A majority of Davisites want to preserve open space and reduce pollution. This became clear in 2008 when I chaired the city’s Steering Committee for the 2013 General Plan Housing Element Update.

We heard from hundreds of residents and reached near consensus that the new housing should primarily be dense infill located near jobs, schools and shopping. We gave our highest ranking to two multi-story projects envisioned near City Hall, which are yet to be considered, but still serve as examples for top-priority projects.

Our committee ranked traditional housing developments much lower than infill projects. Similarly, traditional developments are also less likely to be approved by Davis voters. Between those who don’t want to lose more ag land and those who think any new housing and more traffic could harm their home values, the coalition against a Covell Village or a new Wildhorse-type development is daunting.

Yet, the unmet demand for additional housing in town relentlessly increases, and so, too, the associated problems. An increasing number of Davis’ students and workers commute from nearby towns where housing is more available and affordable. The added driving obviously increases greenhouse gas emissions, but the trend has other, less obvious, environmental impacts.

UC Davis Sustainable Housing

For example, the Davis municipal code requires two acres protected for every acre developed while neighboring cities require no such protection. Density here averages 10 units per acre, which is twice as much as our neighbors. Therefore, when students and workers in Davis are forced to live elsewhere, the environmental impact of the new structures built to house them is much larger than if those structures were built here.

When new housing is built elsewhere, it carries a lower requirement for additional affordable housing. Once again, Davis’ requirements in this area are more generous than neighboring towns. Creating new market-rate housing in Davis is one of the only ways to create local affordable housing.

Unfortunately, high-density infill projects inevitably face opposition from their neighbors. More cars will be driving through neighborhoods. Views and the landscapes change. People worry about impacts to local property values and whether lower-income renters will be good neighbors. Even citizens who generally support pollution reduction, affordable housing and preservation of open space and habitat often oppose infill if it’s in their own “back yard.”

Right now, the city of Davis is considering four housing projects that meet the 2008 Housing Committee’s goals to varying degrees. Two are part of the proposed “innovation” parks at Nishi and Mace Ranch that require voter approval in June and November. The other two, which were not imagined in 2008, would repurpose existing properties into high-density, multi-story condos or apartments.

Nishi Gateway

The Nishi Gateway project offers the highest number of units that best meet the objectives of being within walking distance of UC Davis, the downtown, shopping and mass transit. With 440 units providing 1,500 bedrooms for students and another 210 for-sale condos/flats averaging 1,300 square feet  (650 units total), the Nishi project can meet some of the backlogged demand for housing.

Its scope is big enough to more than absorb the new demand created by the 350,000-square-foot research park that will be on site. Approximately 10 acres of the 46 acres property is slated for housing, which equates to a density of 65 units per acre with the potential to go as high as 80 units per acre.

UCD travel studies show that more than 80 percent of people living this close to campus will ride their bike. Housing at Nishi would reduce the number who otherwise would be driving into town and to the campus. Despite these positives, the total number of units is on the low side of the 600 to 1,100 recommended by our Housing Committee.

Other drawbacks of the Nishi project raised by the public can be mitigated. Impacts on the Richards Boulevard underpass can be significantly lessened with car and bus access on the west side through the university and with the changes to the Richards freeway interchange currently under study with Caltrans. Concerns about air quality can be mitigated with air filters in the buildings.

An unevaluated benefit of the Nishi project is how many senior citizens living in large-lot, empty-nest houses with low property taxes would move to the condos right next to the downtown, the Farmers Market, Arboretum and UCD arts and cultural center. When the University Retirement Community opened on Shasta Drive, many houses in town came up for sale as their owners moved there. In the process, new families moved in and the tax base on those homes often more than doubled, providing revenue for the city.

Furthermore, by providing new bedrooms for rent next to campus, there will be less demand to convert existing single-family homes into mini-dorms in our neighborhoods. Neither of these benefits is considered in the project analysis.

This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lower our carbon footprint by providing housing with such a low driving-per-unit impact shouldn’t be missed.

Mace Ranch Innovation Center

The Mace Ranch Innovation Center is not as able to meet our community’s goals for densification and housing near downtown. Without the inclusion of a high-density housing development on-site, it would be a disaster for our housing supply and for renters in Davis.

More than 5,800 jobs are eventually expected from the project, resulting in demand for more than 3,000 housing units.  However, a mixed-use alternative could include live/work housing units on-site. Even if the new employees weren’t the ones occupying these units, their location near the bus lines to Sacramento and UCD and within walking distance to schools and shopping would help reduce the project’s GHG emissions.

The 850 units proposed, at densities of 20 to 40 units per acre, would not offset all of the housing demand created by the new jobs, but are enormously better than if the project came without any.

Trackside Center

The Trackside Center project in downtown on Third Street between I Street and the railroad tracks is most similar to the previously proposed top-ranking projects near City Hall. At 48 units on 0.53 acres (90 units per acre) plus 9,900 square feet of retail, it comes in as one of the densest, most ecologically sound project yet proposed.

The opposition’s lawn signs refer to loss of afternoon solar access for a few neighboring homes caused by the 5 1/2-story building. However, it seems that the main objections relate to the building’s height and density not meeting neighborhood design guidelines (2001) or the Core Area Specific Plan (1996). Unfortunately, these guidelines and plans didn’t envision such a project nor consider the Housing Committee’s goals.

If the same number of new units were to be built in the Spring Lake subdivision in Woodland, they would cover 10 to 20 times more land and result in a lot more driving into and through Davis.

Sterling Davis Apartments

The Sterling Davis Apartments are proposed for the former EMQ FamiliesFirst site next to the post office on Fifth Street. This would put 270 units on 6 acres of land (45 units per acre). Though not as ideally located — in terms of proximity to downtown and UCD — as Nishi or Trackside, it is still within a 15-minute bike ride and on a major bus route.

The small amount of increase in traffic on Fifth Street is a small price to pay for the environmental benefits of having the residents live here rather than in neighboring towns.

All these projects face opposition from neighbors who might support our shared goals if the projects weren’t planned in their “back yards.” Successful local opposition to these and similar projects will result in loss of more farmland and increases in CO2 emissions.

But an even greater loss is the opportunity to be a model for sustainability. The crucible of existing city requirements, pressure from local activists and the innovations being proposed by the developers themselves could become an inspiration for other communities to develop new housing that uses less water and energy, generates more electricity on-site and creates more affordable housing.

by Kevin Wolf via davisenterprise.com

— Kevin Wolf is a longtime Davis resident and community activist.

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