Guadalupe Del Angel-Garcia moved into her North Oak Park apartment 14 years ago and her rent was about $800 a month. Now it’s $1,100.
The rent is increasingly difficult for her family to pay, especially since her husband was laid off from his restaurant job due to the coronavirus pandemic. But Oak Park is home. She’s lived there more than two decades and belongs to a close-knit community through her church.
When she heard about Aggie Square, a sprawling new project bringing thousands of jobs to the UC Davis Medical Center about a mile away, she was deeply concerned.
“If the rent goes up, it’s going to be overwhelming,” Angel-Garcia said. “It’s going to be fatal.”
In the two and a half years since UC Davis announced the Aggie Square “technology and innovation campus,” anxiety has been growing that it will displace longtime low- and middle-income families in the surrounding neighborhoods of Oak Park and Tahoe Park.
A report released in July revealing plans for housing caused those fears to grow. The only new housing that will be built at Aggie Square, according to the report, will be 285 apartments for students at $1,900 a month.
No additional housing units are planned on the site, said Bob Segar, a UC Davis assistant vice chancellor serving as planning director for Aggie Square. However, the 285 units could include some that are more affordable and some open to non-students, Segar said.
Even if they do, that’s still far fewer new units than the number of new jobs the campus is expected to create.
The first phase of the project is expected to bring 3,600 new jobs to the site at Stockton Boulevard and Second Avenue, not counting construction jobs. Many worry the new employees will flood the surrounding rental market, driving up prices and forcing current renters out.
Fifty-nine percent of residents in the campus’s 95817 ZIP code are renters, according to U.S Census data. That’s compared to 52% citywide.
“The people they’re bringing to work at UC Davis when this is completed, they’re going to need a place to live, so people are going to be displaced,” said Lavinia Phillips, president of the Oak Park Neighborhood Association.
City officials have a plan that could help build more affordable housing in the area. In addition, UC Davis officials say they are planning to hire a significant number of neighborhood residents for the jobs, decreasing the need for new housing for newcomers.
Will those efforts work? Or will Aggie Square become a gentrification bomb?
What about new housing?
Asked during a February Oak Park neighborhood meeting about how they will prevent displacement, City Councilmen Jay Schenirer and Eric Guerra told residents about the city’s affordable housing trust fund. At the time, the city was planning to issue bonds using Measure U sales tax revenue to generate $100 million for much-needed new affordable housing.
The Measure U money they were going to use was from the sales-tax increase voters approved in 2018, estimated to bring in about $50 million a year largely to uplift disadvantaged neighborhoods. But when the pandemic struck, city officials used the Measure U money for core city services, and the housing trust fund was put on hold.
Now, the councilmen who represent the area are hopeful that a new special tax district could be the answer.
The city could create an Enhanced Infrastructure Financing District along a portion of Stockton Boulevard, south of Aggie Square, in the hopes of sparking development on the long-vacant lots there, Guerra said. The idea is to take a portion of the new tax money the development would normally generate for the city budget and redirect it toward paying for needed infrastructure improvements at the site, Guerra said. That makes the project more affordable for the developer to build.
“This does create an impetus for people to want build on that vacant land,” Guerra said.
The city has been hesitant to create EIFDs, allowed under state law for the last several years, but recently created one for the Major League Soccer stadium in the Railyard, Guerra said.
But residents have concerns with that idea, which depends partly on the private developers to invest in an area where they have previously shown little interest – and to do so during a pandemic.
“It sounds like a pie-in-the-sky thing,” said Bill Motmans of the Tahoe Park Neighborhood Association. “Who is ready to do that? Who is ready to break ground?”
The EIFD would make it more likely for Mercy Housing to be able to build 200 new housing units on long-vacant land at Stockton Boulevard and Lawrence Drive, said Stephan Daues of Mercy Housing. Some of the units would be market rate, while others would be reserved for low-income families, Daues said.
“There are some significant infrastructure needs like sewer and drainage, as well as environmental needs with the soil,” Daues said.
Los Angeles-area developer Dan Weinstein is also considering building housing along Stockton Boulevard between Ninth and 10th avenues, Guerra said.
