Guest Commentary: Lessons from Testing the Measure J Amendment at the Village Farms Site.

By Tim Keller

Last month I responded to the City’s call for comments regarding the EIR process for the Village Farms proposal.

I felt that if we were going to do an EIR on the property the way the developer is proposing, we should at the same time, evaluate the impact of the sustainability standards called for in the current Measure J amendment.

It turned out to be a very useful prototyping exercise!  And in particular I learned two things:

1) A universal average housing density metric applied across all peripheral projects is probably too blunt of a concept.

2) We may want a Measure J/R/D exemption to only apply to the portions of the properties that can be transit-served.

Adopting these two lessons points to a slightly revised way to approach the Measure J exemption:  Instead of having a generic density minimum that applies to everything within the proposed urban limit line, we can instead simply create a map indicating where density makes sense.

The Best-Fit Alternative Vision: A Transit Oriented Development

For those that might be reading about this for the first time: The intent of the proposed Measure J/R/D amendment is to allow the creation of sustainable housing (instead of more car-served suburbia), and allowing the city a way to pursue some growth to meet state housing goals while we take the time to do a more formal general plan update.

Specifically, the proposed amendment carves out an exception to Measure J/R/D which allows the development of a pre-defined ring of medium-density neighborhoods around the periphery which can all be served by a common transit line.

This kind of “transit-oriented development” is, quite simply, how our society needs to start thinking of development in general. We have been building our communities around the automobile since the 1930’s and we are now well aware that it has been a mistake.

The transit-oriented development is a return to an earlier form of development that existed before the advent of the car, sometimes called a “streetcar suburb”: A community deliberately planned along a transit line with the intent of providing housing for the people who worked at the end of that transit line.

In this case, the people we are providing housing for are students, university staff, and service workers in our downtown.  According to Census data, we have 20,000 people in these categories who are currently commuting into town every day—not a small population.

For reference, here is the most recent image of that entire proposed line:

To note, the line creates a string of moderately dense housing, some of which is the already-dense corridor of F street, and then winds its way around the Mace Curve.  In this way a significant amount of this line can connect these neighborhoods to our major employment centers:  Downtown and the University at one end, and to the DiSC site at the other.

But it needs to be said, pulling off Transit-Oriented Development requires coordination and deliberate action.

The four elements that make a TOD work are:

  • The connection of the housing to employment centers via transit
  • Sufficient density of housing around that transit line.
  • Deliberate restriction of car infrastructure (i.e., parking spaces )
  • Transit service of sufficient frequency, efficiency and reliability to attract riders.

These four things together are what make a TOD work, and are what would allow us to create housing in such a way so that our target population (i.e., the local workforce) isn’t immediately out-competed by more affluent residents who commute out of town.

But it is the understanding that these four things need to work together that led me to the current insights regarding our Measure J/R/D exception.

Consider the following map that I included in my commentary to the city:

Here we have the transit line in blue and the dotted radius around it shows the ¼ mile walking radius for accessing it.    The challenge with this site overall is that I can only draw a reasonable transit line into the lower ⅓ of it, and the property is so large that the upper ⅔ of it are effectively outside of walking distance of the fixed transit line.

The Measure J/R/D exception math we had previously done called for an average 20 units per acre (gross) in new developments, mostly because the break-even density for transit occurs at 14 du/acre (gross) and when we draw the ¼ mile radiuses, we generally overlap a lot of single family neighborhoods which are much lower density… so we padded that number up to 20 to compensate.

Lesson 1:

But does it make sense to apply a transit-driven average density metric to the ENTIRE property when only ⅓ of its area is within reasonable range of the transit?   Unfortunately, I think the answer is no.  Doing so would violate the rules of transit-oriented-design discussed above,

And we shouldn’t just adjust the average density metric downward either, to compensate, because when you look at the Shriner’s property and the Mariani property next to it, those properties have more than half of their buildable area falling within range of the proposed transit line.

So the first lesson is that a generic density standard for the Measure J/R/D exemption across ALL properties within the proposed urban limit line is probably too blunt of an approach.

Lesson 2:

The second realization from this exercise came as a consequence of the first. If you look at the housing units provided by the orange and red zones of my alternative density map above, you see that the total housing units provided in those two zones is slightly more units than the entirety of the baseline village farms proposal.  Same amount of housing units in ⅓ the land area

Let’s keep in mind that the goal here is to “provide housing,” not to “develop land.” So, while we are creating an urban limit line, there is no requirement that we build out to the edge of that line.

If we can get the housing we need by just building the housing which is within easy access of the proposed transit line, then we should do that. It doesn’t matter if additional land remains within the line.

So the second lesson is this:  Let’s leave the consideration of any housing that is not in range of the transit line OUT of the Measure J/R/D exemption.   The city will eventually update its general plan, and if it makes sense to zone some of that remaining space otherwise, then we can choose to do so via that process.

What this means for the proposed Measure J Amendment:

Incorporating these two lessons into the proposed measure J amendment actually allows for a simpler amendment.

The existing proposal as I described it in the Vanguard on November 8th was this:

Updating this proposal per the lessons described here actually allows for a simplification of the amendment. We would simply drop the generic density requirement from the 4th bullet point and include density minimums in the master-planned maps.

This does require a little more work being put into that master-planned map, but not much.  Certainly we have the intellectual horsepower in the community here to create such a high-level plan, and my suggestion is that putting some real work into the creation of that map, by interested members of the community, should be our next immediate step.

Still to be determined:

All of that said, there is one remaining issue which deserves attention and deliberation:  The fact that developers may likely want to develop some amount of single-family housing in order to under-write the land dedication for capital-A affordable housing.

Now, I am not too worried about the missing-middle housing in this plan “penciling out” for development because this kind of housing is already being built in this city in the few places where infill opportunities exist, so doing it on the edge of the city is bound to work as well.

But what I am not confident in is how much land dedication we can ask for and still have these projects pencil out well enough for the developers. Keep in mind that it is still going to be up to them whether they want to take us up on the offer to build these neighborhoods this way, or if they want to roll the dice and risk a measure J election. How we walk that line is something that I think warrants additional discussion.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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11 Comments

  1. David Thompson

    Dear Tim,

    once again you have elevated the discussion of planning with climate change in mind. We are fortunate to have your voice in the discussion. Your suggestions are spot on. I have often said that we should let Unitrans manage our planning. For myself,  their interests are the most important of any local entity.

    I very much like your suggestion of exempting certain land in relationship to its proximity to transit routes with an X units per acre requirement.

    You are correct in observing that it has to be done in a way that is attractive to the developer community. Finding that sweet spot becomes critical.

    My own observation is that the units per acre of multi-family housing (market rate and affordable) could be much higher. Now that we have bought that gi-normously expensive long ladder fire truck let’s find uses for it.

    I think the city now allows for over 40 units per acre. Many projects I have seen in my professional work are doing attractive MF housing from 60-100 units per acre. See the following reprot,

    https://www.losgatosca.gov/DocumentCenter/View/2716/Myths–Facts-about-Afford–Hi-Density-Housing

    MF density is perhaps my second goal after the % of affordable housing.

    Tim you have given us a different way of looking at plannng and I thank you for yor innovative  thinking,

    David J Thompson

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

    PS Were we to plan with transit in mind we would follow your outline.

    1. Tim Keller

      David,

      I LOVE the “Myth #4” from that link you posted:

      Myth:  People who live in higher density and affordable housing wont fit into my neighborhood.
      Fact:  The people who need affordable housing already live and work in your community.

      I think that concentrating specifically on local workforce housing really is the key, because those people are already coming here every single day.  It is the one kind of housing we can produce that REDUCES traffic instead of increasing it.

      I still need your help in figuring out how to walk that line with affordability…  I’m hoping that if we start really trying to draw some lines and do this kind of master-planning the developers will participate.. but thus far, they havent exactly been super eager to engage on this concept.

      1. Keith Y Echols

        Myth:  People who live in higher density and affordable housing wont fit into my neighborhood.
        Fact:  The people who need affordable housing already live and work in your community.

        I’d say the first one might be partially true.  It sort of depends on the amount of affordable housing is mixed in and how it’s mixed into the community.  The studies I’ve read say that affordable housing under 50 units per clustered area have zero impact on local crime.  However the studies that say that local housing helps areas economically focus on affordable housing added to already high crime areas.  It becomes a force of stability in the neighborhood.  But I’m still looking for research on affordable housing added to areas that are not already poor and have other various problems.  The second comment is true but uses the word “community” which is a larger term than neighborhood.  Of course almost all communities have lower socio-economic groups.  But the housing and the distribution in the community is what is in question…not their obvious existence in a community.

        But I’ve been advocating for a mix of special workforce housing blended with low income affordable housing.  So if the city has a specific project that reserves units for entry level police officers, fire fighters, other city officials and maybe has some joint venture with the school district, workforce units could be reserved for teachers.  So then you have a project that consists of police, firefighters and teachers in workforce housing to go along with affordable housing units.  I think the presence of these people that are generally perceived to be positive influences on the community would serve to mitigate the unease people have with having low income affordable housing in their neighborhoods.  

        1. Tim Keller

          To be clear… I agree that we are looking for a mix of housing styles and affordability levels, all within the “missing middle” context here.

          We need some subsidized capital-A affordable housing, but we also need market rate condos and apartments for people with families, and local workers, and yes, even some units that might be considered “luxury condos and lofts”.  The whole range of local economic realities.

          The idea of carve-outs for targeted city employment catagories is an interesting one.

          The key I think with whatever the mix ends up being is that the housing we produce is  transit-served, which by definition makes it more useful just by form-factor to local workforce, and less useful for out-of-town commuters.

        2. Keith Y Echols

          We need some subsidized capital-A affordable housing, but we also need market rate condos and apartments for people with families, and local workers, and yes, even some units that might be considered “luxury condos and lofts”.

