Commentary: We Need Denser Projects; Getting There without Fixing Measure J Seems Futile

Photo from Neighborhood Voices website – https://ourneighborhoodvoices.com/

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

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.

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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29 Comments

  1. David Thompson

    I am grateful that Council Member Vaitla pulled the item to bring up density. As a community we need to think differently than before for a number of reasons in addition to climate change.

    What we build determines who gets to live here in Davis. From my perspective, the two proposed projects  fall far to short on affordable housing for Very low Income and Low Income and market rate apartments for Moderate Income families. The two projects cater mainly to a bedroom community population.

    By not addressing more very needed market rate multi-family apartments we continue to support the over-payment of rent by most market rate renters in Davis. Lack of disposable income and an inability to save are the harsh result of the tight market.

    We are by our planning excluding two major segments of our local working population from living here. That means forcing them to live elsewhere and travelling to and from Davis.

    Densifying is for me the wrong word to use as it has so many and only negative connotations.  Those who want a more inclusionary Davis need to do a better job of educating our fellow citizens on better planning for all rather than densification.

    Apartments of these two types should be planned along Covell Blvd to increase the likelihood of apartment dwellers using what would then become an enhanced Unitrans service.

    We do need better planning.

    My own thoughts and not representative of either the Twin Pines Cooperative Foundation or Neighborhood Partners, LLC.

    1. David Greenwald

      The problem is at this point we aren’t really planning because everything proposed has to be with an eye towards passing a vote of the public.  That limits even what we can propose.

      1. Tim Keller

        exactly.  Measure J creates some incentives that shouldnt exist, and fails to provide others.

        We SHOULD be focusing on providing the kind of housing that meets the needs of our displaced workforce… that is, if we actually care about the climate crisis.      Instead we are focused on planning projects which will pass a measure J vote…   very, very different things.

        We should also be providing at least SOME amount of master planning for these projects:  planning where transit goes, how bike-paths line up, how schools and emergency services need to be provided, and where these residents are going to do their shopping.

        With measure J there is no pressure to do this latter category of planning, and I think that is an equal if not greater sin.

  2. Jim Frame

    The problem is at this point we aren’t really planning because everything proposed has to be with an eye towards passing a vote of the public.  That limits even what we can propose.

    “We” can propose all we want, but under the developer-driven model “we” can’t actually build anything.  Measure J has nothing to do with that.

    There’s nothing (except a bunch of paperwork) preventing any peripheral landowner from getting their land annexed by the city — the city has no say in that — and upon doing so the city could rezone the land for 100% affordable housing (VLI, LI and MI) under the current terms of Measure J, no vote required.  But the city can’t force the owner to build affordable housing there, so no landowner is going to do that because there’s not enough profit in it.

    1. Richard McCann

      Other communities have been able to move forward on comprehensive planning. If we have a developer-driven model in Davis, it’s because we ceded that authority to them through Measure J. Measure J forces a focus on individual developments rather than a community level process that looks at all of the various linkages. Tim Keller has made this point very well in his series of articles here.

  3. Eileen Samitz

    Contrary to the misinformation in this article, Measure J does not need to be “fixed”. It already has an exemption for 5 acres per year of land for affordable housing which, therefore, would not need a Measure J vote for development. But Measure J also includes language allowing for additional land to be exempted for affordable housing if needed.

    So sorry, David, nice try with the attempt to make a pitch for undermining Measure J, which more accurately is Measure J/R/D, which has continued due to its renewal by Davis voters, overwhelmingly, in 2010 and 2020.

    On density, while we needed to increase our densities to some extent, as the saying goes, “Everything in  moderation”. No one want to live in an over-densified situation, particularly long-term. So, it is a balancing act of creating housing situations which are not on  huge lots any more as the “norm.” but allowing there to be at least a small yard for kids and/or pets, gardening etc. so people will want to continue to live in neighborhoods designed with smaller units on smaller lots.

    1. David Greenwald

      Well Eileen – in my view 700 sf homes in 20-plus years is a failure

      Also you say no one wants to live in high density housing and yet millions do. No one wants to not be able to afford housing and live on the street or housing insecure. Something has to give.

