This weekend, Councilmember Brett Lee wrote a column in the local paper entitled, “The devil is in the details for innovation parks,” which presented his thoughts on the proposed innovation parks.
First, he differentiates an innovation park from a more typical commercial business park, noting that the innovation park “is tilted toward higher-end technology/science-oriented tenants — think biotech labs, commercial ag research and tech campuses. They are not for mini storage, auto repair or warehouses.”
He also notes, “An innovation or tech park would be more costly for tenants than other spaces in our geographic region, but the cost would be counterbalanced by, among other things, the advantages of proximity to the university; a large, well-educated labor pool; and the amenities and quality of life that Davis has to offer.”
For an innovation park, at this point we are talking about the Mace Ranch Innovation Center as opposed to Nishi, which is more of a mixed-use housing plan with a high-tech component, and the Davis Innovation Center, which is ostensibly on hold.
The Mace Ranch Innovation Center would face a Measure R vote, potentially as soon as June 2016. A Measure R vote in Davis has a high hurdle – the two previous projects which were largely housing projects were soundly defeated. There is a belief that a 3-2 vote approval could spell doom for the next project as well.
As such, the opinion of Brett Lee, one of five on the council, and a staunch opponent of a previous Measure R project, is crucial to the future of such projects.
Is Brett Lee in favor a innovation/tech park for Davis? The answer is that “it depends.”
Brett Lee puts himself into what we might call a 2/3 category – those who are willing to support an innovation park, but who have some concerns about specific issues.
As he puts it, “An innovation park could bring several very important benefits to Davis.”
“It could create high-paying jobs for our community,” Councilmember Lee writes. “Each morning, hundreds if not thousands of Davisites hop in their cars to head off to other communities to work. It would greatly improve the quality of life of many people if they were able to find high-quality jobs closer to home. Having an improved local job base also would provide much-needed internship and employment opportunities for UC Davis students and graduates.”
“It could create improved prosperity for existing Davis businesses,” he continues. “Having a couple of thousand new employees who eat, shop and play in Davis would bring additional revenue to Davis. In addition, having a hundred new employers would mean additional revenue for suppliers, contractors and consultants, many of which are Davis businesses.”
“If the taxes are structured properly on the innovation park, the innovation park would provide additional direct revenue to the city to pay for communitywide needs — road repairs, recreation programs and infrastructure improvements,” he adds. “The city has been relying on parcel taxes and a slightly increased sales tax to cover the basic costs of running the city. Diversifying our revenue sources would be a good thing. It would allow us to reduce the tax burden on all of our community members.”
Brett Lee therefore recognizes that there are a number of benefits that such an innovation park could offer the city of Davis, but his support does not come without caveats.
Councilmember Lee lists the following concerns:
- Poor design is difficult to mitigate; therefore, any proposal must have a well thought-out design that includes planning best practices with a heavy emphasis on sustainability.
- We must clearly identify and mitigate the negative aspects of a tech park. Loss of open space, increased traffic and a risk of changing the “character” of Davis are real and valid concerns. Many of these negative aspects can be mitigated — for example, improved and more efficient road design, improved infrastructure for bikes and pedestrians, and improved public transit networks, etc. It would be reasonable and proper to expect that the project proponent (developer) would cover the lion’s share of these costs.
- The revenue-sharing agreement with the developer must be made concurrent with the developer agreement, and any agreement on a community facilities district. There should be no surprises and no “oh, we will work that out later.”
- Any agreements must preclude (exclude) lowest-common-denominator development; we do not want the developer to have the ability to build low value-added facilities such as general warehouses, storage facilities, etc. This is meant to be a tech park/innovation center, not a generic business park/warehouse district.
“So am I in favor of a tech park?” he asks. “It will all depend on the specifics of the proposal. If it is a well-designed proposal that benefits our community, has proper mitigations and a solid revenue component for the city, then yes, I would be in favor. If it does not have these things, then I would not be in favor.”
Councilmember Lee is against the idea of including a housing component to the innovation parks. He writes, “I am against such an idea. If we lived in an ideal world, then yes, it might make sense from a design perspective. Who would argue with the idea that it would be wonderful for the new job-holders to be able to live and work in the same neighborhood.”
The councilmember argues that “there are some real problems with this concept. Unless the residents in such a housing component are required to be employees in the tech park, the vast majority of these people are likely to commute to jobs outside the area.”
In addition, he states, ”Due to the economics of housing in Davis, building housing is easier and more profitable than building commercial space. Over time, would it really be a surprise if the developer shifted the focus from the tech park component to the housing component? Why wouldn’t they want to build the easy part first?”
He concludes, “I believe we should keep our focus on the innovation park and not complicate the proposal with a housing component. I do agree that, as a community, we do need additional apartment units and smaller-footprint homes, but this should be handled as a separate and distinct issue.”
Where does that leave us?
Councilmember Brett Lee is in a similar place to the Vanguard on the issue of innovation parks. We are in full agreement about the upside and the concerns about such a park.
As he puts it, “Poor design is difficult to mitigate,” and the push on the sustainability end will be critical. A well-designed campus could work well in a university town, used to the layout and appeal of a college campus. The Vanguard continues to believe that this is crucial to the support of the community.
The other critical factor will be transportation issues – not just well-designed roads, but the ability to tap into and improve transportation networks as well as mitigate traffic impacts.
It is here where we somewhat disagree with Mr. Lee. While the councilmember recognized the advantage of a housing component in the ideal, he believes that housing would complicate the project and potentially cause the developer to shift the focus from tech park to housing.
Moreover, he worries that, without a requirement for residents to work at the park, “the vast majority of these people are likely to commute to jobs outside the area.”
These are legitimate concerns, but concerns that also can be mitigated. The Vanguard does not necessarily want a housing component, but believes it should be part of the early discussion at least.
The houses could be designed and approved as rental housing townhouses that make it unlikely to appeal to out of area people. By making them appeal to employees of the park, we would have a way to reduce both traffic impacts and housing demands inside and outside of Davis.
While mission creep is always a problem, the housing and commercial components can be written into the baseline features of the project, which would then require another vote to change.
While it is true that housing could become a rallying cry for opponents, Covell Village ultimately went down as much due to unmitigated traffic impacts as it did size and threat to the housing market.
It is a conversation worth having – even if it is ultimately dismissed.
—David M. Greenwald reporting