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Sunday, February 10, 2008

Commentary: Densification Does Not Mean Ignoring Neighbors

It was an interesting experience on Thursday going to the last portion of the Housing Element Steering Committee meeting and listening to Chair Keven Wolf railing about the need for densification and demanding that the HESC include in its report language that instructs the council to ignore the pleas of neighbors for less densification and preserving neighborhood character.

Then I went home and read Bob Dunning who was whipping the neighbors of the Horse Ranch development proposal who live on Caravaggio, at least I think that's what we was doing, because suddenly almost in midstream he turned the whip on the City Council for packing the development like sardines.

Do we ignore the pleas of neighbors as shear NIMBYISM? Do we drive for denser and denser because that means we will be more compact and less sprawled? Or is there some middle ground here?

I understand and even appreciate some of the logic behind Kevin Wolf's densification drive. The idea here is that we protect the periphery of Davis, preserve the farmlands, and yet we still need to grow, at least in Kevin Wolf's world (which I don't mean derisively, just to say it's his world view, as opposed to say my own. On the other hand, I am about to use Mr. Wolf as a convenient foil here.).

The problem with Mr. Wolf's vision is that it is flawed and contradictory. He was a leading proponent of Covell Village. Covell Village was perhaps the antithesis of this vision. Whether or not we need to grow, and whether or not we need densification, Covell Village encroaches onto farm land, builds a large number of big homes, which means less density, and oh yeah, creates traffic problems at the corner of Poleline and Covell that leads to more, not less, emissions. In short, if carbon neutral is what you are going for, Covell is not the way to go.

But back to the densification issue at this point. I understand both Mr. Wolf and Mr. Dunning's concerns about density. I also understand their concern that the neighbors out of NIMBYISM are often going to oppose all new development on their own borders, adjacent to their neighborhood. That they will attempt to get the smallest and least dense project they can get for a variety of reasons.

At the same time, why the hell should they not? It is not like most of these people are wealthy people developing lots haphazardly. Most people who live in Davis have put their life's savings into buying their home, living in a nice community with a good quality of life. Why should they not fight to protect them?

And maybe we do not grant them veto power over projects, but the idea that they get no say, as Kevin Wolf suggests, that we instruct the City Council to ignore the pleas of neighbors, is shear arrogance on our part. They have the right to weigh in and be heard. The city council has the duty to take their views seriously as they are just as much a part of this city as anyone.

If we are concerned about the character of this city, don't they have the right to be concerned about the character of their neighborhood?

I do not see this as a Manichean struggle for good and evil. I do not think this needs to be a zero-sum game where someone wins and someone loses.

As someone else pointed out on Thursday, look we can have a dense project in a high rise but as long as we surround it with open space it is not going to be a problem.

That gets me to the next point. We need to talk about densification. We need to listen to the neighbors. But at the end of the day, there is no reason why we cannot build highly dense developments that maintain the nature and character of the adjacent neighborhood. At the end of the day, the neighborhood should fit like a zig saw puzzle, interlocking into the existing landscape, while at the same time looking to maximize both density, open space, greenbelts, etc.

And those are not antithetical views. They are not in contradiction to each other. The problem is that we have allowed our planning to become complacent and lazy. And we also need to understand that we do not fix densification issues by jamming people together into the new developments. That doesn't fix the issues of sprawl. If we do this, we will be looking like little Manhattan.

Finally the biggest question we need to answer is not how dense we are to become, it is not how dense we should make it, but rather how much we ought to grow and how fast. Everyone talks about fair share growth. A city of Davis' size should not be forced to become a city of 100,000 or 120,000 people. That's not fair share of growth, that's allowing certain interests to turn this city into something it is not. There many other cities with the infrastructure and the drive to take on more growth than we do.

However, that point aside, at the end of the day we cannot simply ignore the cries of neighbors. They have bought into a promise of this city. They invested in the fact that we have safe streets. They invested in the fact that we have good schools. They invested in the character and the quality of life in Davis. In fact, they overpaid -most likely- for those features. So if we are about to pull the rug out from under them and change the landscape of their investment, do we not at least owe it to them to hear them out?

When I hear it said that we ought to direct the council to ignore complaints of neighbors it makes me very nervous, because as soon as we become arrogant enough to ignore one group of people, we begin to ignore all. And then, we cease to be a democracy.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting