By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – Lost in the madness of yet another bomb threat impacting our children was a very important discussion that took place at the city council early on Tuesday evening when Councilmember Bapu Vaitla pulled the consent item on the Village Farms EIR.
“What I had in mind is a higher density project, make sure that that project alternative is explored fully,” Councilmember Vaitla said.
He said he hopes that the CEQA “analysis is refined enough to capture… is a higher density project should lead to, let’s say, less space that are required to meet housing targets.”
For example, he wants to see more open space preservation and improved VMT per capita.
Councilmember Donna Neville suggested that “the sort of prime opportunity for us to make those refinements is at the notice of preparation stage as we consider the project’s scope.”
Neville added, “I think I understand why you’re trying to go with this. You want to make sure that we don’t foreclose the ability to densify the project.”
Vaitla responded, “Right now it’s not so much that I’m saying let’s consider this alternative or that alternative. It’s just looking at the scope of services and seeing that number, seven alternatives, qualitative analysis. I worry that we won’t have enough information about some of the alternative scenarios in order for us to feel comfortable in saying we prefer this because of the lesser environmental impact.”
Councilmember Vaitla has previously stated that he believes that the council will only have a limited number of chances to develop some of the prime peripheral sites in the foreseeable future.
Others have also noted the urgent need to consider greater density. For instance, some of the proposals for an urban limit line see the necessity of greatly increasing density in order to meet housing needs on limited amounts of agricultural land.
It is important to note that Vaitla is not suggesting an increase in density but rather, as Councilmember Neville said, he doesn’t want to “foreclose the ability to densify the project.”
In a comment yesterday, Richard McCann suggested, “Denser developments alone may not decrease VMT.”
Instead, “It is a critical ingredient to the recipe. Reducing VMT will require a more comprehensive plan that includes how density is increased to facilitate walking and biking, and extending the transit network to enable easier and faster trips are other important aspects that must be included.”
While I largely agree with the need to have more housing on existing projects as a means both to provide the much-needed housing to the community and a way to reduce housing costs by design, I worry about our ability to deliver such projects given the constraints of Measure J.
Traffic analysis and, more to the point, traffic fears have been fatal to at least three of the conceived Measure J projects.
Covell Village in 2005, on this very site, was defeated in large part due to concerns that the project would add volumes of cars to an already congested intersection without being adequately mitigated.
In 2016, the initial Nishi project was defeated despite a robust corridor plan on Richards Blvd. due to similar concerns.
And in 2020 and 2022, DISC was defeated due primarily to concerns over traffic on Mace.
It is worth noting that those projects were defeated DESPITE extensive and expensive plans to mitigate traffic and improve the various corridors.
In fact, the two projects that did pass Measure J votes largely were absent of perceived traffic impacts including the Nishi version with only campus access, thus bypassing Richards and Bretton Woods, a senior housing community, where traffic was largely ignored as an issue.
The danger then is creating a denser project—which would be more efficient and preserve agricultural land and open space—would also be perceived to generate more traffic since there would be more housing.
Overcoming traffic concerns has not tended to work very well for Measure J projects. Opponents have been able to defeat such projects through graphics of traffic congestion that is not hard to conceive for the voters and difficult to counter for applicants and the city.
The question is how to overcome these handicaps—otherwise the demand for density could become the death knell for various projects.
One view would be comprehensive planning as suggested by Richard McCann on Wednesday.
I’m skeptical that such a process will work. I would argue for example both Nishi and DISC had extensive plans to address traffic and might have improved the post-project condition over the status quo, and yet, in both cases that planning was largely dismissed and rejected both by critics but also by the voters.
You could argue that it was not sufficient, but I would counter it never is. And even if it were, it would be easy to raise the fears that the plans simply won’t work and will make things worse.
I am at the point where I believe that the current Measure J system simply doesn’t work sufficiently. It does not allow for the production of needed housing. And it forces planners to decrease density and the size of projects in order to get a project approved—processes that might be counter to good planning principles.
I said I believe that the current system does not work, but at the same time, as we saw earlier this week with the history lesson, unmitigated growth is also problematic.
In short, if the city council wants to look at denser projects, that would be great. But the first step is probably to attempt to fix Measure J because, without doing that, we could put forth a huge amount of effort on projects that cannot pass a vote of the public.