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Monday, July 28, 2008

Housing Element's Plan Looks Bleak But There is Some Hope for Consensus Building

A fascinating story this morning the Sacramento Bee by Hudson Sangree.

In it, there is a discussion of the Housing Element Steering Committee's (HESC) housing plan. From the onset there were 15 members, 3 appointed by each of the councilmembers. The assumption was that with a 3-2 split on council between those aligned with local developers and those favoring less growth, that there would be a 9-6 pro-growth majority.

However, according to Vice Chair Mark Siegler, a Sue Greenwald appointee, that's not what happened.

According to the article:
"It came as a surprise when a committee of 15 residents, appointed by council members to help shape the future of Davis, worked together for a year and reached agreement on an innovative housing plan.

It proposes modest growth within the city's current borders. Infill projects deemed beneficial to the city would get priority."
Mark Siegler is quoted saying:
"It was sort of an amazing outcome... I was ready to go in there and just do battle to the death."
Instead now the fear is that the plan that was meticulously worked on over the course many months would be undermined by the city council with very different agendas and ideas than the committee members.
"Over the course of several months, we came to much more of a middle ground... I wouldn't be surprised if members of the City Council are not happy with the outcome based on who they appointed... I hope they don't just dismiss this thing out of hand."
HESC Chairman Kevin Wolf said:
"We have the political consensus to force the City Council in a new direction."
However, if the meeting last week is any indication, this consensus is about to break down into the usual fighting.

For example, Councilmember Stephen Souza and Don Saylor want to push for developing the Nishi property which was ranked No.17 by the steering committee. Mayor Ruth Asmundson complained that some of the properties like the PG&E site and the school district headquarters are not feasible since no one determined if the current occupants would be willing to move or develop their properties.

On the other side of fence, Councilmember Lamar Heystek worried that the list would lead to an artificial means by which to induce growth. Councilmember Sue Greenwald argued vehemently last week the city does not need to grow given the weak market.

However, in my discussion with Lamar Heystek on KDRT Radio last week, he agreed that the city council had considerable room for consensus building. There are clear philosophical differences between the two sides over the rate of growth and the willingness to develop on Measure J sites, however, there is also significant agreement on other areas.

The reason the HESC was able to come to consensus is that they avoided the more contentious "how much issue" and went toward the "where" issue. And in the immediate future, almost everyone agreed that we ought to grow in infill sites near the city's core and move out.

The council majority of Souza, Saylor, and Asmundson have a choice. They certainly have the votes and the recent election results to push forward with any agenda they see fit to seek. On the other hand, strategically speaking, they may be better off tackling development projects where they have basic agreement on location first.

As the HESC report makes clear, there are more than enough of these infill projects to meet either the low end RHNA numbers for the next five years or even the high end, 1% growth cap numbers without looking to a single peripheral project.

However, there are still a lot of pitfalls along the way.

Covell Village: The return of Covell Village is one thing to look at. The group formerly known as the Covell Partners has repackaged the project splitting the development into three segments. The first segment which would be on the lower third is looking towards senior housing. Senior housing is probably the next huge hot potato in general. There is a divide within the community about the need for senior housing and the type of senior housing. Some have suggested that senior housing internal needs are small and any big project would pull from a more regional and even statewide basis, others suggest that residents in Davis ought to be able to move their senior parents into closer proximity.

The form of senior housing is another question. Some have suggested that ideally smaller condos are better suited for seniors than senior-only segregated communities. The argument here is that many seniors want to downsize, but not live in senior-only communities. Some seniors do not even want to downsize.

Nishe: If one looks to location alone this Measure J project would be ideal. But there is a huge hurdle--that is lack of road access. The only access right now would be the narrow Olive Drive leading to the congested Richard Blvd interchange. The road access is so prohibitive that developers have suggested having only campus access for cars and otherwise only direct access to the rest of the city via bicycle or pedestrian traffic. Sounds good in theory, but recognizing the need for special traffic provisions illustrates the pitfall of the development. One alternative might be to give it to the university and have the university use it to expand it's on-campus housing base.

Lewis Property: This is the property that divides the progressive community. On the one hand, many believe that Lewis is an ideal place to develop as means to accommodate growth demands while at the same time not paving over farm land. The fact that it's already paved over and has some of the infrastructure needs plays into that desire. Still, others worry about provisions that Lewis is developed with a mind toward its more controversial eastern neighbor, Covell. While Lewis is considerably smaller than Covell, some of the same concerns that plagued Covell, apply to Lewis. Others such as Councilmember Sue Greenwald have been steadfastly pressing for high tech industry, arguing that we have few high tech zoned sites, that this is the ideal way to bring in new industry, and that the site is not conducive to residential development. The current owners however are pressing hard for a residential development. This is not a Measure J site, and it seems like that the residential side will eventually win this fight much to the chagrin of a number of others.

Wildhorse Horse Ranch: This is another peripheral site that would trigger a Measure J vote. The property came up for consideration early this spring and the meeting was largely an unmitigated disaster as neighbors complained about the project and even council would-be supporters seemed close to pulling the plug on the deal. However, the project has been re-worked. Many of the neighbors are if not supportive of the project, at the very least had their criticism muted. This is likely the next Measure J project Davis will vote on. Probably sometime in 2009. How will it go? It's only 40 acres. The project is said to be extremely environmentally innovative on the cutting edge. If the neighbors are brought along it could pass. If the neighbors remained as outspoken as they were at the last meeting before Council, it is a different story.

Those projects represent varying levels of political opposition. There are other projects within the city limits that would be slam dunks. I still believe one of the biggest mistakes of Covell Village was the timing. The council put all of their eggs into one basket on development and as a result, when Covell was voted down, there was nothing left in the queue. The result, few new housing permits the last three years of city council. The pro-growth majority, for a two-year stretch, a 4-1 pro-growth majority oversaw the period of the slowest growth in recent Davis history.

The question at this point is whether the council majority has learned a true lesson from Covell Village. The lesson is not that people do not want growth. However the lesson is also not that they did not explain the project or sell it well enough. The lesson is that the council tried to do too much, too quickly, with one project that was easy for people to understand the consequences of and easy for people to oppose. Moreover, it was polarizing. If the council can avoid polarizing future votes and issues, and instead form broader community consensus, much as the HESC was able to do, they will be successful. If they cannot, their majority will likely be lost.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting