Sunday Commentary: Can We Salvage the Promise of Davis?

Davis Innovation Center was a proposed 4 million square foot Innovation Center north of Sutter Davis.
Davis Innovation Center was a proposed 4 million square foot Innovation Center north of Sutter Davis.

This was not a good week for Davis. The loss of the Davis Innovation Center by itself might be a surmountable loss – after all, it was only one of two strictly innovation centers that was being evaluated to go before the voters. However, for a city with a reputation of being anti-growth and anti-business, it simply reinforces the worst perceptions of the community.

The Davis Enterprise this morning calls it a “a body blow to efforts to stabilize the city of Davis’ budgetary future.” The paper, like the Vanguard, concluded quickly that the “biggest obstacle is that sacred cow of Davis politics, Measure R.”

As they put it, “The hope must have been that Davis voters would be more amenable to business parks than new housing, but opposition from neighbors of the T-shaped plot of land west of Highway 113 had that familiar ring to it.

“In small meetings last month, neighbors complained that the development would be too big and too tall and generate too much traffic. It’s not a good omen to break the Measure J/R losing streak, and apparently it was enough to convince the developers to walk away from the 6oo grand they had already spent.”

While the Vanguard believes that there is more going on than a few neighbors complaining, the Measure R process is definitely at the heart of why the developers, who have been at the heart of world-renowned projects, suddenly have second thoughts about investing perhaps eight figures or more into a project that they have no realistic assurances can gain approval.

As the Enterprise puts it, the community “treasure[s] the town’s atmosphere, and our ability to exercise control over growth issues. But at some point we have to recognize when we’re doing more harm than good.

“Hines and SKK are serious companies, with track records around the world of innovate and successful development. Their decision to try to enter the Davis market wasn’t taken lightly, and putting the project on hold is a depressing signal. The real tragedy would be if Davis’ environment has pushed them to seek opportunities elsewhere.”

As we said earlier this week, however, there are ways to maintain the type of voter control we desire and still allow companies to come in with greater certainty before they have to expend millions on a project without yet knowing that the voters will approve it.

However, as much as the city could use a slight tweak of its seminal growth control measure, the problem extends almost as far as the city’s promise.

For a long time, we questioned whether the city’s grasp did not over-extend its reach in looking at innovation parks and economic development. We feared that there was a small group of people in the room talking with each other and that the city was rarely able to extend that conversation to the more skeptical general community.

That is not even to put the blame on the city per se, it is simply to state that there needed to be a much greater degree of community discussion before starting the clock.

The worst part is that the loss of the Davis Innovation Center Team – SKK-Hines – is really just the tip of the iceberg. The John Meyers report contained a two-paragraph section on economic development where he talked about the need for the city to “double-down.”

“I believe the City should ‘double-down’ on its investment in economic development activities,” he wrote in a passage we have cited repeatedly.

“The City is developing a reputation of supporting business development,” he said. “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.”

John Meyer elaborated on the point which is that the “City has made phenomenal progress on Economic Development.” He made a point that he doesn’t think got enough regional play – the city of Davis beat out Chicago to get Mori Seiki. “It’s on an amazing trajectory,” he said. But he warned that we “have to make sure the foot is on the accelerator. The region is very competitive.”

Will the city renew its commitment to economic development and its unique Chief Innovation Officer position, or will it simply allow that position to be written out of next year’s budget? That will be the next shoe to potentially drop when the budget comes out in the next several days.

Dan Ramos contends that they are in it for the long haul. Even as he said that, however, he acknowledged that the Measure R process “looms large” and “we’re always weighing: do you keep making the investment?”

He said, “Obviously, they came to the conclusion that they had better take a little break on this thing.”

For the Mace team, “We were always concerned – we made this very clear – that two of these projects at the same time on the ballot would be very tough for the community to swallow.” He said, realizing that, “we were always kind of wondering how this would all shake out.”

So the decision by SKK-Hines breathes some life into the Mace Ranch Innovation Center project, but we will soon learn the magnitude and impact of traffic impacts. The key question that Mr. Ramos and his team will have to answer is whether they can develop a project that the voters will approve.

Nishi continues to face its challenges. When the project was announced, there was a partnership between the university and the city to develop the Nishi-Gateway area. That development expands beyond Nishi to university lands and also to the Richards Blvd. area with the Hotel-Conference Center and the remaking of the city’s gateway.

However, the university back in February would not even commit to university access for Nishi – the absence of which might very well doom the project. We have not seen a traffic study, but anyone who drives on Richards Blvd. at 9 a.m. can tell you what the traffic study will tell you – Richards Blvd is poorly designed and adding more traffic for housing and tech parks will only exacerbate it.

Fixes to the corridor might be on their way, but not for several years. And, while the city has in the past toyed with the idea of expanding the underpass, it seems extremely unlikely. Instead, to make the project work, they will have to re-route traffic – much of which goes through the underpass, turns to the west on 1st Street and then heads north along B Street to enter the university to the north.

Without fixing this traffic flow pattern, Nishi too will fail at the polls, despite its great proximity to the university and the downtown core.

The final piece to the puzzle is that UC Davis has grand ambitions this century. Chancellor Linda Katehi sees the potential for an academic power, which becomes central to cutting edge research in bio-technology, medical-technology, and agricultural-technology. Davis needs the space be able to push research from the academic halls to the private sector markets and, to do so, it needs innovation space.

At some point, the university will lose patience with Davis. Perhaps it already has. Already, rumors are flying that UC Davis will develop its own innovation park on its own land in Solano County. Or, if not Solano County, then Woodland or West Sacramento – and there’s always the railyard of Sacramento.

Under those scenarios Davis could get the worst of all worlds – all of the impacts with none of the economic benefits.

Despite all of this doom and gloom, it is too late perhaps to stop the downward slide. We need to heed the words, however, of John Meyer – who has the distinction of being a key player on both sides of A Street.

He warned that the current investment in economic development “may not yet be sufficient” and he also warned that Davis’ competitors will be looking to take advantage of any sign of weakness or any possibility that the city will move backwards.

However, the city still has the capacity to “double-down” and show the region and investors like SKK-Hines that it is serious about wanting their business.

Unfortunately, we see little sign that this is occurring. When the announcement was made that SKK-Hines was “pausing” the project, the city went into defensive mode. The most important thing that they had to say was that they did everything right.

What we didn’t see was a leader step up and say that we need to do everything we can to get SKK-Hines to realize that Davis is the best investment they can make.

More recently, Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis said he was surprised by the decision, disappointed and unable to understand the factors that led to it.

The mayor followed the lead of the city manager and noted that the decision was disappointing, but there remain two other projects to consider.

Nowhere have we seen a vow to find out what happened and get the process back on track. There is a sense of resignation in this. This is not what I would call doubling-down. Instead it is resigning to defeat and trying to put the best foot forward.

But, as we said, all is not lost – but we have to act quickly.

Times are still tight, but economic development holds the promise for a greater budget flexibility in the future. So we suggest that the city double-down on economic development by expanding their economic development department – retaining the Chief Innovation Officer and giving him the staff that he needs to do the job asked of him.

We need to work with the two existing projects and to make them the kinds of projects that Davis will be happy to house.

We need to look at ways we can introduce greater certainty into the Measure R process. As we said earlier, we still believe in citizen-democracy and the citizens of Davis choosing the future of their community, but there is no reason we can’t introduce greater certainty by allowing economic development projects to get pre-approved by the voters before the developers have to invest millions.

Finally, we need to support the great and emerging innovation and technology ecosystem as embodied by Davis Roots, JumpStart Davis and Pollinate Davis – these are great private efforts that will help foster the kind of ecosystem that we need to move forward, and we must do everything in our power to support and foster these kinds of efforts.

By showing that we are serious, others like SKK-Hines will be more likely to want to a take a chance on our community. But if we simply write off the loss and put our best foot forward, we risk undoing everything that we appeared to accomplish in the last two years.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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16 Comments

  1. Tia Will

    Under those scenarios Davis could get the worst of all worlds – all of the impacts with none of the economic benefits.”

    I disagree with this assessment.

