New Staff report reveals even more issues
By Eileen M. Samitz
The Planning Commission’s 7:0 denial vote
The monolithic University Commons redevelopment proposal is heading for a final City Council vote on August 18. This project is completely out of scale for the surrounding neighborhoods and would create enormous impacts in the already heavily trafficked Russell Blvd. corridor and beyond. In addition to creating a 7-story, block-wide “wall,” the impacts from this project would negatively affect the entire community in many ways.
The project’s many problems include the “rent-by-the bed” group housing format consisting of 894 beds which includes many 4-bedrooms apartments unsuitable for families. The City has approved four mega-dorms in the last few years; there’s no need for a fifth. The Planning Commission voted unanimously to reject the project and its Environmental Impact Report (EIR) due to many reasons covered in a recent op-ed including the “significant and unavoidable” traffic impacts. Such a resounding denial rarely happens unless the project is as exceptionally bad as the University Commons proposal. The weblink to that op-ed with the many reasons for the Planning Commission’s rejection for the project and its EIR can be viewed here.
Will the City Council respect the Planning Commission’s well-founded recommendation and the plethora of public input urging the City Council to deny this environmentally inferior project per the EIR? The developers need to come back with a compatible project such as the environmentally superior alternatives of either: a) retail-only which was first sought by the developers, or b) the reduced mixed-use allowed by the current zoning for 53 apartments with retail. In any case, Council should not approve an exclusionary high-occupancy student bed rental project but instead make the developer provide traditional, smaller apartments to accommodate our workforce and families. The developers were clearly receptive to downsizing and going back to the drawing board as evidenced by Sacramento Business Journal quotes such as:
“Bill Brown, executive vice president for development with New York-based Brixmor, said one possibility is scaling back the project called University Commons overall, including the number of new housing units.”
"We're there for the long haul," Brown said.
Will the City Council keep its previous commitment to not approve more mega-dorms and deny this massive mega-dorm? The developers need to be re-directed to redesign a scaled-down project compatible with its surroundings. If housing is included, it needs to be traditional smaller apartments that workers or families can live in, not just students.
Inherent problems with the University Commons mega-dorm proposal
There are many problems with this project proposal, where high-density housing including 894 student beds dominates the project instead of community-serving retail.
First, this proposal is completely out of scale for the site. The project proposal includes high-density 7-story buildings, which would bring major impacts to nearby single-family neighborhoods.
While the developers try to compare University Commons to the “Davis Live” project’s similar height, these projects are vastly different, with the former being comprised of only one-acre of residential housing, while University Commons is a wall of 7-story buildings encompassing 8.25-acres of a mixed-use commercial mall and almost twice as much residential. The University Commons mixed-use format, combining retail with 894 student housing beds, will create much more traffic and congestion because it will draw commercial traffic as well as an enormous amount of bicycle and car traffic for the huge residential component.
As it has evolved since early 2018, the developer’s intent to force another high-density student housing project upon the City has become obvious. The original proposal was for 25% of the units being 4-bedroom, but despite repeated requests for removal of these enormous group housing units, the developer’s most recent iteration increased 4-bedroom units to 45%. This means the project is not even remotely intended to meet the needs of the local workers and families who desperately need affordable housing.
University Commons would be yet another expensive student group housing mega-dorm, due to the group housing format and because the developers are trying to avoid including affordable housing. The other mega-dorms include 15% affordable housing, but Brixmor insists on doing less. Local needs would be far better served by using the existing land use and zoning designation to provide up to 53 units of housing to meet the needs of our workers and families. These developers have blatantly ignored all the informed input provided by the community and Planning Commission, starting from the project’s inception to the iteration most recently referred to Council. Despite those concerns, Brixmor continues pushing for approval of its preferred concept, which includes many generous entitlements.
Regarding this mega-dorm group housing format, given the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that far fewer UCD students will be returning to campus, the last thing the City should be approving is more massive group housing projects. Also, we haven’t seen the effects of the 3,888 student beds the City has approved, but not yet on line. It is predictable with the advent of on-line classes, far less student housing will be needed in Davis. As a result, this glut of rent-by-the-bed mega-dorm format will be obsolete and will not even be able to be repurposed to conventional rental housing due to its expensive and exclusionary group housing design, which often includes a bathroom for each bedroom and renting-by-the-bed.
The Planning Commission recommended in 2018 that no more mega-dorms be authorized east of Sycamore Lane. With City staff’s apparent encouragement, however, Brixmor has plowed ahead with its proposal to warehouse 894 students in a shopping mall. If the City allows this national shopping center operator to impose its will on our City, it could send a signal to other developers that the City of Davis can be easily persuaded to allow an infinite number of profitable mega-dorms. At some point the City must say “no more,” and that time is now. With each additional project approval in the City, UCD administrators will predictably feel less compelled to meet student housing needs on campus.
Further, if more student housing is needed later, UCD can provide it on campus. 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. It is inexcusable that UCD is the only UC that has not committed to this in its Long-Range Development Plan (LRDP).
The proposed project parking “plan” that cannot possibly work
Another fundamental problem with this oversized mixed-use proposal is its grossly insufficient and poorly designed parking concept. Only a far more scaled down residential project parking for 53 smaller apartments could work. Those units should primarily consist of studios, 1- and 2- bedroom units, with a few 3-bedroom units and ample parking spaces appropriate for each unit format.
The shopping center now has about 427 surface parking spaces for retail, which would be reduced to 160 spaces. A 3-story garage would be added, with only 264 residual parking spaces for 894 residents, and an additional 254 retail parking spaces. However, inherent problems include that garage access and egress garage from Sycamore will cause even greater back-ups on Sycamore Lane, Russell Blvd. and beyond. Plus, the free surface parking would assuredly be raided by the residents and their visitors.
Overspill parking will clearly wind up in the surrounding neighborhoods, including the adjacent Anderson Road medical complex. The outcome of inadequate parking spaces will be that non-student shopping center customers will decline because they won’t be able to find a parking space. Shoppers who can’t find a place to park will simply go elsewhere--even taking their retail sales tax dollars outside Davis.
Unaffordable market rate rents and a disingenuous “affordable housing plan”, and many “overriding considerations”
The new supplemental Staff report reveals just how unaffordable the University Commons mega-dorm apartments would be. The Staff report quotes that their market rate studio apartments would be an estimated $2,229 monthly and their 2-bedroom apartments would be $2,898 per month!
This is anything but affordable student housing! The studio apartments are 19% higher than the most expensive studio apartments in the UC Davis annual Apartment Survey, and almost twice as expensive as the average studio apartment in the survey data (see below).
The new City Staff Supplement Report for the University Commons project for the August 18th City Council meeting documents that the Brixmor developers are not willing to agree to a condition that all of the other mega-dorms have agreed to regarding affordable units or beds. This condition is a commitment by the other mega-dorm developers that any affordable units (or beds) for which the project is not “capable” of finding occupants that qualify, those units (or beds) would be converted to market rate and the net difference of rental cost would be transferred to the City’s Affordable Housing Fund. Yet, the Brixmor developers will not agree to this same condition, therefore there would be no mechanism to implement or enforce an affordable housing “plan”.
Brixmor’s unwillingness to agree to this same condition for the affordable units that the other mega-dorms have is clear evidence that the University Commons “affordable housing plan” is disingenuous and a complete scam. Brixmor will make insincere gestures which are meaningless, just to get their project pushed through and to get their entitlements. This is yet just another reason why the City Council must not approve this deleterious and inappropriate mega-dorm project. But the question is, will the City Council compromise the best interests of our community this Tuesday and approve this disastrous University Commons project?
Finally, the Staff report lists 62 pages of "Findings of Fact and Statement of Overriding Consideration" which include the many “significant and unavoidable” impacts that the EIR reveals from the deleterious project proposal. If the project is supposed to be so good, why does it require 62 pages of justification which attempts to excuse many serious impacts including the “significant and unavoidable” traffic? The Supplemental Staff report weblink is here.
It is critical to contact the City Council before this Tuesday to deny this disastrous project and its EIR
I strongly encourage concerned citizens to email the City Council at CityCouncilMembers@cityofdavis.org before the Aug. 18th meeting and urge them to deny the inappropriate and environmentally inferior University Commons project and its EIR due to the wide-range impacts it would have on our community. It is clear that the infrastructure needs and drain on the City would be significant with the University Commons project with 894 beds, including water usage, wastewater treatment, and City services including fire and police.
The developers need to be redirected to pursue either the “retail only” alternative, or the “reduced residential mixed-use” proposals, since both are compatible and are environmentally superior in many ways. For more information call (530) 756-5165.
Eileen Samitz is a former City of Davis Planning Commissioner
Other Davisite articles on University Commons:
Eileen Samitz's articles:
Greg Rowe's articles:
Local Clergy on U Commons: