Guest Commentary: Housing Element of the City General Plan

by Kevin Wolf

On Sunday January 13 in the Vanguard, Matt Williams reviewed the state law that requires the City of Davis to respond to the Regional Housing Needs Allocation as well as the state’s General Plan requirements for housing. Matt does a good job of explaining the purposes and logistics of the General Plan/Housing Element Update Steering Committee’s work and the importance of its second public workshop scheduled for January 24.

My interest in being involved in the committee’s work and my support for the Covell Village project in 2005 comes from my commitment to our bioregion’s environment, economy, schools, affordable housing, and the enormous problems that will be caused by the pending calamity of Peak Oil, which will cause inflation, induce panic over shortages of supply, result in very high priced gas and present numerous dangers to civil society.

Throughout the greater Sacramento region, cities and towns have been growing and, in the process, prime ag land and essential habitat has been disappearing. Population growth comes predominantly from immigration into the area because of jobs, though internal birthrates also contribute.

The City of Davis contributes to the regional growth through immigration, mostly through the university’s increasing student population and associated hiring of more staff and employees. Evidence of the larger student population’s impact shows up in apartment vacancy rates, which have recently dropped to below 1%. Low vacancy rates result in higher rents, more students doubling up in rooms, increased parking problems and more students and staff commuting in and out of town. Increasing jobs and employment opportunities in town increase the number of people who commute to Davis as is evidenced in the increased inflow and outflow of people on and off I-80, Hwy 113, and Pole Line Rd and on Regional Transit and Amtrak.

A city that doesn’t grow in accordance with regional growth or with its own internal job (and university student) growth creates winners and losers. Winners include the owners of apartment complexes and people who want to sell their houses with a price premium gained because of a high demand and low supply. Losers include just about everyone else with the impacts including:

  • Poorer air quality in the region as more people drive further to get to work and go to school in Davis.
  • An aging population lowering attendance in public schools and associated financial problems.
  • More traffic on arterials coming into and out of town.
  • Increase energy use and carbon pollution that will occur both from increased driving to school and jobs in town and because housing outside of Davis traditionally uses more energy per person because Davis building cods result in more efficient energy use in homes.
Among my primary motivations to provide housing for the growing number of students and employees in town is to reduce the regional loss of habitat and prime agricultural land. When growth occurs in Davis, far less habitat and ag land is lost then if that growth is shifted to Woodland, Vacaville, Dixon or the suburbs around Sacramento. Davis has approximately twice the density compared to these areas, which means for every acre developed in Davis, two acres won’t be developed elsewhere.

In addition, Davis is the only city in the region that requires two acres of ag land be protected for every acre lost to development. (An exception to this is Lewis Homes Cannery Project which doesn’t have to mitigate any of the 98.4 acres of land it will develop as it is in the city limits and is not presently subject to this requirement of our General Plan, even though the whole northern half of the property has good ag soils and provides habitat for a number of species.) Most cities in the region do not require that a developer protect any ag land or habitat when they pave over raw land.

The Housing Element Steering Committee asked the public for feedback on what principles and goals we should use to prioritize where new growth should occur. I was pleased to see how high my priorities aligned with those who attended our first workshop.

Whether it was concerns over global warming, air pollution, Peak Oil or because people wanted less traffic and driving, the top five highest rated principles included increasing bike and walking mobility which translates into placing new housing near the downtown and university and/or close to schools and shopping.

A second highly ranked concern was the protection of ag land. I translate this to mean that Davities prefer we grow at higher densities than lower densities, or for some that we don’t grow at all. For example Lewis Homes’ Cannery Project will eat up one acre of land for every six units it develops even though its densities will average 8 – 22 units per acre. The reason for the lower average for the 98 acres is because of the land that gets taken up by streets, drainage ponds, parks and non-residential buildings. If we increase a site’s density by six units, we will have save an acre of ag land or habitat from being lost in the future.

I argue that those who say “protect ag land and habitat, don’t grow around Davis” fail to take into account that all growth in the region is on ag land or on important habitat and higher density growth in Davis results in less loss of ag land and habitat in the region, as well as provides permanent protection for endangered land that would likely otherwise be developed.

One of the most interesting debates the committee has had concerns the possible development of the Nishi Property. This is the 40 plus acres of land West of Olive Drive between the railroad and I-80. It’s ag land that is not well used because of its isolation from the rest of the farm and its shape. It is within walking distance of the downtown and the university. Over 600 units of housing could be developed on it, even more if we allowed the buildings to reach six stories high. Some members of the committee oppose this site because it will increase traffic on Richards Blvd and through the under crossing. Others oppose it because they think people shouldn’t live so close to freeways. To me, this is an example of a site where the benefits of development far outweigh the negatives.

Every major development (and probably most smaller ones) comes with a mix of positives and negatives. Infill sites take away open space in a neighborhood and add more traffic in that area. Every major new development will destroy ag land and/or habitat. Every development will cause additional traffic problems. For example, without being connected to Covell Village, all the traffic from 600 homes at the Cannery Project will dump on to Covell and/or J Street. There isn’t a site on the Committee’s list that doesn’t have some negatives.

The Steering Committee, the City Council, and ultimately, with any new major development outside of existing city limits, the citizens of Davis should prioritize those developments that do the most good in relationship to the negatives they cause. I argue that Nishi should be the top major new development because, with the huge disturbances that Peak Oil will cause and our need to reduce carbon pollution, the inconveniences of increased traffic on Richards and through the underpass will be minor in comparison to the benefits of a couple thousand people or more living within walking distance of the downtown and campus. There is also a reasonable chance that a build out of Nishi will reduce traffic through the underpass if the people who live there used to drive into town through the underpass. Almost no one who lives at Nishi would drive around through the underpass to go to campus and park when they could walk or ride a bike much more quickly, and cheaply.

The argument that people shouldn’t be allowed to live near freeways because it endangers their health needs to be put into perspective. People who live near ag land that is sprayed with chemicals are endangering their health. People whose houses have mold or who use chemicals in their homes are endangering their health. People should be allowed to make their own decisions. They may choose to live near the freeway and walk to campus and downtown versus living further away and driving, which endangers everyone’s health, our planet and our economy.

I made a request that the Steering Committee go on record telling the public how they personally rank the principles and goals that guide our housing location decisions. Unfortunately I was in the minority on that proposal and you won’t get to know, in writing, the motivations that guide each member’s decisions. I also tried to convince the committee and city staff to support producing a web based survey that would hopefully would tell us how thousands of Davisites would rank the principles and goals and then use that information to help guide us, and the City Council in our choices. If you can come to the workshop on Jan 24 you will be given a chance to review principles and goals document and prioritize them for yourself before you review the committees work on ranking the sites.

On the Nov 29 section of committee’s website, you can find the principles and goals and read each members’ ranking of the sites and try to guess. It is an interesting exercise to try to figure out how consistently some members used the principles and goals to guide their choices. If you look at mine, you should notice that I prioritized sites based on which, if developed, would result in the least amount of driving.

You may wonder why I ranked Lewis Homes Cannery Project so low. My argument to the committee is that the 98 acres developed there wouldn’t result in any additional land being protected because the site is presently exempt from this condition of the General Plan. The city has lots of other good sites it can develop, and it should wait on the Cannery site until it joins with Covell Village in a united project for that area, and Lewis Homes offers to permanently protect two acres of ag land protected for each acre it develops.

If we think out 30 years and have a 1% growth rate, which would be among the very lowest in the region, we will build out just about every one of the 37 sites presented to our committee if we build at the density proposed for Grande (39 homes on 7 acres) or Lewis Homes (6 homes per acre). In every location, we need to build wonderful, engaging, and highly energy efficient homes, townhouses, condos and apartments at higher densities than in the past to reduce the amount of driving that is needed by residents and to protect ag land and habitat in the region. I hope my work on the Housing Committee helps achieve that.

Kevin Wolf chairs the Davis General Plan Housing Element Steering Committee. The views presented above are his and should not be construed as representing those of the committee as a whole.

Author

  • David Greenwald

    Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

Categories:

Land Use/Open Space

116 comments

  1. Just a quick note from the Blog Editor:

    I wanted to personally thank Kevin Wolf for agreeing to write a guest commentary. He did so knowing that his views would probably diverge from those of the majority of people who read this blog.

    I would personally ask people who post to do so respectfully and avoid personal insults. I will enforce a zero tolerance policy for any personal attacks on guest commentators. This is likely to be the first of several guest pieces on this topic in the coming week ahead of the January 24 workshop.

  2. Just a quick note from the Blog Editor:

    I wanted to personally thank Kevin Wolf for agreeing to write a guest commentary. He did so knowing that his views would probably diverge from those of the majority of people who read this blog.

    I would personally ask people who post to do so respectfully and avoid personal insults. I will enforce a zero tolerance policy for any personal attacks on guest commentators. This is likely to be the first of several guest pieces on this topic in the coming week ahead of the January 24 workshop.

  3. Just a quick note from the Blog Editor:

    I wanted to personally thank Kevin Wolf for agreeing to write a guest commentary. He did so knowing that his views would probably diverge from those of the majority of people who read this blog.

    I would personally ask people who post to do so respectfully and avoid personal insults. I will enforce a zero tolerance policy for any personal attacks on guest commentators. This is likely to be the first of several guest pieces on this topic in the coming week ahead of the January 24 workshop.

  4. Just a quick note from the Blog Editor:

    I wanted to personally thank Kevin Wolf for agreeing to write a guest commentary. He did so knowing that his views would probably diverge from those of the majority of people who read this blog.

    I would personally ask people who post to do so respectfully and avoid personal insults. I will enforce a zero tolerance policy for any personal attacks on guest commentators. This is likely to be the first of several guest pieces on this topic in the coming week ahead of the January 24 workshop.

