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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Council Approves Zoning Change to Allow Densification at Third and B

The Davis City Council decided early this morning by a 3-1 vote to approve zoning changes to allow densification at Third and B with Councilmember Lamar Heystek the sole dissenter and with Mayor Sue Greenwald conflicted out of the process due to her residence within the neighborhood in question. This vote occurred despite numerous concerns raised by neighbors and community members about changing the character of the neighborhood and the core of downtown. There were also a number of concerns raised about parking and traffic. Finally a number of people have argued that Davis lacks much in the way of historic buildings and resources. Those historic buildings that have remained beyond the purging in the 1960s and 1970s are in need of protection.

There were many crucial points of opposition that were aptly raised by various members of the public. Many people also came and spoke in favor of the project.

John Hall, a neighbor who collected around 20 petitions, called the original proposal "OTT" or "over the top." He told the council that this was densification, not infill and implored them to scale back the project. They had come forward with a number of proposals, some of which ended up being integrated into the project, some of which were not.

Rand Herbert, chair of the historic resources commission, referred to a 4-0-3 vote by his commission to use the current design guidelines.
"The HMRC is not against densification, only how it would impact historic resources."
Mike Syvanen, husband of Mayor Greenwald, illustrated the impact that a 38-45 foot building height would have on the character of the neighborhood. He did not reject the notion of redevelopment or even densification of the area outright, but simply suggested that this is the wrong approach.
"I think this plan should be just rejected and sent back to planning so that we can come up with something that is consistent with the character of this residential neighborhood."
Allan Miller from the Old East Davis Neighborhood Association was disturbed by this process. He brought up a very crucial point:
"I continue to be amazed that either intentional or careless neglect is rewarded on property owners who want to redevelop. On this wall we have five scenes, one is gone, it is the one in the middle, the Aggie Hotel, which went through criminal neglect, and then that was given as an excuse as to why redevelopment had to occur."
Mr. Miller's point was a very strong one as we saw a few weeks back with the Anderson Bank Building, another old, historic building that is in need of upkeep and renovation. The appearance of the Bank Building was one of the reasons that the owner asked for changes in the window design. The appearance of the older bungalows in the current neighborhood are among the expressed reasons why some of the owners asked for zoning changes to enable densification and redevelopment in this project and in this neighborhood. Perhaps the council ought to require upkeep as a condition to even consider allowing for zoning change and redevelopment. Because otherwise as both Mr. Miller said, and Councilmember Heystek would later state, we would simply be rewarding people who are failing to take care of their property.

Teta Olna provided some of the most emotional public comments of the evening. She had bought her lot on University as an R2 lot. She was told by city leaders that she lived in an historic neighborhood and was asked to save it. "If you take your R2 property and turn it into an R1 property, we promise you that while this general plan is in effect, this will stay a residential type of neighborhood." And she convinced her neighbor to do the same thing, which probably reduced her property value by $100,000. They accepted a denser neighborhood back in 1990.
"This is just how the council is treating people in the historic neighborhood. Me, who I wanted to save an historic neighborhood, I gave up a lot. I said no I'm not going to develop, I'm not going to do the R2, I'm going to the R1. I'm going to stay here, I'm going to live here. And I put all my nest egg in there. And now I'm left holding the bag, now I'm the fool. So I'm really sorry that this is happening and I feel very unfairly treated. I feel there is a double-standard on this city council. There's a double-standard of protecting the rich peripheral neighborhoods, quality of life issues, ignoring those of us in the historic core that have really given a lot to this city."
Sue Greenwald spoke as a private citizen and a resident of the neighborhood.
"I thought that we had a shared vision, of careful sensitive infill that preserves the historic nature of our most visible and defining historic neighborhoods. We have very little of our historic flavor left. When people visit Davis, or when they walk from campus to downtown, they are always commenting to me that they are amazed that we managed to retain a little history and a little charm. We had a vision that was a really wise vision, it was a vision that we would densify the commercial core with taller buildings, we would scale it down somewhat in the mixed use areas of C Street and D Street, and transition it to leave a village ambiance in the little neighborhood between B Street and campus. It's a very small neighborhood. That vision is exemplified in the existing zoning. Staff has underestimated the number of units that can be built under the existing zoning in this neighborhood and actually overestimated the number that can be built under the proposed zoning."
Some have suggested that opposition to this project is tantamount to opposition to all densification or infill development. I do not believe that this is true at all and I do not think this is true of my viewpoint. Part of the reason for that perception is that the Vanguard tends to focus on controversies rather than points of agreement. However, I would tend to support those who last night suggested that there are better locations for densification and infill.

There were two good alternative proposals put on the table last night by members of the public. First, retired professor Dennis Dingemanns suggested densification on the Old North Davis spot where the school district currently has its main offices but from which the district wants to move and sell their property for future development. Greenwald suggested that there are proper places for infill such as the 25 acre PG&E parcel at 5th and L. She also mentioned other underutilized sites around downtown. "Infill at sites like this will not destroy historic neighborhood." Moreover, infill at these sites can be incorporated into the existing infrastructure rather than imposed upon it. Finally, infill at these locations can be made to reinforce rather than alter the existing character of the community and the neighborhood.

