Commentary: Competing Visions for the Downtown and the Future of Davis

Davis is currently undergoing a process that could be viewed as a visioning process for the future of the Davis Downtown.  Unfortunately the scheduling of these meetings has not permitted me to attend and so I have largely had to hear about them through the eyes of others.  What is interesting to me is that the direction of the meetings seems to be different depending on the point of view of the person telling the story.

I was watching a YouTube video, whose author posted the view in response to what he described as the city consultants’ preferred plan to cover the downtown space with buildings.  In his view, what makes Davis, Davis is the Unitrans bus lines, the miles of bike lanes, its parks, the world class university, and all of that nestled in a small town feel.

Most importantly, he says, “Davis is about the people that occupy those spaces.”

There are those worried, as this video author worries, that the downtown planning process has been hijacked by special interests and outside planners, who argue that the downtown is great as it is and we should redevelop the downtown with business along its historical roots of the town square.

These critics view the idea of downtown redevelopment as a dream by those who think it can cure Davis’ ills and economic hardships.

Another critic argued that the renderings of tall buildings around E Street Plaza originated from the consultant, and argued that they preferred the Arcata or Sonoma examples of an open plaza, fitting the scale and sensibilities of Davis – which many would prefer over multi-story buildings towering over a small open space.

Others I have spoken with worry that these voices in the room, the folks who can attend these meetings, also are not representative of the broader community that has to work during the day.  They believe that the planners and council will water down whatever plan occurs in order to accommodate these concerns expressed.

They point to examples like Livermore, which had the same consultants as the city of Davis has hired to plan their downtown, and who believe that Livermore’s downtown would fit well into what Davis is and what Davis could become.

For me, I would like to respond to some of the critics.

Part of my growing concern is that most of the things that make Davis, Davis are in large part being threatened by the very policies that have been enacted to protect them.  Davis has largely rested on its biking laurels and, as a result, according to many is no longer the biking capital even of the region, let alone the world.

Our parks and roads are threatened due to inadequate funding for infrastructure.  Our world class university is pushing into Sacramento because the climate in Davis is so unfriendly to them.  And the small town is acting as a constrictor to prevent us from recognizing our growing list of needs.

The author of the video talks about the people that occupy those spaces, but fails to recognize that families are being squeezed out of Davis by lack of housing and growing costs.  That students lack sufficient housing in our community and they lack workforce housing to stay here after graduating.

Davis is threatening to become a community of students, wealthy seniors, and older residents.  We haven’t reached that tipping point yet, but we are moving in that direction.

I agree that the downtown is not going to cure all that ails Davis.  But I do believe that downtown represents an opportunity to move Davis in a different direction.  This is not a destruction of Davis the small town community.  Rather this is a way to preserve Davis as a small town community by modernizing its existing spaces in a way that makes it possible to fund our services and infrastructure needs without blowing out our borders.

I find it very interesting that the critics who are opposed to densifying the downtown are the same people who oppose peripheral growth and the same people who signed their names in opposition to the roads tax.  How exactly do they plan to finance the great amenities that were laid out in the video?

There are people in this community who so want to conserve the Davis they had 30 years ago that they are killing the Davis we have today.

In the next week or so, the Vanguard will be reporting on the proposed University Mall redevelopment.  Right now, they are formalizing their proposal.  But the basic structure of that redevelopment is what we could see in the downtown.  The bottom floor would be retail and they would go three stories up above with residential.

The result is a similar footprint but with much more use of the available land.  When I spoke with the owners of a downtown parcel, that is exactly what they are looking to do in the next decade.  Densifying the existing footprint with flex-space and residential on top of ground floor retail and restaurants.

If it is done in the right way it won’t look like high rise buildings over tiny town squares, but rather will represent a far better utilization of space, adding to our retail, entertainment, tax base and available housing stock in a way that doesn’t force the expansion of our borders.

If you look, for instance, at the existing façade of the Brinley building along Second Street, you recognize two critical things – one, it’s really not very attractive with the grate covering the second floor.  And two, most of the downtown very poorly utilizes existing space.

We are not talking about 16-story buildings or even 8-story buildings in the heart of the Davis downtown.  But a reasonable re-development effort can be made to utilize existing space far better.  If we do it right, we could have more and better looking town spaces than we have right now.

—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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21 thoughts on “Commentary: Competing Visions for the Downtown and the Future of Davis”

  1. John D

    Interesting observations. 

    Perhaps, more stimulating to a discussion of these competing views, would be your analysis of the competing strategies to make either apptoach achievable and  sustainable over the development cycle as presented.

    Your suggestion that those seeking to conserve the present are likewise unwilling to shoulder higher taxes to preserve that vision is troubling.  Do we know that to be accurate?

    On the other hand, for those seeking to remake the Downtown, has there been any meaningful discussion of the tens of millions of public improvements that would accompany such redevelopment – and from whence that money would materialize – when we can’t seem to muster the funds necessary even to maintain our existing roads.

     

     

  2. Ken A

    David may not like the Brinley building along Second Street and think it “is really not very attractive with the grate covering the second floor.” but many people like the “mid century” look that is getting more popular and the new 9th & Wake student housing building near 113 has a “grate covering the 2md, 3rd and 4th floor windows”…

    http://8thandwake.com/

      1. Ken A

        I’m wondering if Davis is waiting for the grate to come off before he starts calling it the “Broman Building” (or if it will still be the “Brinley Building” three owners from now in 2046)…

  3. Ken A

    A few questions for David:

    Can you name a single meeting (in any city ever) where “the folks who can attend these meetings are a good representative of the broader community” (the US was founded by a bunch of rich white guys who met to craft a “declaration of independence” and it was not a “good representative of the broader community”)?

    If Davis “is no longer the biking capital even of the region” where is the new regional biking capital (I can’t think of a city in the Central Valley that has even half the per capita bike use)?

    If you really believe that “Davis is threatening to become a community of students and wealthy seniors and older residents.” tell us why you think wealthy younger people won’t want to live in Davis if the average home place goes over $1mm (the median home price is over $3mm in Palo Alto and there is no shortage of wealthy young families living there)…

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      I don’t know how I would measure whether the people attending were good representatives of the broader community. The overwhelming number of people attending Nishi were in favor of Nishi and Nishi won at the polls handily. But regardless of whether they are representative of the community, they influence the outcome

      “If Davis “is no longer the biking capital even of the region” where is the new regional biking capital (I can’t think of a city in the Central Valley that has even half the per capita bike use)?”

      THinking more in terms of infrastructure than use.

      “f you really believe that “Davis is threatening to become a community of students and wealthy seniors and older residents.” tell us why you think wealthy younger people won’t want to live in Davis if the average home place goes over $1mm (the median home price is over $3mm in Palo Alto and there is no shortage of wealthy young families living there)…”

      Some probably will.

      1. Ken A

        I can look in to a room and in three seconds get an idea if the room is a “representation of the community”, is it about half male and half female? Is there a mix of ages with about half older than 35 and half younger?  Is the room mostly white and Asian with a few Latinos or African Americans? Does there seem to be a large number of college age adults and looking at the dress does there seem to be a mix of hipster, stylish, not stylish and people who have not bought new clothes in a decade?

        If you are thinking about “infrastructure” where is the city you were thinking about with more miles of bike paths and marked bike lanes?

        Just wondering why you didn’t mention wealthy young people and wealthy families if you think “some probably will” move here?  As Matt has pointed out Davis is aging, and as I have pointed out college grads are having less kids than in the past, but there are still plenty of young people that want to live in Davis (and SF and Palo Alto) and young families that want to live in Davis (and SF and Palo Alto).

        P.S. There are a lot less families in SF since most of the public schools are horrible and the good private schools are over $35K/year (over $300K for K-8 if the tuition didn’t go up for 8 years). A friend has a kid that will be graduating from Town School next year and said the tuition has gone up by ~$1K/year since his son started (his daughter goes to KDBS and he said the tuition has been going up a little slower than at Town and is about $5K less a year)…

        https://www.townschool.com/page/admissions/affording-town-school

         

  4. Richard McCann

    “argued that they preferred the Arcata or Sonoma examples of an open plaza, fitting the scale and sensibilities of Davis”

    Both Arcata and Sonoma are tiny in comparison with Davis, with populations for 10,000 and 17,000. Even Dixon at 20,000 is bigger. We can’t look to tiny towns as the model for a city with nearly 90,000 when you add in the on campus population.

    1. Jeff M

      Yup, and they are also both towns that support a lot of tourism.

      This points out the cognitive dissonance of Davis residents that opine this way… they really don’t seem to get that their view of Davis is off base and their expectations are irrational.

  5. Richard McCann

    David

    I think you’ve mischaracterized Chris Jones’ video, especially after I sat in a Core Plan meeting with him yesterday. He is first focused on preserving in public ownership the two large parking areas as public plazas that are between E & F on either side of 3rd. He was reacting to a boundary-pushing proposal by Opticos to turn 3rd into a more public space and shrink those other spaces in a trade with the parcel owners along 3rd. The consultants have now said their proposal is unlikely, and they have presented plans for using the two lot spaces precisely in the way that Chris has proposed in his video.

    Chris does make an important factual error in that he says that Downtown is a gathering space for those around the region. In fact, Matt Kowta found in the Fehr & Peers travel data that less than 10% of Downtown visitors are from out of town. That’s an important reason why the Downtown needs to shift economic focus.  The existing businesses may not be viable in the near future. As Wendy Weitzel wrote in the Enterprise (https://www.davisenterprise.com/business/wardrobe-changes-ahead/) “As recently as 2015, Davis had more than a dozen independent women’s clothing boutiques downtown. Closures have included The Wardrobe’s neighbor, Riki, which shut its doors in April after 32 years, and fellow tenants Preeti Girl and Paulina’s Boutique. Others gone from downtown Davis are the Haute Again storefront, RIRE and Philanthropy.”

    Chris also is wrong that “more” parking is planned. The proposal so far would shift parking to the periphery of Downtown.

    Chris does have a view that I believe is incorrect. He says that densifying Downtown will not reduce GHG emissions in the long run if we have achieved 100% building and transportation electrification by 2050 (e.g., electric heating, water heating and cooking; electric vehicles). However he ignores the COST of achieving GHG reductions by 2050. We can reduce total energy demand, which costs money to produce, through densification that reduces per capita building demand and VMT that consumes electricity. In addition, the path to 2050 is easier and cheaper through densification. And “carbon neutrality” by 2050 is a goal, not an absolute guarantee. Reducing use of legacy gas vehicles will still have an important impact on reducing GHG emissions.

    Chris is too focused on a single proposal among many that the Opticos team offered in the previous charrette. Chris is well informed in general on these topics, so I hope that he has time to view the many other proposals that are being considered. His linked plaza proposal has merit and I think can be incorporated into the Core Plan vision.

  6. John D

    Richard,

    Presumably, these “placemaker locations” – for Sonoma and Arcata – have served in that role for decades and presumably were priced accordingly when they were first acquired (from the standpoint of municipal investment).

    Both charming communities, to be sure, but what renders them into the status of “destination Downtown” is their unique geographical relationship with the regions and regional tourism they support.

    A new Downtown town square would be a charming addition, as would expansive tree and shop lined pedestrian boulevards, crowded with sidewalk cafes and enlarged biking pathways – although I’m not sure I’m seeing the bike paths or parking meters in either of those two examples – looks more like 2 hour parking.

    To my earlier point, what will be the strategy for the City financing these enhanced amenities?  Where will the money come from?  How does one go about making the case for the city to issue new bond financing to undertake these types of acquisitions and improvements?  When would those improvements begin to be implemented?   What will prompt or activate the authorization of funds to be expended for these purposes?   How would these improvements be prioritized and sequenced?

      1. David Greenwald

        Ken’s raises a critical point.  One of the reasons Davis needs to change is a combination of the lack of other revenue combined with land use policies that prevent growth on the periphery.

  7. Tia Will

     Our world class university is pushing into Sacramento because the climate in Davis is so unfriendly to them. “

    That is certainly one interpretation of what is happening. Another perspective might be that Sacramento is a more logistically amenable place to house some of the larger, more industrial type spin offs from the university just as locating the entirety of the medical school near the hospitals was.

    If it is done in the right way it won’t look like high rise buildings over tiny town squares, but rather will represent a far better utilization of space, adding to our retail, entertainment, tax base and available housing stock in a way that doesn’t force the expansion of our borders.”

    I think it is quite possible that both will be true. The fact that this type of development will represent ” a far better utilization of space” does not mean that it won’t look like the high rises that it fact are there. Further it doesn’t mean that this type of usage will be esthetically pleasing to all.

    I really think that it is important to realize that every change we choose is going to have trade offs. There is not change that is going to be “good for everyone” and painting any particular change that way is neither honest nor convincing. Fortunately at these forums, a number of which I have been able to attend, the presenters seem to be very aware of the truth of trade offs for every suggested plan.

     

    1. David Greenwald

      “That is certainly one interpretation of what is happening. Another perspective might be that Sacramento is a more logistically amenable place to house some of the larger, more industrial type spin offs from the university just as locating the entirety of the medical school near the hospitals was.”

      Actually in the last few weeks I have been directly told as much by several different sources.

      1. Tia Will

        Actually in the last few weeks I have been directly told as much by several different sources.”

        I was discussing not so much intent, as appropriateness and ultimate fit.

    2. Howard P

      I really think that it is important to realize that every change we choose is going to have trade offs.

      That is a true story… the same applies to stasis

      1. Jeff M

        Thank you for pointing that out.

        I can make my change-averse perfectionist business partner squirm by pointing out that a decision to delay or a decision to do nothing is still a decision fraught with risk of being wrong.

        1. Howard P

          And, even if you made the “right” decision before, things happen… so, “not so right” for new circumstances, or better understanding of ‘existing’, over time…

          Bet there are a lot of HO’s on “The Big Island”, who have realized their “perfect” choices, as to ‘location, location, location’, are now under 2-3 feet of a lava flow…  lava often is unpredictable, and sometimes moves imperceptibly slowly, then accelerates.

      2. Tia Will

        That is a true story… the same applies to stasis…”

        Absolutely. A better word choice on my part would have been “every choice.”

         

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