We often hear from developers that a building required by existing zoning “doesn’t pencil out” and that they therefore must be allowed to build bigger. Several issues make this claim suspect.
First, developers never show the math they use to make this statement. Never.
Secondly, there appears to be no set building size that does ‘pencil out’. Proponents always ask for one more story. If the zoning is two stories, they insist it won’t work, but three will. If the zoning is 3, they need 4. If the zoning is 4, they need 5, etc.
Thirdly, there are plenty of examples that contradict these statements: the Roe Building on the SW corner of 3rd and C St. (3 stories, mixed use); Central Park West across from Central Park (2-1/2 stories, residential); Pizza and Pints (1 story, commercial); the most recent Ace Hardware addition on 3rd St. (1 story, commercial); The Arbors on C St. (3 stories, mixed use); the building on the SW corner of G and 5th St. (3 stories, mixed use), etc.
Fourth: developers site the increase in material costs as part of their reasoning (the number 15% is suspiciously common and has been cited before and during the Pandemic). While material costs definitely increase over time, they certainly increase far less than residential rents. Material costs are also a one-time expense, while rental income continues - and increases - for the life of the building.
Property costs are also often cited in these arguments, but property values (one of the biggest development expenses) are not fixed. They are a function of the potential income of what can be built. As just one example, the Trackside property (913 and 915 3rd St.) was sold for approximately $1.2 million. It is now listed for sale at $4.4 million with the only change to the property being the acquisition of the new entitlements for that property; i.e. the change in the potential of what can be built.
Here are some numbers based on the Trackside project. At the time of their request for a larger building, the project proponents insisted a 3-story building would not pencil out, even with the same number of units they requested (27). The Old East Davis Neighborhood proposed a 3-story building with the same commercial/retail square footage (9,500), and a total square footage of the second and third floor residential component of 21,000.
Building costs in the Sacramento area for 3 stories or less (4 stories and up are more expensive per square foot) are $77/sqft for residential space and $131/sqft for commercial space. For the proposed 3-story building, this yields $2,861,500 (or $3 million to make the math easier). With the initial cost of the property at $1.2 mil, this gives a total cost of $4.2 mil.
Note 1: People may argue that some costs have been left out. This may be true, but in the specific case in question, the property is owned outright, so the $1.2 mil cost of the building stands in lieu of those costs with regards to financing, discussed below.
A residential area of 21,000 sqft, (subtracting 10% for elevators, hallways, etc,), yields 27 apartments (the allowed units of the Trackside rezoning) of 700 sqft. Two-bedroom apartments of this size in Davis go for between $2,000 and $2,750 per month. Using the value of $2,250/mo yields a residential income of $60,750/mo. Commercial rents in downtown Davis range from $2.75-$3.50/sqft/mo. Using the value of $3/sqft/mo, this yields a monthly income of $28,500, for a total monthly income of $89,250 at full occupancy.
Note 2: It may be argued that full occupancy income overstates the income potential, but residential property in Davis is at or near full occupancy (Lincoln40 was at 97% occupancy before it opened) and the rental rates used are well below the mean (Lincoln40 rates are far higher).
At a 6% interest rate, the $4.2 mil loan could be paid off in 5 years with a monthly payment of $81,198. On a 10-year loan, the monthly payment would be $46,630. With a monthly income of $89k, it seems difficult to show (‘show’ being the operative word) that a 3-story building would not pencil out. (People will also say that the interest rate may be higher than 6%, but at the time of the proposal, the prime lending rate was approximately half that.)
The numbers of an actual project will be different, but the specific numbers are not the point of this letter. The point is that decision makers always take the statement by developers at face value and never require them to show their numbers. Nor do we check the validity of the statement independently. People will certainly take issue with the numbers presented here. That's fine. Show your numbers and we can talk about it.
As one final bit of evidence that the statement, "doesn't pencil out," is suspect, during the Planned Development process for the seven-story proposal for the University Mall development, when asked to make it smaller, the developers stated that this was the absolute minimum that would work financially. Since that project was approved, the developers returned to City Council and asked to have the zoning changed back to its current use. Though, in the first proposal City Council stated the ecological benefits (the absolutely real benefits) of having dense housing and retail literally across the street from UC Davis Campus, Council granted the request to change back, so the City will miss out on those benefits. Apparently, those benefits are not that important. The current plan is to tear down the existing mall and re-build essentially the same mall. Somehow, that does pencil out.