      1. Eileen Samitz

        David,

        You completely ignore the fact that in this time period we had a recession and then more recently a pandemic. As a result the entire country has had s significantly less housing being built. This is not a Davis only issue as you seem to want to imply, it has been nationwide.

        1. David Greenwald

          Come on, that’s not a fair argument at all. You know full well I have spent a lot of ink on the California housing crisis, so to even suggest that I’m arguing that this is a Davis-only issue is unfair. But even given that, Davis has imposed an additional handicap. The fact remains that no single family housing has been approved under Measure J.

        2. Eileen Samitz

          David,

          My comment is completely fair, but you continue to disregard the relevant facts regarding the recession and pandemic impacts on housing development nationwide over the last 20 years. That is selective reporting, convenient for your arguments to eliminate Measure J/R/D.

          But, then explain to me why hasn’t the Chiles Ranch project site on East 8th been developed for 96 single-family housing units yet? This land parcel is within the City, therefore does not need a Measure J vote but this project has been sitting dormant for many years. The project was approved years ago.

          It is clear David, that you constantly want to scape-goat Measure J/R/D. You should instead, be complaining about the developers dragging their heels on developing projects like Chiles Ranch for so many years now.

        3. David Greenwald

          Chiles Ranch is a tiny project.  My understanding is that it’s inability to build is internal.  But even if it were built, we would be talking about 800 rather than 700 single family homes in the last two decades.

    2. Richard McCann

      Eileen

      First, your focus solely on Affordable housing quotas misses the more important need for “middle” housing that is affordable to young working families that don’t qualify for that housing. Those are among the 18,000 people commuting into Davis each day. Measure J/R/D blocks development for that market. The exemption is largely meaningless because it really doesn’t address the underlying problem. Thinking it does is a fantasy–it’s clearly failed over the last 20 years.

      Second, Measure J/R/D has been renewed because the voters haven’t been given a real choice. They are voting for either some form of control or no control. The Council has not yet given them an alternative for control that provides for generating community wide benefits. And the wide divergence between the votes on individual projects and the support of individual Council candidates who trumpet their opposition to those projects shows the dissatisfaction of the community with the current Measure J/R/D structure. If they thought it was satisfactorily addressed the development approval process they would be supporting those candidates. Instead they get drubbed.

      The densities being discussed are quite common across the Bay Area which has a much bigger population and higher housing values than Davis. Clearly many people choose to live in those densities and find them attractive.

      Finally, your singular focus on perpetuating the dominance of single-occupancy autos shows your lack of concern about the climate emergency. Your personal convenience seems to be paramount overall other possible community concerns. We must transform how we move about this community to reduce our climate damaging emissions. That’s going to take comprehensive community planning that Measure J/R/D blocks.

      1. Eileen Samitz

        Richard,

        First, my comments are responding to the issue that comes up often about the need for affordable housing and the false claim that Measure J has to be “fixed” as if it needs to be fixed to alleviate this issue. However, Measure J/R/D already has language addressing how affordable housing can be added.

        Second, it is up to the developers to proposed the projects, so don’t try to blame Measure J/D/R. Also, it is up to them to propose well-planned projects, not crappy ones as has been done in the past and is why they failed at the ballot.

        Third, Davis is a small city geographically so your comparison to the bay area densities makes no sense. The streets and infrastructure can simply not support massive development without creating massive impacts.

        Finally, your constant advocacy for everyone else to give up their cars and give up parking, when you and your spouse are not giving up your cars makes it rather hypocritical for you to try to make that argument.

        Also, you misrepresent my position on this issue. My position is that you cannot expect people to give up their cars and parking entirely and expect them to live without that option for transportation when Davis has such inadequate public transit. Trying to shoe-horn in high density housing without first having the improved public transit, and also not planning for some reasonable amount of parking is short-sighted and will just cause more impacts. No one will want to live in a situation like that, including you.

        Also, it is discriminatory to disabled people and seniors who are less mobile to eliminate all parking. So, it is your lack of concern for rational, good planning, and towards people with needed transportation options, that is disappointing.

        1. Tim Keller

          Also, you misrepresent my position on this issue. My position is that you cannot expect people to give up their cars and parking entirely and expect them to live without that option for transportation when Davis has such inadequate public transit.

          Eileen, nobody is saying that give up cars and parking entirely.  Nobody.

          All Richard and I have been saying is that we CAN plan our city in such a way as that people drive less.   We dont do that by banning cars, but by creating a situation where other alternatives are BETTER and more convenient.   You ONLY get there by planning transit WITH the moderate density housing it serves at the same time.  Thats the only way it works.

          We will NEVER get transit-oriented developments under measure J, just like we will never have affordable housing projects as standalone proposals under measure J.   The incentives are not there for the developers to do either.   All we need to do re: measure J is provide those incentives.

        2. Richard McCann

          Eileen

          The first problem with affordable housing exemption as David points out is that it has never been exercised. If it was truly functional then someone would have stepped forward with a proposal. Obviously it’s not working, so it’s time to drop the fantasy that this might be a solution. Time to move onto the real world.

          Second, developers respond to what they perceive as community desires and in other places they even respond to community solicitations (e.g., developments at BART stations). By reforming Measure J/R/D to give developers clear signals they will bring forward proposals that we can be pretty sure are acceptable to the larger community.

          Third, you said no one wants to live in higher density neighborhoods. We don’t have to go far to see how popular Sac’s Midtown has become. Your trying to substitute your individual opinion for what we see in reality in the market. There will be a range of densities in future developments but we can safely target an overall level.

          Fourth, I’m advocating for limiting opportunities to own individual cars. I only own a second car that I bought 16 years ago because the cost of continued ownership is trivial. I probably could get by with a periodic rental but that would cost me more given how old my second car is. I sometimes go weeks without using that car. My wife commutes to a job without transit access with our primary car. In her previous job she was able to ride to work. Our combined annual mileage is less than the US average for a single car.

          We cannot develop effective transit without coordination with housing development. The current land use in Davis inhibits transit use because the single family housing is so spread out. In addition, so many commuters leave town, and so many come in, yet there’s no real means of providing the required commuting service without greating increased in town employment for those living here. This means that we can’t solve with with some type of linear isolated problem solving process. It’s going to require a comprehensive holistic solution. The preconditions you’re setting out prevent this process.

          As for seniors and the disabled, they are less than 5% of the population (as I showed you in a previous reply.) And again, your using hyperbole to misrepresent the proposals–no one is saying to ELIMINATE parking. Please point to a specific passage in the proposals that state that directly. So rather than making this small population the tail that wags the much bigger dog, we need to address that problem separately (and we largely have already with the blue zones for parking.) I’ve already suggested to you other solutions as well. You raise this as an insurmountable obstacle which it is not.

  4. Eileen Samitz

    One more point, regarding the density at the Village Farms site. The orignal project proposal of roughly 1,400 units was ridiculous at that location given the enormous traffic impacts currently, which have worsened far more due to the southbound traffic from Woodland, particularly from Spring Lake.

    But then the suggestion that 1,800 units potentially for the Village Farms site, is insane. So, any suggestion of a higher density at Village Farms at the intersection of Covell Blvd. and Pole Line Road is insanity-squared with a complete disregard for rational planning.

    So, given the huge traffic back-up and chaos now underway at Covell and Pole Line due to the road work being done there, this would be the daily norm, but actually would be far worse, even outside of rush hours.

    So planning densities, needs to take into account the reality of the impacts not only on traffic, but on the environment, infrastructure needs, health, and quality of life.

  5. Ron Glick

     “As a result the entire country has had s significantly less housing being built. This is not a Davis only issue as you seem to want to imply, it has been nationwide.”

    Not  completely correct. Shortages of housing are mainly restricted to places with high barriers to entry like in places found throughout California. They are not a nationwide phenomenon. The barrier to entry created by Measure J is extremely high.

    As for David’s inability to take on Measure J directly I agree with Eileen that David is trying to circumvent Measure J with a three card monty style work around. While I disagree with Eileen on the practicality of Measure J at least the two of us can have an honest debate.

    However the failure of Measure J to produce any Affordable Housing under the exemption isn’t the fault of developers its the fault of the writers of Measure J, unless of course, the intent was to not produce any Affordable Housing under the ordinance. If you want to wait for proposals to create  Affordable Housing under an economic policy that lacks incentive you are going to be waiting a long time.

