Monday Morning Thoughts: A New Beginning – The Start of the Mike Webb Era

Mike Webb takes over as city manager today

In April of 2014, the Steve Pinkerton era ended with a bang as a contingent of city employees celebrated at Uncle Vito’s with a number of elected officials looking on.  For some the move to hire Dirk Brazil was always seen as a political move by Dan Wolk, in between runs for the Assembly, to hire an individual who had been a staffer to his legislative mother.

The Dirk Brazil era ended on Friday and the results depend on whom you ask.  The council and his successor for the most part see positive developments in City Hall under the leadership of Mr. Brazil.  Others around town see a number of lost opportunities.

To me the biggest lost opportunity was on economic development.  In the spring of 2014, the city looked poised to spring forward on economic development.  The RFEI (Request for Expressions of Interest) for innovation centers had been launched and the city got immediate results in three proposals, two of which led directly to applications.

But somewhere along the way we slipped off track.  We cannot put it all on City Hall, but there are those who believe that the city manager never really believed we needed innovation centers.  The politics of land use and the cost of development in Davis played a huge role in this as well, but it is interesting that right around the time that the Davis Innovation Center was paused was right around the time that Chief Innovation Officer Rob White, a well-respected figure around the region, was basically let go.

The second innovation center would get paused a year later.  Nishi with its 300,000 square foot innovation center would go down to defeat at the polls a year later.  And the city went from looking at a resurgence of economic development to being back to square one.

As Mike Webb heads in as city manager, the city has a lot of big issues that it needs to address, most of which were either not addressed in the last three years or only marginally so.

Economic development is a big one.  On the plus side we have seen the private initiative from Sierra Energy and the purchase of the now-titled University Research Park by Mark Friedman.  On the down side is the loss of Nishi’s innovation center, the disappearance of the Davis Innovation Center which has now moved to Woodland and is already approved, and the tenuous future of the Mace Ranch Innovation Center.

There is also the loss of the Hotel Conference Center that leaders were hoping would provide a venue for large scale conferences and other economic development activity.

As experts are starting to warn of economic slowdowns, we may have already missed our window.  Mike Webb will have to find a way to reignite what we have lost over the last three years.

The budget issues have not gone away – although you would have thought they had if you had only listened to the two years of the former mayor speaking of the Davis Renaissance.  With the city having a city manager without expertise on finances, I am still surprised there was no move to bring in a strong finance director under Dirk Brazil.

That may change now under Mike Webb, who recognizes that he has good expertise in land use, but lacks strong background in finance.  The city did, under pressure from the Finance and Budget Commission and Mayor Robb Davis, bring on Bob Leland as a consultant, but that’s not a replacement for in-house finance staff that can help develop new fiscal policy.

Finally, the biggest crisis is probably housing at this point.  The council has definitely done more to advance the ball here.  But at this point they have a failed Nishi project and an approved Sterling Apartments to show for their efforts.

There are a number of projects coming down the pipeline, but with a whole host of issues that won’t easily be resolved.

The issue of student housing seems on its way to being addressed.  The larger issue of affordability and housing for families is more intractable.  The city is operating with several constraints.  First is a strong reaction against dense infill projects.  Second, an inability to build on the periphery.  Third, a series of lawsuits against various projects.

The city is beginning to finally undergo reviewing the Core Area Specific Plan, but at some point is going to have to tackle the big one – the General Plan update.  At some point there is probably going to be some showdown on several Measure R projects, and probably a showdown on Measure R itself.

None of these are small or easily resolved issues.  And if a new recession hits, as experts are starting to warn, the ability to address these issues could end up getting delayed.  The last recession slowed down the progress on issues like housing and economic development for the better part of a decade.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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