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The new U-Mall proposal – a monolithic mega-dorm fraught with problems

Davis needs an expanded retail project at U-Mall, not another mega-dorm

By Eileen M. Samitz

U Mall Fig 3-8

Project description

The owner of University Mall, Brixmor Property Group, has proposed a renovation of this important community shopping center that opened in 1966. The effort would demolish 90,563 sq. ft. of the existing University Mall building and replace it with a mixed-use development comprised of 136,800 sq. ft. of retail space, 264 multi-family housing units, and a 3-level, 246,000 sq. ft. parking structure.  The existing 13,200 sq. ft. Trader Joe’s store would remain, resulting in a shopping center with 150,000 sq. ft. of retail space. The ARCO service station on the southeast corner of the site is not part of the project. 

This “University Commons” project would total 795,300 sq. ft., meaning the retail space would occupy just 17% of the building area. The single greatest use of space would be the residential area, comprising 412,500 sq. ft., or almost 52%.  Parking would consume 246,000 sq. ft., or almost 31%.  Brixmor says the residential units could be rented by anyone, but concedes that most of the apartments will be occupied by students.  In other words, the project would become an ultra-dense residential project with window dressing retail that would likely focus on being student-serving, rather than the original intent of having businesses that serve the entire Davis community.

 Inherent problems with the U-Mall high-density mixed-use proposal

 There are many problems with this project proposal, where high-density housing dominates the project instead of retail, which is what the site was intended for – community serving retail. 

To begin with, the enormous mass of this proposal is completely out of scale at this site. The project proposal has a multitude of 7-story buildings, which would bring major impacts to nearby single-family neighborhoods. One of the residential buildings would actually have a pool on the roof with a recreational area that would resonate noise throughout neighborhoods near and far. These clearly would be luxury apartments and the project, so far, has no plan to provide affordable housing. 

The University Commons proposal has an excessively high number of rental housing units and inadequate parking consisting of 894 beds divided among 622 bedrooms, continuing the recent trend of student “mega-dorms” to accommodate UCD’s resistance to provide its own student housing. UCD is the largest UC with 5,300 acres and a 900 acre core-campus fully capable of providing at least 50% on-campus housing, like the other UCs, but is the only UC that has not committed to this in its Long Range Development Plan (LRDP).

In this U-Mall proposal, 1-bedroom units would be 25% of the total (66 bedrooms), 2-bedroom units, would comprise 40% (104) bedrooms and 10% (28) would be 3-bedroom apartments. However, the “tell” or tip-off of the project’s real intention is with it having 25% (66) being 4-bedroom apartments.  Four-bedroom apartments are primarily occupied by students pooling rent money, not working families, because these much larger and luxurious apartments are far too costly for any family to afford.  The additional problem this presents is, how many students will occupy each bedroom? If two or three or more students occupy each bedroom, then the combined impacts on traffic, circulation, parking and bike travel increase exponentially.

Another fundamental problem with this inappropriate and oversized mixed-use proposal for U-Mall is its grossly insufficient and poorly designed parking concept, a glaring example of the challenges inherent in melding the parking needs of a retail shopping center with a large multi-family housing complex.  Only a far more scaled down residential component project of the Draft EIR “Existing Zoning Mixed-Use Build Out Alternative” of a maximum of 53 residential units might be considered. In this alternative needing further evaluation, it should consist of primarily of 1- and 2- bedroom units, a few 3-bedrooms potentially and no 4 bedroom or larger units, ample parking for working residents and the retail. Approval of such a project would depend entirely on its design, the impacts it would impose and if there could be a parking plan that could actually protect the retail parking from being raided by residential users.

 The proposed project parking “plan” that cannot possibly work

The shopping center now has about 427 parking spaces and it is often difficult to find parking today. The proposed project would provide 693 parking spaces, of which 429 would be free parking for retail use, including 175 surface lot spaces. So, the project is adding 46,237 sq. ft. of retail (larger than grocery stores like Safeway), yet only adding 2 more parking spaces. The Draft EIR for the project says the 175 surface stalls would be free to retail customers only and would not be permitted for residential parking, residential guest parking, or student parking during business hours. 

The new, 3-level parking structure would have 518 parking spaces, comprised of 264 stalls on the 3rd floor exclusively for residents and 254 retail parking spaces on the 1st and 2nd floors with monthly fees charged to residents.  

The December 11th Planning Commission staff report states that “Parking management for the structured parking and surface level parking would be actively supervised by on-site property management and regulated by access control technology.” However, the problem is that there is no way that any “parking management” can guarantee continual availability of the free parking needed for retail shoppers. The on-site residents will continually seek ways to use the free retail parking, even if for just a few hours.  For instance, the free parking would inevitably be used by visitors of the 894 residents of this enormous project, or occupied by any of the multiple cars per apartment. The “hop-scotch” of parked cars game would occur here like downtown now, with drivers relocating their cars every few hours to out-maneuver ticketing by City’s parking patrol.  Retail stores in general are dependent upon the availability of free parking to survive. Brick-and mortar stores are having enough trouble surviving and our City desperately needs the sales tax revenue from these retail stores.

Not enough residential parking

There are multiple problems with so few parking spaces proposed.  First, there would be 894 occupants and given that Brixmor expects almost all of the residents to be driving age students, the actual parking “demand” will obviously be much higher than 264 spaces. Even residents of the proposed project who are workers would often need more than one car, particularly if they were a couple with one or more children. An important point to understand is that having adequate parking spaces for residential does not necessarily equate to each car circulating daily, but is a place to store the car when it is not being used. Otherwise, the parking needs spill over to the surrounding neighborhoods. This problem has occurred in other situations particularly with many multi-family neighborhoods where a majority of the apartments are student-occupied, having multiple roommates with cars.

Second, although it has been asserted that the project’s proximity to UCD will enable residents to walk or bike to campus, this does not mean most of the students won’t have a vehicle.  We can suggest that everyone in Davis should be riding bikes, but the reality is that most people still drive more often rather biking or walking. Students living off campus will still need a car for shopping and running errands, visiting family and friends outside the area, commuting to jobs and internships outside Davis, and traveling for recreational activities.  The reality is that the number of cars in Davis has increased as student enrollment has expanded and will continue growing apace with rising enrollment. 

The net result will be that despite the developer’s assurances that residents will be unable to park in retail shopping space, creative students will assuredly find a way around such restrictions. The sheer number of residents in need of a place to park beyond the 264 spaces allotted will simply overwhelm efforts by shopping center management to “police” the rest of the parking garage and the surface parking lot.   The net result will be that many shoppers will be unable to find a parking space, and will simply go elsewhere to shop.  Unfortunately, that “elsewhere” will probably be outside Davis, thereby reducing the City’s sales tax revenue.

Even if Brixmor finds a way to prevent residents from parking in excluded spaces, the experience of Davis residents who live near campus demonstrates that “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”  Students who regularly park on streets requiring a preferential parking permit are well aware of the City’s parking enforcement schedule, and simply move their cars before the parking enforcement officer arrives.  They will no doubt find creative ways to evade Brixmor’s parking enforcement program. Given these considerations, Brixmor’s failure to provide enough parking will do nothing more than worsen the current parking situation in Davis neighborhoods and retail areas. 

“If you don’t build parking, shoppers will still come” is a fallacy

At least that’s the case when it comes to parking.   Some commenters on the proposed University Commons project have asserted that the number of both residential and retail shopping parking spaces should be greatly reduced, arguing in favor of the DEIR’s “Low Parking Alternative” (as recommended by the City’s Bicycle, Transportation and Street Safety Committee).  The basis of this argument is that fewer parking spaces will result in less vehicle use and reduced Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions—both of which are certainly laudable goals.

The reality, however, is that even in Davis most people find it is most convenient to shop and carry out the tasks of their daily lives by driving a vehicle and often need it to transport multiple or heavy items to their home.   If a shopper visits a local retail center and finds no parking available, the likelihood is that they will simply give up in frustration and go elsewhere, which will result in even more miles of driving and emissions.

 Given the intense competition from internet shopping for consumer retail spending, Davis should be doing everything possible to bolster local shopping and make it easy and convenient.  Restricting the number of retail parking spaces and allowing the use of those spaces by students is not the way to support our local merchants. Further, the more items shoppers are able to purchase within Davis, the better for the needed sales tax, and having a vehicle to transport larger volumes and heavier items allows this.

Expanded “Retail only” is the environmentally superior alternative and the best plan for U-Mall

The bottom line is that the U -Mall high density monolithic mega-dorm proposal is a lose-lose proposal for our community. This project needs to be retail only, particularly because Davis has so few location options to provide much needed brick-and-mortar stores which bring a significant amount of needed sales tax to the City.

There is no scenario where this project could have so much high-density residential and it work for the City, fiscally or environmentally.  Even if the apartments had a traditional 1-,2- with some 3- bedrooms design so that workers could live in it, the location of this project so near to UCD means that it will wind up having primarily student residents. Therefore, this project would not help relieve our need for workforce housing and in fact would simply enable UCD to dial back production of the on-campus housing they have currently under-planned.

Fortunately, at the Dec. 11, 2019 Planning Commission a number of concerns were raised by the commissioners but public input is urgently needed now for comments on the Draft EIR because this project is being fast-tracked to the City Council soon.

I strongly encourage Davis citizens concerned about this inappropriate U-Mall project proposal are urged to submit  comments regarding the Draft EIR to smetzker@cityofdavis.org and elee@cityofdavis.org by the deadline on Friday Dec. 20.  The City needs to be told that the proposed project is the obvious “environmentally inferior” option because of the wide-range impacts it would have on our community. Both the ”retail only” alternative and the “reduced residential mixed-use” proposal are both environmentally superior regarding air quality, transportation and circulation, land use, energy,  as well as greenhouse gas emissions,  as  documented in the U-Mall Draft EIR.

For more details the Draft EIR documents for the University Commons proposal can be reviewed on the City’s website at the following links:

https://www.cityofdavis.org/city-hall/community-development-and-sustainability/development-projects/university-commons

https://www.cityofdavis.org/city-hall/community-development-and-sustainability/development-projects/university-commons/environmental-review

The City Staff report on the University Commons project Draft EIR at the Dec. 11, 2019 meeting Planning Commission can be viewed at:

 http://documents.cityofdavis.org/Media/Default/Documents/PDF/CityCouncil/Planning-Commission/Agendas/20191211/05B-University-Commons.pdf

Citizens concerned and who wish to discuss this issue are also welcome to contact me at citizens@dcn.org.

 

 

Comments

Ron O

Well, my simple comment referencing this article on the Vanguard was deleted - even though I didn't mention the Davisite's name. Seems that the Vanguard only takes such steps regarding references to the Davisite.

I've previously asked the Vanguard if they have any written policy regarding singling out and deleting references to the Davisite. However, no such policy has been provided or referenced.

I've also notified the Vanguard that some believe that a commenter on the Vanguard might not be using his real name, but have not received a response.

In the meantime, the Vanguard is still allowing commenters to put forth attempts at "doxing".

Why anyone supports that publication is beyond me.

Ron O

In reference to Eileen's well-written, comprehensive article above, I'd also note that student housing probably experiences higher turnover than other types of rental housing.

And, that students often move in/out around the same time - thereby creating a need to accommodate moving trucks/vehicles, as well as friends/family ("helpers") who arrive in their own vehicles. (All at the same time of year.)

Not to mention the impacts of vast numbers of bicyclists and pedestrians attempting to cross the already-impacted streets/intersections to access campus (from this development, as well as others such as Davis Live).

EDub

"These clearly would be luxury apartments and the project, so far, has no plan to provide affordable housing." Can you provide insight into how this is possible? The city and state mandate a portion of a building project be affordable housing. If you are implying a loophole, can you tell me more about it?

Bob Milbrodt

EDub

It is not necessarily "clear" that these will be luxury apartments, but there is a strong indication. Consider that the U Mall acquisition cost is a sunk cost that now essentially represents the underlying site cost. To this will be added the project construction cost. The developer will be looking at an overall return on the total cost, which will be quite high. Hence, the rent on a price per square foot will be considerable compared to existing space.

As to legal mandates: First, the word "affordable" is merely a modifier that confuses the real issue, housing. Affordable should not be used in an honest discussion about housing. Second, the housing legal requirements can be met in a variety of methods, many of which do not provide a single housing unit. Nevertheless, the additional costs created by these requirements will drive up the rent per square foot for the rest of the space.

Colin

EDub - The current City of Davis recommends 5% Affordable housing in mixed use project, but it does not require it. This ordinance only came in to effect about 2 years ago. The previous ordinance required 0% Affordable housing in mixed use projects. I think this project application may have been filed while the old ordinance was still in effect. In either case, any project the requires a zoning change as this one does, the City can negotiate different affordable housing amounts at that time.

Greg Rowe

Yes, Brixmor submitted the project application in Spring 2018; the project description on the City's website is dated April 2018. The DEIR scoping meeting was not held until early December 2018; i.e., a year ago. It was not until January 8, 2019 that City Council amended the City's Affordable Housing Ordinance to delete the "Vertical Mixed Use" exemption. The Draft EIR was not released until November 2018, meaning it took 11 months to prepare.

It is my understanding that the City adopted the vertical mixed use affordable housing exemption a number of years ago to help facilitate mixed use development in downtown Davis, but for some reason the exemption was applicable citywide; i.e., the exemption was not restricted to downtown. ("Vertical mixed use" in this situation means some type of commercial on the first floor, such as shops or offices, with multifamily residential on the upper floors,)

The vertical mixed use exemption probably first came to public attention in the first iteration of the Nishi project, which attempted to bypass affordable housing requirements by putting commercial on the first floor of each building. Many observers think this is one of the reasons why the project failed on the ballot.

I hope this background information helps.

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