Growing pains in Davis

The town’s anti-development sensibilities are being challenged by low vacancy rates, a student influx and political changes

Davis City Councilwoman Sue Greenwald advocates for the city’s “quality of life” proponents.

Davis City Councilwoman Sue Greenwald advocates for the city’s “quality of life” proponents.

Photo by Larry Dalton

“I feel that if we approve this development, we’ll be inevitably signing someone’s death sentence,” Davis City Councilwoman Sue Greenwald declared at the council’s May 1 meeting.

Despite this concern she expressed about UC Davis students possibly being hit by trains as they crossed the tracks between campus and the proposed Olive Drive Apartments, the project was then approved by a majority of Greenwald’s colleagues, a rare victory for a developer like Reed Youmans in this stridently slow-growth town.

In the past, alarmist claims like Greenwald’s may have been enough to kill development projects. But that could be changing, thanks to a severe housing shortage and a majority of moderates that were elected to the City Council in March.

In addition to making her “death sentence” remarks, Greenwald cited several other “quality of life” concerns with Youmans’ development. (Like “moderate,” “quality of life” is a term loaded with Davis-specific meanings.) In years past, Greenwald’s detailed quality of life arguments concerning noise and exhaust fumes from the freeway probably would have carried enough weight to defeat Youmans’ latest proposed development.

Driven by their perception that Davis could lose its quirky individualistic charm if unchecked development were to take hold, local activists have done battle on many fronts. Their weapons of choice have been referenda, initiatives and taking a sometimes harsh and argumentative tone in speaking before the City Council, planning commission and other local bodies.

Their position regarding development in general is perhaps best summed up rhetorically by the wording of Measure J, the passage of which two years ago was hailed as a major victory for slow-growthers: “The unique character of the City of Davis and the quality of life enjoyed by City residents depends on the protection of agricultural and open space lands and natural habitats and reserves on its periphery … The protection of such land brings mental and physical benefits from the broad vistas at the urban edge onto open space and agricultural lands.”

Measure J requires a public vote for developing agricultural fields and other open spaces until 2008 when it expires. So in the meantime, strong demand for housing and rising rents have put pressure on the city to approve the kind of infill projects that Olive Drive Apartments represents.

The rising demand for housing is triggered largely by incoming students. By this fall quarter, the university’s enrollment is expected to grow to 28,394, its highest level ever, according to UCD spokesperson Julia Ann Easley. Easley also said that the current vacancy rate in Davis is about 0.3 percent.

In other words, the university’s population is now reaching critical mass proportions.

Demand for the shrinking number of vacant living spaces is about to go through the roof, according to campus planner Bob Segar. At a recent UCD Long Range Development Plan workshop, Segar stated that UCD is expecting an increase of 6,600 new students, 2,500 staff and 350 faculty over the next decade. By 2012, according to Segar’s projection, the university will have simply overwhelmed the housing currently available in Davis.

Just before the Olive Drive Apartments vote, Greenwald said she believes the immense anticipated increase in university population is causing a shift in the ground rules for City Council discussions about development.

“In the past,” she observed, “quality of life objections would have condemned a project like this. That’s why sites like this in Davis have never been developed.” Both she and Councilman Michael Harrington, her “progressive” ally on the council, exhaustively detailed the kinds of arguments that have worked so effectively for anti-development activists in the past, but to no avail this time.

The southern boundary of Youmans’ property lies, for example, 100 feet from the four lanes of Interstate 80 passing through the Richards Boulevard cloverleaf with its attendant on- and off-ramps. Greenwald pointed out that with the prevailing Delta breeze, Olive Drive Apartment dwellers will be subject to waves of hydrocarbons washing over from the freeway.

Greenwald also argued at length that the Davis General Plan mandated certain decibel levels for new construction within the city limits. She then cited studies indicating portions of Youmans’ property nearest the freeway sustained 65-75 decibels of traffic noise. Harrington then took up the tattered quality of life banner and suggested Youmans redesign his project so that the southern half of the property closest to the freeway could be left vacant.

Subsequently, with minimal commentary, the “moderate” majority—Mayor Susie Boyd and newly elected councilmembers Ted Puntillo and Ruth Asmundsen—voted to approve the new development.

So while city officials seem to be willing to do their part to deal with the housing crunch, they also want the university to do more, even at the price of creating perhaps the biggest growth battles this town has seen.

Unlike Reed Youmans, UC Davis can develop its lands without the City Council’s approval. For more than 18 months, the university has been conducting a lengthy series of the Long Range Development Plan workshops. Out of these conclaves have emerged three distinctive housing alternatives to be built on university land.

According to one scenario, development could be restricted to the existing campus within the boundaries of Highway 113 and I-80, providing housing for 25 percent of new students. The other 75 percent would have to live elsewhere and commute to Davis.

Another plan calls for building a small pre-fab town on 430 acres west of Highway 113. An activist attending a recent Long Range Development Plan workshop characterized this option—which would accommodate 5,940 new students, 1,000 staff and 260 faculty—“as nothing more than a company town divorced from the integrity of the city’s core area.”

In a recently released statement, Segar touted a new third option, what he called “a scaled-back expanded alternative” neighborhood to be built west of Highway 113. This option was quickly submitted in response to criticisms raised in the workshops against the first two alternatives.

This third alternative seems to offer the best chance that the distinctive quality of life activists have fought for in the past will remain an integral part of Davis. Estimated to include only about 260 acres, the new neighborhood would accommodate a mix of students, faculty and staff. Other student housing would be located on parcels throughout the city of Davis. Each of the new developments sited in the city would be scrutinized, activists vow, as vigorously as the Olive Drive Apartments to ensure they also include maximum quality of life amenities.

After the LRDP workshops are concluded this month, an internal debate among university planners will take place over the next few months. By the end of the year, one or more of the alternatives will be offered for further public input.

Community preservation advocates are already gearing up to have a say-so over the shape these alternatives will take. They have, in fact, already weighed in. As the university acknowledged, it would not have revised its proposals and conjured up its third alternative, the smaller town concept, without pressure from activists.

Signaling they’ve just begun to fight, residents of Village Homes, an innovative “eco-friendly” neighborhood located directly across Russell Boulevard from the proposed university town, say this scaled-back concept still calls for a development that’s too large and sprawling.

With articulate activists monitoring developers’ every move, one thing seems sure: Davis is not likely to morph, like its I-80 corridor neighbors Vacaville and Fairfield, into shapeless sprawl.