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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Commentary: On Historic Resources, Student Housing, and Core Area Planning

Last night during the course of the Davis City Council-Historic Resources Management Commission meeting a very interesting discussion occurred with regards to core business development and adaptive re-use.

One of the key points that was raised was whether mixed-use buildings were appropriate in core areas or whether there should be retail or businesses on the second floor buildings.

The discussion quickly turned to whether there should be student apartments on the second floor of buildings in the core area.

This got me thinking that students often do not participate in land use discussions because they assume that their time horizon is too short to care a great deal about where and how the city should develop. And yet in many ways, students are heavily impacted by these sorts of land use decisions.

One thing that continues to trouble me is the Third and B visioning project which will take a lot of mixed-use housing. Some of the housing is mixed-use, which is owner-occupied, and some are student rentals that will be converted into high rise (third and fourth story) condominiums. That means largely pushing students out of a swath of area on the east side of campus which abuts the transition zone to the core area.

At the same time some of the more vibrant parts of the core area are on the west side of the core with Burgers and Brew, Crepeville, Ciocolat, Delta of Venus, all being essentially student catering businesses and all of them being essentially in the middle of student housing. And yet, once the project goes through, that will all change.

Where should a city like Davis put its student population? And where will the future student populations go?

One area that is planned right now is of course West Village. But if that is where we are relying on growth for the student and faculty population, we need to understand that there is limited retail in walking distance of that development. And while biking and busing is always an option, we are essentially precluding students from walking to downtown by putting the development on the west side of campus, out of normal walking distance from the core.

The discussion last night also moved beyond these issues to a more general discussion about the balance between historic preservation and commercial development. While certain members of the commission made strong arguments that we need to heed the call of business and particular retail business in our planning and design, to me and several others it remains far from clear that an adaptive re-use model cannot be quite successful. Some of the more interesting businesses have developed in what were essentially homes that have been remodeled.

Chief examples of that are Burgers and Brew and Ciocolat. In many ways, adaptive reuse I think is under utilized. Bistro 33 provides a thriving example of proper reuse of an historic building to a more modern need without destruction of the historic character.

Final point, really a good one that Lamar Heystek raised and I see occurring around town, not just with regard to historic management, and that is almost planned degradation of resources as a means to force new construction.

I have really two examples of that. First was the Anderson Bank Building that Jim Kidd has really allowed to degrade in terms of appearance and upkeep. And he tried to really use that to argue that we need to allow him to lower the bank building windows.

The other example is what has happened with West Lake Shopping center. There the owner allowed the proper to degrade and then argued that it wasn't viable for grocery stores to move in and tried subsequently to get a rezone. Well part of the problem there, is that he failed to keep the property in prime condition, so no wonder he had trouble attracting new business. People working in that particular building have told me of amazing stories of neglect.

In my opinion, that type of neglect should not be rewarded by approval of zoning changes. We need to insure that business and property owners do not simply allow their building to degrade and attempt to use that as a reason to remodel or demolish.

I understand that we don't want to paralyze the core with out of character buildings, but at the same time a bit of ingenuity can give us a good business utilizing existing buildings.

These are of course good discussions to continue having into the future. I certainly do not see historic preservation and commerce, and preservation and economic development as zero sum game.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting