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Saturday, June 16, 2007

Commentary: Tearing Down our City's Character

It took me a long time to realize why the vote on Third and B Street "Visioning" Project upset me so much. After all, there has been a long string of votes, most of them these days 3-2, that have upset me from this city council led by Stephen Souza, Don Saylor, and Ruth Asmundson. In fact, the only time I can remember prevailing on a contested vote was with the Anderson Bank Building, when Stephen Souza uncharacteristically switched sides. Other than that, it has been a loss after devastating loss. But this one really hurt in a way a lot of the others have not. This one as they say, was personal and unfortunately I've felt personal before from this council. But at least the last time it felt personal, I understand fully why it felt personal. This one was more elusive.

Then as I was driving past the neighborhood, I realized what was eating at me. This was my neighborhood. For many years, I spent more time in that neighborhood than I did where I actually lived. Everyday I would walk from either Central Park or Old North down to Third Street and from there to the Social Sciences and Humanities Building. I'd walk by Ciocolat, Navin's, Roma, etc. I'd eat lunch at Rajas one of my favorite restaurants in Davis. I can see that journey in my head all the time, because I walked through it several times a day, almost everyday, for years.

And these days I talk to a lot of people and hear from a lot of people on various things in Davis. Honestly, I have not met a single person who does not have a financial stake in either the neighborhood or in the business community that supports this. I've even heard from people who do not follow Davis politics who start shaking their heads and asked a series of questions as to why the promoters would want to do this. Nobody gets this other than the council majority of Asmundson, Saylor and Souza, a few developers, and a few merchants. And I mean nobody.

This is a neighborhood that few live in, but most know and most like if not love. I think the comment made on the night of the council sticks with me most--why are we rewarding people for the failure to take care of their property? Because when you walk through the neighborhood you see some very nice old homes that have simply not been cared for. It's not the students' fault who reside in these homes. It is the fault of the absentee homeowners. And yet now they can go tear them down and rebuild and make a nice profit because the city council majority of Ruth Asmundson, Don Saylor and Stephen Souza wanted to "improve" the area.

There are lots of little things about this that bother me as well. Maria Ogrydziak is President of the DDBA and a property owner in the neighborhood. She was quoted in the Davis Enterprise as complaining that the 38 foot height restriction for her building was too restrictive.

Maria Ogrydziak said she would like to build either retail and offices or a townhouse project, depending on the zoning the council approves for her properties.

For her, the 38-foot height limit is restrictive, she said.

“With something like this, I think it’s important to be creative and when you’re so stringent about the height, you’re going to end up with that apartment building down the block from me,” she said. “It’s just like a pancake, one layer right on top of another, maxing out the height. If you want to have interesting roof lines, it completely disallows that, and it makes the parking very difficult to design underneath.”

Fortunately for Ms. Ogrydziak, her friends on the council specifically allowed her to build to 45 feet. And when some objected to the unseemliness of it, Asmundson was inclined to make all of them 45 feet in height.

How tall is 45 feet? 45 feet in comparable in height to the Chen Building. That's how we want that neighborhood to look with a bunch of 45 feet buildings. If you want to know how that might look, walk up to G and Fifth and look at the Roe Building that is under construction and decide if that's the vision that you have for Davis' residential and historical neighborhoods.

It's not my vision. I've grown tired of defending my Davis against this kind of encroachment. I've grown tired of people who want to completely remake the image and character of Davis. I believe most people in Davis would like to preserve that character. And frankly I have been tired of being accused of opposing all changes to Davis. I'm not. Give me something that I can support and I will, but this is not it. I think there are great things we can do in Davis and great changes that we can make while preserving the character of key places in Davis. But not here, and not this way. I think there are densifications even in this neighborhood I would support, but not three and four story condos, not tearing down these beautiful if falling apart bungalows.

One last point to make about the vote on Tuesday--the meeting went until 1:45 a.m. Now if you watched the meeting, you saw a series of questions from council to staff that really should not have been asked in public. I mean some of the questions asked were just baffling. And yet they went on and on for hours.

Now I point this out because Mayor Greenwald was not presiding over this meeting. Furthermore, Mayor Pro Tem Asmundson presided over this meeting. Asmundson complained a month or two ago that Mayor Greenwald did not know how to run a meeting, therefore that was the reason that the council meetings went so long. Well anyone who painfully stayed up and watched this council meeting will realize that Asmundson has no clue how to run a meeting or move it on. It was absurd. There has to be some kind of focus and some kind of structure to meetings, and this one just went on and on long past the time it should have stopped.

Unlike the meeting where Asmundson complained about Greenwald, this one was mostly on Asmundson. Because not only did she fail to take control of it, she contributed to its length by asking a series of questions that she should have asked staff in private. So should Councilmember Souza. Souza can at least be excused for asking questions that made no sense as he was suffering an allergic reaction to a wasp sting and was struggling along. Asmundson has no such excuse.

In all, it was a disappointing night and a very disappointing performance from council. The public got up and spoke and it was very clear that the council majority was paying little attention to them. They were too busy writing notes about what they were going to say in their concluding comments. If there is one thing that irritates me, it is when councilmembers have gone through a long process with the public and then they read their closing statements. Taking a note or two to remember points you want to raise is one thing, sitting and reading them is insulting to the public and it gives members of the public the impression that the elected official has no interest in public input. If you have your mind made up going in, at least fake it better.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting