Using capitalism to fight racism
The disastrous University Commons mega-dorm proposal goes to City Council August 18 for final vote

University Commons: Will Council grandfather in another Tree Blighted Parking Lot?

This is a picture of one of the large "successful" trees the landlord planted years ago when the University Commons development first opened. Note the massive scar as a result of neglect of pruning (lower limbs need to be removed so they are not broken off by trucks driving by),  And again rocks placed around the base of the tree that get hot and both stifle growth. Most trees in this lot have rocks any arborist will tell you hurt trees, but maybe the landlord is based in Tucson.   Why does this happen? What is the solution? The City Arborist is stretch thin and has no time to inspect commercial parking lots to assure landlords are caring for trees, so we get to city's 50% shade requirement. This is why we need to require landlords to reimburse the city the cost of hiring an outside arborist to provide tree maintenance oversight. Council required this for the DISC development,  why not University Commons too?

By Alan Hirsch, City Lorax 

This Tuesday, the city council will address details to permit a 7 story dorm proposed for University Commons/Trader Joe's shopping center.

There is debate about it size, height, affordability, type of units in the build.

But there is one fact everyone agrees on:

IF it follows the current city policy it will end up in the middle of an unshaded parking lot full of stunted trees.

The Davis policy calls for planning on paper for them to plan enough trees to, theoretically get 50%  shade.

But facts on the ground show trees rarely flourish on commercial parking lots in Davis.

First, because the city details on how to plant trees is wrong (the city arborist has admitted this),

This is one of the 10 new trees at University Commons that the developer planted to meet city parking lot standards, i.e. replace the original ones one the original developer planned years ago, but due to neglect died, but never got replaced.   But already, one third of these new trees show signs of drought stress. Note also rocks around the base of a tree, which heat up and kill surface roots, and the fact the nursery stakes, and not a real metal stake remain on the tree, a cost saver but a no-no in tree health (ask Tree Davis). If no one is looking this is what landlords with unsupervised crews do to superficially meet Davis Tree standards.

And most importantly, there is no city enforcement and no consequences if landlords neglect the trees.  If you look at most Davis commercial shopping centers, you can see the result out-of-town landlord cutting corners on tree maintenance. Look at the stunted tree in front of Nugget, Savemart, CVS, Safeway, Office Depot. Look at inappropriately small trees when larger trees are needed. Look at rocks placed around base of trees that burn their roots, or planting holes so small that the tree become girdled.

It does not have to be like this: compare that with the parking lot trees at owner-occupied Sutter Hospital or Kaiser clinic.

Yes, the current city council, unlike its predecessors, is to be commended as they have begun the process of updating our sadly out of date Tree Ordinance to fix this.

But the question is if this project will be grandfathered in under the old ordinance.

The City Council is aware of this problem, and in fact addressed this with the DISC development going in on the Mace Curve.

In fact, the DISC developer Dan Ramos readily agreed to this as he realized the City Tree code is inadequate.

DISC Development Agreement, going before votes in November, has the following Tree features:

  • Plant enough trees to provide 50% shade in parking lots and also 80% shade in pedestrian areas within 15 years.
  • Require state-of-the art tree planting techniques (suspended pavement or structural soil) not the cheaper, antiquated method still ok under current city tree code.
  • Make the developer agree on enforcement and maintenance program in advance: Developer will pay the city to hire an arborist to monitor tree care. Not just once, or for first 15 years, but every two years for entire life of project.
  • Agree on real consequences: have developer agree in advance to replant trees that have failed or are stunted.
  • Assure accountability by getting a copyright release from landscape architect so tree plans are a public document.

Councilman Lucas Frerichs has already asked that these be required in the Development Agreement.

I hope others on Council join him on Tuesday.

I also hope council asks why this project was not reviewed the Tree Commission, as DISC was?



First of all I was confused because this spot is currently University Mall, or the Museum of 1970's Shopping. The proposal is turn it into University Commons, a.k.a. the Museum of 1990's Mixed Use + Trader Joe's and a gas station. (It doesn't help that there's an apartment complex up the street called "University Commons"). But you know, no imagination, whatever.

When I drive around town it's easy to find parking for the most part, but nearly impossible to find shaded parking. That says it all right there: Even the "new" lots at the mentioned development concepts, with suspenders and a belt, so to speak, WILL HAVE HUGE AMOUNTS OF ASPHALT STORING HEAT AND RADIATING IT ALL NIGHT AS PEOPLE NEARBY REMAIN WITHOUT AFFORDABLE HOUSING.

Let's also keep in mind that DISC needs a certain amount of parking to have a certain amount of solar panels covering that parking which also means less trees. How much energy will be used at DISC to counter-act the heat island effect of the parking lot? Will there be any limits on heating and cooling settings for residential buildings? (I assume that the amount of solar collection needed is based on anticipated demand, so I am curious what that looks like...)

Every single building in Davis should be invisible from the south in the summer, covered by leafy trees on the vertical and solar panels on the horizontal. Updated windows, and heavy curtains when the trees are young.

I love the Lorax, both real and deputized.

Alan Pryor

Unfortunately, the DISC developer only agreed to plant 1,800 trees on the 200 acre parcel. This is less than 50% of the 4,000 trees requested by the City of Davis' advisory Tree Commission.

Despite being presented with the Tree Commission's recommendation, the City Council only chose to require the developer of DISC to plant the lower number of trees (1,800) offered by the developer.

Greg Rowe

Great article, Alan. Tree neglect at University Mall is indicative of the poor manner in which the owner, Brixmor, has treated the City of Davis overall. Unlike virtually all developers who have a proposal before the Planning Commission, Brixmor did absolutely no community outreach and made no contact with Planning Commissioners.

Two Planning Commissioners, Steve Streeter and I, began following this project in December 2018 after we happened to both see an announcement in the Enterprise for an EIR scoping meeting. We attended the meeting, told the developer and their attorney about our concerns, and submitted suggestions for topics to be examined in the EIR. The entire Planning Commission thoroughly analyzed this project on a number of occasions, and concluded it would not be beneficial for a variety of reasons (which I described in The Davisite a number of weeks ago).

When the Planning Commission recommended approval of the "Davis Live" project further west on Russell Blvd., it added an amendment stating that no additional large, high density purpose-built student housing projects should be built east of Sycamore Lane. Despite this recommendation, and the fact that the City has already approved 4 such "Rent-by-the bed" projects to accommodate almost 4,000 UCD students off-campus, Brixmor went ahead with its proposal to impose another "maxi-dorm" on Davis residents.

We all recognize the challenges to traditional retail establishments today, but the proposed University Commons project will no doubt result in a giant student-oriented fast food court and bars on the first floor, with housing for 894 students crammed into just 266 units on the upper floors.

Meanwhile, UCD has still not fulfilled its on-campus student housing obligations under the Board of Regents 2002 student housing report and the 2003 UCD Long Range Development Plan (LRDP). To be clear, the campus housing now under construction on the south side of Russell is only meant to meet the housing needs of the anticipated growth of 5,000 students between 2018 and 2030, as outlined in the 2018 LRDP.

Davis should determine and implement its own housing needs, rather than letting a distant giant corporate dictate terms and conditions. City Council should therefore reject Brixmor's flawed proposal and tell the company to come back with a revised proposal that meets the rental housing needs of Davis working families with conventional apartments. 53,000 square feet of such housing could be provided with the current land use designation and zoning.


It's curious that I made this post mostly about parking lots and Commissioner Rowe made it mostly about Brixmor and non-flexible housing.

I believe that he actually thinks that UnCommons needs more parking. As someone who's lived as a university student and with university students in Davis, but also DC, NYC, Prague and Berlin, I'm convinced that both flexible rental housing and integrated neighborhoods provide the best kind of living. Parking does not enrich any of it in dense areas, or areas that should be dense.

I welcome students everywhere, including so-called "family houses" including duplexes: The main problem with the design - of the 1970's supply at least - is that they tend to have at least 0.5 bathrooms insufficiency as well as rooms too small for anyone with a life beyond a twin bed and a desk.

On the other hand, they often have yards. What's very sad is when these are neglected. This can result in everything from blight (at least superficially, i.e. viewed from the homes of neighbors), to loss of habitat (if there's no flowering plants), loss of potential food-growing areas and low-level heat islands. There should be some kind of requirement for these that's fair: I am not sure if this is a Planning Commission thing or there need to be a Housing or Rental Housing Commission. Perhaps PC and Social Services should have a permanent sub-committee.

Which brings us back to UnCommons: Residents should be able to store possessions at a reasonable level, even add a shipping container in a parking space if they want to pay for it.

Whatever is built here needs to have lots more housing, much more of it affordable, all of it flexible, very much less parking (aside from TJ's, residential parking is fine for people who really need it everyday, at least a bit of it where housing units can't work such as under elevated inner courtyards. The planned height of the building is fine as long as it's up against or closer Russell, as has been discussed.

The gas station has the stupidest location, not great for bike traffic either. It should be relocated next to 113.

Roberta L. Millstein

Todd -- To be clear, I was away from my computer and came back to find your comment, Alan Pryor's comment, and Greg Rowe's comment waiting for me. I approved them all at the same time. So Greg's should not be seen as a response to yours, but an independent response to Alan Hirsch's.

Greg Rowe

Todd's correct, it is not an ideal location for a gas station. It might have been marginally acceptable when UCD's enrollment was much lower with a correspondingly lower of bike commuters. (UCD enrollment was just 22,000 when we built our home here in 1999.) Given the greater number of bike commuters now in Davis (both student and resident), a gas station at that corner introduces too much potential for car-bike collisions.


Roberta Millstein, I didn't think that Greg Rowe's response was to my first comment...


Are there any specific guidelines about gas station siting outside of zoning? Is there specific gas station zoning?

Does this particular gas station in part function as a busy 24 convenience store? That seems problematic.

My suggestion for having it re-located seems logical; To have a station before a longer journey. As Davis is small, most journeys within town use very little gas. My low gas light turns on with at least 25 miles left of fuel in the tank.

It was different when gas stations also had repair facilities. But this is rare; some have smog check, okay.

In these parts it also makes sense for any small work agricultural work vehicles.

Why two stations at Anderson and W. Covell, especially when there's one across from Sutter Hospital and one on Lake, both of which serve people going west towards Winters, north and south on 113?

Pole Line / 102 is one of two major routes between Davis and Woodland, but there's no gas station on it. Was something planned for the failed Covell Village? The closest we have is the one on L and 5th, which also has a car wash. I can see how it fits with the businesses on the north side of 5th to the east, but...

Is it simply good business to have a 24 hour convenience market combined with a gas station? I am not declaring war on these, ha ha, I only have an issue when they interfere unnecessarily with other uses. The eventual re-designs of the intersections of Anderson and Russell and Anderson and W. Covell on a street aimed for a "complete street" treatment and a new corridor plan (Russell) seem complicated by their gas stations. A convenience store of some kind at Russell and Anderson without a car focus would be extremely popular.

Problematic gas stations, possibly incomplete list:
Anderson/Russell; Anderson/W. Covell (two); L and 5th.


On the day that Council decides on this project the project...ed high is 111 F.

Number one, it's a moment to reflect how this island of asphalt - even reduced in size compared to now - is compatible with our even hotter local future. (Though I did make a joke about hot asphalt creating more traction for my bike's tires...).

Number two, we're in the midst of rolling blackouts, and it was "only" 106 F today. What IS the contingency if there's a power outage during a fully-electricity-dependent Council remote meeting? (I assume that in-Chambers meetings would be halted even if people could be heard for some kind of safety reasons, even though there's emergency lighting...)

Larry D. Guenther

What also seems to get lost in these discussions is faculty and staff. When someone says, "University," we all think, "students." But about half the people on campus are faculty or staff.

To Alan's point about 'grandfathered,' yes. Unless there are specific details about enforcement in the Development Agreement, the project is subject to whatever Tree Ordinance is on the books when it is approved. The current Tree Ordinance has no enforcement for non-compliance.

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