  5. I echo dpd’s comment. While I don’t agree with all of Kevin’s positions, he has clearly put a lot of thought into those positions . . . and shared them with us in a way that should promote some very interesting discussion.

  6. I echo dpd’s comment. While I don’t agree with all of Kevin’s positions, he has clearly put a lot of thought into those positions . . . and shared them with us in a way that should promote some very interesting discussion.

  7. I echo dpd’s comment. While I don’t agree with all of Kevin’s positions, he has clearly put a lot of thought into those positions . . . and shared them with us in a way that should promote some very interesting discussion.

  8. I echo dpd’s comment. While I don’t agree with all of Kevin’s positions, he has clearly put a lot of thought into those positions . . . and shared them with us in a way that should promote some very interesting discussion.

  9. I think that Kevin’s point about reducing driving is right on. If you look at the argument that we shouldn’t develop near freeways, such as the Nishi property, you begin to realize that freeways take a huge swath of land and render it unusable for any other purpose. I think that it is plausible to thoughtfully develop the land between the freeway and the train tracks. Our lives are certainly not pristine now, and will become less so in the future if we continue to spread.

  10. I think that Kevin’s point about reducing driving is right on. If you look at the argument that we shouldn’t develop near freeways, such as the Nishi property, you begin to realize that freeways take a huge swath of land and render it unusable for any other purpose. I think that it is plausible to thoughtfully develop the land between the freeway and the train tracks. Our lives are certainly not pristine now, and will become less so in the future if we continue to spread.

  11. I think that Kevin’s point about reducing driving is right on. If you look at the argument that we shouldn’t develop near freeways, such as the Nishi property, you begin to realize that freeways take a huge swath of land and render it unusable for any other purpose. I think that it is plausible to thoughtfully develop the land between the freeway and the train tracks. Our lives are certainly not pristine now, and will become less so in the future if we continue to spread.

  12. I think that Kevin’s point about reducing driving is right on. If you look at the argument that we shouldn’t develop near freeways, such as the Nishi property, you begin to realize that freeways take a huge swath of land and render it unusable for any other purpose. I think that it is plausible to thoughtfully develop the land between the freeway and the train tracks. Our lives are certainly not pristine now, and will become less so in the future if we continue to spread.

  13. Very interesting commentary. Thanks, Kevin, for walking into the lion’s den!
    It would be great if other task force members would provide their perspectives as well.
    Lots I agree with, some I disagree with. But you have clearly expressed the values that are guiding your decisions.

  14. Very interesting commentary. Thanks, Kevin, for walking into the lion’s den!
    It would be great if other task force members would provide their perspectives as well.
    Lots I agree with, some I disagree with. But you have clearly expressed the values that are guiding your decisions.

  15. Very interesting commentary. Thanks, Kevin, for walking into the lion’s den!
    It would be great if other task force members would provide their perspectives as well.
    Lots I agree with, some I disagree with. But you have clearly expressed the values that are guiding your decisions.

  16. Very interesting commentary. Thanks, Kevin, for walking into the lion’s den!
    It would be great if other task force members would provide their perspectives as well.
    Lots I agree with, some I disagree with. But you have clearly expressed the values that are guiding your decisions.

  17. I attended the last General Plan/Housing Element Update Steering Committee meeting and I strongly encourage others to attend future meetings.

    I agreed with some view points and differed with others, but in the end I was impressed with how the meeting was run and how people with different view points were allowed to express those viewpoints.

    I look forward to the meeting on the 24th and encourage people to attend and participate, so their opinions and suggestions can be heard and recorded.

  18. I attended the last General Plan/Housing Element Update Steering Committee meeting and I strongly encourage others to attend future meetings.

    I agreed with some view points and differed with others, but in the end I was impressed with how the meeting was run and how people with different view points were allowed to express those viewpoints.

    I look forward to the meeting on the 24th and encourage people to attend and participate, so their opinions and suggestions can be heard and recorded.

  19. I attended the last General Plan/Housing Element Update Steering Committee meeting and I strongly encourage others to attend future meetings.

    I agreed with some view points and differed with others, but in the end I was impressed with how the meeting was run and how people with different view points were allowed to express those viewpoints.

    I look forward to the meeting on the 24th and encourage people to attend and participate, so their opinions and suggestions can be heard and recorded.

  20. I attended the last General Plan/Housing Element Update Steering Committee meeting and I strongly encourage others to attend future meetings.

    I agreed with some view points and differed with others, but in the end I was impressed with how the meeting was run and how people with different view points were allowed to express those viewpoints.

    I look forward to the meeting on the 24th and encourage people to attend and participate, so their opinions and suggestions can be heard and recorded.

  21. Don: Just so you know, I’m hoping for two, maybe three others. Anyone else on the commission who wants to share their thoughts is free to contact me and I will promise you space.

  22. Don: Just so you know, I’m hoping for two, maybe three others. Anyone else on the commission who wants to share their thoughts is free to contact me and I will promise you space.