There seem to be four different viewpoints on housing at the Mace Ranch Innovation Center (MRIC). There are those who believe that housing makes the project stronger by reducing the impact of traffic that would have to drive from, in many cases, out of town to come to work at the site. There are those who agree with that point, but oppose housing because they believe that housing will cause the voters to reject the project.
There are those who are willing to support an MRIC without housing. Finally there are those who oppose any development at all at the MRIC site.
The developers at MRIC started out with a claim that there would be no housing included, but for a variety of reasons they now believe that the project with housing is stronger than without housing. As Dan Ramos, project manager, notes in his op-ed today, “When the city then asked us to consider adding a housing component to our project for environmental analysis purposes, we were hesitant.”
However, “But as we started doing serious homework on what made for successful innovation projects in communities such as Boulder, Palo Alto, Raleigh/Chapel Hill, Champaign/Urbana and more, what became increasingly clear was the importance of incorporating housing into the plans.”
Tuesday will be a key day for what course of action the project takes, as the council may make the call as to whether to direct the developer to stick with the original project or to further evaluate a project with a housing component.
While immediate reaction to housing on the site has seen both proponents and opponents pushing against the proposal, there appears a small amount of traction toward at least evaluating a housing option.
That movement continued on Sunday with the Enterprise’s editorial in support of housing. While the editorial makes a strong case on the merits, the lead-in is a huge mistake and creates a poison pill that will turn off many people on the fence.
They start with the fear mantra, writing: “We can’t let our fears govern our future… Fear. It can paralyze our community’s conversation about innovations.”
Right away the Enterprise, which has supported just about every development project in the history of Davis, taps into the pro-development movements’ depiction of slow-growthers. For them, people oppose growth because they fear change. They fear that their property values will be harmed.
The problem with the argument is, first of all, it is condescending. You are not going to change people’s minds by belittling their concerns and acting like you know best.
The reality is that there are a lot of reasons why people oppose growth. I chose to stay in Davis, despite the high cost of living, because I like a smaller town. I have lived in three urban areas, and I prefer a college town. I don’t want to see Davis outgrow this small town appeal.
The bottom line – telling people they shouldn’t fear change isn’t going to convince them to vote for a new development, housing or commercial. Instead, the argument has to be made why a given development will enhance the community.
For me, there is a clear-cut answer for that and the Enterprise makes the point, “At build-out in 20 years, it is expected to create 5,800 mostly high-wage jobs and generate millions of dollars in annual new revenues for city services like parks and public safety.”
Stick with that argument and the project has a chance to pass. Frame it with the fear argument, and it will lose 100 times out of 100.
The Enterprise doesn’t stop there, however. They continue, “For a town with plenty of liberal values, Davis is actually quite conservative. We don’t really like change; we’re happy with the way things are.”
I completely agree with the first sentence – Davis, as liberal towns go, is quite conservative. I would argue, however, that is more so on issues like social justice, race and affordable housing.
The second sentence is a problem, however: “We don’t really like change; we’re happy with the way things are.”
It may be true, but it is based on a misunderstanding of liberalism. The problem is that it mistakes classical liberalism for contemporary liberalism. Liberalism isn’t monolithic. There are many strands – some of which come into conflict with each other.
Conflating liberalism with change is misplaced. It ignores the strand of liberalism that is embedded in environmental stewardship which necessarily is antithetical to change. Environmental stewardship takes a number of different forms, from prohibitions against emissions and industrial byproducts being put back into the land, air and water. There is also the concern about the loss of farmland and its impact on the ability to feed the population.
And there are conflicts – the need for housing and affordable housing can conflict with the need to protect the land and the environment.
The Vanguard was actually founded on the premise that beneath the liberal veneer of Davis rests a dark underbelly that is anything but liberal and progressive, but the Enterprise misses the mark by misunderstanding contemporary liberalism. That should be not surprising, given that the Enterprise is basically run by conservatives.
Finally, the Enterprise casts its criticism towards the city council, writing that “our leaders often are afraid of rocking the boat, taking the path of least resistance because doing the right thing can provoke the naysayers to fight back.”
While I agree with that statement to some extent – we certainly saw that at play with the soda tax – the Enterprise actually presents the counterargument, inadvertently, but just as well.
They write, “We know it’s risky.” They cite the reasons overall why the community needs an innovation center. These include: “A place for local companies who need more space to grow; we cannot keep losing these businesses to neighboring cities…” Second, “A place for technologies from UC Davis to develop into viable home-grown companies, employing local graduates…” Finally, “A steady stream of revenue that would broaden our tax base and pump our city coffers full of money to hire police officers, pave over our potholes and refurbish our public infrastructure.”
What the Enterprise is calling “fear” is really risk analysis that the council has to take.
There is no doubt that the project is environmentally better with housing than without. Those who argue that we want to be green, but then force people to drive from Elk Grove or Natomas to come to work here, have a point.
To this day, I still haven’t seen a good articulated reason why housing on MRIC is fundamentally bad, other than the electoral calculus.
However, the fact of the matter is that the council has to weigh the benefits of the project, considering the risk of non-passage with housing against the benefits of housing.
There are clear advantages to housing, but perhaps not overwhelming advantages.
The Enterprise, citing the city staff report, notes that the alternative project could result in:
- A 13-percent reduction in vehicle trips, with a 35-percent reduction during the morning commute and a 32-percent reduction during the evening commute;
- A reduction in daily vehicle miles traveled of more than 25 percent; and
- A reduction in annual greenhouse-gas emissions.
That is a clear benefit, but is that enough to risk non-passage? Or perhaps the deeper and more important question: does that even risk non-passage?
Right now everyone seems to believe that the inclusion of housing will doom the project. We base that on anecdotal arguments. People have written on here that they might support the project without housing, but they will work against it with housing.
Aside from the unanswered question of why, the other question is do those people represent enough of a threat that the council should put forward a worse project?
The Enterprise wants the council to jump in and take the plunge, but the council has to weigh the benefits of reduced vehicle trips against the possible loss of thousands of jobs should they guess wrong. That seems a lot to ask without better data than hunches and self-serving claims about fear.
—David M. Greenwald reporting