By David M. Greenwald
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.