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Saturday, June 02, 2007

Commentary: Davis as an anti-student College Town?

I've seen this all before in a way, having grown up in another college town which in most respects was not very student friendly. For some reason, there are constant wars between the town folks who are permanent residents and the students who are treated more like outside invaders than economic livelihood makers. There are many differences in San Luis Obispo and Davis, but there seem to be some major similarities, most notably that the university comprises a tremendous percentage of the economy both directly in terms of employment and indirectly in terms of drawing students who then spent their money on the retail and entertainment in the town. The other similarity is darker and more insidious, and that is the attitude of the townsfolk toward the temporary residents.

The recent debate over the 3rd and B St Visioning Project illustrates rather perfectly the tension in Davis' identity. On the one hand, the stated purpose of the project is to bring the university together with the larger community. The project's goal is to create "an urban village" that will include higher density homes with a stronger connection with UC Davis. On the other hand, they go about achieving that by eliminating a large number of student homes and housing on the edge of campus and replace them with owner-occupied homes. Owner-occupied homes meaning non-absent landlord, meaning not student rentals.

If you look at the city of Davis and compare it to a lot of other distinctly college towns in this country, you will notice that there are no areas that are distinctly student areas. There are few to no businesses that are distinctly there to serve students. To the extent that there are even any of those types of businesses the closest you can come in the city is on Third Street between A and University.

The closing of Roma was a tremendous blow to the vitality of this area, but you still have a number of restaurants that rely on students coming off campus to frequent them. You still have Navines which does a tremendous proportion of its business with the university. And you have a large concentration of student rental units not only on third street but throughout the neighborhood.

As I have stated three times now, one in each piece I have done on this project, the only part of Davis the really feels like a college town is this area of town immediately to the east of the university.

Compared with other college towns this area is extremely small in land area. In many ways it extends only up to Russell, over to B Street and down to 1st Street. That's really four square blocks, eight if you count University as a full block in between B and A.

And yet even that small space is under attack from those in this city. As it is, I am unfortunately forced to conclude that the "vision" here is completely and fundamentally anti-student whereby one key element in the "vision" is to eliminate the presence of students in the neighborhood currently most closely associated with the university. How ironic that this is actually being sold as a means to create a stronger connection with UC Davis--how do you do that by kicking all of the current student occupants out of the neighborhood?

It is interesting to understand that this is merely the latest round is a long historical process of removing students from the Davis downtown. If this "vision" is realized, Davis residents will have achieved an end for which they have been working since at least the 1930s.

As Professor John Lofland documents in his Papers on Davis History article "A 1920s-50s Student District in Davis, California," when Second Street was the dominant east-west link between the railroad and the UCD campus, a student district first developed on and near Second between A and B (and spread).
But in a late 1930s zoning struggle within the Davis elite that was won by the anti-student faction, student living groups--the norm of the time--were hemmed in and discouraged as a matter of public policy.

A key episode in 1938 set in motion a "student removal" (or at least strong containment) policy that has been in play ever since. So it is that from well over a dozen fraternities in the downtown just after World War II, we are now down to two, neither of which is in the University-Rice area. (Indeed, it is ironic as Professor Lofland notes, that one of the leading current defenders of a student presence in the Third and B area was himself one of the leading architects of student removal, in the form of stern living group treatment, over the 1970s and '80s.)

[Click here to view the paper drawn from above]

Student removal is thus an old story and debate. It is a constant struggle in Davis, at least according to Professor Lofland. So far this debate has not been framed in these terms, but rather as a debate between development and preservation. However, it seems of necessity to look at the overall impact of this policy if it is carried out.

The majority on council has taken strong measures to portray itself as pro-university. But the student population comprises 30,000 people. How can a city council be pro-university if their policies harm the largest consumers of university services and thus put greater strain on the university once again to provide adequate and affordable residences for its student population.

We should further note that this debate takes place at the end of Spring Quarter, just as students are about to take their finals. The students are not even paying attention to this issue. But in a few years, they will find their prime locations for residences torn down and replaced with multi-use and multi-level condos that are designated as owner-occupied. This is the type of college town we appear to live in?

---Doug Paul Davis reporting