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.