City Asks for Input and Ideas on Innovation Center Concepts

This is an example of a research center in a more urban setting.
This is an example of a research center in a more urban setting.

By Rob White

Several decades of study, assessment, deliberation and planning have continuously come to the conclusion that Davis should have a research park for technology businesses that come from (or because of) UC Davis.

The first public document that staff has been able to find a reference to that conclusion was in the 1992 report titled “Business Development in Davis – Report of the Economic Development Task Force“. And there have been well over 20 reports and studies created over the ensuing decades that have tried to detail and define this need. A mostly complete list (there may be one or two we couldn’t find) is presented in the recently approved Innovation and Economic Vitality 2014-2016 Work Program (starting on page 2). You can review that document here.

Through the work of the Innovation Park Task Force, the City Council decided in November 2012 to pursue a distributed innovation center strategy, that included densification of the downtown and existing commercial centers, potential reuse of the City’s corporation yards (and possibly the PG&E corporation yard), the Nishi property (south of UC Davis, between the railroad tracks and Interstate 80) and several potential locations on the periphery of the City (now known as the east [Mace 200] and west [Northwest Quadrant] innovation park locations).

The primary drivers for these discussions, even three decades ago, was the realization that because of the work of UC Davis there are many business that either locate in the community or are started because of the research and development done by the university. This includes research in the areas of agriculture, medicine, biotechnology, viticulture, manufacturing, robotics, veterinary science, genomics, information technology and additive manufacturing (3D printing – both chemical and biologic). Of course, this is just a sampling of the work going on at the campus and is meant to represent the diversity of research and the resultant business startups that can (and have) come from these efforts.

Over time, the research efforts have culminated into new companies that have moved out from the university and in to the City (and the region). And the research has also attracted companies that are interested in working with these new companies and with the researchers at the university. This has created a growing demand for space, primarily in the commercial, research and manufacturing sectors. It has also resulted in local jobs and revenue to the City from property and sales tax, as well as economic impact from the spending of dollars at local businesses for services and products.

In recognition of the growing need and the shrinking supply of business space in the City, the community process of the Innovation Park Task Force (decided in November 2012) arrived at the concept of a distributed innovation center. One outgrowth of that effort is that the City, Yolo County, UC Davis and the landowners of the Nishi property have engaged in an almost year long process to identify concepts that bring together potential solutions to meet some of the needs driven by the growing research outputs from the university. These include the need for increased smaller commercial spaces for research, development and startups and student/young technologist (Millennial) housing, both in close proximity to the campus.

But growing local technology companies have also recently been vocal about their need for space to expand within the City so that they can stay in close proximity to the campus. Current research about innovation parks indicates very clearly that proximity is vital for the occurrence of continued collaboration. And because of Davis’ significant bike and pedestrian network, and the dense and compact size of the City, research facilities within a few mile radius of campus are well within that halo of innovation. And local companies like FMC Schilling Robotics and Marrone Bio Innovations have been public about their desire to stay in Davis if appropriate expansion space is available.

In response to the growing need for commercial and research, the City of Davis released a Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI) for a Davis Innovation Center on Wednesday (May 21st). This request for information is the culmination of several years of community discussion, evaluation and assessment to identify appropriate locations and attributes for meeting this need for space. The RFEI can be viewed on the City’s website here.

The RFEI outlines in a more formal way the City Council and community views on the attributes that world-class research and development space would provide. It also makes clear that the Council is not just searching for peripheral innovation parks, but would also like to encourage reuse, revitalization and densification of the downtown and existing commercial centers. This whole-City approach is intended to encourage a robust set of solutions that creates diverse spaces in a range of sizes and attributes that will appeal to companies across the spectrum – from startup, to research, to rapid growth, to mature.

The RFEI is meant to bring the discussion of new commercial and research spaces to the same point as that of the current Downtown-University Gateway District (Nishi), where the City and its partners are working together to find solutions and define opportunities. The collaborative discussions held by the City, Yolo County, UC Davis and the landowner for the Downtown-University Gateway District have resulted in a visioning process and community engagement that is informing the potential development opportunities at the site. The next phase of community engagement workshops is being held next week at the Veteran’s Memorial Center (203 East 14th Street) from 6 to 8 pm on both Wednesday, May 28th and Thursday, May 29th. More info can be found here.

Similarly, the RFEI process will help inform the City, Yolo County, agencies, development community and investors of opportunities and challenges in diversifying commercial and research spaces across Davis.

One potential outcome of the RFEI process is the more formal identification of interested parties for development of a peripheral innovation park. Several sites have been discussed and it is expected that at least two parties will submit a response to the RFEI on these locations. It should be noted that one blocking factor that has slowed the discussion for the peripheral locations is that we are dependent upon the landowners to move the process forward by engaging the City and County.

The City does not own the majority of the land in the currently identified locations for a peripheral innovation park and the processes to move a proposal forward is dependent upon collaborative discussions and stated community need. Landowners for the peripheral sites have been cautious not to get ahead of broad community support for innovation parks in these locations. The RFEI process is intended to give the community, landowners, City, County and other relevant parties and opportunity to develop concepts and ideas without creating a defined project. It also gives the City and community a chance to state publically the desirable attributes for a peripheral innovation park.

For the areas in downtown, existing commercial centers, and the underutilized corporation yards, the City wants to encourage landowners and businesses to come forward with ideas that will create densification and increased opportunities. We have seen several tech businesses move in to downtown recently and this increases the economic impact to our local businesses by increasing customers and purchases of services and products. To create robust economic vitality, it is extremely desirable to have young technologist concentrated in near services because research shows that they are the fastest growing consumer of services and entertainment (restaurants, etc.). And with higher than average disposable incomes, many of these Millennials are waiting longer to start families and therefore require more flexible and interesting living, working and playing environments than the 20 and 30-somethings of even a decade ago.

One way to help inform the discussion about Davis as an innovation center is to identify best practices from communities around the world that are similarly moving in this direction. To that end, the City staff hosted representatives from the Association of University Research Parks (AURP) (www.aurp.net) and The University Financing Foundation (TUFF) (www.tuff.org) on Tuesday, May 20th. Kevin Bryne, President of both AURP and TUFF, presented a 45 minute discussion of current best practices and drivers for development of research parks from across the US. The video and the PowerPoint presentation can be viewed here.

The presentation was a late addition to another previously planned trip by the AURP and TUFF representatives and there will be future opportunities for more broad community engagement with these organizations. And this is just one resource for the discussion on innovation and the need for commercial and research space across the City. I encourage you to identify other resources and provide this information to City staff.

In summary, the Davis Innovation Center RFEI is just one step in a process to address the identified need for increased commercial and research space within Davis. Providing spaces for startups, growing businesses and entrepreneurs has been part of the Davis culture for decades. The resultant success of the university and the imperative to solve the world’s challenges in areas like food systems and manufacturing make Davis an ideal place for continued innovation and invention. And the resultant economic impact from these growing business opportunities will most certainly provide the community with at least one solution to the fiscal challenges that have impacted the amenities that have been the hallmark of our community’s quality of life.

I look forward to your comments and questions. My email is rwhite@cityofdavis,org if you choose to email me directly.

About The Author

Rob White is the Chief Innovation Officer for the City of Davis and was selected as a 2012 White House Champion of Change for Local Innovation. He serves as an ex-officio Board Member for techDAVIS (a local tech entrepreneur industry group), as an executive Board Member for the Innovate North State iHub, and as a Board Member for Hacker Lab and the California Network for Manufacturing Innovation. He is a candidate for the Doctorate in Policy, Planning and Development from the University of Southern California and has a Masters from USC in Planning and Development and a Bachelors of Science in Geology from Chico State.

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8 Comments

  1. Davis Progressive

    this is all interesting but here’s what i want to know…

    where do we stand with the wfc
    where do we stand with getting an application? is mace 200 going forward? seems like we are spinning our wheels here. is someone going to file an rfei who we don’t know about or is this a way to say to ramos and company, get off your butts and put something on paper?

  2. Rob White

    DP – all interesting questions. Some partial answers are below, but let me also make a pitch first…

    If having an innovation park (or any other proposal for research and tech space above and beyond what is currently allowed in our general plan and zoning) is of interest to the broader community, then some sort of broad-based community leadership needs to come forward and demonstrate this desire. Staff cannot be the lead for this. It is our job to implement policy, not create it. If I became an advocate for a certain outcome, then I would be accused of conflicts of interest, running an agenda, etc. Any effort needs to be led by the community and constantly brought to the City Council for assessment and action.

    The World Food Center discussions are evolving. The Chancellor yesterday at a women’s lunch made it clear that her concept for the WFC included some sort of policy-based work in near proximity to the Capitol (think Brookings, but for food) and research and academic centers near the main campus. This of course can evolve, as is the definition of what the WFC will even become… is it buildings, is it programs, is it research… all yet to be settled. It is my opinion that the best way to engage the university on this topic is to be a collaborative partner that helps find local and regional solutions. Note I did not say clobber-ation, which is the long favored process of beating someone to a pulp in the public square until nothing happens because the proponents give up. Collaboration is a technique by which people share their hopes and dreams and see if there are shared goals and outcomes… looking for a win-win-win.

    Re: an application on Mace 200 – the RFEI will likely result in a proposal from that landowner group, as well as one from the Northwest Quadrant/Binning ranch group. I am not aware of another peripheral concept, but we will see. I would respectfully push back that we are spinning our wheels. Staff work very hard on these items and lack of progress should be indicative of lack of broad community support being demonstrated at the Council meetings, in emails to Council, etc. The RFEI was on the Council agenda twice (April 22 and May 13) and a few business owners came an spoke, but I am not aware of any emails from the greater populace. Davis is an engaged community, and very few landowners want to spend a whole lot of money chasing down something that may or may not meet the communities needs. But it is difficult to measure the communities support when they wait to engage on the topic until we are very far in to the process.

    I asked the Council to move the RFEI process forward, even after getting negative feedback about lack of process, because it is an information gathering opportunity. I hope that the information gathered will result in a proposal or two, and I hope that those interested in densification in downtown and the commercial centers will also see this as an opportunity to move forward and express ideas in a public forum without spending a lot of money.

    Does that help answer some of the questions?

    1. Frankly

      Related to the lack of broad-based community leadership to demonstrate desire… in other communities like Sacramento and Palo Alto where stuff just gets done while the broad-based community goes about their otherwise busy lives trying to earn enough money to pay their taxes and still have enough left over to pay the rent… is the reason we seem to approach similar stuff differently:

      1. Measure J/R?
      2. Higher percentage of do-nothing, change-averse, NIMBY, rather-ban-plastic-bags, activists?
      3. City staff spending too much time doing other things?
      4. Inconsistent or unclear direction from City Council?
      5. People playing politics for personal gain rather than city benefit?

      Or

      All of the above?

      Or something else?

      If part or all of the above or something else, maybe we should be working on fixing that first. Since otherwise it is likely that we will never get stuff done. We will talk about it more than any other community, but we likely won’t get it done.

      1. Mark West

        Does it surprise anyone that we have been ‘talking’ about some form of ‘innovation park’ development for more than 20 years? Rob’s comment about a ‘lack of broad based community leadership’ sounds more like an excuse to justify twenty plus years of doing nothing, than an explanation for why things haven’t happened. It is the job of the City Council, and the Mayor in particular, to act as leaders, engaging the public and creating the broad based support for the project, not the other way around.

        We don’t have leaders on this City Council, and haven’t had for a couple of decades. What we have are a group of limp windsocks desperately waiting for someone to tell them which way the wind is going to blow next so they can look forward to flapping in the breeze once again. More’s the pity.

    2. Frankly

      And note the lack of posts on this important topic. Another bit of evidence that we don’t have the broad-based community leadership here. Rob – I personally really appreciate the work you are doing. My criticisms are not directed at you in the least. I just think you are swimming hard in a stagnant pool. I just don’t understand why we don’t have stronger Council voice and participation. Where is our “Kevin Johnson”? Even a minor league player would work… someone from the old ABA.

      1. Mark West

        The Sacramento Mayor is in office to make his home town a better place. In Davis, our Mayor and Pro Tem are in office with the singular goal of getting to the next office. They aren’t interested in leading the way to a better Davis, they are interested in keeping people happy so they will vote the right way during the next election.

        We don’t need a minor league player or someone from the ABA, we need a Mayor and Pro Tem who are more interested in doing what is best for Davis rather than what buys them the most votes in the next election.

  3. Tia Will

    So you can say that about the current leadership since they are both running for office. But what do you have to say about the “past twenty” years that you are claiming ? Do you believe that every office holder for the past twenty years has only been in it to get to higher office ? What I do not understand is how Mark and Frankly cannot see that the reason that their business mecca has not been created in Davis is largely because there is not community agreement with them on what would make Davis “a better place”.

    It was not so long ago that Frankly was claiming that our downtown was not “vibrant” enough to suit him without being willing to say what that word actually meant to him.
    It was not so long ago that he was advocating for a peripheral mall.
    Now it is the innovation park.
    It really doesn’t seem to matter to him how good a fit a project may be with the current city, or even with the wishes of the current citizens, as long as it is growth, it must be good.
    With such a wide variety of opinions of what would make Davis “a better place” how can anyone claim to have a monopoly on what is best for our city. It would seem to me that this is a very undemocratic and very judgmental stand to be taking.

    1. Mark West

      There is no doubt that the naysayers like Tia have won the day in Davis. Doesn’t mean they are right, just that they have consistently spewed the most hot air thus determining the direction that the wind socks flap. The fact that they are willing to make Davis so expensive that only people like themselves can afford to live here just proves the point that they are acting in their own selfish interests. Again as I said before, more’s the pity. One day I suspect even Tia will understand that protecting her own way of life at the expense of all else is not in the best interests of a vibrant community.

      Economic development is not the death knell of Davis as we know it. It is the only path by which we can keep the Davis that we know and love without taxing ourselves out of our own homes. It is truly sad that Tia Will is so hell bent on keeping her piece of nirvana that she is unable to see that her selfish desires are destroying the very thing that she claims to cherish.

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