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