Commentary: Business As Usual in Davis – When It Can’t Be

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – On Tuesday night, the Davis City Council moved along the Village Farms project to the NOP stage and toward the launch of the EIR process.

What was most striking in a way was the color of some of the public comment—quite frankly, there were people acting like this was ten years ago.

They were acting like there was no housing crisis.  They were acting like the city had the ability to reject projects without consequences.  Like the state isn’t ready and willing to come in and take away at least a measure of local control.

If people had any doubt—simply look at what happened in San Francisco on Wednesday.

“I don’t know where any of you were when the Covell Village project was discussed,” one commenter said.  “But I wish there was a little more institutional memory about what’s been going on in this property.”

He continued, “I do not see much difference between the Village Farm Project, and Covell Village proposal that was so thoroughly defeated by the people. I believe at least in part of that huge defeat was caused by the city council insisting on more density and more homes. And why isn’t there a smaller version of this proposal? “

Jim Flanagan said, “I’m a local physician. I would just like to assert that I think congestion does matter, especially as far as safety of our families and our kids and that also if you actually have to work for a living and you drive to work, congestion of course matters too. Perhaps this project has some great merits to it, but I think the size of it, we should consider dialing it down a bit. It’s just awfully big.”

Another, commenter, Elizabeth Ray, said she’s lived in Davis since 1976, feels like she’s living Ground Hog Day right now, because “I’m back here talking against and just trying to get you guys to tone down the Covell Village or Village Farms or whatever it’s called. This proposal is just a rehash of Covell Village and really nothing much has changed as far as I can see and it’s still too big a project for the site.”

She noted, “The traffic in this area is now worse than when the original proposal was rejected by Davis voters by 60%.”

She added that “as far as I can see, there’s going to be very little affordable housing, that’s mostly going to be mega mansions and for very wealthy.”

Jim Watson said, “This is essentially Covell Village repackaged, it was unpopular with the conditions then, (now) we have more traffic. It’s going to be less popular now and it’s going to face substantial community opposition.”

Eileen Samitz called the project “probably the worst I’ve ever seen.  It’s worse than the Covell Village project.”  She argued for tonight, “You’ve got a no project alternative. You’ve got the 1395, but then you’ve got three versions of 1800 unit project in just, and actually one is 1800 plus. Putting 1800 units on 135 acres is not a reasonable alternative.”

She said, “They’re all going to be all these 1800, even the 1400 unit project at that site, given the impacts already now and all the other problems at the site, they’re all going to have seriously serious high impacts environmentally and on the community at large. What’s missing is a downscaled option, which the Covell Village project actually did have.”

For certain, the comments were mixed—there were a number of people who are supporting the project and understand that Davis is in need for housing.

But the concern is that people are not being realistic about what the alternatives are here.

The city still hasn’t completed its RHNA for the last cycle.  Part of the problem is there are insufficient sites.  And the city has now come out with a list of infill sites to rezone—including a number that were previously zoned commercial.

They need to get more than 500 affordable units on those infill sites which seems a very tall task at this point.

That’s for this cycle.

It seems like that at least the next RHNA cycle will be as aggressive—if not more so—than this one.  That means we are looking at probably 2100 more units of overall housing including 900 units of affordable housing.

The arguments made on Tuesday mirrored arguments made back in 2005 with the Covell Village project— too dense, too large and, oh yes, there will be traffic impacts and we don’t want that.

That led me to the obvious question: how is the city going to be able to meet its housing needs without impacting existing residents with traffic congestion?

There just isn’t a possibility.

The point I have been making for a long time is that if the city continues to show an inability to meet its housing obligations, the state is ready to come in and do something about it—probably taking out Measure J.

For a long time people have lived in a world of denial on this, I think.  Some people continue to believe this is like before.  The state will talk tough and then fade away.

But I think many people, including me, may have underestimated the determination of the state to fix the housing crisis.  We can quibble as to whether the new measures will be impactful—the most impactful thing might be strict enforcement of RHNA.

Let’s look at what happened in San Francisco.

I’ll admit I was more than a bit skeptical that San Francisco could meet its 82,000-unit obligation.  But what happened this week should send a clear message that the state is not merely content to talk tough; they are going to back up their actions and the report—and we have our story this week here  —makes that clear.

