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Davis Enterprise: Sustainable design features eyed for school district block
Author: Jeff Hudson, Davis Enterprise
Posted: June 11, 2017

In 2016 the Urban Sustainability Accelerator from Portland State University held community workshops around potential redevelopment of this under-used site, determined certain desirable features of such development, and performed economic analysis determining that redevelopment could benefit the school district.

Read the original story in the Davis Enterprise.

UC Davis students majoring in sustainable design shared their vision last week for redevelopment of the Davis school district’s downtown property, on a city block bounded by Fifth and Sixth, B and C streets.

On Wednesday, nine teams of students in a class titled Apply Sustainable Strategies, in the department of human ecology, made their quarter-ending presentations. The class is described as one that “examines case studies and techniques of sustainable development. Student teams will develop detailed proposals for real-world sites.”

The property is bounded on the west by Davis City Hall and on the south by Central Park. The school district’s block is home to its administrative headquarters, housed in one-story buildings built in the 1940s.

The students were tasked with coming up with creative (even visionary) ideas for a new design for the block, including the following features:

  • Some sort of affordable housing for school district teachers and staff, probably in the form of townhouses on the east side of the block and apartments to the south and west;
  • A new building, of about 30,000 square feet, to house the administrative offices and the Davis School for Independent Study; and
  • An educational “sustainable design” tour suitable for K-12 student groups, including renewable energy, energy conservation, on-site drainage, native landscape, butterfly garden, graywater reuse and passive solar architecture demonstration facilities. (Most of the designs included solar panels for generating electricity as well.)

Technically, these student designs are an academic exercise in a UCD course. But according to professor Stephen Wheeler, who teaches the course, “We hoped to produce inspiring visions of how creative redevelopment of the site could provide a variety of benefits for the school district, as well as helping the district become a sustainable development leader.”

The district has not developed a plan for the property, or even a timeline for developing such a plan. But in recent years, trustees have periodically discussed moving the administrative offices into newer buildings and redeveloping the block in the process.

In 2016 the Urban Sustainability Accelerator from Portland State University held community workshops around potential redevelopment of this under-used site, determined certain desirable features of such development, and performed economic analysis determining that redevelopment could benefit the school district.

The students gave their ambitious designs names — Blackbird Commons, Vision District, Plaza de Los Arboles, Davis Mosaic, The Living and Learning District, The Pollination Station, Central Point, Unity Square and Origin.

Some even came up with a slogan, like “Life is Swale at Pollination Station” — a reference to a grassy swale that is a feature of that design.

The design known as Blackbird Commons — prepared by students Camille Altschuld, Kelly Andrew, Juliet Martin and Ariel Yang — drew its name from an outdoor student mural depicting birds that adorns the exterior wall of one the buildings currently on the site.

Blackbird Commons envisions 65 units of housing — a mix of 18 townhomes and 47 apartments, some “affordable” and others market-rate — with “intimate courtyards, flexible eating and garden plots for relaxation and social gathering. … The design combines drought-tolerant landscaping with patches of grass in highly used areas.

“Native vegetation provides habitat for wildlife, and promotes the health of several pollinator species. Bio-swales naturally filter and infiltrate storm water on-site. The two office buildings feature green roofs, with similar benefits.”

There also would be solar panels, with “100 percent of energy produced on site.” And there would be two bike parking spaces per housing unit, as well as 33 parking spaces for residents with motor vehicles, and 60 parking spaces for school district staff.

The design known as Origin — prepared by students Alex Blumenfeld, Kevin Horng, Griffin Sproul and James Strand — envisions 54 housing units (including some for seniors), and 108 parking spaces for vehicles (some on the street).

A multi-story building on the Fifth Street side would include publicly accessible areas offering “elevated views of Central Park and tree canopy perspectives.” The site would be graded with bio-swales that “capture, filter and direct storm water”  into a spiral-shaped central area with native plantings. There also would be public art in the form of an earthen sculpture with solar-powered LED lighting.

The design known as Davis Mosaic — prepared by students Lisa Slover, Llisel Ayon, Jacqueline Chou and Pong Monthonsophon — includes eight duplex units, 64 one-bedroom apartments and 14 four-bedroom apartments, plus some commercial space (perhaps a coffee shop).

The design known as Central Point — prepared by students Thea French, Scott Gharda, Tara Larson and Jamie Lam — envisioned more housing units (176) than the other designs, and included several tiered balconies on the multistory buildings.

All of the designs had features intended to help the project blend into the existing Old North Davis neighborhood, to link up with public transportation and various bike-friendly aspects.

Walking through and looking at these dream designs was Sharla Cheney, the undergraduate adviser in the sustainable environmental design program. Back in the 1970s, Cheney was a student at the old Emerson Junior High campus; her former classrooms were remodeled to become the district office.

“It is such a centrally located piece of property — a great opportunity” for a possible redevelopment project, Cheney said. “But it’s not going to look like my old junior high.”

Professor Steve Greco, chair of the department of human ecology, told the students that he was “really impressed” with their work, and the way the ideas for the Fifth Street side of property created synergy with Central Park across the street.

“I live in this neighborhood,” he added.

And assistant professor Sheryl-Ann Simpson complimented the students, saying, “You guys have ‘stepped up’. … These are all things would be possible right now,” and not dependent on some future technological development.

Bob Wolcott, a planner with the city of Davis, added that student plans were more detailed than the concepts that were presented in the Portland State workshops last year.

Kate Snow, the school district’s school climate coordinator, said it was “exciting to be thinking about possibilities” for the property. She said hopes to exhibit the designs at the district offices, so that the people who currently work there could see the ideas the students had envisioned.