The argument over the last week has been that Measure J and its successor in 2010, Measure R, have strangled the city’s ability to grow. The argument has been further made that this is by design. In this column, I’m going to make the argument that the growth control policies, in responses to a period of rapid growth weren’t intended to completely shut down growth. A few fluky historical factors played a role in that.
Recently I have reviewing Mike Fitch’s history of Davis, “Growing Pains.” The nature of growth in Davis has really become cyclical and I found a line in Mr. Fitch’s account very telling, “By the 1990s, growth control had become a creed in Davis, but sometimes found itself in conflict with the city’s financial needs.”
This would ultimately open the door for some very large developments such as Wildhorse and Mace Ranch.
By the late 1990s, Mr. Fitch writes, “The city’s growth was again in the political spotlight, in part because of the city’s drawn-out efforts to update the Davis General Plan. Critics charged that new houses were appearing at an alarming pace.”
“Davis was charming in the ’50s and ’60s, and is nice today, but is dangerously close to extinction, another town descending steadily into the dismal sprawl of modern suburbia,” wrote Jim Mace of Davis in a 1998 letter to the editor. “Why this impulse to build? The small-town atmosphere, so difficult to attain, is suffocating under an oppressive mix of streets, malls, housing and the attending vehicles. The farmland, open space so important to the soul, is giving way to pavement.”
“I believe that Davis is sick,” said Alex Kenefick of Davis in a 1997 letter to the city. “Giant swaths of land all around our town are being developed each and every year.”
Most importantly, Mr. Fitch writes, “City officials responded by assuring critics that the pace of housing construction would slow down in following years, noting that Covell Center was the last big residential project envisioned in the General Plan before the year 2010, and there was talk about removing it as part of the update process.”
So we already had the movement toward a slower period of growth – even without Measure J. Measure J would narrowly pass in 2000. The first test of Measure J was the revised form of Covell Center, called Covell Village.
If you look at a map of Davis, the two most logical peripheral subdivisions would have been the areas now known as Covell Village and Wildhorse Ranch.
If you want to argue that Measure J/Measure R are strangling Davis – let us start with the Covell Village project. Now nearly nine years ago, what if Covell Village had been proposed at one-third of that property at 600 units, with a commercial center along Covell and residential housing behind it? Would it still have failed in 2005?
The biggest issue that developed with regard to Covell Village was traffic impacts and the lack of a clear outlet other than the already congested Pole Line – Covell Blvd corridor.
The same time there were numerous tactical errors that were raised during the course of the campaign – the Helen Thomson scare letter warning of the threat of Steve Gidaro coming into Davis if the pressure to develop weren’t relieved.
There was the ill-fated scandal where pizza was offered to students on the UC Davis campus in exchange for votes.
And my favorite, the developers gathering in the presence of then-Davis Enterprise reporter Claire St. John and doing a round of “We Shall Overcome.” Ms. St. John once told me that the developers kind of realized their error as soon as they started, but by then it was too late.
These factors not only served to doom the Covell Village campaign, but also and perhaps more importantly so turned off the public that even subsequent scaled back efforts to develop that land have been so tarnished that the current developers have really dropped all interest in that site for the foreseeable future.
So the most logical area for peripheral subdivisions – an area basically surrounded on west, east, and south by development – was effectively removed from the picture perhaps, one could argue, by greed (of proposing 2000 units) and incompetence (in failing to mitigate traffic impacts plus strange campaign tactics).
I always wondered in those days of a pro-growth council why most of the eggs were placed in one basket, but Mike Fitch’s account suggests that that was by design. With little fallback option and Cannery and Nishi far off in stages of planning, it is no wonder that we saw little peripheral proposals in the last 15 years.
The other factor in this was outside of the realm of planning and Measure J – it has to do with the collapse of the housing market in 2008. The second Measure J failure is directly linked to that. There were missteps in the planning of Wildhorse Ranch, but the biggest one was timing.
Many people warned the developer that 2009, still in the heart of the housing crisis, was not the right time even for a relatively modest-sized project. The results were predictable, a resounding 75% defeat at the polls.
Based on this limited history, the consensus has been that Measure J and subsequently Measure R are strangling growth. Few recognize that the plan, even without Measure J, was to slow down on growth. Few recognize the specific factors related in the loss of Measure X and Measure P.
However, conversations with Councilmember Sue Greenwald in 2007-2009 suggest to me that the belief that Measure J would stifle growth altogether is ill-founded. She told me on many occasions that at times she actually lamented Measure J. She felt that it gave license to the public to elect the Don Saylors and Stephen Souzas, knowing that they had a crutch in Measure J to stop peripheral projects.
She also pointed out the amount of energy it took on the part of activists to stop these large peripheral projects and feared that a pro-growth council could put a series of Measure J votes on the ballot and eventually the citizens would be overwhelmed in fighting them, and there would be no one to oppose these projects.
I think here, while Ms. Greenwald had a point, that she underestimated the cost of putting a failed project on and the risk aversion of developers.
Nevertheless, her contemporaneous comments to me suggested that there was not necessarily a unified belief in the progressive community that Measure J would stop development. After all, Measure X failed, but Wildhorse and Target both went to the voters as non-Measure J votes and were passed.
Finally we have come full circle. We are back to the comment made by Mike Fitch that, while the community of Davis still favors growth control, right now it is in conflict with the city’s financial needs.
It would behoove the city to attempt to avoid a repeat of history where it lurched first toward massive development (we are talking 50% population growth in a short period of time) and then no development (less than 0.5% growth over a nearly 15 year period).
I believe that with good projects the voters will be willing to pass Measure R votes for business parks and, if the city can mitigate traffic impacts, Nishi. But it is going to take good planning, trust building, and public outreach to do so.
I believe that the Davis Way can work – it can weed out bad projects, allow for good projects and good planning.
—David M. Greenwald reporting