What an Incredible Problem to Have

NW-RFEI-4By Rob White

As you know, on Monday, June 23rd the City received three different concepts for innovation parks of about 200 acres each in three different locations. And each concept had a different team of landowners, developers, and land use specialist. And though I won’t spend time in this article comparing and contrasting the submittals, it was a hallmark moment for Davis to have that kind of attention regarding an opportunity that the community has been discussing for several decades.

In response to the submittals, over the last few days I have heard the sentiment “what an incredible problem to have” from several people while discussing the Davis Innovation Center Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI). And when you think about it, it really is a unique set of circumstances that many cities in the US would like to be considering. In fact, can you think of more than three places in the Sacramento region, or even the greater Central Valley, which have the opportunity to attract this level of discussion?

After sending the proposals to the City Council on Monday night, the response from incoming Mayor Dan Wolk was “what an incredible problem to have” for the City to be given the task of sorting through the merits of the three very different concepts. And I couldn’t agree more. Instead of having to engage with a single team to work through an opportunity at a single location, the community now has choices. And though you may argue that none of the concepts is perfect, rarely do we find the perfect set of circumstances when looking at these kind of opportunities.

As an early reaction (and completely of my own sentiments), I would love to have a proposal that includes the international level abilities and experience of Hines (the developer of Research Triangle Park in North Carolina), with the stated needs of FMC Schilling Robotics as a catalyst tenant, on a piece of land that was donated to the City. But alas, that is not a concept though each of these three elements exists in one of the submittals.

So reality dictates the conditions from which we can work on this effort. And from my view, that reality is a pretty good one because we ARE dealing with options even though we may not have a perfect scenario… and I should probably note that perfect is in the eye of the beholder based on personal beliefs and values and preferences, so some individuals will most certainly see one of the concepts as perfect.

When I showed the submittals to a friend from an East Bay city to get an uninvolved party’s take on the concepts, she too stated that it was a wonderful problem to have. She further lamented that she couldn’t understand why her community, which hosts a revolutionary electric car manufacturer, wasn’t getting similar traction in their search for a master developer for a planned innovation park concept that has been far more vetted and is supported by a majority of residents. Of course my reaction was to smile sheepishly while I thought to myself, “we are pretty blessed in Davis with some exciting opportunities.”

She went on to note that they have a prime location in the Bay Area, the right catalyst company, a cluster of support industries, mass transit infrastructure being completed and they are in the literal shadow of Silicon Valley. And I thought to myself… but we have UC Davis and the emergence of a whole new industry in AgTech. And though Davis could probably have never planned 30 or 40 years ago to find itself at this interesting intersection of a tech revolution in an industry that is quite literally in its DNA, we are fortunate to be here and we should likely consider it on those merits and not accidently or purposefully squander the opportunity bestowed on our community.

To me, it is one thing to make something better and more sustainable (like cars), but that is a limited market no matter what the merits. But food… now that is a daily survival need, one that is growing and is already in short supply. With a population that is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050 and that should be receiving (ideally) multiple meals a day, food production and distribution is literally a market without end.

As we in Davis are well aware, the business of food production is much more than just a few seeds in the ground, water and sunlight, growth, tending and harvest. And though many of us enjoy the simplicity of that cycle in our own backyards, the science, engineering, and art that go in to modern global food production are staggering in their scope.

Davis is blessed to be the home of some of the world’s best researchers and companies that are making better food production, cultivation, and distribution a reality. From seed companies, to robotics, to pest management, to manufacturing, we have the right people working on the challenges ahead.

So what does interest from three very different teams in creating an innovation park mean? I would suggest that it means that there is a lot of attention on Davis to provide spaces for these companies that already exist, and to create opportunities for companies we haven’t even yet thought about that will come from research in and around the university.

Creating a community asset that supports innovation means that researchers in Davis have a higher likelihood to solve some of the world’s greatest agricultural challenges. As technologies continue to combine in new and interesting ways (e.g. plowing a field now consists of natural science, engineering, IT, and mechanical innovations), we are best served as a global community by ensuring that ideas and concepts have the greatest opportunity to literally ‘run into each other’ to create new innovations.

As the community wrestles with the concepts being put forth and discusses the merits of each, I encourage us not to lose sight of the fact that we are considerably fortunate to have this kind of attention. At a time when the City of Davis is looking for solutions to the ongoing revenue issues that are needed to pay for the amenities that make Davis special, we have been given several options for at least part of that solution set.

Sure, it’s an attitude shift to go from a mindset of suspicion and mistrust of development proponents. But at a minimum, we should recognize that having the opportunity to sort through the three concepts and figure out what will work for Davis is a good problem to have… one that may provide some solutions to our local revenue needs while quite possibly creating the conditions that could lead to solutions of some of the world’s biggest issues.

Thanks for considering my ideas. Your thoughts are always welcome. 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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  1. Good Government

    “…not accidently or purposefully squander the opportunity bestowed on our community.” Hear, hear!

    Many of the comments you will read below are an attempt by the “no on everything” crowd in Davis to do just that. Often well-spoken and seemingly reasonable. They will say it’s too soon, moving too quickly. They will appeal to your fear of change and the unknown. Please do not let them be successful in squandering this opportunity.

    1. David Greenwald

      I don’t think that’s a completely fair characterization of what I saw. There are people who will oppose these projects and they have commented on the articles to date. But I know some of the commenters who have expressed concerns intend to support or would at least consider supporting the projects. My point is not everyone should be castigated with the no one everything label. And there are legitimate reasons for people to either be skeptical or press on these issues – in fact, you yourself identified a potential problem in another article.

    2. Don Shor

      Similarly, there will probably be people who will instantly support all of these proposals, and who will want to push them forward as fast as possible. They will try to create a sense of urgency, and may even seem well-spoken and reasonable. I guess we can call them the “yes on everything” crowd, people who always support every development everywhere. They will say it’s not enough, and needs to move faster. Likely they will denigrate those who wish to discuss the merits of each proposal. Please do not let them be successful in blocking reasonable community discussion of important planning decisions. Oh, yes, a lot of them will post anonymously, too

      I think a lot of credit for having this ‘problem’ goes to Rob White, Sarah Worley, Mike Webb, and others on the city staff for helping to move these project proposals forward. It’s pretty clear to me, at least from the two that have more detail, that they have helped the project developers understand what makes a successful Davis project.

      1. Good Government

        I see what you did there… One thing I take particular exception to is your “yes on everything” description. I would classify it as “yes on SOMETHING”. Not everything, but please, please, not nothing.

        1. Davis Progressive

          i’m inclined to support at least some of these, but i have voted no in the past on covell, on whr, and on target. i also voted for measure i and for measure p. i don’t like the no on everything label, it limits and negates. it confines conversation rather than seeks commonality.

  2. Frankly

    Great work Rob, the CC and others working on this. I am very impressed with the proposals. The Davis Ranch “surprise” is another indication of the pile of opportunity this city is luck to have.

    With respect to the “no on everything” or “yes on everything” comments. The way I see it, those predisposed to value the negative impacts of development change have ruled the Davis political agenda for decades. And as a result, we have fallen behind what is necessary to sustain the city. At this point in time we have a convergence of clear opportunity and clear need. And I urge everyone to consider that we have gone too far in limiting our past economic growth, and now we have to get comfortable with some acceleration of remedy.

    Terms like “sprawl” and “rampant growth” should not be tolerated.

    There is a time issue to consider. Economies are cyclical. All communities across the nation are competing for revenue that is primarily derived from economic activity. We are currently on an economic growth cycle and we will lose out if we don’t approve some or all of these proposals to provide commercial land. If we stall too much, we will end up missing the ride and the parks will not be utilized and we will not optimize the benefits.

    Ironically, I think of this as another type of farming. We are talking about preparing some land to plant the seeds of economic growth so we can harvest the returns of economic benefits. Just like all farming, there is a timing need to consider. If we prepare the ground and plant the seeds too late, the crops will not produce the best yield.

    There are going to be people that want to block some or all of these proposals from ever happening. There are going to be others that cannot get comfortable until and unless every detail is ironed out. For the former, we have no choice but to go to war to prevent them from prevailing. For the latter, we need to demand that they participate early and rigorously in a pro-active and collaborative way, or otherwise be politely put to the side as the irrelevant critic.

    I would take a page out of the software application development best-practice book. In a large organization undertaking a large software application development project, there are thousands of stakeholders. These stakeholders are the employees and outside participants in the business process that would be impacted by the new system. Prior to design, there is a requirements phase.

    We need a large effort to organize and collect all the input from the community and then distill that down into a prioritized list of requirements. There should be the hard requirements, and then those that fall into the nice-to-have. For the nice-to-have, we would need some valuation of costs. Once we get that list, we can negotiate with the developers to come back with their final proposals. Those that cover all the hard requirements, and the most nice-to-have requirements should be the most attractive to voters… assuming all the other benefit features and impacts are equal.

    In my experience it is this requirements collection process that helps drive support. For a lot of people, it is not so much that they are rejecting a change based on the merits of the change… it is simply that they don’t have a voice in the change and they don’t like the feeling of having change put on them without having any . If that process is managed well enough so that more people feel they had a voice in the design, more will be likely to support it and vote for it.

    1. Davis Progressive

      “Terms like “sprawl” and “rampant growth” should not be tolerated. ”

      we don’t need to block free speech. what need is what you suggest later in your good over-all comment: “We need a large effort to organize and collect all the input from the community and then distill that down into a prioritized list of requirements. ” this is actually one of your better overall comments.

      1. Frankly

        “my better overall comments”

        Well that is quite a profound statement given the frequency and scope of my commentary.

        I tend to think I have had a few good comments… and some of the better ones are those that you specifically disagree with.

  3. Davis Progressive

    so i want to lay this out there, because i have heard there is a lot of talk questioning rob white. for those wanting an innovation park, rob white has delivered. we now have three concrete proposals. that was his job. he came up with the rfei process and it worked as hoped. in fact, with the dave morris proposal better than hoped.

    i’m actually intrigued by that one and hope it’s not immediately panned.

    rob white can’t run a campaign to get these approved, it is now in the hands of the applicants and council to get stuff to the voters and hopefully pave the way to get the voters to approve them.

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