When the Innovation Park discussion first began in earnest in late 2013, I warned anyone who would listen to me, do not mention housing, do not think housing, and for God’s sake, do not have a housing proposal.
However, the more I looked into the issue, the more I thought we should at least analyze what housing would look like at Mace Ranch Innovation Center. That didn’t mean we had to have a proposal with housing, but the comment that hit me hardest, back in mid-January when we hosted a discussion, was how is Davis green if we force all our workers to drive from Elk Grove?
A lot of people assumed that housing would kill the project – but I would have liked to have seen polling not commissioned by the developer to bear that out. On the other end of the coin, I wasn’t overwhelmed by a one-third reduction of VMT (vehicle miles traveled) on the theoretical models. But I went into Tuesday’s meeting believing that an evidence-based approach rather than a presumptive and reactive policy was in order.
I was initially disappointed in the council discussion. With the exception of Brett Lee, to a person on the council, everyone seemed to believe that a project with housing would be a better project, however, they believed that housing would doom the project.
As a strong supporter of Measure R, that is troubling to me because I believe, for the most part, the Measure R process improves the planning process in that it forces council and by extension the applicant to take into account community concerns and project weaknesses. Nishi is a far better project today (whether you support it or oppose it) than it was two months ago.
Even Brett Lee, who was out front stating, “I’m not in favor of housing on that site,” acknowledged “the applicant has made a pretty good case for this idea that the better designed innovation centers do have a mixed-use component.”
It was Councilmember Rochelle Swanson in the end who swayed me that this was the right decision. The stakes here, as she noted, were high: “Who bears the cost if this doesn’t pass, (it) is $2.2 million fiscal annually… a net $6 million potentially and a one-time $10 million fee.”
She said that a mixed-use project would grade as a “A,” without it, it is a “B” but “with no project it’s an F.” She added, “I really do see why the mixed use can work well… I just don’t think in this time frame, the November 2016 vote, I don’t think that this community will pass it.”
The point that she made to me after the item was through was persuasive – this was a heavy-lifting campaign. Opponents of the project would have pushed back hard against a housing proposal. Dan Ramos and his crew needed to be able to show that they could move voters, mobilize them, and, frankly, pack the audience. They didn’t.
Dan Ramos, in my view, made a great intellectual argument for why a mixed-use project was better. He brought in a few very respected citizens to back him up. But some of those citizens did not speak during public comment – they simply sat in the audience.
Moreover, while he had four or five highly respected individuals come to speak, he didn’t pack the audience. He did not show the council that he could move the average citizen or even the typical engaged citizen to his housing alternative proposal.
Frankly, neither “side” showed up en masse. There were only 17 people speaking on the issue during public comment – a far cry from the packed audience the week before for Nishi. And while neither side showed overwhelming support, the burden was on Dan Ramos and crew to make their case. They had to show that they could do the heavy lifting in the campaign and, while they made a great showing, in my view they did not close the deal with the average citizen.
It is not that he who packs the house wins the debate. Rather, it is that if there is going to be a tough campaign and you can only get five or six people to speak on your side, it is not inspiring to the council to go against their inclinations.
Given that the developer did not rally the public to his cause on this critical issue, the council was well within their discretion to go with their prior-held beliefs that housing would be fatal to a Measure R campaign on Mace Ranch Innovation Center. Dan Ramos gave them no reason to doubt that hypothesis.
Frankly, this setback, if you want to call it that, represents a teachable moment not only for MRIC, but for Nishi. On Monday, the Vanguard had an op-ed from Dan Ramos and presented the editorial from the Davis Enterprise, both in support of the housing option.
However, Dan Ramos and his crew are operating like it is still 1998. Frankly, so is Nishi. While Mr. Ramos has spent time meeting with citizens, writing an op-ed and going to commission meetings, there is a whole world he has not touched. There is no social media presence by the developer and his team. When the housing option was pounded by numerous commenters on two articles on Monday, there was no response from the developer.
This is 2016. Campaigns are won and lost in cyberspace, and yet, both MRIC and Nishi have only very rudimentary web presences. Web sites are a necessity in the modern era, but they are a passive tool. New media: the Vanguard, Facebook, and Twitter are where campaigns can be won or lost.
Too often these campaigns are outflanked on social media and the Vanguard, and the result is that the message never gets out.
On Tuesday, the Davis City Council went into that meeting believing that housing on MRIC was probably a better project, but they were going to vote against it because they believed that the voters would oppose it. The developer never gave them a reason to waiver on that belief.
Many people believe that the council has cleared the way for MRIC to pass a Measure R vote. There is a lot up in the air, however, and we haven’t even looked at the EIR with a fine tooth comb yet. Traffic impacts are going to be critical, and now the developer is going to have to look at ways to get people to work at the MRIC through an already congested I-80 corridor.
Rochelle Swanson is right, the costs that we bear if this doesn’t pass are huge. The $2.2 million fiscal annually is a low number that EPS (Economic & Planning Systems, Inc.) modeled. The number, in reality, could be up to $6 million a year with a one-time $10 million in fees. That’s a lot of risk for the city – the developer was taught a lesson here, one that, for the sake of the city, he needs to learn and learn well.
—David M. Greenwald reporting