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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Council Moves Forward on Housing Projects Despite HESC Process

One of the points that came up over and over again during the discussion of the Wildhorse Horse Ranch project last night was why this project was being discussed and pushed forward at this time, given that the Housing Element Steering Committee was in the process of determining rank order of the best sites in which to have future growth.

In fact, it is not alone. Last week the City Council heard proposals about the Simmons Property and the Lewis Property has been going forward as well.

And yet at the same time, it would appear that at least according to the steering committee members prior to their meeting next week, none of these locations are ideal for growth in the next general plan cycle.
10 - Simmons, E. Eighth Street
21 - Lewis Cannery
27 - Wildhorse Horse Ranch Mix of Housing Types
This is not to suggest that I think these particular projects are good or bad. Only to question the process by which this is all occurring. And while, as I heard last night, I understand that for instance the Horse Ranch has been under proposal since Covell Village was voted down, I still have to wonder about the timing of things.

This came up during multiple points in time last night. Councilmember Stephen Souza made it a point to suggest that this is not meant to undermine the work done by the HESC. He saw the role of the council as being different than that of the HESC anyway, since the HESC is looking at sites and the council at specific project proposals. But I cannot help wondering how the council can go forward looking to develop a site that is in the bottom third of site priorities.

Thus from a procedural standpoint, not weighing on the merits of any of these three projects, I would argue that the council should not be moving forward with these projects at this time. Councilmember Don Saylor made it a point to say that he feels that we are in need of housing and projects are not going forward at this time. Part of that of course is due to the front-loading of projects from the last General Plan toward the beginning of the period rather than spreading them more evenly.

The fact remains that the housing situation has turn, RHNA numbers are down, and the need to grow is not nearly as apparent as it might have been even two years ago when Covell was first brought up.

Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Asmundson made a more basic appeal of our need for additional housing and particularly affordable housing. But again, ignored the broader implications of the current housing market.

The more surprising development last night was an assessment of where this project actually stands both in the minds of the council as well as the broader community.

For one thing, I think the council was led to believe as I was that there was broad buy-in by the neighborhood adjacent to the Horse Ranch for this development. As impassioned and articulated appeals made clear this is not the case. The neighbors like the Horse Ranch next to their street, particularly now that it is well run. There remains a bit of irony that you may be more likely to get what you want if you run your property poorly than if you run it well.

They have concerns with the density difference in the new proposal. They have concerns about the height of the proposed condos. And there are concerns that the new neighborhood would stand out some from the existing neighborhood.

While the council majority was willing to push the process forward for an EIR paid for at the developer's expense, even they had a degree of reluctance and hesitation with the project as it stands now. As it this requires a Measure J vote, both Councilmembers Souza and Saylor kept pointing to a "wow factor" to use Councilmember Souza's term, although Mr. Saylor had similar language and reservations. In other words, we need to be sold on the idea that this project is needed. There has to be a reason for the people of Davis to vote for it and they do not see that reason right now.

During the course of this meeting I went from believing that this was merely a formality to believing that this project is in really serious trouble.

At one point Mayor Pro Asmundson asked City Manager Bill Emlen for an honest assessment. One of the goals is to have this for a Measure J vote by November of this year, but Mr. Emlen seemed very concerned about that ability to get the project to that point by that time. And he quite bluntly suggested that that timeline was in deep jeopardy based on what he had heard now.

There were a number of council machinations about what to do. Mayor Sue Greenwald first pushed for a vote to agendize a hearing that would kill the project altogether, but despite a second from Councilmember Lamar Heystek, that did not have the support of the Council Majority.

Clearly the council seemed disturbed--and all of them--that the neighborhood had not bought into this process at this time as they had previously believed. To me that is a key first step.

Having this level of density on the periphery is another concern. I am reluctant to expand the periphery of Davis to begin with. Frankly I like the smaller units on this project and the affordability of the units on this project, but the sustainability model, the model of smart growth is that you put this level of density in the core and that reduces the carbon footprint by reducing the amount of car trips. Putting this level of density on the perimeter obviously does not do that.

The big problem for me is again a timing issue. If the council is putting their trust in the HESC process, and clearly the members of the HESC have put in considerable work to determine where to grow, then the council should allow that to go forward.

The distinct impression I get is that the council would like to jump the HESC process by approving Simmons and Wildhorse in particular before the HESC wraps up. Lewis is more complicated with its vicinity to COvell Village. Once they have these properties in the actual approval stage then they would would consider the HESC' proposals.

The debate over growth rate is coming. Another debate over Measure J will be coming as well. Given concerns about the housing market, given concerns about carbon footprints and global warming, I am less than certain any of this is responsible. Mayor Sue Greenwald made a number of general points about growth that need to weighed heavily both on a local basis and a regional basis. It does not seem like anyone really wants to take on the tough questions.

I find it difficult to reconcile the concern that some on the council majority have about carbon footprint with the continuation of sprawl and urban development. And more importantly the lack of process based planning and development.

All of these considerations have probably been tossed aside by the reality on the ground so to speak that at this time, this project is not ready to go forward. They will take out an EIR and essentially push the decision into the future, but the tough work lays ahead on this. In the meantime, the HESC will come out with their recommendations for good areas to grow and none of the current proposals are going to make even the top 5 that place them into the likely category for development in the next six years given current growth guidelines and housing markets. It would seem then that the council ought to slow down and allow the HESC process to finish before moving forward on these projects.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting