The City Council voted 4-1 Tuesday to commit $100,000 for pre-development of the Nishi property, an undeveloped 44-acre slice of land bordering the southern edge of the city and cornered by Interstate 80, Olive Drive and the Union Pacific Railroad tracks.
City development staff and the landowner, Nishi Gateway LLC, would like to transform the property into a mixed-use development of 600 units of high-density housing plus research and business park space.
Through the agreement, the city will share the pre-development costs equally with the property owner to share the risk of fronting a substantial amount of cash for a project that has no guarantee of gaining approval from the public.
The project would have to go to a Measure J public vote because the property is outside the city limits. Measure J, passed by the voters in 2000 and renewed as Measure R in 2010, requires all council-approved peripheral developments on agricultural land or open space to be approved by a majority of the voters.
The only two projects to reach the polls under Measure J have failed miserably — Covell Village in 2005 and Wildhorse Ranch in 2009 failed. But Mayor Joe Krovoza said Tuesday that because this is an unusual proposal, it may not be appropriate to gauge the will of the people based on those prior votes.
“This is about jobs, this is about connecting to the university and this is not about peripheral development,” Krovoza said. “There has never been a Measure R vote in this community that has involved those very different elements. It’s always been 100 percent residential.”
However, Councilman Brett Lee, the lone dissenting vote on the proposal, was not comfortable handing over the money considering the city’s voting history.
“I think a realistic view of the situation would be that the money will be lost because, based upon the last Measure J/R vote, that’s a somewhat uphill battle,” Lee said. “I don’t think that it’s safe to assume that, number one, we’d get to a vote, and then, number two, that it would be approved by the voters.”
Instead, Lee said the city could gauge the pulse of its constituents on the idea of developing the land through a low-cost poll.
Ken Hiatt, director of community development and sustainability, recommended allocating $350,000 toward pre-development at the council meeting to pay for environmental documents, planning work and public outreach processes. The council eventually voted to have city staff check in after $100,000 is spent or in six months, whichever comes first.
To pay for its share, the city will reallocate funds dedicated to Core Area parking improvements. The agreement specifies that all costs associated with pre-development would be reimbursed by the property owner if the project wins approval from the public.
The agreement also includes options for the city and the landowner to leave the project at any point during the process before any major expenditures are made.
Meanwhile, the city and Nishi Gateway LLC will continue to look for ways to finance the project and its development, including resubmitting a grant proposal next year to the Strategic Growth Council. This summer, the city and UC Davis narrowly missed out on $1 million for the project.
While the project proposal is far from finalized, Hiatt and the landowner have devised a preliminary plan where the city would own half of the land, or 22 acres, nearest to the highway where the research park development would be situated, and Nishi Gateway LLC would own the high-density housing land away from the highway and closer to the train tracks.
“I like the fact that the city would own part of the property,” Councilman Lucas Frerichs offered Tuesday.
The two parties also will continue to work with UCD in the hope that the university will contribute to the planning effort since the site is adjacent to campus.
And as Hiatt told The Enterprise on Thursday, the land likely has great value to UCD, given Chancellor Linda Katehi’s 2020 Initiative plan that will increase enrollment by 5 percent.
Hiatt said the university also has made enhancing the Solano Park apartments on the other side of the railroad tracks a top priority, which could turn the entire area into an extremely viable neighborhood.
Frerichs, on the other hand, voiced concerns Tuesday over future access to the site.
“I think it’s going to be a very difficult sell if it’s primarily Olive Drive access,” he said.
But Tim Ruff, the property owner, said Thursday that he doesn’t share that concern, pointing out multiple places around the property that, with the right plan, could address most issues.
City staff will continue work with UCD to “identify and explore options, viability and costs for circulation and access options that involve university property.”
— Reach Tom Sakash at email@example.com or 530-747-8057. Follow him on Twitter at @TomSakash