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Monday, June 02, 2008

Commentary: Growth, Growth, Growth

There are actually a lot of issues in Davis that do not involve growth directly. But as the city council campaign winds down, in the end it is all about growth.

How is Davis going to grow, where, and how fast? To answer that let us look at the key questions from this council and before the next council.

Measure J Renewal and Measure X

The first answer toward that is the question of Measure J's renewal.

Two former Mayors and a Former Davis Councilmember, Ken Wagstaff, Julie Partansky, and Stan Forbes, each who sat on the council that would put Measure J on the ballot weighed in on that yesterday in the Davis Enterprise.

They write:
"No on X proved we need to keep Measure J: The obvious demonstration of Measure J's merits was the Covell Village/Measure X election in 2005. Having approved a subdivision of more than 1,800 homes, the council was required by the Measure J law to have the project ratified by the voters.

Most of the homes to be sold by the project would have been unaffordable to the average Davis worker. Traffic on Covell Boulevard would have been 'intolerable,' according to the environmental impact report. Despite the developer outspending the citizen opposition by more than 10 to 1, the voters rejected the project by a 60 percent no vote.

Had there been no Measure J, a massive project the public did not want would have gone forward. The only way the community could have stopped it would have been to create an organization to gather thousands of signatures and force a referendum vote.

Some say the public should not have the right to vote on growth issues. We disagree. Growth fundamentally affects our quality of life. It affects the taxes we pay. It is vital that citizens have the insurance that Measure J provides.

Moreover, it is evident that City Councils do not always act consistent with the public will. Even after their approval of Covell Village was soundly rejected by the voters, at least two members of the council, one of whom is seeking re-election, tried to justify what they did by saying the public just didn't understand the project. After countless public hearings, and after the Covell Village developers spent more than $500,000 trying to 'educate' the public about their plans, this attitude is condescending and insulting to the voters.

The next council will determine whether Measure J is left intact or gutted. We believe the reasons Measure J was necessary when enacted remain unchanged. Indeed, given the experience of Covell Village/Measure X, the necessity of Measure J is even more manifest."
The differences on Measure X/ Covell Village among these candidates is clear. Sue Greenwald, Rob Roy, and Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald opposed Measure X in 2005 and will oppose a new iteration of it if it comes forward. Don Saylor and Stephen Souza led the charge for Measure X and would likely support a new version of it. Sydney Vergis claims she also supported Measure X and would support a new version of it.

1% Growth Guideline

There are really two issues here--one is how fast we grow and one is where we grow.

The council recently renewed the 1% growth guideline. During the Measure X debate, we were told repeatedly that if we did not meet the mandated growth demands, Steve Gidaro would come in and impose growth on us whether we liked it or not.

Now the message coming from Souza and Saylor is that the 1% is a cap and a target, not a mandate. They cite our relatively growth rate the last four years. Sydney Vergis has been advocating a broad range of new housing to meet our housing needs including development on the Nishi property.

Sue Greenwald, Rob Roy, and Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald have suggested that 1% is too fast to grow. We should look to approve housing based on the projects not based on some artificial growth cap. Moreover, the RHNA mandate is for considerably lower than 1% to meet our internal housing needs.

What is clear is based on Housing Element Steering Committee's report, most of the growth in the next decade or more can be met with infill development. Both sides somewhat agree on that while disagreeing on what infill is. Both Wildhorse Ranch and Nishi would require Measure J votes, but some have suggested given their locations that they are really infill. Then again, they have called Covell infill as well. None of them meet the true definition of infill.

There are basically two key components of infill. First, it must take place within existing communities or established areas of the city. It could be a vacant lot or a piece of land with dilapidated buildings. Second, they must have existing city services and infrastructure. Neither Nishi, Covell, nor the Horse Ranch fit those definitions. They all currently have agricultural uses, none of them are within the city, and none of them have existing city services already within them.

Regardless, of the definition of infill, we have heard constant rhetoric about as Saylor puts it, "canaries in the coal mine," the danger signs of lack of growth. Souza laments the number of students who have to commute into Davis. Sydney Vergis talks about the need for a range of housing so that generations can live together in Davis.

All of them suggest that while they do not support sprawl (Covell is not sprawl to them apparently), they are concerned that people who live and work at UC Davis have to commute to Davis.

Frankly I think everyone is concerned about this issue, there are a range of solution to it being offered.

However, when they start talking about only 44 new housing permits, it begins me wondering about something. There is an argument that the cost of housing in Davis is so high because of our slow growth policies. They are argue that these policies are making Davis an elitist exclusive town. And that the answer to affordability is of course to build more houses.

