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Davis, California

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Despite housing shortage, Nishi remains controversial


Nishi development project faces continuing environmental scrutiny

It’s no secret that Davis faces an extreme shortage of affordable housing. In November of 2017, The California Aggie reported that Davis has a rental vacancy rate of just 0.2 percent.

In June 2016, Davis voters narrowly rejected Measure A, which would have turned the Nishi Gateway property into a mixed-use development with residential apartments and an “innovation center” for research. However, a new proposal that only includes student rental apartments will likely be on the ballot this June.

“We have listened to the voters, reduced traffic and other impacts and are focused on meeting a dire housing need in this community,” said Tim Ruff, the prospective developer of the site. “Regarding traffic as the biggest issue, the new plan eliminated the car connection to Olive Drive and Richards Boulevard and removed the largest traffic generators from the plan: for sale housing and research space. The new project is focused on [students] who don’t drive as frequent (and don’t have to at this location) with vehicular access to UC Davis only.”

An Environmental Impact Report was completed in 2015 and indicated “significant and unavoidable” air quality problems at Nishi due to its location between the train tracks and Interstate 80, which may have been on the minds of some voters in addition to traffic. While Nishi was monitored over a short period of time for the EIR, there have not been peer-reviewed studies to show the degree to which exhaust, diesel and ultra-fine metals from brake pads impact Nishi over longer periods of time, all of which have been associated with a range of health complications.

Tom Cahill, a UC Davis professor emeritus of physics, helped prepare the EIR and recommended mitigation measures. In an op-ed for The Davis Enterprise, he said that these peer-reviewed studies need to occur before a vote on the new proposal is held, and suggested delaying the vote to accommodate the time frame that would be needed for adequate measurements to be taken throughout the year.

“The draft EIR [included] measurements […] of ultra-fine diesel exhaust, a known cancer-causing agent, but did not include new data showing that diesel from trains is six times more toxic than diesel from trucks, or data on ultra-fine metals from brake debris connected to a 35 percent increase in fatal heart attacks in Bakersfield,” Cahill said.

UC Davis philosophy professor Roberta Millstein, who specializes in environmental ethics and philosophy of biology, said that Cahill’s calls for additional and more thorough studies have her full support.

“The preliminary studies were very striking, but they were not performed at Nishi itself, they were done at a site on Olive Drive and they were only done for 10 days,” Millstein said. “Delaying the vote until we have more data is only prudent. Voters should be making an informed decision when they vote. The City Council should also be more informed before deciding to put this proposed project on the ballot.”

To make a point about how polluted Nishi may be, Cahill compared Nishi to a site near Highway 60 in Ontario, Calif. that is considered to be the most polluted near-roadway site in the nation. While I-80 near Nishi doesn’t experience as much traffic as Highway 60, Cahill identifies three different negative factors that set Nishi apart.

“The neck down of I-80 west of Nishi from six lanes to three forces heavy braking and stop-and-go traffic,” Cahill said. “No such lane reductions occur for Highway 60. An [LA Times] article states, ‘Ultrafine particles are suspected of causing some of the illnesses among people living near traffic.’ These include ‘dust from brake pads and tires that contain toxic metals, rubber and other compounds that are kicked up into the air.’”

Thus, Cahill believes that the lane reduction near Nishi could create adverse health consequences worse than what is seen near Highway 60. There certainly is some risk, but the degree of risk is not known because extensive studies have not been carried out.

“All that grinding to a stop upwind of Nishi is a recipe for several types of lung, heart and reproductive distress,” Cahill said. “And traffic accelerates south of Nishi as the clog breaks up, greatly enhancing truck diesel emission rates.”

Cahill also explained that Davis and other Central Valley cities experience winter stagnation events with shallow pollution inversions more frequently than Ontario, meaning that pollutants like car exhaust, diesel soot and ultra-fine metals are trapped closer to the ground for longer periods. Nishi also differs from the Ontario site in that train tracks run along the border of the property.

“Nishi has heavy train traffic on its north edge, with both idling and accelerating Amtrak trains, and heavy freight trains accelerating out of the Davis curve,” Cahill said. “Nishi is sandwiched between I-80 and the tracks, guaranteeing that on either north or south winds […] will impact the students.”

Because of these air quality concerns, Professor Millstein wrote an op-ed in The Davis Enterprise in November declaring that student housing at Nishi would be an environmental injustice, and elaborated on this in an interview.

“To offer students the ‘solution’ of housing at Nishi, given all of the environmental risks, is an environmental injustice,” Millstein said. “It’s taking advantage of a vulnerable population, making them choose between proper housing and their health. Or, even worse: future Nishi residents may not know about the health risks of living at that site, and so they would be exposed without even knowing it. UC Davis and the City of Davis can do better for students and other potential Nishi residents.”

On the topic of whether the potential negative health impacts at the site represent an environmental injustice, Ruff cast doubt on the number of people who share these concerns and described what he thinks is a worse injustice.

“Social injustice [is] living currently without the mitigation in substandard conditions because of the housing crisis,” Ruff said. “We are offering a state of the art healthy alternative and will have affordable rental housing. Why not similar concerns for all the other similar projects?”

Critics of Cahill’s argument, like toxicologist Charles Salocks, point to the fact that Cahill supported New Harmony, a smaller apartment development that on the south side of I-80 a few miles east of Nishi.

David Greenwald of The Davis Vanguard criticized Cahill for instead supporting using Nishi as research and commercial space for UC Davis, possibly a World Food Center.

“The reality is that he believes ‘the land is far too valuable for just student housing,’” Greenwald said. “That suggests that no answer he finds [by doing more research] will resolve the environmental disagreement because there are non-air quality reasons for his opposition […] At no time does [Cahill] attempt to reconcile his opposition even to short-term student housing, when he appears to support longer uses that might require employees to undergo greater levels of exposure.”

But Millstein believes that the people of Davis are thinking about the additional the air quality research that could be done and that not everybody’s vote would change to a yes simply because additional traffic sources were eliminated.

“I have gotten very positive responses to my op-eds and I think many people share my concerns,” Millstein said. “I think it’s important to know that future residents, who won’t be part of the discussion we’re having right now, will likely not know about those risks. We would in effect be making the decision to risk their health for them — including increased cancer, heart attack, and asthma risks — and that’s simply not ethical. I don’t think that anyone should have their health put at risk in order to satisfy a basic human need like housing.”

Millstein and Cahill both think that there are better sites in Davis for additional housing.

“Allowing students to live in what is certainly one of the most polluted near-roadway sites in the nation is not a viable answer to UC Davis housing needs, even assuming the students are forced to live in hermetically sealed boxes with no patios, balconies or windows that open,” Cahill said. “And there are better options. Open unpolluted campus space for student housing is in abundance west of Highway 113.”

While Professor Millstein and Cahill think that other sites are preferable, Ruff argues that there is no reason to think that other near-freeway sites across town, both developed and undeveloped, would have better conditions than Nishi, or rather that Nishi could be any worse.

“[Pollutants at Nishi] do not cause conditions different than all nearby properties in Davis […] where housing has none of the mitigation measures we have adopted and located just as close to the roadway,” Ruff said. “The elevated freeway is actually a benefit, dispersing any issues. At some point you have to wonder if it’s just political pollution.”

However, it is not possible to say with certainty that Nishi has better or worse air quality than other near-freeway apartment locations in Davis; the studies have not been done on every location, especially relating to the ultra-fine metals from brakes that may be a larger problem at Nishi. Despite the concerns from the data available, and uncertainty over what could be learned in additional studies, Ruff remains confident that the environmental mitigation measures in the proposal will suffice.

“[We will] fully mitigate as directed in the certified EIR — location away from the road, urban forest barrier/buffer, state of the art filtration systems, run on solar power, tree canopies,” Ruff said. “These are proven technologies to improve air quality (studies Cahill performed and mitigations he recommended) for residents and nearby properties. With these mitigations there is no risk. People want to live here, without a car [and] expenses, and commute and walk to campus and downtown. It’s urban and sustainable.”

The new housing-only Nishi proposal will likely be on the ballot in June.


Written by: Benjamin Porter — features@theaggie.org


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