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Monday, November 10, 2008

The Campaign for Senior Housing at Covell Village Continues

Given the election last week and slew of issues surrounding the election that came up, the Vanguard is just now getting around to what turned out to be a very interesting and important meeting on Wednesday night.

Three years ago this month, a proposed development at Covell Village was defeated by a massive grassroots effort. The overwhelming defeat of Measure X by nearly a 60-40 margin has not slowed efforts to develop the property that is bordered by Pole Line and Covell Blvd.

Instead, the would-be developers of the property have changed tactics and changed the form of the would-be development. Now they are looking at a senior development.

Slowly and methodically, they are building toward a community consensus on the need for senior housing. They have done this by meeting with key stakeholders in the community and also senior groups, selling the case that the community of Davis is in need of more senior housing and that their property offers the ideal location for that development.

Earlier this year, we got a window into their tactics when an email sent to various prospective supporters was leaked to the Vanguard. The email contained instructions on how to raise the profile of Covell Village at the Housing Element Steering Committee's (HESC) workshop. They laid out in that email, very specific instructions for both demonstrating the need for senior housing as a priority as well as showing support for expanding city boundaries. However, the leak of that email to the Vanguard and the general public, thwarted efforts at that point to change the HESC's assessment of the feasibility and need for housing at Covell Village.

What is clear however is that while opponents of Covell Village sleep, the developers remain hard at work. We flash forward to Wednesday night, where a well organized group of seniors came forward to speak at city council during a discussion of the HESC's report and the next steps that the council would take with that report.

From this meeting, the group was clearly well-coached. They laid out the need for senior housing. This was done with two key points that were made. Seniors generally do not need large homes which are too bid for them to care for and inefficient in terms of energy usage--heating, electricity, and cooling. Second, that seniors wish to remain in the community but sometimes cannot due to lack of senior housing options in the community. They made these points and yet there was never one mention of Covell Village--the obvious focal point of this strategy.

At a certain and critical level, the seniors are correct on these two issues. Allowing seniors to downsize would free up larger housing for new home owners. And many Davis residents would like to stay in Davis, and the community ought to accommodate them.

However, from my experience not as a senior but talking to many seniors, the questions that need to asked and discussed are not whether we need more housing options for our seniors, but how best to provide them.

Here is where consensus breaks down. One idea is the senior-based community that would provide housing for seniors in a close-knit and segregated community. However, many seniors do not want to live in a seniors-only community. They enjoy a more mixed community where families with children and even students also live.

Second, it is the fear of many if we build a large senior-development that we would end up accommodating large numbers of people from across the region. There is nothing wrong with doing that, but if our goal is to provide for our current housing needs for local demand, building a large development may not serve that need very well. Even a somewhat smaller Eleanor Roosevelt Circle ended up serving more people from outside the city than from inside the city.

Third, the question is what type of housing would work best for seniors. Some have suggested instead of facility like an Eleanor Roosevelt Circle, a series of smaller condominiums and townhouses may be the best fit. An added advantage there might be that we could build a small amount over time which would serve the senior population.

The big issue here is that we are again facing the prospect of developer driven development. It is clear that the Covell Village partners are driving the discussion here and in so doing, we are not getting perhaps a clear picture of what seniors in this community actually want.

Thus my first suggestion would be to find out what seniors actually want. How many people are looking to downsize from their current homes? How many people would like to live in a Senior-only community? How many people would be willing to trade for a smaller existing home with another resident?

This type of inquiry should occur not at the behest of a developer, but rather with leadership from groups like the Senior Citizen's Commission. Let us determine what the internal housing demand really is for seniors, what seniors really want, the numbers that we are really talking about, and the time frame that we are really looking at.

My fear is that if we were to say build a senior housing facility in the next five years, it would get filled up largely with people from outside of the area. I am not against people from outside of the area moving in, but there is a problem with that happening if our purpose is to first provide for our local senior housing needs.

To put it in concrete terms, Janice Bridge, the former school board member and proponent of Measure X, got up on Wednesday evening to suggest that she will be looking for senior housing in the next 10 to 15 years. Let us say we build Covell in the next five years. It fills up with people from outside the community since she is not quite ready to move in there. Where is she going to live?

These are some of the reasons that the community needs to figure out its housing needs independently of a developer driven campaign to create the impression that senior housing in this form is a critical need. Again, I am not suggesting that we do not need senior housing, what I am suggesting is that we need to find out what the real need is and we need to figure that out from a more independent source.

In the meantime, opponents of Covell Village better be aware that as they sleep at night, the Covell Partners are hard at work fostering strong community consensus behind their latest project. They have learned from past mistakes and are slowly and methodically bringing stakeholders into line. By the time Measure Y gets on the ballot, it might be too late to change things.

---David M. Greenwald reporting