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There must be 50,000 ways to say no

By Mark Braly

Has anyone ever read all of the city of Davis General Plan, and its supporting documents, the area specific plans, zoning code, design guidelines and the rest of it? I can think of only one intern, who did it for money. In fact, you don’t have to read much of it to find what you need to stop any project you don’t like — and you don’t even need a Measure J election.

The most recent example was one in which Davis, but for an appeal to City Council, would have been deprived of its first net-zero-energy project. This was the Parkview Place cooperative apartment project, which has just broken ground at the corner of Fourth and D streets.

The issue wasn’t that the project would displace one of the oldest houses in Davis. The city’s Historic Resources Commission reluctantly signed off, realizing that preservation of the house was impractical and even contrary to the wishes of the last Peña family descendant who was living there.

But the Planning Commission is conscientious. Its members found something the city’s planners had overlooked in making their favorable recommendation. It looked to some of the commissioners as if the project was in clear violation of a policy in the downtown specific plan that called for retail stores at the street level in each and every project. This turned out to be wrong. The downtown plan doesn’t require street-level retail in every project, not even in some of them. It just made them acceptable when proposed.

The project went forward to the City Council with an adverse recommendation. The City Council ignored the advice of the commission, inasmuch as the project met so many other city goals and policy: energy efficiency, renewable energy, senior housing, higher-density infill residential projects in the downtown area.

Parkview Place is a cooperative senior project that was designed by former Mayor Mike Corbett, co-developer of Village Homes, a project that pioneered passive solar design and brought global fame to Davis as a progressive, green city. The project was conceived by Dick Bourne, co-founder of Davis Energy Group, nationally recognized as a leading expert in energy efficiency. Bourne and several of his friends plan to live there.

Davis has a climate action plan that calls for carbon neutrality (net-zero carbon emissions) by 2050. City goals and policies have long-recognized green energy as a high priority for Davis.

And yet when someone gets down to specifics and proposes a green project, there is always something. Our real priorities sink in a miasma of contractory policies and muddled objectives that make any creative project vulnerable to an obscure rule lying in wait.

Before Parkview Place, there was Maria Ogrydziak’s net-zero-energy project at the corner of Third and B. Here the problem was the lack of a sloping roof. Ogrydziak had proposed a green roof, which had to be flat lest the vegetation slide off. This is not unprecedented in Davis — there is an example of it in Village Homes — but it was thought to be contrary to the design guidelines for the university neighborhood. In this case, both the Planning Commission and City Council turned down this project, somehow elevating sloping roofs to the highest priority of city policies.

How did we get to this point? Part of the answer is Davis’ cherished tradition of citizen participation. Our current expired but lingering General Plan was created more than 10 years ago by an army of citizen planners. The result, unsurprisingly, is a grab bag of ideas that someone on the General Plan Task Force liked but that no one had the sway to arrange in any kind of priority. Other citizen task forces for specific area plans and design guidelines, etc., followed a similar path.

Help may be on the way. Although the City Council can’t afford to spend millions on a complete redo of the General Plan and all the others, it has hired William McDonough, a world-famous architecture and planning firm, to clarify things. McDonough is a much-admired guru of green cities and quite radical on recycling of all our waste.

It’s only $15,000 (why would a renowned architect work for this?), but the council hopes for at least a “road map” that could guide the city toward its goals of economic and environmental sustainability.

Ken Hiatt, the city’s director of community development and sustainability, told The Enterprise that the road map is the first phase of a potential five-phase process that eventually could lead to the implementation of a full economic development strategy.

Moreover, when the Planning Commission kicked the Parkview Place project up to the City Council, it asked the council to direct staff to study contradictions in the downtown plans. The council agreed and that study is under way.

Light at the end of the tunnel? A forest emerging from the trees? We can hope.

— Mark Braly is a member and former chairman of the Davis Planning Commission.

Special to The Enterprise

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