It is understandable that the first reaction by the city of Davis, upon hearing the news that the Davis Innovation Center had “paused” their proposed innovation park north of the Sutter-Davis Hospital, was to look inwardly – the city quickly determined based, on their conversations with the developer, that the problem was not internal.
That was the message quickly conveyed to the Vanguard when City Manager Dirk Brazil called on Tuesday evening with the news. It was quickly backed up with an email from Community Development Director Mike Webb and even a text on Wednesday from Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis.
However, the problem is not internal. The city of Davis has a professional planning team who worked with the applicants, after the Economic Development team led by Rob White, the Chief Innovation Officer, helped to bring the applications forward.
If we are looking to city staff we are looking at the wrong place. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
Quickly, in the face of the apparent demise of the Davis Innovation Center, the spin has emerged. Several people have told me that, while unfortunate, the Mace Ranch location is by the far the more ideal location. It is off I-80. Mace Blvd. has the load capacity built in. It is not adjacent to homes. It has the freeway to the south, Mace 391 to the east and a little bit to the north.
All of which is true. But it all misses a key point. There are those who liken the development process in Davis to the local “spanking machine.” The developer steps forward, gets spanked and eventually the project either withers and dies or it goes through.
Personally, I think it is more akin to a meat grinder process. Everyone grinds on the developer, trying to extract what they can, tearing apart the project until there is nothing left.
When the Vanguard talked to Dan Ramos, representing the Mace Ranch Innovation Center proposal, Mr. Ramos put his best face forward. He talked about the fact that they are prepared to see this out. He diplomatically mentioned the fact that the pull out of their competition made the process more straightforward for them.
But the meat grinder has really not turned its focus toward Mace just yet. We need to remember it was Dan Ramos who called for potential changes to Measure R and the possibility of an advisory vote. At the time, we warned that messing with the machinery of Measure R would be a huge mistake, and Mr. Ramos and his team quickly recognized the problem and changed course, withdrawing their request.
Mr. Ramos’ message came at the wrong time, from the wrong place, but it was not exactly wrong.
While I have heard from some that the Mace Ranch property is the better location, not everyone shares that view. I know a number of people from the slower-growth side of the fence who are skeptical that the Ramos team can deliver a high quality proposal that can pass Measure R muster.
There are certainly those who look at the impressive list of projects by the Hines Corporation, which was a critical component of the Davis Innovation Center Team – they have constructed some of the state of the art innovation campuses across the world and are noted for designing the Facebook and Amazon buildings.
Will the Mace Ranch Innovation Center be able to survive this process? The scrutiny is now going to be completely on them to be able to deliver a product that the skeptical voters in Davis can approve.
This all comes at a critical crossroads for Davis. As Rochelle Swanson put it last year as we put forth the RFEI, the entire region is watching Davis to see what they will do. She said, “The region is wanting to know what are we doing and why aren’t we moving forward because they’re getting really worried because we have assets that nobody else has.”
As former City Manager and former UC Davis Vice Chancellor John Meyer put it, “The City is developing a reputation of supporting business development. A number of major businesses have chosen to locate in Davis. Should the City now dim its focus and investment in economic development, that action will be broadcast throughout the region by your competitors.
“While our regional leaders are all polite and publically supportive of one another, any move by Davis to reduce investment in economic development activities will be branded as a lack of support and will be whispered by surrounding communities to businesses under recruitment. Davis has assets that other communities envy, but only Davis can tell this story—do not expect others to do this on your behalf.”
Make no mistake – losing the Davis Innovation Center with the world renowned Hines Corporation is a huge bullet that has struck the city. There are rumors that they may simply move north to Woodland to build their project, where they do not have to face a skeptical public and a Measure R vote.
What signal does this now send to UC Davis? Will they go forward with plans for a third campus at the railyards in Sacramento? Will they jump over to Woodland and West Sacramento for their future projects, knowing that there is no certainty that any proposal can get approved in Davis? Or will they simply utilize their vast lands in Solano County and build their own innovation park on their own land and cut out the middle man?
In the end, as we started warning last month, Davis may win the battle over sprawl and lose the war.
I have been a strong supporter of Measure J and Measure R over the years. I strongly believe that the citizens of Davis needed to take charge after a period of rapid expansion in the 1980s and 1990s. But at the same time, I see us crippling ourselves when it comes to diversifying our economy.
Make no mistake – there has been a lot of celebration about the improving economy – but we still face struggles. There are employee compensation hits – OPEB and PERS still to come. We have hundreds of millions in deferred maintenance on critical infrastructure and we are now undermining our efforts by proposing grandiose recreation centers and sports parks rather than fixing our infrastructure.
Building innovation parks will be a slow and methodical process over a 20 to 50 year horizon. It will augment our finances without drastically changing our community, in my opinion.
But, after watching the meat grinder at work in the last six months, it comes down to what investors are going to risk $10 million to plan for and run a Measure R campaign – when they can go to Woodland and West Sacramento or even Dixon and Sacramento and do the same project and have a much better chance of getting it approved?
How can we save Measure R and preserve the necessary check on runaway sprawl while opening the door so that that protection doesn’t become a noose that strangles the entire ecosystem?
That is the question I have been thinking about. The answer actually goes back to something that Dan Ramos proposed at the wrong time, in the wrong circumstance, from the wrong person.
What if we modify Measure R so that for economic projects only – it cannot have any housing – we can have conceptual approval of a project. So, in other words, the voters can approve the annexation of 200 acres east of Mace.
An affirmative vote would be tantamount to putting that land inside the city and allowing the formal planning process to shape the project. That reduces the risk for the developer, who then just has to traverse a normal planning process.
If the voters do not like the location, size or type of project – they can simply block it. If they don’t trust the developers and the city to do a good project – they can vote no.
But, at least, then the developers wouldn’t have to risk tens of millions and the prospect of the voters turning down the project in the end. It is a modest change, although there would be a risk that the voters could approve a project, believing that they were supporting one thing and getting another.
But that’s the risk we take and the city would be risking that they could not get another project of this sort approved if the voters feel duped.
There are those who believe we don’t need an innovation park at all – that’s fine – they can vote no. I think it’s a low-level risk for both the voters and the developers, but it would result in a cleaner process.
Unfortunately it is too late for that to happen. We have already seen one project go down, and it would not surprise me terribly if the Mace Ranch Project did as well.
—David M. Greenwald reporting