Friday, September 7, 2012

Looking Around at West Village

South of Village Homes is West Village, the environmentally cutting-edge student housing complex still being built by the University of California at Davis.  When I made the decision to visit Village Homes, I hadn’t thought about West Village, but the angular shapes on the horizon acted as a reminder.  Particularly because it was before the return of students for the new school year, which meant I could snoop around without disturbing anyone.

Much has been written about West Village, including coverage in the San Francisco Chronicle, on the UC Davis website, and on the Wiki page for Davis.  In summary, West Village was conceived as the most environmentally benign student housing complex ever built.  Low impact development, zero net energy, non-car-oriented, stormwater retention, etc.  After a casual amble on a quiet Saturday afternoon, I can’t judge whether those standards were met, but I can offer a few observations.

(Disclaimer: While working for a previous employer, I submitted a proposal to provide the project civil engineering for West Village.  It was a good proposal, but we weren’t successful, in part because UC Davis was still coming to grips with how to develop the project.  They eventually formed a public-private partnership with a housing developer who brought their own civil engineer to the team.  It was a fine decision by the University.)

The heart of West Village is Village Square, where the retail components will be located.  If transit serves West Village, it will likely make its stop at Village Square.  There are currently residential clusters radiating south and east from Village Square, with room for additional clusters to the north and west.

The key landmark in the Village Square is a vertically mounted sundial, installed on a tower decorated with photovoltaic panels.  It is an effective, and architecturally interesting, statement about the philosophy behind West Village.

Overall, I liked the layout of the square.  Both from above and on the ground, it felt comfortable.  Not overly rigid or symmetric, but homey.  My only slight quibble was the unbroken expanse of grass.  People will find reasons to cut across the lawn, creating unsightly tracks along the most used routes.  Hopefully there’s enough remaining money in the budget to place more concrete once people have voted with their feet.

It was disappointing that little if any of the retail space was currently occupied by retail.  Some of the space had been claimed by university departments such as Transportation Studies and the Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Research Center.  Other of the potential retail spaces lacked any indication of use.   Maybe it was because it was the days before the students arrived or maybe there hasn’t yet been a critical mass of students to justify retail, but I hope that restaurants, groceries, and shops will soon fill the square.

I liked the post-modern architectural detailing, but found some of the color choices to be too aggressively contemporary.  Perhaps the summertime sun of the Sacramento Valley will fade the chartreuse.

I was surprised by the lack of security and the unlocked doors.  I had no problem riding up elevators or walking internal halls.  It was like the good old days before 9/11 and it felt good.

I was also pleased to find that Sacramento City College has established an outpost at Village Square, a facility that is expected to eventually serve 2,500 students.  The University of California system and the junior college system have different educational missions, but can often be complementary.  It was good to see physical locations that will facilitate that symbiosis.
The residential clusters are comprised of three-story buildings, with between two and four buildings oriented around common courtyards.  A reliance on stairs instead of elevators struck me immediately, but is consistent with the West Village energy philosophy.  Plus the ground floor will provide ADA units.

I liked the shared commons with tables and barbecues.  Given the gentle winters in Davis, the commons will likely act as frequent gathering points.  I remember my young adulthood when my first check upon arriving home was to see who was sitting outside and then grabbing a beverage to sit and talk about the events of the day.

I also liked the fenestration details.  I don’t know how well the fixed shades will work, but they again emphasize the energy philosophy.
One final comment.  Davis was never heavily wooded, but did have a smattering of mature cottonwoods and other large trees.  The heart of the campus still has that lightly wooded feeling.  West Village, with only small, new-planted trees, feels raw.  It may be fifteen years before West Village truly feels lived-in.

Is West Village an urbanist project?  Yes, it is.  The business of UC Davis is education.  The residents of West Village can partake of education only a short bike ride away.  (Parking is provided at West Village, but cars are really only for weekend use.)   And the other necessities of life are only a walk away.  An urbanist project designed for working wage families in the North Bay would look different, but the basic components would be the same.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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