The state has already sent that message—they have filed litigation in places like Elk Grove, San Bernardino, Huntington Beach, Coronado.

The gauntlet, however, is San Francisco.

“It is egregious, the enormous amount of constraints and barriers they impose on new housing development,” said Gustavo Velasquez, director of the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development. “The cost of housing is exorbitant because there isn’t enough of it.”

That’s a pretty strong statement that Velasquez made to the NY Times yesterday.

San Francisco is probably the worst.  But Davis is vulnerable on Measure J.  This is a point I continue to make and some people continue to shrug off.

Do the math.  We have.  There are five Measure J projects and if they all get passed, the city would just have enough affordable housing for one cycle.  If the city finds a way to double that affordable housing, they can get through two cycles with those five projects.

If you want to oppose Village Farms because of traffic, where else are you going to put housing where there will be no traffic impacts?  If you want a smaller project, how do you make the math work?

People are going to argue that Village Farms is too dense and that it will cause traffic impacts.  The alternative can’t be no additional housing.  The mandates are clear and the space for infill is pretty limited at this point.

The city really needs to hold a Housing Element/RHNA/Housing Crisis workshop to lay out the math for 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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  1. Ron Glick

    I found two comments by the public particularly illuminating. The first was from a woman who said she lived at the Cannery who was against the project and, without any sign of self reflection, spoke about the traffic impacts a new housing development would bring.

    The second an insightful comment from someone who said if there is a Measure J vote the project should have half as many houses in order to pass but if it was to be decided by the City Council it should be much more dense for environmental reasons. Therein lies the problem with those who are demanding more destiny. The CC doesn’t get the final say on what is the best path forward the voters do and the chance of passage at the ballot box is inversely related to the  density of the project.

    1. David Greenwald

      Your second point is spot on and part of the problem I keep trying to raise to those arguing we need density. And I get why we want density. But right now anything put up has to be able to pass a Measure J – and that’s by no means assured.

      Another point, I was talking to someone on council yesterday about this, while density may work in places like SF and NY because you have no choice if you want to live there, if you build all this dense housing in Davis, people will live in Woodland and drive.

  2. Tim Keller

    Therein lies the problem with those who are demanding more destiny. The CC doesn’t get the final say on what is the best path forward the voters do and the chance of passage at the ballot box is inversely related to the  density of the project.

    That is why measure J is the problem.  The incentives are perverse, and the kind of planning that would make the density we want actually work ( coordinated transit planning) is not possible under measure J

    Another point, I was talking to someone on council yesterday about this, while density may work in places like SF and NY because you have no choice if you want to live there, if you build all this dense housing in Davis, people will live in Woodland and drive.


    That is a rather egregious logic error, especially in light of what we actually know about the market.

    We have 20k + people commuting into town every day right now and the same amount commuting out.  The difference between the two populations from the data we have, is that the inbound commuters work here but cant afford / cant find an opportunity to live here, and the outbound commuters are well-off enough to live anywhere… but choose to live here because they like it here / the schools.

    That is what is happening in todays market, and we have no reason to believe that anything different will happen if we build more single-family housing:  We can EXPECT that the single family homes we build in this town will preferentially be bought by more affluent outbound commuters.  So that means MORE traffic, not less, more GHG emissions, not less…

    So worrying about whether someone who is currently commuting in will prefer a single family home or a townhome / condo ENTIRELY misses the point!   If we build single family homes they will STILL be displaced and for the SAME reasons, and they will be still driving in…   We will only have made room for a newly minted davisite to drive OUT.

    But more to the point:  This comment implies that if we build more dense housing that it wont be occupied by local workers…, and there is ZERO evidence that this is true, ZERO.

    The kind of density that people like me are advocating for is on the order of 20 units per acre…   We have a LOT of housing types in this market that are twice that density and they are ALL FULL.   The condos and apartments at the south end of the cannery are in the range of what we are talking about.  Did they take long to sell?  No.

    Even IF there are some inbound commuters who wont move here unless they can score  a single family home, then that still isn’t OUR problem.   Single family homes have twice the carbon footprint, they require cars to be accessed, and they lose money for the city.  They should be our LOWEST priority in terms of providing housing.

