Monday Morning Thoughts II: Returning to Basics on the Community Discussions on the Innovation Park

Innovation-Park-exampleIn case you were out of town and missed it, the draft EIR from the Mace Ranch Innovation Center was released late on Thursday. The developer’s press release focused on the housing alternative, leading with the title: “Mace Ranch Innovation Center Report Concludes Housing Alternative Reduces Environmental Impacts.”

They went on to state, “A draft environmental analysis released today on the proposed Mace Ranch Innovation Center in Davis concludes that incorporating live-work housing into the project reduces its greenhouse gas and traffic impacts.”

However, further analysis by the Vanguard noted that, while the proposed project is estimated to generate 195,000 VMT (vehicle-miles traveled) at build-out, the EIR calls for the creation of a TDM (Transportation Demand Management) program “for the entire proposed project, including any anticipated phasing, and shall submit the TDM program to the City Department of Public Works for review and approval.” This program would reduce the number of vehicle trips and reduce daily and peak house vehicle trips.

The housing push may tip the hand of the developers, but they are also tightly bound by the Measure R process and the fact that they not only need to gain council support for their project, but 50 percent of the voters plus one to approve it on an anticipated June 2016 Measure R vote.

As we mentioned yesterday, the people of Davis have many considerations about the tech park. The interesting thing for this observer is that the general public in Davis is just now starting to have some of the discussions that we were having on the Vanguard two years ago when the city first came up with the proposal on Mace 391.

One of the discussions we are hoping to have on September 2 at the UC Davis Conference Center is the benefit the city of Davis derives from entrepreneurs, startups and tech transfer. This is a critical part of the discussion – we have focused on the need for more space and the need for tax revenue, but we have not drilled down into the overall benefit that the community will derive from some of these efforts that are already underway.

The university is the driver of this economy with their research and tech transfer, but it takes entrepreneurs and startups to move this research to the market.

The next piece of this discussion will be the economic benefit that the city derives. This was the piece of the puzzle that first made me realize that the city needed more tax revenue. We have had discussions over the years that Davis is heavily reliant on the auto industry for tax revenue. It heavily under-utilizes its retail base. Part of the Target debate from a decade ago was the extent to which the city could fix some of the tax leakage by building a Target.

At the same time, the community, which narrowly voted to approve Target in the fall of 2006, seemed to believe that was the end of major retail additions to the city. When the Vanguard met with Kemble Pope (then the Chamber CEO) and Rob White (then the City of Davis CIO) in the summer of 2013, they acknowledged that the city was not going to support a peripheral retail mall and so they needed to forge a new direction.

Will it work? Will the city get the kind of revenue it needs from an innovation center? The next piece of that puzzle will come out in September when the economic benefit analysis is released. Clearly, many in the city have believed that if the city builds it, companies will come.

But the question is – let’s assume they come – can the city get the type of revenue they need? This is a huge issue and a big question. Some believe that the city will need its own CFDs (Community Facilities Districts) and assessment areas to generate the revenue needed. We hopefully will get some harder figures in September.

Why do we need revenue? Just look at current projections. We had to pass a tax measure last June to get us out of a structural deficit. Current projections show that if the voters do not extend the tax measure in 2020, we will revert to being in structural deficit.

We are looking to a utility user tax to pay for infrastructure needs while we hope that some state money can come through.

Some have interpreted our comments to mean that, without the innovation parks, city staffers cannot get raises. I interpret the numbers more grimly – without the innovation parks, we are on the edge of fiscal crisis, even in relatively good economic times when the economy, while not booming, is consistently added jobs, reducing the unemployment rate, and increasing GDP (gross domestic product). At some point, we will dip back into recession and we have little margin, even at good times.

Instead of trumpeting modest improvement, the city needs to have a frank and honest talk with the voters about where we stand.

There is a final piece to this puzzle. That is the issue of commercial space. We have seen analyses from private interests, but also from disinterested parties, that Davis simply lacks commercial space for mid-size new companies. We saw this firsthand when Bayer-AgraQuest left two years ago. We see this in the warnings from Tyler Schilling. There are several other companies in similar stead.

One thing I think we need to have a conversation about is what should Davis look like? Is Davis a place where we see the university roll its research into startup companies which are small and need little space? Is Davis a place where those companies that need lab space and to handle modest numbers of employees can accommodate? Is Davis a place where Schilling Robotics can start, grow, but eventually have to move from – or is it a place where we can find the space to handle some of those companies on a long-term basis?

In short, we all know we lack the space, the question is whether we should do something about it. Some will say, we have been there and done that. But as I see emerging conversation in the community, we seem to be returning to those themes, because not everyone was involved in the initial discussion.

Finally, there are trade offs. Many people value our small size and vast open space. Many people love the open space and agricultural land that surrounds the community. The voters must ultimately make the decision here – a calculation that the trade-off between new business and revenue is worth the loss of open space and agricultural land. And perhaps not if, but how much.

These are core questions about the values of this community and the formulation of the vision for the future.

These are the conversations that we must have to move forward. Everyone has a role to play in this process.

—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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