The following letter was sent to the Davis City Council and is reprinted here at the request of the author.
Dear City Council,
I am writing to ask you to support the unanimous decision of the Planning Commission to not approve the U-Mall project for all of the reasons they gave and the ones that were elaborated on in great detail by Commissioner Rowe. I will only highlight several key points.
Firstly, let it be noted that last week UCD projected that fall enrollment would be almost 40,000 students, or, I think, 13.6% above last year. I am a retired university professor and I have lived in university towns all my life in the US and UK. I am not anti-student. I continue to like living in a university town and that was one reasons I moved here in 2000 and bought my first house. However, I never imagined that UCD's rapid enrollment expansion would, and will further, drastically re-shape the city. I don't have time to crunch a bunch of numbers but few cities in the US can have such a high proportion of students to its population. Furthermore, until about five years ago I was not aware of UCD's abysmal record, the worst in the UC system, of building on-campus student housing.
The enrollment expansion was not mandated by the UC Regents or by state government, it was instead part of Linda Katehi's "2020 initiative." It took far too long for the City to draw up another MOU with UCD that many consider to be on the weak side and difficult to enforce. The City of Santa Cruz's agreement with UCSC, which places limits on enrollment growth, was a model that Davis chose not to follow. But worse than that: the City decided to in effect extensively subsidize UCD's housing shortfall by building at last 4,000 units of housing designed primarily for students.
Citizens of Davis are asking themselves and you: what is the UCD limit on enrollment in the long run; where will the line be drawn at 50,000, 60,000 or 70,000? Many of my Davis friends and neighbors, who are as pro-university as I, just feel that our limits have been reached in numerous respects. I believe or know that they, like me, will be taking a look during the fall elections at city council candidate that present some kind of alternative to this rampant, almost uncontrolled, growth and its consequences for the character and environment of Davis.
With respect to the U-Mall/U-Commons proposal: I am especially concerned about the impact of the 894 bed proposal and the major negative environmental impacts that it would have, not to mention the negative and missed retail opportunities which would have disastrous impacts on the City's fiscal health at a time when, even before the pandemic, the budget situation was dire. This is to say nothing of the aesthetic and related impacts of an unprecedented seven story structure.
First, let me go to a general point about cumulative impacts. Anticipating or projecting major enrollments increases in the next 10-15 years (not mandated by UC or state government), UCD will engage in major residential construction to cope with this increase in enrollment. The last time I checked at least 10,000 units have been, are, or will be constructed.
These projects alone will have major cumulative impacts on a small geographically-centered city like Davis in terms of many things, especially I would argue traffic and parking which cannot and will not be mitigated in any significant way. While there has been some debate, some have argued persuasively that this will have deleterious impacts and costs on the city budget quite aside from highly adverse effects on the Davis quality of life.
Without expanding on this, the vast University Commons project, with its 894 beds, is like throwing gasoline on the fire, and/or, a cynic might add, prospectively an aprez-moi le deluge proposal on the part of city staff and the Council.
There are so many things to be critical about the University Commons proposal that I cannot begin to cover them all. To keep this of manageable length, and with due regard for your time, I will focus main on the traffic impacts. To use the understated heading off the staff report there will be "Significant and Unavoidable Transportation and Circulation Impacts." On pp. 11-13, the staff report cursorily summarizes these major impacts. It then reaches one of the most extraordinary conclusions I have ever seen in an EIR (I have seen many, and indeed in an earlier life helped write them). Having noted the major traffic impacts, the staff says: "The cumulative impact exists without the proposed project and is created from expected city and UC Davis growth and foreseeable future development. While the University Commons Project contribution to the impact is cumulatively considerable and therefore considered significant, the identified intersections would still experience significant impacts without the Project."
To return to my "gasoline on the fire" metaphor the logic of this is like saying we have a fire and so what if we throw some more gasoline on it. The logic of this conclusion is simply beyond me and shows, as has happened repeatedly over the years, a determination by staff to approve all projects almost regardless of their environmental and fiscal impacts. Are you, the Planning Commission, and ultimately the City Council, going to go along with this absurd and outrageous exercise in logic???
We do not as yet know what the effect of the Covid crisis will be on university enrollments, and especially university housing, but we do know without a doubt that many of our downtown businesses will struggle to make it through the crisis, and were indeed struggling before the crisis hit. Without a doubt, some will sadly go under and most of the remainder will be in a state of critical care no matter how much state and federal aid they get, or eventually get. This will have enormous impacts on an already stressed city budget which even under a best case scenario will have to make major cuts to city services and staff as will happen across this country.
The City will have to try and find some way of affecting a retail renaissance to begin to restore its fiscal health. To that end, and in this context does it not make far more sense to go with the "Retail Only" plan rather than to persist with the policy of subsidizing UCD housing to a degree which proportionately few other cities in the US have ever one?
Finally, I want to note that as a member of NextDoor that reaches 10,000 households in Davis, there have been major debates involving hundreds of posts since 2020 the University Commons project. To be sure there were disagreements, but even among many people who had previously supported the vast residential expansion, actual and approved, of the last few years, there were major doubts about the desirability of this project on a host of grounds. I think without question, a significant to large majority of Davis residents now feel that the University Commons project, for many reason, is a bridge way way too far. And it is a sad fact that this project cannot or will not be put to a vote of all citizens.