    We should be focusing on building sustainable / transit connected housing for our local workforce  that is currently displaced.  That population is 20,000 people.   Village farms is only 1,400 units.

    We dont need to worry if there are some people currently commuting who feel they need a single family home or nothing.   We don’t need to, and aren’t capable of repatriating ALL 20k of this inbound population.  So lets focus on the people who ARE willing to live in more dense housing.   The entire point of the LEED-ND / “Rubric” thing is to “provide housing near jobs”, where people can walk / bike / take transit instead of getting into cars for everything.    Maybe some of those currently displaced from town wont take us up on the chance to live a more sustainable lifestyle… but among that 20k, there are going to be PLENTY of people that will.   Lets build for THEM.



    1. David Greenwald

      Tim –

      Agree with your first point. I don’t believe that ballot planning is conducive to good planning.

      On the second pint, I think it’s complicated. But if people an buy a single family with a yard for the same or less up the road, what’s the incentive to purchase in Davis?

      1. Tim Keller

        Easy to answer, because it’s all the same reasons I choose to rent here instead of own elsewhere…

        living in the community where you work and where your kids go to school is an incredible quality of life upgrade.

        After-school activities are possible to an extent they aren’t otherwise, if the parents (drivers) are commuting.  You develop friends at school and work who can actually be part of your daily life.    There are tons of other small conveniences as well… like what to do when your kid calls in the middle of the day needing something from home (my elder son is diabetic, so this is not uncommon)

        When you live and work in davis a family like mine only really needs one car.   I skate to my work nearby and the wife and I share a car.   That saves me -10k per year.  Probably more now that gas prices are so high.

        Plus, people like being part of a community… when you work one place and live another, it’s hard to feel like you are a part of either.

        the point is… LOTS of old would choose to live HERE in denser housing vs further away in single family homes, AND the denser forms are better for everyone involved to boot…   So let’s start building more densely, and see what happens.   If vacancy is a problem we can change gears, but I guarantee you, given the hole we are digging out of… we are a LONG way from over-supply in the missing middle category.


        1. Tim Keller

          I would also point out that there is still a significant bias in the question being asked:  It is a question that frames the issue itself incorrectly.

          We don’t only have to worry bout the people who might choose to buy here vs buy in Dixon… we have LOTS of local service workers / young professionals who cant afford California-priced houses in EITHER location.

          The people who cut your hair, and brew your coffee and cook your dinners when you eat out they dont live here.    We need housing for them too….  we can’t start our consideration of the housing right at the entry-level homebuyer.    Hell, we still have LOTS of students living in single family rental units!

          If we are going to take the climate crisis seriously, we need to worry most about middle-income LOCAL workers.   Why would we make ANY housing that could be used for out-bound commuters when we have SO much catch-up to do in terms of housing for workers in our own local economy?

          The missing middle is missing in davis.   Lets prioritize THAT way way before we even think about more single family homes.

      2. Richard McCann

        Tim’s observations are spot on. The problem is that many inbound commuters would like to buy a $500K house in Davis with its amenities over a $500K house in Dixon with a yard. To get a house in the price range requires doubling the density in a Davis development.

        A second point is that we are NOT looking at NY or SF densities, by a long shot. As I’ve shown in earlier posts, these densities are akin to what already exists in Oakland and Berkeley, with mixes of SF and MF housing along with small businesses. Attractive, walkable neighborhoods with many yards and gardens. Based on housing price premiums and populations, many people want to live there. We need to stop slipping to the extremes when making analogies.

  3. Don Shor

    Presently before the city there are three downtown projects with 464 units, all multi-family.

    Village Farms density has been increased and now includes:
    650 multi-family,
    470 single-family starter homes, townhomes/cottages, and condos/stacked flats,
    680 market-rate single family homes or duplexes.

    So just those four projects will provide:
    Downtown, high-density living for those who like that (a rather narrow demographic)
    Intermediate density affordable housing for those who want more privacy and a little yard space;
    Single-family homes with yards (what most people want).

    Something for everyone.

    The downtown projects just need council approval, which should be expedited.
    Put Village Farms on the ballot and see what the voters decide.

  4. David Greenwald

    “The downtown projects just need council approval, which should be expedited.”

    The downtown projects are just ministerial applications, they don’t require legislative actions.

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