The potential for Nishi: great location, horrible access

By Robert Thayer

Now that we of the Davis Community have been invited to “join the conversation” on the potential development of the Nishi Property, please allow me to take a few minutes of your time.

The land in question is a dagger-shaped site sandwiched between an eight-lane, elevated freeway on the south and a vital local, regional and national railroad right of way on the north. In terms of location, the site is ideal; it is adjacent to the UC Davis campus, near the downtown core and the train station, and close to freeway access. Although it may be the noisiest of all possible Davis land parcels, it is conveniently located within walking distance of many city and university amenities.

However, in terms of circulation and access, the site is severely constricted. Currently, the site has only a single, private on-grade access across the railroad tracks, which is inappropriate for further use. There is also a potential narrow vehicular access point at the eastern end of the site near a curve in the western section of Olive Drive via Richards Boulevard, across the bicycle path from south Davis into the UCD campus.

Development of the site at an intensity anywhere near the dreams of the Nishi Gateway group and their website depends entirely on whether the entire Olive-Drive/Richards entrance to the city (and the Nishi site) can be totally re-designed, and if adequate vehicular, bicycle, and pedestrian access underneath the railroad tracks from the city and UCD campus at one, if not two, additional westerly points, can be accomplished.

From a circulation and access standpoint, the barriers are formidable. Railroads in general, and Union Pacific in particular, are long-established national assets. Davis’ “frontyard” railroad line is vital to our community, the nation, region and to our historical location. The rail line won’t be relocating soon, nor should it. Rail is the most energy efficient means of transporting goods and people, and so if planners and developers are looking for “sustainable solutions” as they imply, that part of the puzzle is already well in place.

That said, railroads are also difficult institutions with which to negotiate, particularly when it comes to right-of-way crossings. In the case of the Nishi property, connections from UCD and the city grid must be made along the north (railroad) edge of the site, especially toward the western end of that edge to facilitate access to and from the University. This means that vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians must have off-grade crossings of the railroad tracks, most likely running underneath the rail lines.

For the kinds of land-use densities being envisioned for the project, on-grade crossings of the tracks are extremely dangerous and do not stand a chance of winning approval from rail authorities. With dozens of passenger trains and many freight trains and per day, including increasing numbers carrying volatile crude petroleum, on-grade crossings of the tracks are simply out of the question. This will be difficult to negotiate.

Asking Union Pacific for one or two major right-of-way easements under their tracks to the Nishi site while simultaneously demanding of them slower crude oil train speeds, thicker and safer tank cars, or entirely different routes for oil shipments, and while planning massively dense urban development directly adjacent to the tracks, is indeed an awkward and ticklish undertaking. Yet without vehicular, bicycle, and pedestrian under-crossings of the rail lines, whatever land uses ultimately contained on the site would be isolated from the city and campus.

The other Achilles heel in the project is the access from Olive Drive into the site. Already an overstressed exit from the freeway into Davis and the campus, the existing Olive Drive-Richards intersection with adjacent over- and underpasses, and the accompanying Interstate on- and off- ramps would not be able to stand the addition of the kinds of densities being considered for the Nishi property. Major surgery, re-routing, expansion, and coordination of the many modes and directions of travel must be accomplished to this most important “Front Door” to the city if this project were to go forward. Furthermore, such improvements would need to be made prior to the Nishi development, not during or afterwards.

Envision for a moment the very successful Dutch Brothers coffee stop (Confession: I am a customer) and the current traffic jams it creates on Olive Drive, near Richards Boulevard. Now imagine hundreds of additional trips per day on Olive Drive and consider what that may do to traffic congestion and access to the long-established businesses located on West Olive Drive. The potential for circulation conflicts at that major intersection implied by the Nishi project simply boggles the mind.

These circulation barriers are deal-breakers; they make the former discussions over access to and from the Cannery Project seem like a walk in the park. It makes no sense for us to “have a conversation” about land uses or types of housing or businesses for Nishi when the circulation problems potentially strangle the site. Let’s fix Olive Drive and get the deals signed with Union Pacific first, then talk about what happens on site. And if the project does go forward, it would make no sense to build any of the Nishi site’s potentially dense development until these critical access points, including a reconfigured Olive Drive/Richards/I-80/City of Davis entrance improvement, are already in place.

In the recent Cannery project, circulation got short shrift. City of Davis residents do not need more steamrollering of projects by the University or circulation cave-ins by the Davis City Council without a vote of the people. If the thorny access issues can be resolved for the Nishi property first, this project may make sense. If not, there are plenty of less intensive land uses to be considered that would not require such a high degree of circulation, connection, and access.

Community gardens, anyone?

— Robert Thayer is a professional land planner, emeritus professor, and founder of the landscape architecture program in the department of human ecology at UC Davis. He has lived in Davis since 1973

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