On Wednesday evening, the biggest pushback on the Mace Ranch Innovation Center seemed to be over the issue of whether it should be a research park-only site or whether there should be a mixed-use component of perhaps 850 units to house employees.
The thinking on this seems to fall into at least four different lines of thought. There are those who support the idea of having a housing component; those who are favorably inclined toward it in concept, but believe that politically it is infeasible; those who would support an innovation park only if it doesn’t have housing; and those who are opposed to the innovation park regardless of whether or not it has housing.
From the perspective of group number one, building an innovation park means adding perhaps 10,000 new jobs to Davis. While Davis will be building some housing, its numbers are limited to the relatively small 500-unit Cannery Project, a couple more infill projects that could come online, perhaps Nishi which will primarily having student rental housing, and not a whole lot of prospects for building housing once those sources are exhausted.
As one person put it on Wednesday, people want to have a green Davis and then force people who work at MRIC to drive in from Elk Grove. Some people I spoke with this week believe that the project would be better with housing, and better with perhaps twice to three times the 850 they are proposing. Some even believe that it could support that level of housing with twice the square footage of the research, labs and office space as well.
By putting housing on the site, that could potentially mean that some of the new employees can live and work in the same location without having to get on the road and add VMT (vehicle miles traveled).
But not everyone agrees with that view. Some believe that adding the housing issue is a poison pill. People will be willing to support a peripheral project so long as it doesn’t include housing.
I thought Will Arnold captured this view quite well in an interview with the Vanguard.
He said that he understands “why folks are talking about housing at Mace.” Similar projects, he noted, “do have housing.” However, Mr. Arnold said that “the main argument for having housing at the Mace Ranch Innovation Center is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” He said, “It’s my opinion that putting housing as part of the Mace Ranch project will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it will reduce them to zero because there will be no project.”
He acknowledged that that is a political read on things, however, he argued “if you are a proponent of the project, you can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good here.”
There are others that point out that adding housing at MRIC might not help VMT as much as we think. The problem, they say, is that MRIC will be too remote from services to be a good housing site. They believe keeping housing closer to the downtown and existing neighborhood centers will be a better option.
On the other hand, it’s not clear that MRIC is really that far from services. Certainly you have Target across the street, and the small Nugget just on the other side of the I-80 Mace Overpass.
There is a third view as well – those who are willing to support MRIC only if it doesn’t have housing.
I talked to a number of people, trying to better understand this viewpoint. There were two ideas expressed at the meeting and in private discussions. First, there is a concern that mixing uses puts people in close proximity to potential incompatibilities. There are those who will not want to live in a park that may have 24-hour operations, or operations with higher ambient noise levels.
There are also concerns about putting residents in close proximity to potential noxious chemicals and other output from industrial and research uses.
One of the questions that the developer is going to need to address is how they can ensure public safety for residents living in a research park.
The other issue that came up is similar to a criticism of Nishi – the idea here is that the EIR and the developers are assuming 80 percent occupancy by employees in the innovation center, for the purposes of calculating impact on GHG. But some people argue that the site cannot restrict who rents the units and, therefore, the majority of residents might be students rather than employees.
The belief is that having students living on the site rather than employees simply diminishes the benefit of having the mix of uses.
The issue was raised with regard to Trackside, and when I asked the applicants of that project how they will preclude students they said that they could have a key requirement to prevent a wealthy parent from renting the unit for the student – by requiring that all residents pass their own credit check. That would greatly restrict the number of students living at that site and something similar could be at MRIC.
What is striking to me about both explanations is that they do not explain the aversion to housing, rather they are making excuses as to why to oppose the housing. I still don’t understand fundamentally why having housing there makes the project objectionable, and no housing makes it appealing. Why are people opposed to housing itself?
I understand the political calculation, but that wraps back into the question of why people oppose housing itself. After all, the land is getting paved over regardless of whether there are houses or only research facilities. MRIC is surrounded by land that cannot be developed so it is not going to result in sprawl.
Adding to that puzzle is a counter-proposal I have heard from at least three different people. As one poster wrote, “There is a better location for high density housing across the street inside the Mace curve.” So they are proposing housing across the street from MRIC.
Whether or not that is a good idea, I guess I don’t understand why you couldn’t put such housing on MRIC itself, and simply separate it from the rest of the site. That is probably not the ideal set up, but I am simply not understanding why housing makes sense on one side of Mace but not the other. Perhaps someone can explain it to me.
Finally, there is a group of people who are simply going to oppose anything on the site. At least that position makes some sense. They don’t see the benefit to the city of the revenue and they don’t even see how the additional jobs benefit the city or the community.
For them, it seems, putting housing on the site is a good idea in that they believe it will make it easier for them to defeat the project.
The question comes down to what the council will do. The developer on Wednesday said they will respect the decision of council on this issue and they intend to build the project regardless of the outcome on housing – they simply believe that it is a better project with housing than without.
—David M. Greenwald reporting