    If these projects are located elsewhere within the region it is true that we would not gain the direct economic benefits. However this does not mean that we would not see indirect benefits. For example, I know many couples in which one partner works here in Davis while the other commutes either optimally by some form of telecommunication, or by train, or less optimally by car. This provides indirect benefits since if the couple live here they will tend to shop here, engage in recreational activities here and contribute in many different ways to our community. As the trend towards working, at least part of the time from home, increases we will see many more folks enabled to strengthen their families while still making enough income to support the lifestyle of their choice and capability.

    We also would not get “all of the impacts”. If any of these projects are located elsewhere, we would not see the increased traffic, congestion, loss of open space and need for the construction and maintenance of the additional infrastructure needs created by the projects.

    I think that Mr. Ramos has it right that having all three projects up for consideration at the same time is not the optimal strategy. I believe that he sees this as a decreased probability that any of them would be accepted because of voter “confusion”. I agree with this point, but also see a different dynamic. I see the “innovation parks” as picking the winners and losers by type of project. I also see these as the innovation strategy of 25 years ago. As Frankly has pointed out on previous threads, our economic system seems to be based on a “boom and bust” cycle. I do not believe that we have to be bound by this model. I believe that a more incremental approach in which one project is adopted and then there is a deliberate and meticulous evaluation done over time of the costs and benefits to the community with future projects considered on this factual rather than speculative basis.

    I also do not believe that we are on a tight time line. Change is the one thing that is constant in our lives. If one group of developers should decide not to move forward, there will be future opportunities. One has only to attend a few of the Jump Start Davis and Pollinate Davis programs to understand that there is plenty of innovative energy in our community that is not dependent upon the building of huge industrial/business spaces that will fundamentally alter the nature of our city.

    1. Frankly

      “Under those scenarios Davis could get the worst of all worlds – all of the impacts with none of the economic benefits.”

      “I disagree with this assessment.”

      We would get much of the impacts depending on where the park(s) would be located if not annexed to Davis, and very little of the financial benefits.

    2. sisterhood

      “I also do not believe that we are on a tight time line. ”

      I totally agree. Some other developer will see the opportunities in Davis, and perhaps propose an even better, greener project.

      I wonder how many truly middle income folks are left in Davis? Also, I heard a statistic a while back re: the homes that are rentals in Davis. It seemed too high – 70%? Does anyone know what percentage of homes are rentals?

  2. SODA

    I too was disappointed in the defensive and somewhat weak response from the city but even more surprised that I did not see any comments by Rob White.  He has been much less visable since the new CM arrived; any correlation?  I would have expected he be included in any ‘double down’ comments, but he and they didn’t happen.

    Reminds me a little of the water contracting where we were left with one choice, not a good place to be for either the city or the voters.

  3. Topcat

    As the Enterprise puts it, the community “treasure[s] the town’s atmosphere, and our ability to exercise control over growth issues. But at some point we have to recognize when we’re doing more harm than good.

    It’s not so much an issue of “harm versus good” as an issue of what kind of City do we want to live in.  I know that there are a lot of people who want to see more growth, more commerce,  more housing, greater population and more traffic.  On the other hand, there are many of us that like the small city feeling.  We remember how Davis was 20, 30 or 40 years ago and we don’t like the congestion and traffic delays we are seeing now.

    I wonder what the pro growth, pro economic development folks see as the long term future for Davis?  Do they envision a city of 150,000 people in 20 years?  Do they want Davis to look like Vacaville or Roseville?  Are they content with the idea of a lot more traffic?

    There is a lot of drum beating for “economic development”, but there has been very little thought or discussion of the long term impacts of this development.

    1. sisterhood

      I see the future Davis as more like Irvine, instead of Vacaville or Roseville. Well meaning folks with grandiose Irvine Plan ideas, but greedy developers that slowly get their way & turn it into a mini O.C. Hope it doesn’t come to that. I gave up home ownership to raise my family in Davis. No regrets.

    2. Topcat

      Well meaning folks with grandiose Irvine Plan ideas, but greedy developers that slowly get their way & turn it into a mini O.C.

      Yes, unfortunately I think you are right.  I have not spent any time in Irvine, so I don’t know how well the city works.  Being a University of California City, I can imagine that there are a lot of similarities with Davis.  Perhaps I need to spend some time there to see what the future of Davis might look like.  I see that Irvine has a population of about 250,000.

    3. Frankly

      There are a couple of glaring issues I see with this post:

      1. You don’t even mention the problem with city fiscal sustainability and how it will be resolved without growing our local business economy.

      2. This quote “On the other hand, there are many of us that like the small city feeling.  We remember how Davis was 20, 30 or 40 years ago and we don’t like the congestion and traffic delays we are seeing now.” is quite telling to me.  I suspect it is common with many residents that would oppose the innovation parks.  Either you don’t like the way it is now so you oppose development so it won’t get any “worse”; or, you like the way it is now and don’t want it to change.  If the former, it would seem that there is a sort of grumpy denial that Davis has already grown beyond that old small town size… and denial that the actual and planned growth of UCD will continue to cause the city to grow.  If the latter, then the obvious question is how then did you get to this point of liking Davis the way it is with a daytime school-in-session population of 75,000 people, and related to that how do you KNOW that you would not also like Davis with a daytime school-in-session population of 85,000 or 95,000?

      I see the problem with many of those opposing peripheral economic development as failing to accept that Davis has already grown to a highly-congested medium-sized city and it has the fiscal and land-use challenges of a high-congested medium-sized city.   How we solve those challenges, especially in the circumstance where the university is growing and has a need to change its business model to add more public-private partnerships, is the key.  And those in opposition of development need to step up with their suggested solutions to these challenges or else consider that they are just causing trouble.

      1. Davis Progressive

        to me the biggest problem is that davis has become a dam.  we have fought change for so long that at some point the dam will burst and the impact will be far more than had we simply accepted small and incremental change.  a 200 acre business park built out of 20 to 50 years should not be seen as radical change.

    4. Doby Fleeman

      Topcat,

      There is a lot of drum beating for “economic development”, but there has been very little thought or discussion of the long term impacts of this development.

      Well and succinctly said.   Sad, however, considering the potential inherent with such transformative opportunities.  It is disappointing to see this decision by one of the global leaders in development of world-class working space.

      For better or worse, there seems to be limited enthusiasm even for exploring the possibilities – other than as a proscription to improve city finances.   This seeming lack of curiosity, in the midst of a world class university research community, does seem odd.  On the one hand, it’s almost like we are community of ultra-conservative, change-averse reactionaries.   How this conversation might be constructively pivoted, and employed as an opportunity to bring the community together around a shared visioning process – to me, seems like the greatest opportunity provided by this discussion.

  4. Tia Will

    Frankly

    Either you don’t like the way it is now so you oppose development so it won’t get any “worse”; or, you like the way it is now and don’t want it to change.”

    I see this line of reasoning as way too black and white. There is a more likely combination of beliefs along a spectrum. I suspect that many of us like some aspects of the way the city is now, and preferred other aspects of it as it was previously and see opportunities for dramatic changes that we would like to see for the future. Also there are some of us who can appreciate change that is not solely dependent upon a “bigger is better” model of change. Change is inevitable. The issue is not change vs no change. It is what changes do we perceive as advantageous to a stronger,healthier, more prosperous city, and what changes do we see as detrimental. Some of us will believe as you appear to that the solutions always hinge on economic expansion, while others will see harmony and equilibrium and environmental preservation as equally  important to a healthy community.

  5. sisterhood

    “Also there are some of us who can appreciate change that is not solely dependent upon a “bigger is better” model of change. Change is inevitable. The issue is not change vs no change. It is what changes do we perceive as advantageous to a stronger,healthier, more prosperous city, and what changes do we see as detrimental.”

    I agree. Change IS inevitable but you shouldn’t change solely for economic reasons.

    1. Davis Progressive

      “Change IS inevitable but you shouldn’t change solely for economic reasons.”

      economic reasons are the only reason you should do it.  economic in terms of: cost of living, in terms of fiscal health, in terms of jobs, in terms of affordable housing, etc.  i think you must have meant to say the profit margin for the developers are not a good reason to change but the others are.

  6. sisterhood

    “i think you must have meant to say the profit margin for the developers are not a good reason to change but the others are.”

    Yes.

    How do you propose affordable housing? IMHO that is one of the biggest chalenges.

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