The Davis City Council on Tuesday made the decision to extend the EIR deadline for the Mace Ranch Innovation Center by 45 days. In doing so, they acknowledged that they were pushing the Measure R vote back by up to six months. The council was probably headed in this direction anyway, after community members complained about the massive volume of the documents released two weeks earlier, but Mr. Ramos’ concession made it an easy decision.
For his part, Mr. Ramos is likely trying to take potential thorny issues off the table. He told council, “Public participation is crucial. Heard it loud and clear last week that (the draft EIR) is a big volume. We put a lot of resources behind that and we want to get it right. That’s what’s important – to have a great project for this community.”
He would later add, “It’s important that we don’t short-circuit public participation.”
As we noted on Monday – that is issue number one for the Mace Ranch Innovation Center. Despite polling that the developer believes shows strong support for the project, the campaign is not underway yet and numbers change drastically as key issues get highlighted.
Some may recall that early polling on the water project showed it passing heavily – when the campaign was done, the measure still passed but it was relatively close. Moreover, a year later, opponents of the projects were able to rescind the water rates, forcing the council to pass modified water rates in a compromise agreement.
The other issue that the Mace Ranch developers need to consider is housing. This is a far bigger and potentially more thorny issue than the timing of the EIR comment period.
When the city of Davis in May of 2014 issued its Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI), one of the guiding attributes was “Acknowledgement of community’s current desire for no residential to be included.” The decision was based on extensive discussions in the community and the widespread belief by many that the inclusion of housing would change the terms of discussion and undermine the possibility of the project gaining Measure R approval.
However, the developers are pushing the EIR finding. In a press release they write, “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.”
They continue, “Among the EIR’s key findings on a project alternative that includes on-site housing: A 13 percent overall reduction in vehicular trips, with a 35 percent reduction during the morning commute period and a 32 percent reduction during the evening commute period. A reduction in daily vehicle miles traveled of more than 25 percent. A reduction in annual greenhouse gas emissions.”
They conclude, “Based on these findings, the study determines that the project alternative with housing is environmentally superior to the innovation center without housing.”
The developers have polling conducted by JMM Research, of 300 likely voters, which found that 69 percent of residents favor the Mace Ranch Innovation Park with only 11 percent against, and 57 percent of respondents said adding housing was either very or somewhat important to them. Forty percent said it wasn’t important to them.
There are of course two ways of looking at those figures – one is that they have strong support for the project and also support for housing on the project. But it may be, depending on how you read those numbers, that what we actually see is support for the project dropping by 12 percentage points when housing is included.
Given that the overall 69 percent support is expected to decline over the course of what is expected to be a tight and strongly-contested Measure R vote, 57 percent support seems alarmingly problematic as a starting place when housing is considered.
To date, on the value of housing itself, the analysis seems to be a wash.
Some of the concerns raised by opponents of housing can be easily handled. There is a concern that people who would rent the housing in the innovation park would not necessarily work there. That is entirely possible, but probably the housing could be structured in such a way to discourage students from renting the townhouses, while at the same time structuring them in such a way that they would not be single-family homes.
The timing of housing could be written into the baseline feature to prevent the developer from building any housing until thresholds are reached on the commercial components. Under Measure R, the baseline features of a project could not be changed without another vote and so the developers cannot use housing as a Trojan horse to turn the project from a research park into housing.
But none of those facts will stop potential opponents from pounding on the housing issue if they see vulnerability.
Moreover, while housing could potentially help make the project greener in terms of vehicle miles and transportation issues, it is not clear that we need to go that route.
Our reading of the full EIR suggests that there are better strategies for dealing with VMT (vehicle miles traveled) and GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions as well as traffic and circulation problems. The development of a transportation plan that can help people commute more efficiently to the park is a way to reduce the impact of VMT and GHG, while avoiding the thorny issue of onsite housing.
While it was a good idea to include a mixed-use project alternative, the council and the developers should avoid a potential polarizing issue. The developers have done a good job of backing off more contentious policies – going back to the idea of a Measure R exemption and an advisory vote, and more recently with the EIR comment period extension – and they need to do the same here.
Housing is indeed a problem – but we believe it can be better addressed regionally, with better transportation to the site that can avoid people hopping on the freeway and the traffic congestion of I-80.
In the meantime, the council and developers should quickly take this issue off the table and remove another point of contention that could threaten to derail the project.
—David M. Greenwald reporting