In the EPS (Economic and Planning Systems, Inc.) report that came out this week, one of the key issues for ongoing consideration is to “consider housing,” noting, “This use may help reduce trips, lower burden on infrastructure, and provide a more complete innovation environment.”
The issue of housing has always been considered tricky, and the early thinking on the innovation parks which would require Measure R votes of the public was to avoid the issue of housing, believing it the “third rail” in Davis and likely to doom the project.
It was not until last December that the staff put a mixed-use alternative into the CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) alternatives for the EIR (Environmental Impact Report) to study. Staff writes, “This alternative assumes the introduction of a balance of high-density residential uses in both projects. The type of housing anticipated would be high density (over 30 du/ac [dwelling units per acre]), attached, multi-story live/work units designed specifically to house and support workers within the Innovation Center. It would include a mix of ownership and lease/rental units. Designs would incorporate green technology, high efficiency, compact form, with the latest technology and lifestyle features, and emphasis on low to no-vehicle use.”
Staff notes, “Housing was not recommended for inclusion in project(s) during the RFEI [Request for Expressions of Interest] process, nor are the applicants proposing housing as part of their proposals. However, CEQA requires that the lead agency test alternatives that could reasonably reduce significant impacts of the project.”
They continue, “Staff anticipates that the project EIRs may identify significant impacts related to vehicle miles traveled, and air quality and greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, staff has concluded that a mixed use alternative will likely be necessary to satisfy CEQA requirements.”
They add, “There is a growing field of study that demonstrates that mixed uses can lower the traffic, air quality, greenhouse gas, energy efficiency, and related impacts of separated land uses. This alternative will test the possibility that a mix of innovation center and residential uses will generate lowered amounts of regional traffic, vehicle miles traveled (VMT), and greenhouse gas emissions as compared to the business-only proposals.”
Many project proponents have argued against consideration of housing believing this would simply add another element to the project that opponents could grasp onto. It is worth noting that, in my conversations with the Binning folks back in February, they saw mixed-use housing components as a way to reduce potential traffic impacts on the site.
Even in an innovation center model that excludes the Davis Innovation Center, we are still looking at nearly 8000 new employees, granted, over a 9 to 27 year build out. With concerns about climate impacts, carbon emissions, and VMT – are we not being completely irresponsible not to even consider a mixed-use component?
If anything, a well-designed, mixed use component that would be tailor-made for workers at the innovation center, would be an asset that could reduce traffic impacts along with environmental factors.
There are those who would argue that this has been sold to the public in the wrong way – a way that will come back to bite us. At the same time, I lack the faith that the messaging on this would improve enough to make a strong case to the public for mixed use components in the project.
As such I prefer to think outside of the proverbial box. Last October it was presented to the community, at the Vanguard’s Innovation Park Forum, that the problem in Davis is a jobs-housing imbalance. For a long time, we have focused on scarcity of housing, but right now, there is also a scarcity of jobs.
The result is that every morning, a large number of people take to the highways. Some are headed out of Davis and toward Sacramento or the Bay Area. Another segment are headed into Davis, mostly to UC Davis. One idea floating around is that by building Innovation Parks with thousands of new jobs, we shift the dynamics so that people are not having to out-commute each day to go to work.
For me, I look at the puzzle a bit differently. If you read the two reports from this week, Davis has some natural advantages. We have the proximity of the university. We have an emerging tech industry. We have a large number of highly educated citizens. We have a ready labor supply.
We also have some critical disadvantages. We have a lack of space, which we are hoping to address through the innovation parks. We also have a lack of housing. And where we do have housing, it is far more expensive that neighboring areas.
There are those that believe that simply building housing will solve some of these problems. However, given the limitations of Measure R, it seems very unlikely that we are going to build sufficient housing to do anything more than be a pin-prick on a very large dam. Measure R is highly unlikely to be repealed. And even if it were to be repealed – the combination of quality of life, quality of public schools, and culture of Davis make it unlikely that the price of housing will reduce to levels around the region.
The question really needs to be why we are trying to address these problems locally rather than on a regional level. Allow Davis to do what it can do better than others – be a center around which startups, entrepreneurs and tech transfer can begin.
The experience of losing Bayer CropScience shows that we need to produce some places for growing companies to land – Davis is never going to have the massive areas for large companies. But Davis can be the incubator for small companies to form, to grow, and to mature.
We need to look regionally at the nexus of housing, transportation and economic development and create a system which allows each community to fill the niche according to its strengths.
That doesn’t mean we abandon housing or abandon land for large companies, but it does mean we have to pick our spots and go with our strengths.
As I look at the Mace Ranch Innovation Park, I keep thinking we have to utilize its location along two key transportation corridors – it is alongside both I-80 as well as the rail lines. Can we find a way to produce cheap housing, transport workers via rail, and create an transportation map that allows for people to bike and use alternative transportation to get around town?
That should be our goal – even if it appears unlikely that we could get a train-substation located near the Mace Ranch Innovation Center.
That doesn’t mean we preclude the possibility of mixed-housing, but we have to look at the primary goal here and understand that politics is really the art of the possibility and that “no project” is a worse outcome than a less than completely perfect one that has a mixed-use component.
The challenge I pose for the city leaders and the region is to start thinking outside of the box so that we can prosper as a region. Everyone benefits when companies come in, hire employees, and pump in local capital. We all have advantages and should make the most of them.
—David M. Greenwald reporting