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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Housing Report Presented to Council and Planning Commission

Last night at a Joint Meeting between the City of Davis and the Planning Commission, the Housing Element Update Steering Committee (HESC) presented their final report to the joint body.

While the work of the body was universally praised in terms of the time commitment and overall work, the substance of it presents some mixed feelings at best. Part of me believes that the work done by the steering committee could have been performed by city staff over the course of a few months. On the other hand, some of things that emerged from this process have been interesting and somewhat unique, and those would not have occurred with a city staff run process. Nevertheless, throughout the meeting there seemed to be a push to expedite the development of the identified properties--the bigger issue of growth rate has been left unresolved by city council since they have anointed the 1% growth rate as a target rather than a mandate. That leaves a considerable gap between the RHNA numbers and the upper ceiling on growth.

In addition to rank ordering the sites, the HESC developed zones or groupings. The first grouping accounts for just over 500 projected units, these are the primary sites--they have existing zoning and are simply ready to go for development. The next group are the top 20 sites--number 1 to number 20, these are called the Secondary Sites and between the primary and secondary sites, the city would get very close to filling its growth capacity on even a 1% growth rate. Some of these properties include the DJUSD Headquarters (1), Grande School Site (3), Downtown Zoning changes (7), PG&E site (8), Nishi (17), etc.

The next group of sites are the alternate sites and they are sites numbers 21 to 33. These are potential sites for this period, but more likely for a future point in time. Some of these include Lewis Cannery (21), Signature (23), Nishi with Olive Drive access (25), Nugget Fields (28), and Covell Village (32). The last four sites are those not needed prior to 2013. These are Parlin sites near the Binning Tracts, Lin Boschken, the property West of Stonegate, and finally at No.37 Oeste Ranch (I wonder if the county is reading this).

Now one of the more innovative changes that this process may allow the city to make, is a change in the way development is done. Kevin Wolf, Chair of the HESC, told the council that they wanted to use the site rankings in the development processing. Right now interested developers go to the city, it goes through a process, and the city makes a determination. He wants this to change, so that only the sites that are given priority by this reporting would be eligible to go forward and they would go forward somewhat in the order in which they were prioritized by the HESC. So project number 1 would get the first opportunity, if the owner was not interested in developing the property at this time, they could move to the next property on the list. The interest of the property owner would still drive the process, but it would be given some structure along the way.

The current system,

"wastes planning commission time and it may not be a high priority at all, but you are stuck with a project going forward. This says, what we're hoping staff and council will say, your project is not on our priority list. We want to hear from the priority list first, if we don't hear from the ones that are in front of you, we'll hear from you. But right now, don't bring it forward because that other one is in front of you that we want to develop first based on our HESC recommendations."

There is a positive aspect to this concept that Kevin Wolf outlined--it sets a prioritization for development. In that respect this would be a positive change. However, I also think it adds the pressure to develop these top 20 sites. Council defended their decision to keep the 1% as the growth guideline based on the fact that we have not been growing at the 1% rate over the past few years, basically since Measure X was defeated. However, putting this into play, if the council uses the 1% growth number, there is a much more realistic chance that we growth at that rate.

1% of course sounds like a very small amount of growth, but we are talking about adding a property larger than Covell Village between now and 2013. Covell Village itself wasn't even suppose to occur that quickly, it was to be phased in over a ten year period of time. Watching the meeting last night, it was clear to me that this process, would expedite the development pace in Davis.

My overall thoughts here before I discuss a bit more specific observations from the council and the community is that in terms of the ranking of sites, there is not much to quibble about. The HESC did a fine job in this respect. The real questions and debate is just beginning however and it is the political one. The question is one about how much additional housing we need, how fast we should grow, and where will we put this housing.

The issue of density has come up over and over again. I think we need to eliminate that word from our land use planning vocabulary. It is a scary word, especially to residents living in adjacent areas that have sunk their hard earned money into their existing property. Kevin Wolf is one of the biggest proponents of making developments more and more dense to accommodate more people and keep the city fairly compact.

At a HESC meeting Mr. Wolf wanted to direct council to ignore or at least downplay the concerns of neighbors about density. I think we need to re-work this dialogue. What we need to talk about is not higher density, but rather a smaller size for units. Smaller units with good strong design that maintains open space and distances can be made acceptable for neighbors if we include them in the process from day one rather than thrust it on them halfway through. You might never get complete approval, but even a compromised process will lead to community and neighborhood buy-in.

Now some of my concerns. The first is site No.7 which is the downtown area. That's a pretty high priority site and what it looks like to me is completely changing the nature and character of downtown. They have a CGI of what that downtown might look like and frankly it is a bit alarming. We are talking about several story buildings lining the downtown with retail on the ground level and potentially housing on the upper levels. This is clearly a long way from going through at this point, but if it does, it completely changes the landscape, feel, and look of our downtown. In many ways, the downtown did not look like Davis, it looked like it could be in many other cities.

