Sunday Commentary: Will the Rubric Be Helpful or Harmful to City’s Ability to Produce Housing?

Covell site in 2005

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – Last week I offered a more nuanced view of the potential of the rubric.  But make no mistake—there are real concerns expressed by the commissions that should not be ignored or taken lightly.

As the staff report noted, the Planning Commission which finally met last week offered some general thoughts, “including a comment that a more general guidelines document might be productive to consider, but ultimately voted unanimously to recommend that the rubric as presented not be utilized.”

The Planning Commission’s overarching sentiment “was that the rubric was too complicated for practical use and they expressed concern that it would deter development.”

A member of the NRC expressed these concerns: “LEED ND [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Neighborhood Development] is a good place to start, however, it was written in 2018 for a national audience. As such, it reflects neither Davis nor State of California values and requirements.”

In addition, they added “there are many critiques of LEED within the environmental and sustainability field—that it can create ‘green sprawl’, concerns about gentrification, and concerns that there is a disconnect in LEED measures for creating good walkable neighborhoods, etc. These concerns should be addressed before using this as the basis for a Davis standard to evaluate proposed development projects.”

The Utilities Commission expressed concern “that the City will go through a lot of considerations; however, did not include the vulnerabilities of the project from the point of view of people that would like to not see projects done. These vulnerabilities need to be addressed adequately in plans. There is at least one project that likely would not have faced as much rejection if they had provided more plans on a specific area.”

As I expressed on Monday, the critical question is whether the rubric becomes a tool to streamline the approval and building process or a tool to make the bar impossibly high.

The fact that the PLANNING COMMISSION deemed the rubric to be too complex, ought to give the council a good deal of pause before moving forward.

As I noted last week, while this tool seems clunky and fairly involved, if it becomes a quick check-off list that, if met, could pave the way for a quick and streamlined approval process, I would be for it.

A key question is can it be simplified and can it be objective enough to be helpful.  For example, when Village Farms scored theirs, it was a fairly high grade.  When Shriners scored theirs, it was somewhat lower.  But Shriners felt like they were being fairly conservative in their assessment while Village might have been more aggressive.

What would be useful would be a fairly simple, clear cut scoring system that could inform a process.  Score below a certain level and come back with a revised proposal.  Score at a certain level and the council would be authorized to approve the project.  Score above a given threshold and have it certified by, say, the Planning Commission and Council, and it could be exempt from a Measure J vote.

Short of that, the rubric is clunky, it’s complex, and it becomes a barrier to housing.

In essence, as I argued last week, without an actual commitment by the council to use the rubric as a potential tweak to Measure J, I worry that this is just creating another barrier to entry.  One that adds costs and time without getting us what we really need—good housing.

And not just good housing, but good housing that could get approved.

I went back and forth last weekend with folks on this next point, but I consider it so crucial to solving the housing crisis.  Measure J has effectively shut the door on housing for Davis.

As I reported two weeks ago, in 1999 SACOG was projecting that community growth would stop by 2010.  But that was BEFORE Measure J and, after Measure J, growth stopped 13 percent lower than it was projected to be by SACOG.

Davis has added just 700 single-family homes to be built in the last two decades.  Unless we find a way to use the rubric to modify that process, it seems likely that the rubric actually becomes a tool to make housing more and not less difficult.

This is not about scapegoating Measure J, as one person argued.  It is not even about undermining it or even weakening it.

Measure J does not work in a community that needs to be able to grow at a more consistent level.  Two projects in 25 years nearly.  Neither one with single-family housing.  (And neither one actually built).

You can argue that there are exemptions for affordable housing—but those exemptions are SO limited that they have never even been proposed let alone utilized.

In my opinion, Measure J is broken.

Some have argued that the only solution is to end it.  I disagree.  I think what we saw prior to 2000 demonstrates that allowing too much growth in this community inherently produces a backlash.

I would argue for a middle course.

But I will point out once again, time is ticking on a community-based solution.  This week Palomino Place filed suit against the city to attempt to compel them to process that application.  We have seen HCD, California YIMBY, and potentially others file lawsuits against other communities that have failed to adhere to state law on housing.

Davis might not be able to meet its current RHNA requirements and it almost certainly won’t be able to meet its future ones under the current system.

So, while I think the Planning Commission is absolutely correct about the complexity of the rubric, I still think if it can become a means to streamline housing it might be useful.  If it becomes another costly and time-delaying hoop to jump through, it is not helpful.

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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11 Comments

  1. Tim Keller

    I agree with the notion that J/R/D is broken and should be fixed.   We want incentives for GOOD well-designed growth, not un-restrained growth, and that is why eliminating J/R/D is not the way to go either.

    LEED-ND is a tool for evaluation of plans, it is not a planning tool, and the danger of it is something David inadvertantly demonstrates in this article:

    A key question is can it be simplified and can it be objective enough to be helpful.  For example, when Village Farms scored theirs, it was a fairly high grade.  When Shriners scored theirs, it was somewhat lower.  But Shriners felt like they were being fairly conservative in their assessment while Village might have been more aggressive.

    The problem with LEED-ND is right there: The conclusion that village farms got a “fairly high grade”, which is a mirage.

    This is a cut and paste from the LEED-ND entry in wikipedia:

    ——-
    Significance of LEED-ND certification[edit]
    LEED for Neighborhood Development recognizes development projects that successfully protect and enhance the overall health, natural environment, and quality of life. The rating system encourages smart growth and New Urbanism best practices by:

    Promoting the location and design of neighborhoods that reduce vehicle miles travelled (VMT)
    Creating developments where jobs and services are accessible by foot or public transit
    Promoting an array of green building and green infrastructure practices, particularly for more efficient energy and water use
    Protecting and conserving habitat, wetlands, water bodies, and prime agricultural lands through the maintenance of natural areas and “smart location” choices[2]

     
    Cities are increasingly using LEED-ND certification to accelerate the development of certified projects.
    ——-

    Note:   Reduction in vehicle transit, “jobs and services accessable by foot or public transit”. “conserving habitat and water use”….   Are ANY of those feature benefits available in either of the projects rated thus far?  No.  Not even close.

    So, how does a low-density single family housing development “get a fairly high grade” in a system that prioritizes basically the antithesis of that building style?

    Please note that LEED-ND calls for implementing the best practices of “new urbanism”… which has in no uncertain terms declared that single family housing is fundamentally un-sustainable.

    THIS is the danger of trying to use a tool like this out of context.   If you compare two un-sustainable projects to each-other, yes, it will tell you that one is better than the other… but it WONT tell you that BOTH are not-sustainable compared to a third, more sustainable plan that you haven’t even considered

  2. Tim Keller

    ( seperate comment for purposes of making a separate point)

    If the city wants a simple method for streamlining the approving “good” and “sustainable” developments, then the modification of J along the lines of what has been proposed by Robb Davis and myself fits the bill.

    The LEED-ND rubric tries to promote cities where people dont have to use their cars for every single trip out of their home.   That means, by definition the incorporation of three design factors in the new development:

    Density of at least 15 du / acre – which is the threshold where transit really starts to work well.
    Mixed use zoning, so that every neighbhohood has some retail stores which can be walked to
    Integrated planning with transit.

    These things ALL need to be provided at the same time.   You cant for example have medium-density mixed use neighborhoods and forget to add the transit.  You end up with a nightmare of not enough parking for all the cars.

    Of course, planning for a transit system under measure J where the projects are all planned and executed by private parties with NO coordinating function between them is impossible.

    But that, I think, it where the Measure J modification as proposed by Robb and fleshed out by me has significant promise:

    We create an urban limit line to restrict growth to where it makes sense for us to grow.
    We create a high-level map that ensures that individual projects will line-up amongst themselves and dictate the transit corridors that are so imperative to creating sustainable neighborhoods.
    We state the net level of density of housing that needs to exist along this transit corridor in order to effectively make that transit effective.
    We set an ambitious ( but attainable ) target for land-dedication for capital-A affordable housing.
    We set other standards for energy and water use efficiency in the developments.

    THAT is a “Rubric” that we can use AND actually gets us the sustainable kind of development we want.

