We stand firm against planning-by-exception

Trackside Partners LLC has proposed a redesigned building at the site it purchased in Old East Davis. Though smaller than the previous design, the proposal far exceeds the mass and scale envisioned in the Davis Downtown and Traditional Residential Neighborhoods Design Guidelines.

The Old East Davis Neighborhood Association supports development on the Trackside site, as specified by the Design Guidelines. The Trackside Partners, however, appear to have bought the Trackside property speculating that the city would change the zoning for their project, superseding the Design Guidelines.

City of Davis planning can no longer operate on “zoning by exception.” The city must stop changing zoning at will, throwing out hard-won agreements made with the time and effort of residential and business stakeholders. The purpose of zoning laws is to establish clear expectations for allowed uses of real property, certainty of investment and to minimize conflicts among neighboring properties.

Zoning by exception defeats this purpose. This is a citywide issue, and the Old East Davis Neighborhood Association is taking a stand, saying that zoning by exception stops here, before Trackside itself is built as yet another exception.

Trackside is not downtown. The proposed development is directly across an alley from single-story homes and infill units. The site falls within a transition zone, for which the mass and type of development are clearly described in the Design Guidelines.

In the early 2000s, the property owner at Davis Ace Hardware sought Old East neighborhood input on a two- to three-3 story proposal for a combined commercial and residential project then under consideration in the transition zone east. The zoning at the time, however, did not allow for combined commercial and residential use.

In 2006, the city proposed to change the zoning at the site, extending from Third to Fifth streets, to “mixed-use.” This change would allow for a mixed commercial and residential project. The Old East Davis Neighborhood Association supported the Ace proposal, and also agreed to the city’s proposed zoning changes, which brought the Core Area Specific Plan over the railroad tracks to the alley, to blend with the transition zone of Old East Davis.

The association’s backing of the zoning change and expanded Core Area Specific Plan was in support of a mixed-use project that would honor the Design Guidelines. The association’s support was never intended to be a starting point for further erosion of land-use law, such as a special allowance for a non-complying, multi-story building immediately adjacent to traditional one-story homes in Old East Davis.

City ordinance states that wherever the guidelines for the Downtown Davis and Traditional Residential Neighborhoods conflict with the existing zoning standards, including planned development, the more restrictive standard shall prevail. The Design Guidelines specified a transition zone for a reason: to create a gentle gradient between disparate land uses. Ignoring the value of a transition zone could result in undesirable juxtapositions and conflicting land uses.

Recently, the city invited consultants to discuss the relatively new concept of form-based code, under which the overall form of a city is designed from the future back to the present, with its ultimate form planned in advance.

Regulations are simplified and rationalized when form-based planning is used. Neighbors know what is allowed on adjacent properties, and developers know what they can build. Special exemptions under the guise of “planned development” are highly unusual in cities that use form-based planning.

At the workshop, the form-based planning consultants emphasized above all: “transition, transition, transition.” They cited poorly planned transitions as the biggest mistakes that cities make. Clearly, the transition zones envisioned in the Design Guidelines are an early move in the direction of form-based planning. In the case of Old East Davis, this takes the form of a half-block transition from the downtown core to the traditional neighborhood.

The newly proposed, four-story Trackside Center fails to make an appropriate transition in any direction. To the west will be a new two-story commercial building: the new Ace Hardware addition that the Old East Davis Neighborhood Association supported. To the north is a ground-level rock yard. To the east is a row of traditional one-story homes and infill units. To the south is a row of one-story commercial buildings.

The Design Guidelines clearly state that a two-story, mixed-use building — with a clearly set-back third story — is a desirable transition from downtown to the historic neighborhood. The new Trackside Center proposal is the same height as the Chen Building at Second and H streets. In addition, Trackside would have about twice the footprint and mass as the Chen Building.

The neighborhood association did not oppose the Chen Building, because the Design Guidelines allow for multi-story buildings in the downtown core. The “Double Chen” mass of the Trackside proposal would, however, sit directly across a narrow alley from a block of single-story homes and infill units. This is not rational city planning.

The association values the heritage neighborhoods of Davis and is standing firm to preserve — for future generations — Davis’ historic character. Furthermore, the association stands firm against planning-by-exception precedents that could lead to an unsightly wall of buildings immediately adjacent to traditional one-story homes.

The Old East Davis Neighborhood Association wishes to see rational, mixed-use development at the Trackside site, in full compliance with the Design Guidelines. We ask community members for your support as we engage in the city planning process, advocating for our neighborhood, speaking out against zoning by exception and working to establish positive precedents for growth in Davis.

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