I was also concerned about the talk regarding the Lewis Cannery site.

The recommendation of the HESC:
"The Lewis site should be planned, at a minimum, with thoughtful consideration to circulation and land use compatibility with the adjacent Covell Village site, even though the Covell Village site may or may not be approved for future urban use."
Kevin Wolf was one of the chief proponents of Covell Village in 2005. He said point blank at this meeting that he thinks there needs to be access to Pole Line from the Lewis site and he believes that by 2050, there is no way that Covell Village will not be developed. Of course, the voters voted 60-40 against such a development. The Lewis site is ranked 21 versus 32 for the Covell Village site, but I will say this now, there is no way I can support Lewis if it becomes a means by which to expedite and facilitate the development at the adjacent Covell Village site. The intent of Kevin Wolf was very clear here despite the notion that the "planning for the Lewis Cannery site should be able to stand alone and not be delayed by a Measure J vote."

A key point that was raised had to do with West Village and the fact that if it is annexed, it would count for the growth guideline. That is 1500 units, which would be a large portion of even a pure 1% growth rate. If it is not annexed, then it would not count for the 1% growth rate, but in essence, our area could grow by 4000 units by 2013 if West Village is developed, not annexed, and we grow out the full 1% over the next five years. Both Councilmember Lamar Heystek, speaking through a poor connection from a conference in Arkansas and Mayor Sue Greenwald raised this point.

Sue Greenwald raised an additional point:
"I have another concern, that's that this entire process seems to be numbers driven... One thing that concerns me about this whole process is that it seems to be numbers driven and that there's no vision component and that de facto decisions are being made about the visions for the future because we didn't start with the vision discussion."
George Phillips threw an interesting curveball into the mix. Mr. Phillips spoke on behalf of Steve Gidaro one of the owners of the Shriner's Property--the property that Councilmember Stephen Souza had tried to negotiate to get the city to purchase for the purposes of an athletics complex last summer. Mr. Phillips requested that the council place the Shriner's property back into consideration for development.
"The owners of the property... did not express interest at the time [the HESC selection process was occurring] and there is a reason for that there were discussions going on with the city relative to the potential acquisition of the Shriner's property for park purposes, to be considered as a potential site for the major sports park that the city is considering bringing a building out on the Howlett Property."
According to Mr. Phillips, there was agreement that this would be a straight acquisition, not connected to any kind development proposals or any kind of "quid pro quo." They were encouraged to make an offer to the city.
"We received a response back that the price and terms for that acquisition, the city did not have the funds at this point in time to make that acquisition, and that it probably isn't going to come together in spite of good faith efforts by all involved."
He wants to be added the list and the ranking process. He was told by council that he needs to speak to staff about this.

Eileen Samitz, who served on the committee, spoke as well.
"Another problem addressed was the need for a fourth fire station [was addressed as well] and a significant number of us on the committee felt strongly that we don't need a fourth fire station. Instead we need an emergency medical service. One of the astonishing facts is that only 10 percent of the calls for the fire department are for fires, over 50 percent are for medical. We don't need a fire engine to start someone's heart, we need an emergency medical service and basically a restructuring of our fire services is what we should be looking at."
Finally Councilmember Heystek expressed some of his concerns.
"I also wanted to express some of my concerns. Some of those concerns have already been expressed by some of the speakers during public comment on the dais."
He continued that if we were to look at Measure J projects, before we bless this document with those projects for inclusion, that
"we know exactly what our approach to Measure J is. That we are committed to bringing to the voters some renewal of Measure J. If not one that strengthens Measure J, one that at least renews it in its current form."
He also had a problem with the concept of a "green light project." This is a reference to the color scheme where the top projects are green (1-20), the next projects are yellow (21-33), and then red are (34-37).
"And when we say the projects are green light, I think that sends the message that we support the project before we know what the citizens rights with regards to that project are. We have to be very careful about Measure J projects."
He further was concerned how this list helps us determine the kinds of housing that will help fill our needs. We have the sites, but we do not necessarily know what these projects will look like.

My final comment is that I think we need to have a discussion of Measure J before we go forward with this project. While I commend the HESC for their work, there are a lot of issues that they did not deal with, Measure J being one. Another is that they looked at sites rather than housing, but I think we need a fuller picture like Councilmember Heystek said of what these houses will look like. To use Mayor Greenwald's point, we need to know the vision rather than simply the numbers. And finally, we need to know how much we will grow. If we pass 20 green light projects, does that mean that we grow at 1%? It seems to mean that even though the council's previous discussion seemed to downplay that as even a possibility.

Finally, people may not agree with me on any of these three points in terms of direction. I do not have a problem with that, I would just like to see the cards laid on the table before the election a month and a half from now and allow the voters to decide who they want to lead us. The issues of Measure J, housing needs, and growth rate should all be key discussions during the coming election.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting