Last spring there was a series of meetings of the Innovation Park Task Force and, at several points in time, I noted a glaring absence – for the most part, complete absence – from the room of anyone from the progressive community.
I listened to the conversation and the problem became more and more evident – the room was talking to itself, and it had largely become an echo chamber filled of people of like-mindedness. There were no skeptics of the innovation parks in the room. There were no strong proponents of Measure J/R.
In those meetings it appeared that the slow-growth position was misunderstood and mischaracterized. It was obvious at the time that – without bringing in at least segments of the progressive community to direcgtly voice their thoughts and sentiments, all of this effort might be for naught.
While my thinking has changed and adapted somewhat over the years, I remain a strong supporter of slow-growth policies. I think that, by and large, Measure J/R is an important tool for the citizens of Davis. I think we should be extremely cautious about when and how we expand beyond our current borders.
At the same time, I fear that Measure J/R has cut off growth far more than originally intended. I’ll explain why shortly. I think that the community is in need of new revenue and a 200-acre innovation park is a good way to do that, while retaining most of the essential character of the community.
Although the progressive community controlled Davis politics, the heyday of the progressive era has long since passed. However, what we saw in the late 1990s with the emergence of progressives like Julie Partansky, Ken Wagstaff, Sue Greenwald, Lamar Heystek and Michael Harrington, was a reaction against the runaway growth of the late 1980s and 1990s.
It is not that the progressives have been a majority, but they have at times forged coalitions with other residents on various issues to form a working majority. And so, in the 1990s, the progressives and others were able to block the expansion of the Richards Underpass, they were able to pass Measure O and Measure J, and they were able to defeat Covell Village.
A group of progressives and, along with neighbors, in 2009 defeated Wildhorse Ranch. A group of progressive and anti-tax conservatives forced the water initiative onto the ballot and, while it passed after lengthy community discussion, they were also able to defeat the water rates at the polls in 2014’s Measure P.
It was a group of community members who joined with the progressives last year to push back against Paso Fino.
And so, while the progressives have aged and are smaller numerically, they are still a force to be reckoned with politically on certain issues.
There is a belief by some that the progressive community is simple opposed to everything. While there is a segment of the progressive community for which that may be true – I know some true zero growthers – I think the number of zero growthers is actually comparatively small. In fact, there are some in the progressive community who were willing to support Wildhorse Ranch. There were those willing to support the water project. There were those who supported a more environmentally conscious Paso Fino. And there were those willing to support the innovation parks.
More and more, I don’t see anyone from the progressive community come to city council meetings. They come in small numbers to community outreach.
But do not be fooled – the progressive community still comes out and votes. And when city hall writes them off, they come back to bite them in their collective rear ends.
At the same time, I fear that the very things that the progressive community wishes to defend – and really where I join with them – are threatened by increasingly obstructionist tendencies. Right now, the progressives are just strong enough to be dangerous, they are just strong enough to block new development – joining with other citizens who, for various reasons, oppose projects.
There is a danger in that. The year was 1986, and Mike Fitch wrote, “Davis was unprepared in 1986 for a high-stakes political showdown over development along its borders, and its slow-growth policies were largely to blame. The crisis came swiftly, without much warning, demonstrating that the growth-control policies were more fragile and more susceptible to damage from political forces beyond the city’s borders than officials had believed.”
As Mr. Fitch noted, Dave Rosenberg, then the mayor, acknowledged that the crisis caught Davis by surprise. “I think it’s fair to say that,” he said. “Mace Ranch changed everything.”
Not only would Mace Ranch end up being built over the objections of Davis, but it would lead to an explosive era of growth for Davis, culminating eventually with the passage of Measure J in 2000.
My view of Measure J and its successor Measure R is that there is no reason it should shut down growth. Since 2000, the only two Measure J projects were handily defeated, but both came with extenuating circumstances. Covell Village was poorly mitigated and planned, and was ultimately far too large, and came too close on the heels of other major developments. Wildhorse Ranch, while much smaller, came during the heart of the real estate collapse.
However, we have seen voters pass Wildhorse in a quasi-Measure J vote in the 1990s and Target passed narrowly in 2006.
What many on the progressive side feared is that the voters would fall into a complacency – willing to elect more moderate leaders, knowing they could always shut down development at the ballot. Some feared that developers with their deep pockets could overwhelm the grassroots opposition, who relied on their feet and the sweat of their brow.
However, the reality appears to be the opposite. As we saw with the pullout of SKK-Hines, developers are unwilling to risk millions and suffer a defeat at the polls. Indeed, as much as the Covell Partners have pined for developing the corner of Covell and Pole Line, they have yet to come forward with another proposal – even after working with citizens on a potential senior project.
There is still the lesson of 1986 that comes to rear its head again. Davis has cut off development. That forced UC Davis to develop West Village south of Russell Blvd to create more housing. UC Davis may well be poised to get into the innovation park game.
One possibility is that the innovation park businesses will simply move to Woodland or West Sacramento the way Monsanto and Bayer/AgraQuest have. Davis would lose out on the potential revenue, but at least the impacts will be minimal on the city itself. More perilous would be a large innovation park located on the campus, perhaps in Solano County. Building a substantial innovation park there would dramatically impact the city with renewed housing demands and traffic coming from I-80 and perhaps from the city itself. Costs of providing services to the city’s residents and visitors would increase, but with no increased revenues to cover those increased costs.
I have come to believe that the best approach for the city is to allow 200 or even 400 acres of Innovation Park land to be developed. That would alleviate some of the pressure for commercial growth. It would generate revenue. And the process itself would be slow, with a build out over 20 to 50 years.
Increasingly I believe that, with the pullout of SKK-Hines, the pressure will fall on Mace Ranch Innovation Park and I think that park is going to have difficulty getting voter approval.
Something has to give. My hope is that a slow release from the innovation parks would be enough to release the pressure, but if that doesn’t come to pass, we could be looking at another Mace Ranch-sized explosion. UC Davis does not have to wait for the city – they have the ability to become a regional university or the ability to create their own city next to our own.
Either way, things are going to change – but how they change is increasingly going to be outside of our control. Once again, the crisis will come swiftly, without much more warning, and it will again demonstrate that growth-control policies are more fragile and more susceptible to damage from political forces beyond the city’s borders than officials had believed.
We have not passed the point of no return, but that means re-engaging the progressives for the benefit of our community.
—David M. Greenwald reporting