    If we want to simultaneously take our climate crisis and our housing crisis seriously, THAT is the way to do it.

     

    1. Eileen Samitz

      Tim,

      Your proposals for replacing measure J/R/D, unfortunately, are not in the best interest of the Davis community. Davis voters want to know what the project proposals are, to determine if they should be approved or not. Your suggestions would remove that voters approval process for defined projects entirely, which means you are recommending eliminating Measure J/R/D and that voting right of Davis citizens.

      You are trying to suggest pre-approval of land to be annexed into the City, which David has also tried to promote on this blog. But the community has a right to have each project defined first, to determine if they will vote for it or not.

      So, this shell game of some trying to dismantle Measure J/R/D really becomes tiresome.  The most important function of Measure J/R/D is that it does require the developers to define their projects. But your suggestion to replace Measure J/R/D  with a pre-approval process for annexing land, which does not define any project, would clearly remove Davis’ voters rights that they currently have with Measure J/R/D. Your proposal is not really being clear that voters would be giving up their right to vote on knowing what each project is first, and then having the right to vote on each project.

      Furthermore,  Measure J/R/D binds the developers delivering the project that they are proposing on the ballot, and not giving developers the ability to change the project after the vote.  Before Measure J/R/D this “bait and switch” game was happening all the time with projects which only had development agreements which could be changed over and over again. In contrast,  Measure J/R/D does define the project on the ballot with “baseline project features” which must be delivered if the project is approved. Measure J/R/D also gives the community the leverage to get better projects.

      So, trying to have a pre-approval process for land to be annexed into the City, which would, in turn, then allow un-defined projects to be automatically approved, is not in the best interest of our community. Each project needs to be defined, before being voted on by our community, which is what Measure J/R/D does.

  3. Eileen Samitz

    David,

    It is not Measure J/R/D which is broken and needs fixing, but that’s the Davis Vanguard’s problem. It is clear from your constant attacks on Measure J/R/D, which is the” Citizens Right to Vote on Future Uses of Open Space and Agricultural Lands”, that you are trying to dismantle it. This is despite your claims that you support it. This citizen-based ordinance has exemptions built into it for affordable housing, yet you continue to attack it and claim it needs to be “fixed”. Measure J was carefully drafted by Davis citizens and several attorney’s, including the City attorney. This information has been posted repeatedly, and not just by me, yet you continue the attacks on Measure J/R/D.  Further, there are plenty of reasons why the production of housing slowed down over the past two decades including the Great Recession and a pandemic which we are still recovering from. These same impacts slowed down housing growth nationwide, not just Davis.Yet, you continue to try to scapegoat Measure J/R/D.

    UCD’s impacts of pushing at much at 71% of its students off campus has had the biggest impact on Davis housing, yet you constantly ignore that issue and the fact that UCD can build much higher-density housing on campus like the other UCs. Solano Park is the perfect opportunity for UCD to build higher-density student housing, so why not raise this issue? Instead, you constantly run interference for UCD which essentially means you support UCD’s squandering of opportunities to build significantly more on-campus student housing. UCD screwed up by building low-density housing on Orchard Park. UCD will likely screw up as well with Solano Park which is now being planned for redevelopment, unless UCD gets some pressure on this. I wrote an entire article explaining this problem:

    https://www.davisvanguard.org/2023/08/guest-commentary-solano-park-ucds-opportunity-to-start-building-higher-density-student-housing/
    There is a good reason why Measure J passed and has been renewed twice over the past 23 years, which is because citizens want to have a say in what projects are being approved, rather then rely on just 3 votes of the City Council. Before Measure J/R/D Davis voters had no say, and when they did give input, it was ignored. So, that situation was simply not working for the community because the growth was completely out of control before Measure J/R/D. The projects pushed through by the City were not well planned, nor phased properly for the massive impacts,  particularly on our City’s infrastructure.

    So, nice try, but your constant lobbying via the Vanguard with your efforts to disable Measure J/R/D are completely transparent, and are really getting old. People want to, and should have a say in the planning of their community, which is what Measure J/R/D gives them.

  4. Tim Keller

    People want to, and should have a say in the planning of their community, which is what Measure J/R/D gives them.

    If that was what measure J actually did, then I would be more supportive.

    There is a big disconnect between what measure J was supposed to do, and what it has actually done.

    It is worded as “citizens rights” but it is in effect anti-growth.   Anyone can see that, including the state…

    For anyone who likes having control over growth then modifying J it is the ONLY way to save it.   If we refuse to, we are only waiting for the time when the state, or a private lawsuit invalidates it… and THEN what will we have to protect us from the “completely out of control” growth that we saw before measure J.    We know those forces are already in motion.  David isnt making any of that stuff up.

    Is there a better alternative being offered?    I dont see it.

     

  5. Eileen Samitz

    Tim,

    Let’s be honest. You simply do not support Measure J/R/D, and you want to replace it with what amounts to a “blank check” for approval of undefined projects on land pre-approved for annexation. The voters would not know that those future projects would be, or what these projects would specifically look like, but there would just some concepts of what would be “desirable”. And worst of all, the community would get no final input. So, what you are proposing is a seriously flawed “process”.

    So let’s just agree to disagree, and please stop trying to re-define what Measure J/R/D is, and what it does. You either don’t understand it, or choose to not understand it. But please stop trying to misinform others about what Measure J/R/D is, and what it does. You try to scapegoat Measure J/R/D repeatedly as well. Measure J/R/D has nothing to do with the inadequate public transit that the City has. You need to complain to the City about that, and to UCD.

    UCD which has historically offered no funding to support Unitrans, and instead put that financial burden on its students. So, please stop trying to blame Measure J/R/D for problems that the City and especially what UCD is responsible for. Like UCD’s continued negligence to build higher-density on-campus student housing which is in turn, is seriously impacting our city housing.

    While “Identity” student housing on Russell Blvd. in the City, built by a private developer, is 7-stories on Russell Blvd., across the street is UCD’s new Orchard Park on-campus student housing, which is embarrassing at only 4-stories.  UCD is now planning to redevelop Solano Park on-campus. Is UCD going to squander that opportunity as well with low-density student housing?

    UCD is the largest UC with over 5,300 acres and a 900-are core campus, yet it is the only UC not committed to building at least 50% on-campus student housing. That is simple inexcusable. UCD teaches “sustainable planning”,  but does not practice it.

  6. Tim Keller

    You simply do not support Measure J/R/D, and you want to replace it with what amounts to a “blank check” for approval of undefined projects on land pre-approved for annexation

    Incorrect.  That is not at all what I’m proposing, (But I’m pretty sure you know that.)

    please stop trying to re-define what Measure J/R/D is, and what it does. You either don’t understand it, or choose to not understand it.

    What is there to not understand?  Am I missing some nuance?   We can disagree on whether the lack of growth created by measure J/R/D is a good thing or not, but the fact is:” Its going to END.  A court or the state WILL strike it down.   This is already happening in other cities and Davis has had what.. FOUR rejected housing elements now???

    So the only thing left to decide is “what are we going to do”.

    Do you have ideas Eileen?  Are you okay with the opening of the floodgates that will happen when Measure J is stuck down by the state?

     

      1. Tim Keller

        If one likes measure J because it blocks ALL development, then certainly changing it so that it allows SOME development IS disabling that core function…

        I haven’t ever heard anyone admit that they just don’t want any growth at all… (Outside of Ron O, who also advocated for population control ) Normally extremists on this issue hide behind the “developers just need to give us better projects”.   But I think that an un-willingness to ammend J to make it more permissive of projects that are sustainable is a solid indicator that “no growth” is actually their position.

         

         

        1. Tim Keller

          Where is that edit function…. (?).   It seems that even formatting isnt supported…

          Anyway I forgot to add:  The short-sigtedness of the “dont touch measure J” position is that we really are in a “fix it or kiss it goodbye” kind of situation here.

          People who want SOME check on growth should, logically, be willing to consider engaging in the discussion for how we change it, make some other suggestions, maybe try to raise the bar in some other ways….    the position of “dont change J/R/D AT ALL..” is self-defeating.

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