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Friday, December 05, 2008

Paradigm Shift: A Bold New Plan for Davis

During the course of the last Davis City Council campaign, one of the big debates was the extent to which Davis needs more housing. The argument from the pro-development candidates was always that we do not have enough housing to fill our internal needs. For them, we needed more student housing because of a large number of students who do not reside in Davis, we need more faculty and workforce housing, we need more senior housing. To them this means we need developments like Nishi and Covell Village.

I do not necessarily disagree with some of this. I have always said that if you give me a housing development I can support, I would be happy to do so. The problem I have is that most of the current proposals for new housing, especially those outside of the city, are not especially appealing. I'm not a fan of the newer subdivisions in town which have predominantly large houses and neighborhoods that could really be part of any city in this state and really this country. I want to see new and innovative urban design. And frankly I have not seen that. I want to see as Stephen Souza would say, the wow factor.

During the campaign, one of the things we talked about as slower growth advocates, was the need for UC Davis to provide its fair share of housing. West Village in some ways is a good start, but not really all that innovative, and not really what I was primarily getting at. UC Davis has the lowest percentage of on-campus student housing in the UC system. Think about that. That means that the city of Davis is responsible for finding housing for up to and exceeding three-quarters of the thirty thousand or so students who attend the university. A town of 64,000 people has to provide for nearly 50% of its population. If UC Davis could just provide a larger percentage of housing on campus, in an environmentally friendly and sustainable manner it could be a huge pressure release for growth on Davis.

Keep this in mind as I share the next portion of this story. As many regular readers know, I grew up in San Luis Obispo. San Luis Obispo is a similar city to Davis in some respects. It is a college town, in fact, a very similar college to UC Davis with a large degree of cross-applicants because of similar programs. Cal Poly has about 18,000 students and the city of San Luis Obispo is also somewhat smaller at 44,000 people in population. I attended Cal Poly for undergraduate school.

This past week over Thanksgiving, my wife and I went down to San Luis Obispo to visit my family who still lives there. During the course of the week, Cecilia and I drove to Cal Poly and around the campus. I guess I have not been on campus in a while because I was startled to see a huge new student housing development. We drove through it, and let me tell you, talk about WOW factor. The housing development blew us away.

It is called Poly Canyon Village, named after Poly Canyon a popular hiking and jogging area that extends from the Cal Poly campus up into the foothills of the local mountain range. Very scenic.

Poly Canyon Village from what we could see at night was a very dense development, but it was huge, with four story buildings, and in the center of them, a good array of amenities--coffee shops, eateries, a mini-grocery store, a bank, another store. There is a good sized parking garage. A gym with a swimming pool. It was really impressive.

Our thoughts as we drove through Poly Canyon Village: this is what UC Davis needs. We want to believe we are innovative and on the cutting edge, but we quite simply are not.

I have since done some research on the project. It has 2700 units on 30 acres of land. Talk about density. And yet, despite that density, it is well-done and very appealing and attractive. It is the largest on-campus housing development in the nation. It is the first LEED-certified student housing in the CSU system. The project contains nine four and five-story buildings. And these are apartment-style units, usually four bedrooms with a common kitchen. The size is from 900 to 1100 square feet, so these are good sized units.

It is a fully sustainable project. I am not going to sit here and advocate for an identical project for Davis or UC Davis. What I am going to argue for is that we take this as a model, a goal, and then we improve upon it and adapt to make it work here. This is what we need. Imagine an innovative, environmentally sustainable, carbon neutral, energy neutral development on the edge of the UC Davis campus that could provide housing, on-campus, for 3000 students just for starters. These students do not need to drive because they can bike and walk everywhere. There are amenities right there. It's a mixed-used housing development right on campus. But they will have access to parking and roads for when they want to drive. That would free up a large number of housing units in the city. Those housing units could then supply housing to faculty and staff.
One of the big advantages of on-campus housing is that the university can subsidize it and make it more affordable for the students. In addition, it would free up West Village to become a staff and faculty housing development. We often complain about the price of housing in Davis, but Davis is really neither unique in that respect nor is it worse than other university towns. I've often discussed on this blog and shared others what they do at Stanford to attract young assistant professors. UC Davis could develop their own system by which young professors can get housing near the campus and build equity with that housing. There are models out there, we simply can look at these models and adapt them to our own unique situation.

My biggest problem is not the development but the kind of development we want to create. We need to change the way we do things if we want to have a future. I am not just talking about this community. I am talking about on a national and global scale. Poly Canyon Village has almost 50 percent more housing units on less than one tenth the land that Covell Village proposed. That is what we need to do and the great thing is that you don't feel like it is overwhelmingly dense. It is attractive, it is nice, it is a place I would have loved to have lived in as a student.

It is time that UC Davis and Davis make a paradigm shift with a bold new plan.

---David M. Greenwald