“University Commons”, Still a Monolithic Mega-dorm Fraught with Problems
U-Mall Project proposal is still out-of-scale and the wrong design
By Eileen M. Samitz
Time is of the essence for anyone concerned about the inevitable negative effects that would come with almost 900 students living at University Mall. The proposed “University Commons” redevelopment project and Final Environmental Impact Report (or FEIR) will be on the Planning Commission agenda for a public hearing next Wednesday evening, May 27th. The commission is being asked to make a recommendation to the City Council on whether to proceed with the project. As outlined in my article on December 15th, the proposed massive 7-story building will put another big concentration of students close to already heavily-impacted neighborhoods, without improving retail opportunities for Davis residents.
It should not surprise anyone familiar with the University Mall area that the FEIR determines that the University Commons Project “…would result in significant and unavoidable impacts related to transportation and circulation.” The proposed project continues to pose many important but unanswered questions in terms of parking, neighborhood spillover outcomes and other concerns summarized below.
To make your opinion count, please send an email to the Planning Commission now, and leave a voice mail comment for the commission by following the directions in the agenda notice posted Friday on the City website. It is important to express your concerns by leaving your public comment voicemail, limited to three minutes any time before the meeting, or before the item during the Wednesday, May 27th Planning Commission meeting at (530) 757-5693. Because public meetings remain off limits due to COVID-19, the Commission meeting will occur on Zoom (see the Zoom link for the meeting via the agenda link below), and recorded project comments will be read aloud to the commissioners during the meeting. To leave a public comment that will be read during the meeting, follow the May 27th agenda link below, and follow the instructions under “public comments”. The meeting be viewed via ZOOM or on cable TV on channel 16. Please be sure to review the staff report.
Here is the Planning Commission Agenda:
Here is the U-Mall EIR Staff report:
The FEIR and updated documents about the project are on the City website, at this link:
Figure 2. Conceptual Residential Level Plan
Little about the project has changed since the draft EIR (DEIR) was issued last November and the Planning Commission discussed it on December 11. The Mall owner, Brixmor Property Group, is still proposing to renovate the shopping center by demolishing over 90,000 square feet of retail space and replace it with almost 137,000 square feet of modern retail facilities. That’s the good news, along with the fact that Trader Joe’s will remain.
The bad part is that Brixmor still wants to add 264 housing units to the shopping center, with 622 bedrooms accommodating 894 occupants. Worse yet, the project is still geared toward housing UCD students, rather than addressing the pressing need of local families and workers for affordable rental housing with traditional apartment layouts. The rental units will sit atop a 3-story parking structure. There will be 264 parking spaces on the 3rd floor of the parking garage, reserved for residents. This works out to just one parking space per unit, the minimum Davis requirement. The new “shops” will undoubtedly be geared almost entirely to serving students with pizza parlors, coffee shops and other fast food outlets that typically don’t yield as much tax revenue as traditional retail establishments. In other words, it will be like transplanting the UCD Memorial Union to this shopping center where the zoning clarifies its purpose is to serve the entire Davis community, not just UCD.
Further, the City is proposing to adopt a new “Mixed Use” General Plan Land Use Category that would allow the University Commons project to include research and development activities, including laboratories. Why would the City allow laboratories in a retail mall, potentially with housing and food/restaurant facilities, when the formal zoning purpose of a community/neighbor center is to provide community retail services to the community?
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, one has to wonder why Brixmor continues pushing this project. It has been recently reported that investor-owned student housing companies have until now been regarded as a safe investment t even in tough economic periods, but the pandemic is threatening that notion. Given the growth of “on-line learning,” student demand for housing is very likely to decline. This is a further argument for Brixmor to shift its emphasis to focusing on the housing needs our local workers.
Too Many High-Density Residents and No Definitive Floor Plans
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 7 -story buildings actually have a pool and recreational area.
The FEIR emphasizes that Brixmor has not yet decided how many units there will be for each floor plan. It was previously indicated that 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 tip-off of the project’s real intention was that 66 apartments would be 4-bedroom units, or 25% of the total. Four-bedroom apartments are primarily occupied by students who pool their rent money. Such larger apartments are typically unaffordable for working families. The additional problem this presents is the undefined number of students that would 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. Furthermore, 4- and 5- bedroom apartments a offered by the four mega-dorms already approved are exclusionary by design, since they are not practical, nor desirable by our workforce and families. In addition, due to COVID-19 now and later, even students are not likely to want to live with three, four or more roommates.
One of the few new revelations in the FEIR is that 894 occupants spread among 266 units will require that 272 bedrooms would be double-occupancy. Beyond that, the FEIR will only say that the developer wants to return at a later date with an exact floor plan proposal. Whether there will be a dedicated bathroom for each bedroom is also not revealed. So, Brixmor basically says they don’t want to divulge their true plans now. They’re just saying, “trust me, and we’ll let you know our intentions later”, after the City has already said “yes” to the major proposed changes of the General Plan land use designation, and the zoning. This appears a lot like the “bait and switch” strategy developers in Davis have used in the past.
The Proposed Project Parking “Plan” that Cannot Possibly Work
The shopping center now has about 427 parking spaces for 90, 563 sq. ft. of retail, which would only increase to 429 parking spaces, adding only 2 parking spaces for an additional 46,237 sq. ft. of retail. These 429 free retail parking spaces would include 269 spaces on the first and second floors of the parking garage and 160 surface parking lot spaces. Imagine the back-up on Sycamore Lane getting to and from this parking structure?
Meanwhile, it is well known that the success of retail stores depends greatly upon plentiful free parking. Brick and mortar stores are having enough trouble surviving and our city desperately needs the sales tax revenue from these retail stores. If students displace retail parking, retail shoppers will go elsewhere. The FEIR claims that the on-site property management team will “actively enforce” retail and residential parking rules with signs, patrols and towing. Yet, none of this “plan” sounds logical nor feasible, particularly since there has not been enough parking at U-Mall with the current 90,563 sq. ft. of retail.
The third floor of the garage would have only 264 “controlled access” parking spaces for 894 residents. Apartment rent would not include parking, therefore those residents who park in the garage would be charged an additional monthly fee. The FEIR addresses the predictable problem of student parking in the retail spaces by simply saying that Brixmor has extensive experience enforcing retail parking at its other shopping centers. That’s a far different situation, however, than controlling the habits of creative students who endlessly devise ways to bypass parking lot restrictions. 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.
Plus, it is unrealistic to assume that only 264 out of 894 student renters would have a car. Once the 264 residential parking spaces are reserved, other student residents will be on the hunt for a parking space. Even those who don’t drive on a daily basis will need somewhere to store their vehicle when not in use. The parking problem will undoubtedly spill into the surrounding neighborhoods. It will be a problem too big for the City’s limited parking patrol personnel to handle. Brixmor’s failure to go beyond the City’s minimum dwelling unit parking requirement will do nothing more than worsen the current parking situation in Davis neighborhoods and retail areas.
Although the FEIR asserts 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 ride 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 recreation. The reality is that the number of cars in Davis has increased as student enrollment has expanded and will continue growing swiftly with rising enrollment. And at this point it is unknown whether Uber and Lyft will recover to their pre-pandemic condition, resulting in more private vehicle usage.
Another Alternative to consider
Only the far more scaled down residential component project of the DEIR “Existing Zoning Mixed-Use Build Out Alternative,” with a maximum of 53 residential units, might be worth considering. If selected, this alternative would need further evaluation, but would hopefully consist primarily of 1- and 2- bedroom units, a few 3-bedrooms potentially, and no 4-bedroom or larger units. It would also require ample parking for working residents, employees and retail customers. Approval of such a project would depend entirely on its design, the impacts it would impose and whether there would be a parking plan that would actually protect the retail parking from raiding by residential users.
The Real Problem is Still UCD
Fundamentally Brixmor’s proposal to house almost 900 students off campus probably would have never surfaced if UCD had not for so many decades refused to provide the number of on-campus beds needed to accommodate its exploding enrollment. 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). The 2018 LRDP approved by the Board of Regents has an aspirational goal of housing no more than 48% of students on campus by the 2030-31 academic year. If Brixmor remains fixated on building student housing, perhaps it should make an on-campus housing proposal to UCD.
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 brick-and-mortar stores contributing much needed sales tax to the City.
There is no scenario where this project could have so much high-density residential and have it work for the City, fiscally or environmentally. Even if the apartments had traditional one- and two-bedroom layouts (along with a few 3-bed units) ideal for workers, the project’s location literally across the street from UCD means it will wind up primarily full of temporary student renters. This would give UCD an excuse to dial back even further on the modest number of promised on-campus units.
I strongly encourage Davis citizens concerned about this inappropriate U-Mall project proposal to submit comments regarding the Draft EIR to the planning commissioners at PlanningCommission@cityofdavis.org , as well as email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org before the May 27th Planning Commission public hearing, and to record their public comments via voice mail to the Planning Commission as covered earlier. It is important to make clear to the City that the proposed monolithic University Commons proposal is the “environmentally inferior” option because of the wide-ranging impacts it would have on our community, which the Draft EIR admits. Instead, we need to advocate for the “retail only” alternative, with the only other potential alternative of the “reduced residential mixed-use” proposal. This is because both are environmentally superior since they have significantly fewer impacts regarding air quality, transportation and circulation, land use, energy, as well as greenhouse gas emissions, as documented in the University Commons Draft EIR.
Concerned citizens who wish to discuss this issue are welcome to contact me at (530) 756-5165 or email me at email@example.com.