A few weeks ago, we showed a data analysis that suggested that there no relationship between the number of residential permits and the cost of housing. The cost of housing in Davis trended almost exactly with the cost of housing in Sacramento.

One of the reasons Measure J passed is that in 1998 there 1013 new housing permits followed by 954 in 1999. That's roughly a 3% growth rate based on current figures.

What Souza and Saylor do not tell you is that they have overseen a period with among the slowest growth in Davis for the past several decades. In 2002, we had 307 new housing permits followed by 277 in 2003. In 2004, the year they took office we had 135, then 250 in 2005, 104 in 2006, and just 44 last year.

What happened? Some will say this is a manifestation of our slow growth policies. But what really happened is that they pushed for Measure X/ Covell Village in 2005. When that was rejected by the voters, they had no back up plan. They put all of their eggs in the Measure X basket.

When Souza and Saylor complain about the lack of growth in Davis, they are as much to blame as anyone. They backed a Measure J project that was too large and the public did not buy and then had nothing else to offer for two years. So despite a 4-1 pro-growth majority from 2004-2006 and a 3-2 pro-growth majority (which is really all you need to pass things in Davis anyway) from 2006-2008, the Souza-Saylor led council has resided over one of the slowest growth periods in Davis history.

It is therefore somewhat ironic when you hear people like Sue Greenwald or others pushing some of the infill development plans and people are skeptical that they will ever get built.

The best opportunities for growth that actually meets our internal needs rather than feeding more commuters as Covell Village would have, rest in projects around the core of Davis and also with the university. The university houses among the fewest students on campus of any university. They have the most available land to expand student housing and that would alleviate the 1% apartment vacancy rate in the city of Davis.

I have heard Souza and Saylor complain about that rate at almost every council campaign forum, yet no one ever asked them what they have done during their four years on the council to address that. Covell Village certainly was not going to address that.

My own preference for growth would be to look toward some of the infill sites and put in smaller units--duplexes, condos, and town houses. Put them near the core of town so that people do not have to drive to downtown. Work with the university to help provide housing for students and new faculty members. If you are concerned about families with children moving into Davis, the best thing we can do is provide housing for young university employees who are most likely to have families. I do not see a need to build outside the current boundaries of Davis for at least the next general plan period. Smaller, more affordable units, can accomodate much of our so-called internal housing demand and if we do it right, we can meet those needs within the current boundaries of our town.

Getting Back To Measure J

The three strongest candidates on preserving and maintaining Measure J are Sue Greenwald, Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald and Rob Roy. Both Don Saylor and Sydney Vergis have suggested looking at possible changes to Measure J. Ms. Vergis in particular has suggested it is long, cumbersome, and complicated and wishes to make non-substantive changes to streamline it.

The problem with that approach, as we showed a few weeks back is that Measure J is long but it is very straight forward in terms of its language.

The framer's of Measure J were very thorough in their work to insure that there were no loopholes to the ordinance. However, the language itself is simple, direct, and to the point. Any attempt to streamline the ordinance would actually weaken it greatly.

For that reason, for those who view Measure J and a key component of our land use policy and a key feature of the democratic nature of this city, ought to support those candidates who would continue the measure in its current form and seek to make it permanent.

Preserving the Character of Davis

Everyone talks about the character of Davis. For me it is about the charm and atmosphere of this city. You walk through the core of town and there is a unique feel. Of all the things that have happened under the current city council, one of the moves that I disliked the most was the B-Street Visioning Project.

That old neighborhood directly east of campus between A Street and Russell is one of my favorite places in all of Davis. As you walk down third, you really feel that you are in a college town. You have the shops, the students, the old cottages, and you just have a feel for it. It is the part of town when I first visited in 1993 prior to becoming a graduate student, that I fell in love with and one of the reasons I applied to come to school here and eventually made it my home.

I understand the need for more density if we are not going to grow beyond our current borders. But you also have to do it while maintaining the character of Davis. At times in this city, we have done a great job with the concept of adaptive re-use. Taking an existing structure and adapting it to a new use. I have been less of fan when we tear down an old structure and build a new one. There are a lot of ways we could have revamped B-Street while maintaining the character of that neighborhood. This was not one of them.

Some have questioned the feasibility of the PG&E site. But there is so much that it has to offer while maintaining the rest of downtown as the walkable, bikeable, small town feel.

Regardless of what happens tomorrow, there are many issues with which this city has to wrestle with and the Vanguard will continue to be on the front lines of those issues.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting