By a 3-2 margin, Davis voters gave the go-ahead on Tuesday for developers to move forward with a 47-acre apartment project in an empty field near Interstate 80, which would provide 2,200 beds to UC Davis students and help ease the city's housing squeeze.
"Yes" votes for Measure J, also known as the Nishi Gateway Project, led 59.8 percent to 40.2 percent with 100 percent of precincts reporting. Although some provisional and mail-in ballots have yet to be counted, the $250 million project seems likely to pass after it was narrowly voted down – 51.5 percent to 48.5 percent – in 2016.
The controversial measure deeply divided the Davis community for years, and went through several modifications before voters gave the OK. The 2016 plan would have also included 325,000 square feet of research and development office space and require changes to the west end of Olive Drive to provide access to cars driving to and from the Nishi property.
The new project abandoned the office space idea to focus exclusively on student housing – including 330 beds specifically for low-income students.
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After residents said adding more cars to the area would worsen traffic – a complaint that likely helped sink the measure in 2016 –Tandem Properties developers decided this time around to allow only buses and emergency vehicles to travel between Nishi and Olive Drive, where cars are often slowed to a crawl due to the Richards Boulevard tunnel bottleneck nearby.
Mayor pro tem Brett Lee, who supported the project along with the rest of the City Council, thinks the simplified plan was easier to explain to voters and helped Nishi 2.0 pass.
“It was really more about student-oriented housing," Lee said. "It was a relatively simple thing for people to understand."
Nishi became Davis' first development to overcome Measure R, an obstacle that torpedoed three previous housing proposals by requiring voters to approve plans that change agricultural land to residential property.
“I think what (Nishi passing) does is that it shows that the process can work," Lee said. "If a developer comes forward with a proposal, it is possible to get that proposal past the voters.”
The main argument of the No On Nishi campaign this election cycle was that students living in the new development, sandwiched between I-80 and the Union Pacific railroad track, would constantly be breathing unhealthy, polluted air.
Colin Walsh, a representative of the anti-Nishi campaign, said No On Nishi is "enthused by the democratic process that Davis citizens used to approve the Nishi Project," but regrets "that future Nishi residents may suffer negative health consequences due to the particularly poor air quality at that location and the financial burden it will place upon the city."
Mayor Robb Davis acknowledged that living near a freeway can have detrimental health impacts, but said freeway pollution can travel up to a mile overnight and that most of Davis is within a mile of a freeway.
“The premise of those who are using that argument is that Nishi is somehow unique in its exposure to those things," Davis said.
The only way in and out of the Nishi development by car will be a new railroad underpass that connects to Old Davis Road, which critics say will cause more congestion. But Davis said he thinks most students will take the bus, walk or ride their bike to class because the project is so close to campus.
"This is not going to generate traffic to the university," he said.
Tuesday's result does not give Nishi a green light; the project is facing a lawsuit challenging the plan's affordability component and claiming the city needs to prepare a new environmental impact report.
But Davis is optimistic, citing the 2016 plan's success at overcoming legal hurdles.
“We prevailed the last time," he said. "“We believe we’ll prevail this time."
Tim Ruff, one of the project developers, is thrilled Nishi is finally going forward.
"We listened carefully to the voters' concerns for the first project and made adjustments based on those concerns, which were primarily around traffic and affordable housing," he said.
Ruff, who said the development agreement requires developers to foot the entire $250 million bill, thinks construction could start within a year. Students will hopefully start renting beds in the 700 apartment units in time for the fall 2021 semester, he said.
Aaron Latta – a first-year student at UC Davis and the executive director of the Davis College Democrats, which supported Measure J – said the project wouldn't fix the housing shortage that plagues students but "it puts us on the right path."
Right now, Latta said, many students are forced to share single-family homes.
"We call them mini-dorms in town, because they’re 10 students crammed into a single two- or three-person house," he said.