          This is where my ideas about a return to public housing come in.  The old public housing was just a huge concentrated number of low income affordable housing units.  They were also severely underfunded.   These dense areas of low income housing would often become known as the “the projects”.   But new public housing doesn’t have to all low income housing.  The key to funding workforce and low income affordable public housing is PUBLIC MARKET RATE HOUSING.  So if you have a 200 unit project that has 99 market rate units, 50 workforce units and 51 low income affordable units all mixed together then you’re spreading out the concentration of low income housing.  The face of the project becomes the 15% (of the market rate condos) luxury units, the teachers and police officers in the workforce units along with all of the nice families and such in the low income affordable units.  Basically if real estate development and holding companies can make money off of real estate, why can’t local municipalities start their own development companies and reap the benefits as well?  

          The other thing about a municipal developer/builder; the people get more direct say in the project itself.  I mean sure there’s still a bottom line to look after but you’re not going to be subject to the market conditions and current financial/economic situation impacting your project as a for profit developer.

  2. Jim Frame

    Although I’m generally *very* skeptical about altering Measure J — I simply have little trust in the City Council in that regard — I could support a revision that meets the density and transit-planning metrics that Tim has set forth.

    Does the CC have the vision and guts to propose such a thing?  That remains to be seen.

    1. Tim Keller

      Does the CC have the vision and guts to propose such a thing?  That remains to be seen.

      I think that the council is quite capable of doing the right thing if ( and perhaps only if ) they do it in response to demand from the community.

      The council “going out on a limb” to modify measure J when nobody is asking for it is quite unlikely…

      …but I have been talking about this for ~8 months now, and we have yet to see anyone propose a better idea… so if that continues to hold true then really I think that the way to make this happen is for the community to start taking the idea seriously and pushing the council to take action.

      That said, even though I have put a lot of time into this idea, I would still say that this idea isnt fully baked.. We have a lot of engagement to do, community discussion, deliberately looking for things we have missed or might not have thought of…  There is a big tent to be built and camped out in…. but I think with the rise of some pro-housing community groups, it is more than possible.

      I think if the community pushes for it, the council will respond.

  3. Matt Williams

    You can add my voice in thanks to Tim for this thoughtful article and proposal.  It is an approach that merits further … and broader throughout the community … discussion.

  4. Todd Edelman

    Tim wrote: “The transit-oriented development is a return to an earlier form of development that existed before the advent of the car, sometimes called a “streetcar suburb”: A community deliberately planned along a transit line with the intent of providing housing for the people who worked at the end of that transit line.”

    and also:

    “…restriction of car infrastructure (i.e., parking spaces )…”

    A Streetcar Suburb is not the same thing as a place with a “restriction”: The former had nil to very low personal car ownership; from what I know what’s planned at “Village Farms” is one to two vehicles per household – add to this the deliveries by motor vehicle for people who own them or not, visitors from the car-dependent region, the general demands of the car-dependent region, the opposition to any kind of transit signal priority between northeast Davis and Downtown/Campus (let alone enough space for a dedicated lane for buses), no clear concept for infrastructure to facilitate fast and safe trips by bicycle to D/C, the relative ease of travelling by car to Woodland for mega-shopping, lack of clarity of even vision for robust transit between Davis and Woodland, likelihood of continued “free” or nearly free short term storage for personal vehicles in Downtown and DHS…

    Obviously some people who live at Village Farms will take whatever form of transit is available, BUT the project is still going to create a lot of new local motor vehicle journeys within Davis – not the same effect as longer motor vehicle trips that more directly connect e.g. I-80 to parking Downtown or on Campus – and will support a lot of motor vehicle travel within the region. Is local VMT studied separately from regional VMT?

    I lived in Prague in a neighborhood of 4 to 6-story buildings developed around 1880-1920… with lots within a 5 min walk. These days, everything else within 10 to 15 minutes by streetcars on my street… every five minutes around 18 hours a day…. and late-night streetcars and a metro station a few minutes away…. still, LOTS of people drove because lots of parking was shoehorned into existing buildings and there was way too much parking at destinations was fare-free.

    Hoping, wishing, false choices , nice looking graphics that leave out the 30 second walking to home zones of private parking and soft-incentives don’t solve serious problems in Davis.

    1. Tim Keller

      Todd, appreciate your response.

      You raise some valid points where details need to be filled in and I think we CAN do those things… like designing a really good bike connection to downtown and discussing signal priority etc.

      I think it would be a mistake to assume that we cant work our way to a more robust and comprehensive plan including some of the details you point out, which is why I mentioned that getting this idea in front of a lot of people and doing some community brainstorming really should be the next step.

      I also wanted to respond to your point /question about cars:   I think we need to be looking for “best posible” alternatives.   Making housing for local workers here in town where they CAN take transit to work or walk to a nearby store instead of getting in their cars, is vastly preferable to them commuting in from the outside especially from a VMT perspective.   Those are likely at least 2-car households at the moment who might be able to drop one of those cars when they move closer to work.  ( I have done this personally ).   Is that perfect?  Is it zero cars?   No.  I dont think that is possible for anyone other than students in California at the moment. But it is BETTER than what is possible in any other scenario yet proposed..  so pragmatism needs to be employed at that point.

      That said.. we are still open to people coming forward with better ideas!  lets hear them!

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