A lot of people have talked about a concept of demolition by neglect, where there are buildings on a parcel where the developer wishes to propose a project that gains a large amount of controversy and they may skirt the issues by allowing the buildings to fall into disrepair, making their demolition inevitable. There is a similar concept of paralysis by analysis, the idea being that people allow the process to bog down due to the increasing need for analysis. Some people in our community are concerned that the current process will fall victim to that kind of analysis paralysis.
My biggest concern, however, is that we become so invested in getting an innovation park project approved that we fail to push for and press the developers to develop a good project. Recently at a meeting I was heartened to hear at least one group of leaders share that concern and, at least in principle, agree to be willing to kill a bad project.
Now, of course, in principle it is easier to understand the concept than put it into practice. So let me lay out a couple of issues here.
First, I firmly believe that a bad project is worse than no project. I understand the “Yes on Everything, we needed to build the innovation park yesterday as well as ten years ago” crowd is going to get up in arms at me for this comment. But hold your breath and count to ten.
You may not like Measure R, you may think it’s harming the city, but it is the law of the land and it is not going to go away. Any project that converts agricultural land to an urbanized use has to pass a Measure R vote, period, end of story. So the minimum threshold for any project is whether it can get to 51 percent of its Measure R vote. And, as you well know, we have limited ability to poll and, therefore, you have to build a project that you hope can get 60 to 70 percent of the vote to hedge against the unforeseen in a campaign.
Having a bad project has a cost and it is a big cost. Covell Village was a bad project – it was too large and failed to mitigate for traffic problems in a sufficient manner. The proponents undoubtedly spent millions of dollars on the project and it went down to a thunderous defeat.
But here’s the thing – the temptation might be, hey nothing ventured, nothing gained. But the reality is quite different, as not only are the developers out of money from that project, the site which seems to be a prime spot for some kind of development lies empty.
The community was so poisoned by the campaign that emerged around Measure X in 2005 that a subsequent effort to put senior housing on the site failed miserably, and the site is likely to remain vacant for at least the next twenty years.
Putting forth no project would have been far better from the perspective of the developers and land owners than a bad project.
That is the danger we face – if we put forth a bad project at one of the innovation park sites, and it gets defeated, that may be the last shot we have at an innovation park. The stakes cannot be higher – the developers must get it right, even if that means delay and going back to the drawing board.
The developers naturally are trying to avoid those pitfalls by getting community, stakeholder and leadership feedback before coming out with a formal proposal.
I think everyone recognizes this pitfall, but I think it is easier to state that you will kill a bad project in the abstract.
There are some factors that could prevent these leaders from following through.
First and most obvious, is that there may well be disagreement about what constitutes a bad project. Personally, I do not believe that ConAgra/New Home Company could have gotten the Cannery project to pass a Measure R vote as formulated. There are people who believe that the Cannery project is very good, and the most innovative one we have had, and there are others who think we settled for a mediocre project and could have and should have pushed for a great one.
The project had a lower burden as they only had to convince three councilmembers (which they did on a 3-2 vote) and hope that the community would not attempt to put the measure on the ballot.
Second, and perhaps more serious, is that once the train starts rolling, who is going to want to be the one to pull the plug on it. Look, it’s easy to state in the abstract that you will kill it, but if you are facing the loss of Schilling Robotics, are you going to really say, “Sorry, this is not good enough, we need to improve it”?
Along the same lines, we may just get to the point where we can no longer stop the project – the more time goes on, the more money goes into it, the more difficult the project will be to stop. I felt that way on the water project in 2011, that the train had just moved too far down the track, and, but for the referendum, that flawed project with flawed rates would have gone forward. The same was true for Cannery – it is hard to stand up and vote no.
The third downfall is uncertainty. We’re never going to be certain if a project can pass a Measure R vote. In 2009, the project developers of Wildhorse Ranch (A) added on to the sustainability component to make it zero net energy, (B) attempted to improve the fiscal model to get to fiscal neutrality, and (C) even made last minute changes to accommodate universal design principles.
But the project was never able to overcome initial neighborhood opposition and the timing of the project was wrong, given the housing market.
The lessons there may not all apply to the current situation, but they illustrate that you cannot predict or assure success at the ballot box. Given that uncertainty, I would tend to err on making the project as good as you can, but, given that uncertainty, it might be easy for many to say that this is good enough, any more becomes paralysis by analysis.
The bottom line is that the developers can respond to all public concerns and attempt to mitigate as many as possible, and it still might not be enough to pass.
In this case I agree that failure is not an option. Failure means that the city will likely lose Schilling Robotics and probably several other companies. Failure means more taxes and/or cuts to city services and amenities. And failure probably means we do not get a second shot at this, because who wants to risk millions on a project that is destined to be voted down at the ballot box?
There is also downside risk for defenders of Measure R and slow growth. Measure J was a very close election. Measure R was not. If Measure R paralyzes our ability for economic development, it could be at risk in the future because many voters will see a simple choice … either higher taxes or Measure R.
From everyone’s perspective, we need a good project to go forward and we need leaders with the courage to say no to a project that will not pass a Measure R vote.
—David M. Greenwald reporting