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Davis, California

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

City uncertain about affordable housing development

The future doesn’t look very promising for New Harmony, an affordable housing apartment complex proposed for an empty site in South Davis.

The Davis City Council voted last week to delay a decision on the project, citing lack of information on health risks as a prime concern.

At issue is whether the project’s proximity to Interstate 80 is enough of a reason to stop it from being built. A study published in The Lancet, a British medical journal, found that children who grow up within 1,640 feet of a freeway have significant lung development issues.

Based on this study, the Davis Planning Commission determined last month that the project should be denied because it posed a significant public health risk. The applicants appealed to the City Council.

The project would be located at the southwest corner of Cowell Boulevard and Drummond Avenue, currently a vacant lot. All 69 units would be within 500 feet of I-80. The project would include a number of measures intended to mitigate impacts from the freeway, such as noise and air pollution.

The council voted 4-1 to approve a motion to direct staff to bring back more information on the potential health impacts. Because New Harmony is an affordable housing project, the only way the council can legally deny the application is to find that it would present a significant public health risk.

Councilmember Sue Greenwald said it was obvious why there were health concerns about this project and others that have come before the council recently.

“It’s because everyone knew they were terrible places to put residential and that’s why they’re available,” she said.

Mayor Ruth Asmundson agreed with the council majority, saying there was too much unknown for the project to be safe.

“This is a hard decision,” she said. “There are so many unknowns. I always err on the side of caution.”

In order to address some of the uncertainty, the city hired an independent consultant, Thomas Cahill, to do a site-specific health risk assessment. Cahill’s analysis found that given the mitigating measures incorporated into the design of the project, the risk was not significant enough to merit denial of the project.

Mayor pro tem Don Saylor voted against the motion, saying it was clear that there was not a significant risk.

“We don’t have findings that can be drawn that would allow us to deny the appeal before us,” Saylor said. “The specific findings that we have for this specific site show that the health and safety issues are not a concern.”

Regardless of the project’s proximity to the freeway, community development director Katherine Hess said in a report that “staff believes the project is well-conceived and is consistent with city policies and goals.” The report also stated that the project would provide “high-quality affordable housing to help the city meet its state housing requirements.”

New Harmony has also been the subject of a fair amount of neighborhood opposition. Many South Davis residents spoke at the meeting, saying they felt the addition of another affordable housing project would degrade the quality of life in the area.

“We already have three affordable housing projects within a two-street radius of that location,” wrote resident Carol Wise in a letter to the city. “This will cause many, many problems in the area [including] increasing population density, causing overcrowding of the two lane streets, and possibly (although I can say probably) increase in crime.”

The City Council will discuss New Harmony again at their meeting Tuesday. They must decide to either deny the project or commission an Environmental Impact Report.


JEREMY OGUL can be reached at city@californiaaggie.com.


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