    Finally, I too find irony in the lack of leadership by example when those who live in some of the least dense housing in town are advocating for high density housing for others. As for giving up cars it seems that this might be reasonable downtown near the train station and the university but once again we see a failure of imagination to anticipate a future of solar powered electric cars in a suburban setting.

    1. Eileen Samitz

      Tim,

      First, you claim that “nobody” is trying to eliminate cars or parking. Yet, the Hibbert project proposal of over 200 high density units is proposing exactly that with planing for no parking.

      Second, nice try trying to scapegoat Measure J/R/D with the lack of public transit because for one thing, the City has done no real planning for significantly increased public transit. And what is a major cause of that? Well, UCD has never paid for the local Unitrans public transit and, hitorically, has dumped all the costs on their students and the City. Yet, the entire Unitrans public transit system in Davis has been planned around the UCD student needs.

      But, with all of the record breaking fundraising UCD has been advertizing about, why has UCD  not been funding the Unitrans public transit for years that is so needed by their students? Instead they have been letting the City and the UCD students foot the bill.  Now that is a major impediment for more public transit being expanded, not Measure J/R/D.

      1. Richard McCann

        Eileen

        Tim, nor any of us, are associated with the single Hibbert project. So you’re cherry picking. Look at the series of articles that Tim or Robb Davis wrote, and please show us where they called for eliminating all parking.

        UCD does pay the lion’s share of costs for Unitrans through student fees. Given that UCD has many fungile funding pots, the internal source is irrelevant to this discussion. On the other hand, Davis contributed little until recently so it had no leverage in planning. That will change soon: https://budget.asucd.ucdavis.edu/units/192/#income

        Regardless, again a viable transit system cannot be overlaid on an existing suburban land use pattern. It has not been done successfully anywhere. (Please present an example where transit ridership exceeds 5% of VMT in a suburban community.) I’ve calculated that it takes a density of at least 9,000 residents per square mile to have an effective transit network. Davis is only at at 7,000. Transit expansion will require increased density and mixed use developments, no ifs, ands or buts. Measure J/R/D impedes that necessary development.

  6. Eileen Samitz

    Richard,

    I have already answered the issue about “nobody” is asking for no cars or parking, so that is simply not true rand the Hibbert project downtown proposing over 200 high-density units with no parking is an example.

    I also explained how the City is not doing anything significant to plan for the public transit for these ultra-high densities. UCD is the worst culprit for not having paid anything into Unitrans historically, despite UCD’s massive financial resources, which is inexcusable. Just like UCD’s negligence to build higher densities on campus, which seems ironic that you never seem to want to talk about.

    Yet, you want the City to take on these high densities. Solano Park is the prefect opportunity for UCD to “get it right” this time instead of squandering their new housing opportunities like they did with the embarrassing low-density Orchard Park, which is only 4-stories. Yet, it is immediately across the street from the privately developed “Identity” student housing in the City which is 7-stories.  So why are you excusing UCD from the same high density housing on campus that you keep advocating or in the City? Why aren’t you asking for UCD to provide more of the public transit since over 24,000 UCD students live off campus in the City using it? Why aren’t you asking UCD to build higher density housing at Solano Park on-campus now in the planning phase?

    Finally, Richard, your advocacy for others to give up their cars and live in high-density living is hard to hear from you since you are doing neither. So, therefore your advocacy for others to make these sacrifices does not really resonate well, when you yourself are not practicing what you preach. Particularly, when you seem to think that the transportation needs of seniors and the disabled is not important enough to be concerned about.

     

     

     

    1. David Greenwald

      “Finally, Richard, your advocacy for others to give up their cars and live in high-density living is hard to hear from you since you are doing neither.”

      I don’t think anyone is advocating for *others* to *give up their cars*

      There is a sizable population out there that doesn’t drive and designing parking spaces adds cost.

    2. Richard McCann

      As I explain above, you can’t simply just add transit service and expect ridership to increase exponentially. It’s a synergistic effect that requires increased density. They cannot be accomplished separately.