It’s unclear if those housing projects, if they are built, would be ready for tenants by 2023, when the first phase of Aggie Square is expected to open.
Promises for local hires
Although the housing planned to be built on site would only accommodate about 8% of the new jobs created in Phase 1, if current neighborhood residents get those jobs, less new housing will be needed to accommodate newcomers, Segar pointed out.
But residents are skeptical that they will be able to get the jobs, especially if they are in the medical, technology and science fields.
“The people who are higher skilled, we know who they are and they are not in central and south Oak Park,” Phillips said. “The majority of (Oak Park) residents don’t have the qualifications to do those things in the medical field.”
However, 40% of the new jobs on-site at Aggie Square will not require a four-year degree, Segar said.
In addition to the estimated 3,600 on-site jobs expected in 2023 from Phase 1, the second phase will bring an additional 1,800 on-site jobs several years after, Segar said.
First, there will be thousands of construction jobs. Pending approval by the University of California Board of Regents, construction will start in the first half of 2021 on the $1.1 billion Phase 1. That phase includes four buildings – three for lab, classroom and research space and one for the housing and retail, including the Alice Waters food institute, which will work to make school lunches healthier across the state.
UC Davis hired Baltimore-based Wexford Science and Technology as the developer, which hired Sacramento-based Whiting-Turner as the subcontractor, Segar said.
Those firms are working with the local building and trade unions to ensure many of the construction jobs are given to residents of the four ZIP codes near the project, Segar said. There is currently nothing binding in writing to ensure that, but there will be, Segar said.
Project leaders, working with the mayor’s office and in partnership with local community colleges, will also target residents of nearby ZIP codes for non-construction jobs, Segar said. Those could include a program focusing on stem cell manufacturing, which will hire people with associates degrees as lab technicians through partnerships with local community colleges such as Sacramento City College, he said.
A lack of public input?
The fears over displacement from Aggie Square comes as renters are already worried about being evicted due to the coronavirus crisis. In addition, the virus has prohibited the ability for public meetings, adding to residents’ fears that their voices will not be heard.
But even before the virus struck, the process UC Davis set up for public engagement on Aggie Square was sorely lacking, some say.
In 2018, the university set up a Community Engagement Advisory Committee to ensure public input. But the quarterly meetings were invitation only and closed to the public – a disappointment to Motmans, who resigned from the committee earlier this month.
“There’d be 50 people there and only three were from the neighborhood,” said Motmans, a longtime Tahoe Park resident and advocate. “Who’s supposed to represent us on this?”
Aware of growing community concerns, UC Davis officials in February attended an open Oak Park Neighborhood Association meeting, which included a PowerPoint presentation and about an hour of questions.
Phillips said the information shared was vague or hard to understand and did little to allay fears.
“If they do invite us to the table, they’re not talking to us,” Phillips said. “We’re in a position where people are talking over our heads.”
Councilman Schenirer, who represents Oak Park, agreed public outreach needs to improve, and is hopeful it will.
“I think the community outreach has not been successful so far,” Schenirer said. “I think we need to try some new things.”
Wexford is planning to roll out a new public outreach strategy – something the firm has done in the past when it’s developed similar projects at universities across the country, Segar said.
“It’s critical we find ways to go deeper and to co-create with people,” he said.
Phillips said the neighborhood wants a written community-based agreement with UC Davis to ensure their concerns will be addressed in a meaningful, binding way.
Segar seemed open to the idea.
“I don’t know what form that will take, but we embrace the fact the community needs a more formal voice,” Segar said.
Even with the assurances in place, Guerra encouraged residents to keep raising concerns.
The project is unique in that it involves the university system, as well as the city and county, Guerra said. Although it’s not a city project and no city money has gone toward it, it will still have a significant impact on city residents, Guerra said.
But it will not need city approval for land use, zoning or permits the way other projects do.
“I think (residents) should be worried,” Guerra said. “I think it’s important they be active and vocal about these issues and make them clear to UC Davis.”
The Bee’s Phillip Reese contributed to this story.
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