Councilmember Heystek questioned the scope of the EIR, the fact that it did not, in his opinion, test the impact on adjacent areas. Staff disagreed with that assessment, as did his colleagues, who ended up voting 3-1 to approve the EIR. This limited EIR remains a concern to me as well, I do not think it adequately examined the impact of traffic and parking on adjacent areas. The Old North Neighborhood Association remains concerned about their generous parking arrangement, whereby they allow non-residents large use of their parking spots without time limitations. Will this new development force more parking into that neighborhood? Souza speculated on a new parking structure that would ease that problem, but in the meantime, I think that is concern.

Councilmember Lamar Heystek after midnight weighed in on why he ended up opposing this project.
"I believe that this process is a referendum on our current development process. I believe there is something to be said about densification through demolition in this particular neighborhood, where the council has opposed densification in other areas of this town, specifically on the peripheral areas near our city limits. I don't want to unjustly punish this neighborhood for the fact that this current council for whatever reason refuses to accept higher density in other areas of town... Just as the rich or the low density neighborhoods, the members of those neighborhoods claim, that they are entitle to preservation of the integrity of their neighborhood, I believe that those who live in and near the project are similarly entitled to some semblance of neighborhood integrity. And that is why I think it would be unfair not to push the envelope in other areas of town of low density, and yet cram what seems to be high density, what is high density, into this neighborhood."
Councilmember Heystek continued by criticizing the level of neglect of some of the property in this neighborhood.
"I walked through the alleys with Sara, I've walked through the alleys with neighbors, I've walked through the alleys myself, and there seems to be and must be admitted to, if we're going to be honest here, there is some element of neglect on those parcels, on the lots, that abut the alley facing east on B street. Who bears the burden of the responsibility of the lots, of the fact that a lot of the lots have not been very well maintained, it is very popular to say that it's the tenants, it's the student renters who are running this neighborhood down, I'm not saying the renters have been angels, because I've walked down this street on picnic, I've walked down the street on weekends, but we must be honest and say that the owners of these lots also bear responsibility. I don't want to say that if we cannot achieve some semblance of what we want to accomplish in that neighborhood because of the activities of the occupants there, the renters in this case, then that means we have to cover, we've got to demolish, and we've got to build on top of it. Because I'm not willing to reward that. If you run your properties down enough... But also the property owners bear responsibility."
In the end, the council majority supported this project as part of what they consider their vision of the core. They spoke in terms of a transition between the university and the core downtown area. They spoke in terms of commercial development in that transition in order to connect the university with the core areas of town.

And in the end, I simply do not share that vision of the council majority of Councilmembers Saylor, Souza, and Asmundson. I share a very different vision of this city and especially that neighborhood.

There were consistent and persistent concerns about parking and traffic in that part of town. There is legitimate concern about such dense residential development along B Street which serves as a main artery for traffic heading from Fifth Street to downtown and I-80. Large amounts of vehicles pulling out from driveways will inherently disrupt the flow of traffic. Nevertheless, both traffic and parking while legitimate concerns, can be mitigated through good planning. In the end, neither of these were reasons to reject the project in my opinion--though they may be valid reasons for further planning and altering the project.

For me, the reason for opposing this project is based not on principles of growth, but rather the ideal of what our city should look like. I have mentioned before that one of the chief reasons I originally moved to this city to go to graduate school was that this neighborhood and this mix of residential development and commercial development along Third Street drew me to Davis. It has the feel of the college town. And it is precisely because the houses and businesses are older. It is precisely because the businesses seem to seemlessly flow out of the neighboring homes. It is precisely because there is little to distinguish a business like Navines or Ciocolat from the adjacent homes. This is what a college town should feel like.

And when I think of them razing some of these homes and these businesses to build bigger, taller, and more dense units, it really cuts to the core of what I believe our community should be. That neighborhood is a transition from the university to the city. It houses old time residents and students alike. There are faculty members and businesses. The students frequent the businesses in heavy doses during the week. And it has the feel of a real college town with people bustling about, riding their bikes on their way to classes or sitting down and having coffee or lunch out on the street front. To me, that is what a college town should look like. Having three or four story condos with owner-occupancy can be saved for another neighborhood. I am not suggesting that we do not need more housing.

I am not suggesting that densification as a rule is a bad practice. I agree with conservation of agricultural land on the city periphery and recognize that a chief way to do that is to pack more people into less space. However, there are places to do that and in my view, this is not one of them.

I feel like last night, my Davis, my town where I have lived for almost 11 years, was taken from me and that it might never come back. This character once destroyed, I fear will never be restored. I can only hope that in the near future, we can have a council majority that does a better job of mixing the needs of development, growth, and business--all of which are essential to this community--with the character and the soul of this community. I do not oppose all growth, I do not oppose the concept of densification, but I very strongly opposed this growth, this densification, and this demolition of one of my favorite aspects of this great community.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting