In her debut column with the Vanguard, UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi put forth a vision: “UC Davis can spearhead the transformation of our region to take its place as one of the top four regional economies in the state of California alongside Los Angeles, San Diego and the Bay Area. UC Davis as the top Land Grant University and Davis as a signature community in the U.S. and around the world are ready to play a key role in this transformation.”
For the last two years since the city of Davis hired Rob White as Chief Innovation Officer and since Mace 391, we have been having a discussion that, while focusing on the specifics of policy proposals ‒ whether it be Mace 391, the Innovation Parks, Nishi, Cannery, the Urban Farm and others ‒ have focused on the vision of the future of Davis.
One thing that that discussion has been missing, of course, has been the 800 pound gorilla in the room – UC Davis. After several efforts to engage UC Davis failed to connect, it is ironic that a simple and direct email to the chancellor bore fruit. The chancellor, over a series of columns, is going to show a very thorough vision for what the future could look like and the role of the city of Davis.
Where this goes, of course, I cannot predict. However, the vision that the chancellor offers pales in comparison to my growing sense of this, the city of Davis, which I think lacks clear vision and goals.
Instead, what I see is a patchwork of goals and policies that could threaten to undermine this entire endeavor. Mayor Dan Wolk perhaps came closest to this vision with his “Renew Davis” plan, which itself is a vague patchwork of goals from economic development, to investing in infrastructure, clean energy, healthy families, and better partnerships with the region.
On the other hand, we have from the city council guiding principles for development. Back in December, the staff created “Guiding Principles” to “better define community values and clarify community expectations for evaluating and guiding refinement of proposed Innovation Centers. The principles provide a framework for community evaluation of the two projects. They will be used as one of several evaluation tools for assessment and comparison of the innovation center proposals.”
Of course, there is nothing wrong with the principles ranging from density to sustainability to mitigation, to LEED construction, to transportation and the need for alternative transit, to fiscal considerations.
But again, these are specific guidelines for projects, rather than some sort of a vision.
The lack of an overall vision has led us to a series of problems in the last two months that do not appear to be easily reconciled. None of these are new issues – we have discussed them at length. But I believe they are part of a larger problem – our piecemeal approach, lack of overall vision, and lack of community consensus for what the future looks like.
The issue of the CFD (Community Facilities District) at Cannery is a good case study for all three of these problems. When the city council, by a 3-2 vote, approved the Cannery development they left open the potential for a CFD to be negotiated later.
Last month, the council asked staff to come back with a CFD proposal, again by a 3-2 vote. In the newspaper this morning is a story on the CFD, where Councilmember Lucas Frerichs is interviewed. He argues that refusing a CFD would come at the cost of the delay in amenities and infrastructure.
The developer stands to benefit from a projected $11.8 million sale, of which the city would only receive about $750,000.
My problem with the CFD is the process. We are extending a large benefit to the developers to the tune of $11.8 million. As we have argued previously, the justification that a CFD will be offset by lower purchase costs is problematic at best, given what Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis correctly describes as a seller’s market where the demand will severely impact the ability of the homebuyers to be able to reduce the purchase price.
To me, the CFD illustrates the lack of an overall plan by the city. The cost of building homes is the same whether you are building the homes in Davis or Woodland or Timbuktu. However, the community dictates the purchase price of that home and Davis allows the developer to make a much higher return on their investment than in other communities.
The city of Davis has allowed that community asset to benefit the developers, while retaining little for themselves. We have in essence, sold low.
The issue of the community farm has come up again. Despite the vote by the council, I think the concept itself is on life support.
We have pushed forward what I believe is an incomplete conception of what an innovation park is or will bring. As I noted yesterday, part of the innovation future of this community is going to be in agricultural technology, the expansion of food justice, and farm-to-fork notions, as well development of sustainable agriculture.
As the Mace Ranch Innovation Center proposal suggests, “The site, given its size and location, is suitable for research programs for green technology and sustainable agricultural research.” The applicants noted “the agrarian nature of the site” and wrote, “There are tremendous opportunities to support sustainable food research, agricultural energy, environment, health, and innovative ways to bring new technologies and products to market.”
In a very real way then, the community farm would be an ideal addition to that concept, and would help to create a better transition to the ag-urban boundary that will be present in this location.
The lack of an overall vision means that we are evaluating a community farm based on local factors, rather than trying to understand how it would fit into a broader picture of an agrarian based innovation park system and our overall support for the notion of food justice and local organic produce.
The concern has rightly been raised about the competition of three potential Measure R votes, either at the same time in March 2016 or in close proximity. We have Nishi, Mace Ranch Innovation Center, and Davis Innovation Center all scheduled to be ready to consideration at roughly the same point in time.
Part of the problem is that we laid out a vague notion that we needed innovation parks and economic development. What we did not develop was an overall vision for what these parks would look like, what the community needs in terms of increased tax revenue, and how much we could expect to fill on an annual basis for a 20-year build out.
It is not that we have not studied these issues to death. The Studio 30 report, for instance, identified the three areas under consideration. However, they also projected a much smaller build out time.
With an overall vision, perhaps we would not be flying by the seat of our pants on these issues. In addition to the three Measure R votes, we also have the proposed Hotel Conference Center on Richards and now the Panatonni Business Park south of I-80 off of Chiles and Cowell.
At some point we need to make difficult decisions on timing and scope, but we have pushed those difficult conversations back, while at the same time failing to create an overarching vision – the result could be fatal to this process, as we have put forth an ad hoc patchwork of proposals without considering the overall view.
Lack of Innovation
The Nishi property illustrates another set of pitfalls. The first problem is that Nishi is geographically well suited for development, in that it is an awkward farming tract and is next to the university and in walking distance from downtown. However, Nishi has serious circulation and connectivity issues.
Exacerbating those problems are issues that UC Davis has had with its own portion of the overall plan, dealing with issues at Solano Park and approving access to the university through the northwestern portion of Nishi.
But with challenges also come opportunities. We have put forth a number of innovative and outside-of-the-box suggestions for dealing with these issues.
For me, this comes down to finding innovative ways to deal with issues such as sustainability and transportation that can be models for the future. Unfortunately, our lack of overall vision is limiting our ability to push for truly innovative design features, and so golden opportunities at Nishi could pass us up.
Lack of Community Engagement and Consensus
A segment of the population has been behind the push for economic development and innovation. However, Davis has a strong slow-growth to no-growth current and, without a broader community discussion and consensus building, we might be planning and spending millions on projects that have no chance of being implemented.
While the Binning Tract situation that we illuminated last week is localized, small, and perhaps limited to those few dozen citizens who are not Davis residents, it does illustrate a potential drawback to this approach.
The Vanguard has consistently pushed for more community-based discussions on issues like the city’s fiscal situation, the infrastructure needs, and of course the innovation parks, but the city has been slow to respond.
The Vanguard sponsored a community forum back in October on Innovation and is now about to unroll a series of five forums over the course of the next six months or so.
But even that may be too little and too late. We feel that opportunities to reach out to the public at a time when there was a consensus concern about the budget have been lost.
In part two of this discussion, I will discuss ways in which we can solve some of these problems by establishing an overall vision and framework for the future and how we should mold our visions into the overall vision offered by Chancellor Katehi.
—David M. Greenwald reporting