Davis, CA, is a small college town a twenty minutes’ drive outside of Sacramento (on a good day). It has a vacancy rate on par with Manhattan despite being surrounded by flat, developable farmland. Some critics attribute this absurd vacancy rate to Measure R, a ballot initiative approved by Davis residents in 2000 that requires a public vote on any peripheral development. Since it’s passage, three developments went up for a vote, and all of them failed.
The group that defends Measure R is known as the “Citizens for Responsible Planning” or CRP. Throughout various development battles, CRP has strategically utilized air quality concerns to push new development further away from existing neighborhoods. They opposed the most recent Measure R development, Nishi Gateway, because toxic air quality made the site virtually uninhabitable, at least in their minds! In fairness: the site is sandwiched between railroad tracks and a major highway, Interstate 80. So it’s a real concern.
But fast-forward just six months later, and CRP is demanding the University of California, Davis, the area’s largest employer, dramatically expand its on-campus housing options for students, staff, and faculty. In an effort to appear proactive, they produce a map of optimal sites to locate student housing on the UC Davis Campus. One of the sites they select is adjacent to the Nishi parcel they so aggressively opposed development on just six months earlier. Another parcel they suggest building housing on is also sandwiched between the same railroad tracks and highway that Nishi sat between, but just a couple miles further south (and further from existing neighborhoods). You can see all of this in a map provided below, where the Nishi site they killed at the ballot is marked in red and the sites they claim to support student housing on are colored in blue:
The alternative site sandwiched between the railroad and highway might be slightly less toxic than Nishi Gateway due to local wind patterns, but not by much. It might also be somewhat worse, as it is closer to a highway interchange.
Because this is a town where some untold number of students are accustomed to sleeping in their cars for a little while every fall due to severely low vacancy rates, these NIMBY contradictions bewilder regional spectators of Davis’ unique development politics.
Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger once proclaimed Davis “the environmental capital of the world.” As a guest contributor to Market Urbanism, I’ll be sharing with you what this looks like in practice for renters and the unstably housed. It starts with this case, in which NIMBYs selectively took up a cause long fought for by tenants and civil rights activists regarding the proximity of rental housing to highways. It was not to improve tenant air quality, but only to ensure new housing was built as far from existing neighborhoods as possible.
Stay tuned, as Davis-style development laws are starting to appear on the ballots of big cities like Los Angeles, which will vote on Measure S (or the “neighborhood integrity initiative”) in March. I want to make sure you see exactly how much more difficult your community’s land use politics will become if you mistakenly go the Davis way.