Davis housing project must overcome city's anti-growth streak
A housing development proposed for a former tomato cannery in Davis could be the last subdivision built in the university town, provided it can overcome the city's powerful anti-growth streak.
As planned, The Cannery project would include a 7-acre organic farm, a "market hall" filled with small eateries and artisan food vendors, a 2-mile bike loop and 547 apartments and single-family homes of varied types and sizes on roughly 100 acres.
Food giant ConAgra, which owns the property, is working with The New Home Co., a housing developer, to advance the project. The Davis Planning Commission and City Council are scheduled to take it up in a series of hearings in September and October.
Regional planners say The Cannery could serve as a model for future development across the greater Sacramento region.
"It really hits a lot of the marks in terms of the general principles of our Blueprint," said Mike McKeever, executive director of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, the region's transportation planning agency. The Blueprint is SACOG's long-range plan that promotes compact, mixed-use development near jobs and public transportation.
The University of California, Davis, is expected to be one of the region's main job generators in the coming years – both in terms of direct employment and related businesses such as biotech, McKeever said. Davis, he said, needs more types of housing to accommodate young professionals, families and seniors.
According to SACOG, Davis needs to plan for more than 1,000 new homes by 2021 to meet its obligations under state law to house its share of the region's growing population.
Plans for The Cannery call for a variety of housing types at different price points, including 2,100- to 3,500-square-foot family homes and more-compact houses with small second units above the garage. Also part of the mix are row homes, low-income apartments and upscale "stacked flats" with elevator service intended to appeal to seniors.
Housing in Davis has become increasingly expensive and scarce since new construction stopped because of resident opposition and the recession. Enrollment in the local schools has been declining over the past decade.
The site of the former Hunt-Wesson cannery, about 2 miles from the main campus, is the last large parcel in Davis not zoned for agriculture or open space. That means it can be developed without a vote by Davis residents who, under the terms of a ballot measure first passed in 2000, must approve the rezoning of farmland for housing.
The ordinance, commonly referred to as Measure J, is unique in the Sacramento region. Only a handful of communities in the state have similar provisions; most of the others are in wealthy, coastal enclaves.
The Davis measure was renewed in 2010 as Measure R. It passed overwhelmingly, and it is expected to be renewed again in 2020.
Under Measure J, Davis voters defeated two subdivisions requiring votes in the past decade.
In 2005 they shot down Covell Village, which proposed nearly 1,900 housing units and retail shops on about 400 acres of farmland beyond the city's northern boundary. The project lost by a vote of 60 percent to 40 percent.
In 2009, by a 3-to-1 ratio, they defeated a much smaller project called Wildhorse Ranch. It proposed 191 homes on the site of a 26-acre horse farm.
After the last development lost by a large margin – 75 percent to 25 percent – some developers and residents said Davis would never grow beyond its current boundaries as long as voters had their say.
The Cannery is an infill project that requires only City Council approval. Still, some residents are already vowing a fight at the ballot box, either by persuading council members to put it to a popular vote or by using the initiative process to force an election.
"If the council won't put it on the ballot, some Davis residents will put it on the ballot," said lawyer Michael Harrington, who said he thinks the land should remain zoned for commercial or industrial use.
Some say letting voters decide the fate of The Cannery would undermine the the purpose of Measure J, which was meant to protect farmland, not to require votes on infill development.
"The point is it shouldn't go to a vote because it isn't part of Measure J," said Eileen Samitz, a former Davis planning commissioner who championed the ballot measure and opposed prior developments on farmland. "It would be a misuse and could endanger the future of Measure J."
The Cannery's potential to accommodate new housing was used as an argument against both Covell Village and Wildhorse Ranch. Building it would largely fulfill the city's future growth needs, Samitz said.
"It's become a beautiful project which has had an enormous amount of community input," she said. "Now is the time to move forward."