.  These impacts are due to UCD’s negligence to produce enough on-campus housing for their students.

     

     

     

     

    1. Richard McCann

      Eileen

      How is Keith’s analogy correct if it means that the water flowing from the pipe can never by staunched? That alone makes it a false analogy because in a real house, the leak can be stopped entirely.

      That you feel that UCD must somehow “step up” is your own personal opinion with no analytic basis behind it. Again, other universities are housing a much smaller proportion of their student body. The 50% target is entirely arbitrary, worked out as a political solution to a controversy that you have been a prime instigator of. And remember 4,400 of those acres are untouchable research lands.

      The City has not “inherited” UCD’s impacts–the growth and vitality of the City over the last century is entirely due to the presence of UCD. No UCD, no distinctive Davis community. We just become like all of the other cities around us in Yolo and Solano County. If you don’t like what UCD has created, you’re free to move to one of those other cities.

      It’s not UCD pushing workers and families out of local housing–its our own failure to build the housing that’s needed as our commuter population has grown. Any growth limits are our own creation and the State of California can choose to ignore those in accomplishing its primary duty of educating the students from the rest of the state.

      1. Ron Oertel

        It’s not UCD pushing workers and families out of local housing–its our own failure to build the housing that’s needed as our commuter population has grown.

        To where, and from where?

        Any growth limits are our own creation and the State of California can choose to ignore those in accomplishing its primary duty of educating the students from the rest of the state.

        The state does not even view student housing as a “city need” in the first place.  That’s why they don’t count the megadorms in regard to RHNA targets.

        The state also funds student housing on UC campuses.  In contrast, they don’t provide such funding to cities such as Davis.

        Those two facts tell you all you need to know about how the “state” views the city’s responsibility in regard to UCD’s students.

        Student housing has been a part of the UCD campus since its inception.

         

  5. Eileen Samitz

    Richard,

    There is nothing “arbitrary” about the 50% on campus housing.  That is a number calculated and committed to by all the other UCs except UCD. This is particularly inexcusable because UCD is the largest UC with plenty of land to provide far more on-campus housing.

    You keep trying to make what other universities do in other states relevant, but that isn’t relevant. What is relevant is that UCD is not committing to at least 50% on campus housing as all the other UCs are. UCD should not continue to under-perform in accomplishing what the other UCs are so successfully achieving.

    You keep resurrecting preservation of the UCD land beyond the 900-acre core campus, which is not an issue. I am advocating for UCD to make more efficient use of  developing the land on its 900-core campus for student housing.

    Furthermore, if  UCD can find room for their vanity projects like the art museum and the second recital center, then they can find room for more student housing on-campus.

    UCD just needs to build 7-stories instead of squandering the land to build only 4-stories for student housing. Solano Park is their opportunity to do that.

    1. Walter Shwe

      There is nothing “arbitrary” about the 50% on campus housing.  That is a number calculated and committed to by all the other UCs except UCD.

      Please cite concrete evidence that what you assert is actually true. There is no way that Berkeley will ever be able to house 50% of its students on campus given the lack of available land.

      UC Berkeley has enough on-campus housing for only about 20% of its students.

      How California is responding to dire student housing shortage

      https://edsource.org/2022/how-california-is-responding-to-dire-student-housing-shortage/678616

       

      1. Eileen Samitz

        UC Berkeley Housing Master Plan Task Force Report, (Draft 2017)

        “As campus enrollment numbers have continued to climb, it has been difficult to keep pace in delivering new housing units towards meeting these LRDP goals. The Office of Planning and Analysis reports that the Undergraduate population has increased by 15% from 2006 to spring 2016 for a total current student headcount of 26,094; comparatively, the Graduate student population has increased by 7% during this same time frame for a total headcount of almost 11,000. The task force recommends a campus goal of housing approximately 50% of our undergraduate students and 25% of our graduate students. This translates to a need for just over 15,600 beds in 2016 terms—a significantly larger number than our current stock of close to 8,700 beds.”

  6. Ron Oertel

    Ultimately, those opposed to UCD ensuring that their land is used as efficiently as possible (to accommodate its own students) can’t logically turn-around and state that they’re actually concerned about housing students.

    There’s something else driving these people.

  7. Walter Shwe

    I highly question if that 50% goal at Berkeley is achievable. It doesn’t speak to how that goal would actually be achieved. You can set any goal you want, but that doesn’t mean it’s realistic and doable.

  8. Eileen Samitz

    Walter,

    I gave you the information you asked for, but now you are complaining about the facts.

    Also, the point here is that even UC Berkeley is trying to provide at least 50% student housing and 25% graduate student housing.

    In contrast, UCD isn’t even trying to provide at least 50% student housing like all the other UCs.  Yet, UCD has 5,300 acres and a 900-acre core campus, the largest UC in the system. UCD’s continued under-performance compared to the other UCs is simply inexcusable.

    1. Walter Shwe

      How will Berkeley get from 20% in 2021 to 50% ever? You cited only a task force recommendation. That is not the same as University Administration actually agreeing to commit to the 50%. Your evidence Eileen is less than definitive. You haven’t presented any evidence that the rest of the UC campuses have definitely agreed to that 50% mark.

      There is nothing “arbitrary” about the 50% on campus housing.  That is a number calculated and committed to by all the other UCs except UCD.

      https://edsource.org/2022/how-california-is-responding-to-dire-student-housing-shortage/678616

      University of California Fall 2021 housing occupancy by campus (typed in manually from graphic embedded in article above)

      Santa Barbara: Capacity: 8,829; Enrollment; 26,124

      Los Angeles: Capacity: 17,359; Enrollment: 46,116

      Merced: Capacity: 3,662; Enrollment; 9,093

      Davis: Capacity: 13,769; Enrollment: 40,050

      San Diego: Capacity: 17,774; Enrollment; 41,885

      Berkeley: Capacity: 9,800; Enrollment: 45,036

      Riverside: Capacity: 8,758; Enrollment: 26,847

       

      1. Walter Shwe

        Since Eileen has not replied to my comment questioning her assertion that UC campuses ever agreed to house 50% of their students on campus, I find that assertion to be false and to have no basis in fact.

        1. Eileen Samitz

          Walter,

          I am just seeing this post since I thought we were done with this subject. Your questions and accusations are endless and no matter how much information I provide, you will not be satisfied. So, since you seem to have a lot of time to post, please go ahead and pull up each of the LRDP’s for the UCs with undergraduates and you will see that each one has committed to at least 50% on campus housing except UCD.  The point is the other UCs are trying to build at least 50% on campus housing except UCD.

        2. Walter Shwe

          There is nothing “arbitrary” about the 50% on campus housing.  That is a number calculated and committed to by all the other UCs except UCD.

          Many report recommendations are never actually implemented. As a NIMBY, you have now backtracked. You went from “committed” to “trying”. There is a significant difference between the 2 words.

        3. Ron Oertel

          Walter:  Since you’re concerned about whether or not the plans within the UC system are implemented, it sounds like you’d be a perfect person to follow-up with them, to ensure that it occurs.

          As far as being a “NIMBY”, some might say that UCD itself is the ultimate NIMBY – in regard to its own students.

          1. David Greenwald

            ” some might say that UCD itself is the ultimate NIMBY – in regard to its own students.”

            Some? Not very many. Probably less than a handful.

        4. Ron Oertel

          You might be right regarding how UCD has been perceived.

          However, their actions over the years have indeed demonstrated that they are the ultimate NIMBY.

          By not even following through on their own plans, they’re saying to the city (as well as the students), “Not in My Backyard”.

          In contrast, most “regular” NIMBYs didn’t even create the problem in the first place.

          Walter is actually right to be worried about this.

        5. Eileen Samitz

          Walter,

          There has been no backtracking by me, and I have explained this issue numerous times to you, but now you are deflecting the subject. The issue is that UCD can, and needs to build more high-density student housing on-campus, starting with Solano Park. This is not complicated.

          But, you clearly don’t want to discuss this, but want to make false accusations and continue to ignore the facts. I am not a NIMBY. I have supported projects which are well planned and make sense. But, I can see that UCD is continuing to under-perform compared to the other UCs, and even private developers regarding the production of higher density student housing projects. That is a fact.

          As Ron has pointed out, it is UCD who are the NIMBY’s, since they continue to minimize the number of student beds they are producing. This in turn, is negatively impacting Davis and other surrounding communities by deflecting  a majority of their student housing needs off campus. Again, UCD can, and needs to produce more student beds and they have the opportunity right now, with Solano Park being planned for redevelopment.

          So, let’s just say we agree to disagree because I really don’t have time for the rabbit hole situation that this is becoming, rather then a real discussion.

  9. Ron Glick

    Its all arbitrary. The university needs to build more housing. The City needs to build more housing. The County needs to build more housing. Demand for a UC diploma is as great as ever. Pressure to admit more students from beyond Davis is as great as ever. Anyone who advocates for one solution while opposing other solutions is missing the mark.

  10. Ron Oertel

    From an environmental perspective, student housing on campus is the least-impactful of all.

    The second-least impactful would consist of student housing downtown.  But of course, this also “wrecks” the downtown.

    The “worst” location for student housing would be on peripheral farmland.  By far.

    Unlike most workers, students do not have a “set schedule” in regard to campus attendance.  Sometimes, with large breaks during the day in-between classes.

    Workers generally only have to travel to campus once/day, at most.  And generally stay there for their entire “shift”.

    As such, workers can live farther away from campus (e.g., Spring Lake).  It’s a straight shot down Highway 113 to campus.  I do know that bus service exists between the two locales, including an express line.  I suspect that bus service will also be improved, once the technology park (which will be adjacent to Highway 113) is built – along with its 1,600 housing units.

    This is not an “advocacy” for the Woodland tech park – just an observation.  Advocacy makes no difference one way or another in Woodland in the first place.

     

    1. Ron Oertel

      And the difference in cost (alone) will ensure that workers (especially non-professors, I would think) will choose Spring Lake.

      Then again, Richard McCann previously confirmed that UCD is not increasing the number of staff in the first place.

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