      As for density, I’m looking out the window at my neighbor’s wall less than twenty feet away, and the same is true all down this street. I’ve explained that I rarely use my car, and if it wasn’t a trivial cost to maintain, I would simply just resort to renting. I ride my bike to most functions and many errands around town. And I would be more than happy to live in a denser setting near downtown if that was available to us. The apartment building that the Bourne’s built on 4th is a very attractive alternative.

      As for UCD housing, Orchard Park if far from low density in comparison to the rest of Davis. You ignored my previous response to your post on the opening of Orchard Park that UCD had to trade off on construction costs. The framing requirements for building higher than 4 stories rapidly increases the per unit costs as pointed out in the referenced article. You’re ignoring the practical restrictions in your fantasy to push all new housing onto campus.

      Your statement that I’m ignoring the transportation needs of seniors and the disabled is false, disingenuous and borderline libelous. You have continually ignored my proposed alternatives that do not require maintaining parking for the 95% of the population that is able bodied. Just because you want to free ride on their problems doesn’t justify maintaining too much parking just so you can maintain your current conveniences. Please don’t try to disguise your selfishness with concern for others.

  7. Eileen Samitz

    “Finally, Richard, your advocacy for others to give up their cars and live in high-density living is hard to hear from you since you are doing neither.”

    David’s response:

    I don’t think anyone is advocating for *others* to *give up their cars*

    There is a sizable population out there that doesn’t drive and designing parking spaces adds cost.

     

    David,

    I don’t understand how you can say this when the constant mantra you, Tim, and Richard keep advocating for is high-density housing with little or no parking. You claim that there is “a sizable population out there that doesn’t drive”.  Do you have data on this, particularly regarding workers and families? And where is “out there”?

    A recent guest article in the Vanguard made the convincing case that there is no market for high-density housing without parking for workers and families. Otherwise, you are asking people to give up their cars to live in this high-density housing with no parking. Even the UCD students want to have cars in Davis. And of course parking adds cost, but the over spill from housing with inadequate parking winds up impacting surrounding neighborhoods, and that is a serious lack of rational planning.

     

    1. David Greenwald

      No one is going to give up their car in order to move into a downtown unit.

      Did you know in NYC, only half the people own a car? The same for UCD students. Nationally the figure is only about ten percent. Families aren’t going to be moving into downtown units anyway.

  8. Eileen Samitz

    David,

    Seriously? You are trying to compare NYC to Davis’ transit system? That really is absurd. NYC has a massive transit system whereas Davis has a seriously inadequate public transit system that is planned entirely around UCD’s student needs. I mean come on…

    There is absolutely no comparison between NYC and Davis regarding the need for car transit due to the significant difference between the massive amount of transit service provided in NYC, compared to the minimal and inadequate amount of transit service provided in Davis even now, before adding any high-density housing downtown.

    1. David Greenwald

      Come on Eileen. I just mentioned it, I made no comparison.

      The point was to show that there are populations without cars. Downtown housing is rental housing. It’s going to be geared to workers downtown and probably some students. Neither population needs cars. If someone has a car, then downtown is not the place for them to live. Just as the periphery is not the place for someone without a car to live, in my estimation.

      1. Ron Glick

        Eileen is correct about Unitrans. It has been designed around the needs of UCD students and not Davis non-UCD affiliated residents. From my house I can drive the two miles to downtown in five minutes without speeding. However if I want to take a bus downtown I need to transfer at the university and it takes over half an hour. Unitrans is  not user friendly enough for me to give up driving downtown.

      2. Richard McCann

        Eileen, you keep wanting to address each of these issues in isolation–expanded transit, seniors and disable transportation needs, affordable housing, student housing needs–without acknowledging the obvious: that we can solve each of these much more comprehensively by modifying Measure J/R/D to allow for uniform planning and building of more appropriate housing and businesses that addresses all of these issues at once. You’re need for a veto over community planning that inconveniences you stands in the way.

        It’s many more cities than just NYC that have much lower auto ownership rates. Berkeley is only 77% and has a density of 12,000 per square mile which makes transit feasible. San Francisco is only 70%.

        Ron G, Davis won’t have a viable transit system serving more than students until we have denser developments that can feed such a system. We can’t just spend on Unitrans alone and expect a significant increase in ridership.

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