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Opponents sue city of Davis over Nishi ‘innovation’ center plan

A group has sued Davis to stop development on the Nishi Gateway site near I-80 and downtown.
A group has sued Davis to stop development on the Nishi Gateway site near I-80 and downtown. hamezcua@sacbee.com

A group of Davis residents has filed suit to stop a major business and housing development from being built along the freeway near downtown.

The lawsuit charges the city failed to adequately analyze traffic and air pollution issues for Nishi Gateway, a 46-acre project planned for farmland along Interstate 80. Project opponents, including activists and attorneys who have fought city growth in the past, also contend the city was wrong not to require housing for low-income residents.

Nishi would offer 325,000 square feet of space for new companies with a focus on research and development. The proposal, by UC Davis economics graduate Tim Ruff of Nishi Gateway LLC, includes 650 higher-density, multistory residential units. Two-thirds of them would be for rent, the rest for sale.

The Davis City Council gave the project a thumbs up in February, setting a June 7 public vote. Under Davis city rules, the public must vote to agree on development on agricultural land.

Davis Mayor Dan Wolk said the two projects would help incubate startup business, attract larger businesses interested in being near the university and would stop the intellectual and economic leakage Davis experiences when college graduates leave town because of lack of jobs. “We have these great students graduating, and there aren’t the jobs for them, so they end up leaving.”

The lawsuit was filed in Yolo Superior Court by Davis attorneys Michael Harrington and Don Mooney, who also are suing the city to stop a hotel and conference center project at Richards Boulevard, adjacent to the Nishi site. Nancy Price of CARP, Davis Citizens Alliance for Responsible Planning, signed the lawsuit as plaintiff representative.

Price, a former city planning commissioner, is among a group that recently published a ballot statement opposing the Nishi project, making similar objections to the ones in the lawsuit, including traffic.

The project is on a tight site separated from the university and downtown by rail tracks. A main access point to it would be from Olive Drive via busy Richards Boulevard.

“Traveling through the Richards Boulevard tunnel into or out of downtown is unbearable now and this project will make it immeasurably worse,” the group states. It also argues the project should be rejected because it does not provide low-income housing and will create unmitigated greenhouse gas emissions, and be an unsuitable place for children to live because of freeway pollution.

City officials counter they they took the required legal steps in analyzing the project’s environmental impacts. That includes noting that added congestion will occur because of the project. But, under the city’s agreement with the developer, the Nishi project cannot be built until freeway ramps at Richards Boulevard and Interstate 80 are realigned and a signalized intersection is built closer to the freeway, away from Olive Drive. The freeway project would be paid for, at least in part, from fees paid by the Nishi developer.

The developer also must come up with funds for a new road under the rail tracks to campus, connecting with Old Davis Road near the Hyatt Place hotel.

A city staff report also said Nishi would not be required to include low-income housing as long as housing densities exceed 30 units per acre. The city and project supporters note in a ballot statement that the project developer will contribute $1 million to the city for affordable housing purposes. Opponents challenge the city’s decision to suspend its affordable housing policy for Nishi and say the $1 million payment is far too low.

Opponents also say rents likely will be too high for students. City officials say they do not know what the rents might be, but counter that housing at the site could be more affordable in other ways: occupants will not need cars because of the proximity to campus and downtown, and efficiency features will reduce resident energy costs.

City officials say they mitigated for air pollution from freeway traffic by requiring the developer to put a row of trees along the freeway and requiring the site’s housing to be built away from the freeway.

Developer Ruff called the suit a “desperate attempt to disrupt” a legitimate and years-long planning and approval process. “Both the traffic and air quality were studied thoroughly,” he said. “It is time for the voters to have the right to decide on it.”

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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