It has been nearly 10 months since the Vanguard wrote an analysis: “Should Davis Reconsider Conservation Easement on Mace 391?” On June 11, 2013, the Davis City Council voted 3-2 to oppose a proposal for halting the process of preserving that land in a conservation easement and instead to consider a business park at that location.
The process was undone by numerous transparency and process issues, and there was never a vote on the merits of the proposal put forward by David Morris. But David Morris would not take no for an answer and in September, just three months later, he put forward a revised proposal.
At the time the Vanguard wrote: “In June, there is no way around it, the discussion on a potential land swap involving a parcel of land east of Mace, Mace 391, and the Shriner’s Property was a debacle. There are many reasons for that, which we have discussed previously and will not go into here. The process problems destroyed any chance to have a real conversation on the merits of the proposal – and there are, as well, some legitimate concerns.
“Earlier this week, David Morris, who proposed this arrangement, repackaged the proposal and took the unique step of putting it out to the community and vetting the project proposal on the Vanguard where the public could ask questions, scrutinize the project, and criticize it if need be.
“By offering us transparency and an open process that was lacking in June, we can now evaluate the project on its merits.”
I was wrong. It took a lot of heavy lifting from the Chamber of Commerce and the tech community to get the council to even hear the item, but once they did, it was the conservation community and the Yolo Land Trust who convinced council – some believe incorrectly – that halting the conservation easement application process would prove detrimental to future efforts to preserve land as permanent agricultural easements.
Therefore, Mace 391 was never decided on its merits. However, ironically, the failure of Mace 391 opens the door now to consider two, three, perhaps four business parks proposals.
In October of 2010, the Davis City Council approved a massive 336-page Business Park Land Strategy. That plan for the first time laid out the potential of business parks in peripheral areas such as outside of the Mace Curve and in the Northwest Quadrant.
Writes staff, “Staff recommends that the Downtown and the Nishi Property be identified as the hub for these innovation businesses in Davis. The Downtown provides restaurants, other goods/services, and a range of office spaces in an environment that fosters intellectual exchange. Nishi property, with its proximity to the downtown and campus, provides unique opportunities for an incubator, university-related research facility, and [for]high-density urban housing.”
The staff report continues, “Staff recommends that the Mace Boulevard / I-80 area or the Northwest Quadrant be considered for additional development of this type of business park space. As the first step in exploring options for additional development, staff recommends a Task Force with representatives selected by the City Council, the Planning Commission, and the Business and Economic Development Commission. The Task Force would be charged with conducting research and community outreach, and returning to the City Council with recommendations for further action.”
A few months later, the council moved toward developing Cannery as a residential and mixed-use development, despite the fact that Cannery was the only parcel of land currently within the city, zoned and large enough for a sizable business park.
The problem with the alternatives – east of Mace or in the Northwest Quadrant – is that they would require a Measure R vote to develop.
While the council would slowly proceed with Cannery, there appeared no real movement toward business parks until the discussion on Mace 391 changed the entire game.
Another huge turning point occurred last summer when suddenly the city of Davis was faced with the loss of Bayer-AgraQuest, a native Davis company that announced it was moving to West Sacramento. Quietly, it became known that Schilling Robotics, Marrone Bio Innovations, and HM Klause might face similar fates if Davis could not find a way to develop space for these fast-growing companies. We now know the most immediate of these concerns is Schilling Robotics.
At the same time, it became increasingly apparent by late June, 2013, that the city’s finances were not only not improving, but the city was slipping back into a structural deficit, even bracketing the need for roads, parks, and other infrastructure. Rising employee compensation costs and increased general fund spending needs on infrastructure and water pushed the deficit into the range of $5 to $8 million – again even without considering full costs for roads, parks and other infrastructure.
The city of Davis was faced with a huge quandary. We have choices. We can run the city on a series of five-year incremental tax increases. We can cut services or employee compensation in lean years. But in most ways, those too will cause us to lose what is great about Davis.
The third option is more long term, but it involves creating new economic development. The city, following Target, has largely ruled out peripheral retail as a way to go.
In a joint interview last summer with Chief Innovation Officer Rob White and Chamber Executive Director Kemble Pope, Rob White said that we know right now that the city of Davis does not want a regional mall. That is a revenue source that many communities have gone to, but that Davis has opted not to do.
Kemble Pope noted that Davis has done a good job of identifying what it does not want to do, the regional mall being just one good example, and he said, “That’s fine. Davis continues to be the master of its own fate.” But within that framework, Davis does have to decide what it is going to say yes to.
That door was partly opened by the discussion surrounding Mace 391, partly opened by the re-launch of the Innovation Parks Task Force, but opened wide in April of this year when Rob White approached the city council with the idea of putting out what he called a Request for Expressions of Interest.
Rob White would write, “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.”
He would explain, “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.”
He would add, “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.”
But the process ultimately moved forward. By late May, Rob White reported on the Vanguard that, following the May 21, 2014, release of the RFEI, “I have had proponents for the East and West Innovation Park sites (detailed in the November 2012 Innovation Park Task Force reports) state that they are actively working on their submittals.”
And so what emerged last week was three applications – Mace 200, Northwest Quadrant and Davis Ranch.
The developers however, remain a bit gun shy. They fear that they will invest millions into a process, face a Measure R and go down to defeat.
Their first proposal was, for most in the community, a non-starter and so when Dan Ramos came forward on Tuesday night indicating that they had “listened carefully to the community response to our proposal to modify the Measure R voting process” and recognized that “Davis residents treasure Measure R and do not wish to entertain changing it,” they saved their own process from doom.
The council was naturally reluctant to move forward with the advisory vote, believing in the words of both Mayor Dan Wolk and Councilmember Lucas Frerichs that we had been backed into a corner.
On the other hand, Councilmember Rochelle Swanson lamented that we have talked our way, processed our way, and delayed our way into the prospect of losing a critical company. “I understand all of the different projects and we want parity and parity is important. But we don’t want to lose the forest through the trees,” she said. “We’re talking about a major employer… and if we lose, do we lose.”
“I just challenge everyone in this room… to really stop and think about the big picture here about what we’re looking at,” she said, reflecting back to Mace 391, and “here we are 13 months later with a business owner begging us to get our act back together. Now sounding like maybe, from a regulatory standpoint, we truly might be up against the wall.”
“This isn’t about picking a project,” she said. “This is about retaining a business. The number one rule in economic development is you retain the businesses you have, then you go to get more.”
On the other hand, Rochelle Swanson’s comment fails to appreciate just how far we have come. The idea of business parks on Mace and Northwest Quadrant four years ago was impossible, and Mace 391 even if it had proceeded to a discussion on the merits was doomed on a multitude of a ways.
It really needed to be now – the continued fiscal decline of the city, the loss of Bayer-Agraquest, the impending loss of Schilling Robotics, the discussion that emerged around Mace 391, and the innovative RFEI process have now put us in a position where all of this is in the realm of the possible.
Make no mistake, we have a long way to go, but we have covered so much ground in just over a year that we had to look back and see what we’ve been able to move forward.
All of that said, all of this hinges now on the ability of the developers to bring forward a good enough project that the voters will overcome their reluctance and apprehensions about peripheral development and support it. Stay tuned.
—David M. Greenwald reporting