Lost in the shuffle of land use battles over traffic impacts and affordability is the fact that the 325,000 square feet of Nishi’s R&D space was touted in the Studio 30 report as critical space for startups and research and development (R&D) immediately linked with the university.
It has been a long time since there has been good news on this front – in the last 12 months we have seen Davis Innovation Center pull out of the northwest quadrant and move three miles north to Woodland, we have seen MRIC stall and Nishi, while in an electoral battle, has faced a challenging campaign as a housing project with a relatively modest innovation space.
At least in the debate and discussion, the 325,000 square feet of R&D space had become an afterthought. But the addition of Sierra Energy with Mike Hart and his team, which includes former Davis CIO Rob White, is a game changer in this respect.
This is a local company that has already shown its commitment to economic development. Born from the UC Davis Big Bang competition, Sierra Energy is headquartered in downtown Davis and has R&D facilities in South Davis, expanding from ten employees to nearly 30 over the last 24 months.
Mr. Hart is already working on developing existing research space. As the Vanguard previously reported, Mr. Hart has joined forces with Tim Keller to create Area 52, a space for innovators to incubate ideas through the development of low-cost prototypes that can rapidly lead to seed-funding.
Tim Keller, who gave the Vanguard a tour of Area 52 last fall, described it “as the first step in fostering innovation by attracting new inventors, entrepreneurs, and small businesses to the area with a space that provides them the necessary resources and tools to get established.
“Area 52 is already attracting new talent to the region, driving us to consider what the next steps are to keep our success stories here in Davis,” says Mr. Keller, UC Davis alumnus and founder of Area 52. “Nishi would provide the necessary space for companies to land upon emerging from Area 52 and UC Davis, enabling them to grow and stay for the long-term.”
The key thing is that the Nishi team has now brought in people who are committed to economic development. The R&D space will not be an afterthought with Mike Hart and company running the show.
As Tim Ruff, the project manager, put it in the release, “Mike’s commitment to Davis as a start-up mecca is apparent in his efforts with Sierra Energy and Area 52.”
However, like everything in Davis, it will not go forward without a fight.
The immediate reaction of former Councilmember Michael Harrington, one of the leading opponents of Nishi, was “more traffic jams.”
However, in a city that is facing $655 million in unfunded needs in the next twenty years, Nishi is about far more than just traffic impacts. It is about bringing in jobs. The developers estimate at least 1500 jobs coming with the development – and with Sierra Energy and the commitment to startups and incubator space, that may actually be a low number.
Unfortunately, Nishi is not a cure-all for the lack of R&D space in the community. As the 2012 Studio 30 report noted, “The current isolated and dispersed sites that are available and appropriately zoned are not adequate in terms of size, location, or configuration (and related constraints) to address the emerging market need of an Innovation Center.”
Studio 30’s dispersed land strategy estimated that “Davis needs at least 200 acres for business development and expansion over a 20 +/- year time horizon.” We needed the East and West sites as the locations to offer larger scale “move-up” opportunities.
But, Studio 30 writes, “The Gateway or Nishi site offers the best opportunity for the close-in/incubator. The site will require University partnership and cooperation. Close proximity to UC Davis, downtown, regional transit and City amenities make this site best for implementing the desired attributes for start-ups, small firms, and University research-oriented businesses.”
This isn’t the place for mid-size or larger businesses, but Nishi offers the perfect opportunity for Sierra Energy to expand what they are already doing to help fill the 325,000 square feet on the site.
That is not to say we should simply ignore traffic concerns. However, traffic is already bad on the Richards Boulevard corridor. The biggest problem is that people are using Richards to get onto campus, when they should be re-directed to more direct access points to the west.
Meanwhile, Nishi offers some mitigation measures and an alternative route to campus that may actually help alleviate these problems. Traffic could exit the freeway at Richards on the newly configured interchange and drive onto West Olive and directly onto campus instead of going through the congested underpass and congested 1st Street, which is not designed for the amount of traffic it is currently receiving.
Nishi would not be able to develop until it creates the campus access and it would have mitigation measures to limit peak flow traffic off the site. Is that sufficient? If the city is successful at working with CalTrans and the university – why not?
But the bigger question still is whether those legitimate concerns should be enough to ignore the upside of 1500 jobs and a clear commitment to get the most out of the R&D space.
After months of setbacks on economic development, this is the news those of us, who have seen the need for economic development commitments from the city, have been waiting for. The question now is whether that is enough to get this project approved.
—David M. Greenwald reporting