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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

New Fight over Remaking the Core Landscape at 3rd and B Street

A controversial new proposal is seeking to raze an entire block of homes in the Davis core area on the west side of B Street between 2nd and 4th and on 3rd Street between B and University (see map). It will replace the current homes, most of which are small old-time bungalows with large new buildings "in order to provide a more attractive “transition” between the downtown and the university." Part of this change will be to push out the student renters who live in this area and replace them with owner/ occupants.

The proposal includes 3-story mixed-use buildings with office and residential or owner/ occupied townhouses along B Street. It will explicitly be designed to discourage student rentals.

This project right now is known as the B and 3rd Streets Visioning Process.

According to Sarah Worley, The Economic Development Director for the City of Davis and the primary staff person on the 3rd & B project, at the Historical Resources Management Commission (HMRC) meeting last week, this process first arose in 2004 at the behest of the Davis City Council and two B Street property owners who requested to be allowed to demolish their existing structure and build much larger buildings on their land.

Both of the proposals were in violation of the Davis Downtown and Traditional Residential Neighborhood Design Guidelines, as well as the Core Area Specific Plan and the General Plan. One of these projects was rejected by the City Council; the other plan was withdrawn.

The project's goal is to create "an urban village" that will include higher density homes with a stronger connection with UC Davis (even though they are kicking out the students currently residing in that area.) It also again looks for owner occupancy and reinvestment in that area.

One of the concerns raised by many is that the EIR is inadequate, since the project area does not include studying the impact on areas just outside of where the zoning will be changed.

At the meeting last week, the HRMC voted on a motion:
"Is the Final EIR incomplete for the purposes of decision-making, particularly as it relates to impacts on historical resources, because it fails to adequately address the impacts and mitigations on the larger core area conservation district?”
This motion was made by member Rich Rifkin, who ultimately abstained from voting due to some uncertainties that arose from staff's objections, however, the commission voted 3-2-2 in support of that motion.

According to an outside consultant hired by the city of Davis, the limitations on the EIR were due to the directive of the city council.

The planning commission will meet next. Staff is recommending the approval of the EIR at the May 30, 2007 meeting.

As the staff report notes, there continues to be areas of controversy.
"At present and at the time of Council action on Vision 4 there was not community consensus as to the desired form of development in the project area. The one area of consensus was a desire for more owner occupied housing. There was also a recognition that some changes were necessary to encourage reinvestment and achieve a stronger connection between the Downtown and the University."
Some of the main objections appear to be coming from people just outside of the main project area, an area apparently not studied in the EIR. Only two of the property owners in the project area have expressed objection and their objection is based the requirement for mitigation of alley right-of-way. There are also two property owners within the area who are not interested in redevelopment who wish to see a smaller scale of development.

Here are some of the proposal that have drawn heavy concern and criticism as noted by the staff report:
  • fourth floor and maximum height of 56 feet
  • third floor and height of 45 feet
  • density bonus for construction of condo units
  • expanding existing 13 foot alley right-of-way to 20 feet
  • require alley right-of-way only from east side of alley
  • demolition of "Eligible Merit Resource and a group of structures that contribute to the historic setting of the area if suitable relocation sites are not available"
  • payments in-lieu of parking fees for non-residential uses and parking above one space per residential unit in mixed use projects.

Most of the people I have spoken to and many of the people speaking at the EMRC meeting have expressed very strong concerns about the project. Several people came up to me at Farmer's Market last Saturday and expressed grave reservations both about the project and the EIR which is moving its way through the process.

The primary concern I have is the narrow EIR under the explicit direction of the City Council. That is alarming not just because of the EIR process not taking into account the impacts on the larger area, but it is also indicative of where the council stands on this issue, which is to suggest that they are in support.

Staff pressed the HMRC to approve the EIR, but there were sufficient concerns by the membership to reject it by the barest of margins despite what appeared to be heavy pressure from staff. It seems unlikely that the Planning Commission would do the same tomorrow night.

The irony of this proposal is that this area of Davis is what first attracted me to the city. It presents the feeling of a true college town, with old houses, students, and small quaint shops that service primarily a student population. The character and feel of this neighborhood would be destroyed by the large-scale development. The students would be in essence evicted, the nature of the entire area would be changed.

As one of the members of the HMRC, Valerie Vann, pointed out, this project makes a traditional neighborhood, no longer a traditional neighborhood.

I understand the need and desire for densification and redevelopment. I would support such efforts on a case-by-case basis, but in this case, it does not seem to meet the needs of this neighborhood judging from the objections that have already been underway from a variety of different sources--two of whom are former councilmembers Mike Harrington and Maynard Skinner, both of whom came the HMRC meeting to speak against the proposed project and both of whom live in that neighborhood.

Unfortunately, this project appears to be underway at the behest of council and with the support of council, which suggests to me that this is already a done deal. While I suspect this will not go down without a fight, the council majority rarely has acceded to public pressure and they have rarely allowed public animus to get in the way of their goals and visions. This is particularly troublesome in an area that is so ripe with tradition and so vital to the character of our core area and to the students who utilize it in conjunction with their university living.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting