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Friday, May 16, 2008

Commentary: Why is Nishi So Heavily Mentioned by the Candidates

At each of the debates thus far this election cycle, someone has promoted the Nishi Property as a good place for future development.

It seems that Sydney Vergis has consistently promoted the property as a good place for infill development. The problem is that Nishi is not infill development. It is a Measure J project and specially in fact laid out in Measure J.

Don Saylor has suggested that it is one of two future Measure J projects possibly coming down the pike.

And at the last debate, Stephen Souza promoted it as a location that could serve the student population while at the same time helping to bolster the downtown due to its close proximity to both the campus and the downtown.

Not coincidentally the project's chief sponsor is John Whitcombe from Tandem Properties, a strong supporter of that trio.

There is indeed much appeal for the 44-acre property that is located adjacent to both the UCD campus and the core area of town. As currently promoted, it could provide anywhere from between 400 apartment units to over 1000. And were it not for one very serious drawback, it would indeed be the prime area by which to develop.

In fact, the property appears not once but twice in the General Plan Housing Element report. In one iteration, it appears as the 17th rated property (Green light) and in the other as the 22nd rated property (Yellow light).

But the very reason Nishi has two iterations is the very reason why it is probably not a good site to develop at this point in time.

The reason that Nishi is a questionable location is that it has but one route into the core of the city via motor vehicle and that is along Olive Drive. Now the problem with Olive Drive is that it feeds into the heavily congested Richards Blvd. That is the most congested area of town and to put a location with a minimum of 1150 beds on that route is begging for trouble.

That is why the higher rated project does not even have access to Olive Drive. It would have vehicle access only through the university. So now you are putting a likely student development next the university which has no direct access to the city via motor vehicle.

The promoters of this project suggest this as a great way to enhance pedestrian and bike traffic from this site into the core of downtown. I do not knock the ideal of such a set up. But the fact that we would have to go through all of this just for a development leads me to question the usefulness of this development.

The HESC report suggests a number of things are needed in order for this arrangement and site to be explored. First, it would require UC Davis involvement which included granting access via car to campus. You would then have to analyze traffic, mitigation, and car management strategies for traffic toward campus. Remember we are talking over a thousand cars potentially being funneled through campus. We would have the relinquish the existing access easement to Olive Drive.

Do not get me wrong, none of these are deal breakers. Even the worst aspects of Nishi aside from the poor vehicular access to the core--noise from the railroad and the freeway and the fact that it is prime agricultural land--are not deal breakers.

However, the question remains whether student housing, and that is what we are talking about with Nishi primarily, student housing, would not be better utilized at a different location on campus.

We all have dreams about encouraging people to use alternative forms of transportation. This is not encouragement. This would be literally forcing people to do just that. If want to develop close to downtown, the PG&E site and an area just on campus would make far more sense than Nishi. Neither of those sites are encumbered by lack of traffic access and yet, because of their proximity to the downtown they would do the same thing.

Intentionally designing areas that are cut off via motor vehicle from other areas is asking for problems.

The real question is would these areas be promoted if they were not Whitcombe sponsored projects? Many people have questioned a decision not to accept money for developers, but the nice thing about not accepting money from the developers is that there is no question in anyone's mind about the promotion of one property over another. Sue Greenwald can promote the PG&E site because not only is she not taking money from a developer, but there is no one actively promoting it.

People are concerned about student housing and housing overall. The question is really, where is it best to develop. I think we need to look within our current borders to achieve our housing needs. I also think that we need to work with the university as a means to meeting the needs of students. UC Davis has one of the lowest on campus housing percentages in the UC System. And yet at the same time, UC Davis has a lot more land available to meet those needs than the city.

Creating an area in the city, cut off from the city has inherent problems. That's why this centrally located site only rated 17. Having it connected to the city, presents more problems. At this point, developing Nishi has too many drawbacks. There are simply other areas, more conveniently located, that would do the same thing as Nishi. And yet, because it is associated with John Whitcombe, Nishi will always be on someone's radar.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting