By Jim Gray
Our efforts to do a public private partnership incorporating community based planning focused on economic development has not yet come to fruition, and may I even dare assert has failed.
The RFEI process started with enthusiasm and transparency to address real community needs and take advantage of the opportunity to collaborate to create innovation centers. The process stimulated and attracted a mix of world class local, regional, and national developers. Then the enthusiasm and vision gave way to process, silos, and then slowed in pursuit of perfection and consensus and led to a stalling out.
If you measure results in terms of how many meetings and how many special hearings to create a forum to just say “no,” it was a great success. If you measure results by investments in new infrastructure, the creation of community amenities, by the leveraging of those investments for additional success, and by attracting partners to make additional investments, by my estimations we have failed. But we don’t need to wallow in failure. We need to get up and try again in better and smarter ways that will increase the probability of success.
The developers found themselves needing to spend inordinate amounts of time focusing on political consultants and polls in addition to the monumental tasks of figuring out good design, creative architecture, infrastructure that works, and of course making sure the economics justified the investment. Important investment for our community’s and the region’s future have floundered and will likely be made elsewhere.
I was initially very pleased that the landowners and the developers with the help of their architects, planners, and advisors, developed great concepts and demonstrated a true willingness to embrace a process with the City of Davis and the citizens of Davis. The strong momentum at the start of the process subsequently came to a halt as the process continued. I don’t want to believe that this is now the “Davis Way.”
Of course, we have high standards and there is nothing wrong with that. However, we have to create new models for how the public and private sectors collaborate for success in pursuing economic development and land use changes to support those plans. We need to measure public and private sector results by achieving goals and creating opportunities for the future within our City.
This situation is not unique to Davis by any means. Collaboration between the public and private sectors to foster economic development requires defining and maintaining a common vision, establishing quantifiable goals, embarking on a well-defined process that includes clear timelines and milestones, which will lead to results. In addition we must align the risks and benefits. By collaborating we can achieve mutually agreed to results, but it also requires leadership, nimbleness and lots of hard work to stay on track and overcome objections and achieve great projects.
In Davis, our planning process is too often gripped by an obsessive focus on can we get everyone to agree? Can we do this without causing controversy? We do this even though our City’s General Plan and Specific Plans and Spot Zoning/PD’s are out of date and too often in conflict with one another.
Innovation and community planning by its very nature needs to be authentic, creative, and to incorporate flexibility. We can work to create a climate for innovation and success but let’s not bog down in micromanaging large projects that will have a 30-50 year life for their absorption and build out.
Success is not measured by creation and comment from 20+ committees, and hundreds of participants being asked their opinion on things that many have no expertise in. It should not be measured by years of debate and thousands of pages of detail and comment.
How do we think we will be successful in attracting needed investment capital for infrastructure and risky long term investments if we make private sector participant/partners run a gauntlet of suspicion, innuendo, special elections, threats of environmental law-suits and myriad of other matters? A description of the process and the players would make a great plot for an update of a Kafka novel.
Just this week, former Treasury Secretary, Harvard President and economist Larry Summers wrote an article which appeared in the Boston Globe and the Washington Post that described why there is crumbling infrastructure and why things rarely get done. He was describing the process to update and rebuild a small bridge in Massachusetts but the description in many ways is synonymous with the situation we confront in Davis. Summers writes:
“I have an op-ed in the Boston Globe today on infrastructure, addressing the issue of quality rather than quantity of investment. … I describe the fiasco that has emerged from what should have been a routine maintenance project on the Anderson Memorial Bridge over the Charles River …. Though the bridge took only 11 months to build in 1912, it will take close to five years to repair today at a huge cost in dollars and mass delays.
Investigating the reasons behind the bridge blunders have helped to illuminate an aspect of American sclerosis — a gaggle of regulators and veto players, each with the power to block or to delay, and each with their own parochial concerns. All the actors — the historical commission, the contractor, the environmental agencies, the advocacy groups, the state transportation department — are reasonable in their own terms, but the final result is wildly unreasonable.”
“At one level this explains why, despite the overwhelming case for infrastructure investment, there is so much resistance from those who think it will be carried out ineptly. The right response is to advocate for reforms in procurement policies, regulatory policies and government procedures to make the investment process more efficient and effective. This is all clear enough.”
The names and local players are different in Boston than in Davis, but the approach and the results are the same. I predict that the bridge will be repaired ultimately or fall down and I predict that economic development and innovation will continue to be driving forces within the broader economy. Davis just might not directly benefit from them. Our future, the future for our children, grandchildren and future residents might not be as bright in Davis and that would be a big shame for us all.
So what is next? Clearly, I would recommend that we vote Yes on Measure A. Let’s demonstrate to the region, to the University, and to ourselves, that we can support an innovative plan. It is a plan that has been in the making for decades. It is a plan that will invest in needed infrastructure and amenities for future generations. It is a plan that offers both housing and jobs with a mix of great design and community benefits. It is not perfect, however it is in our City’s and the region’s best interests. It is a very good plan!
We must figure out how to reform our planning process. We need to embrace an implementation process. Let’s reframe the questions and agree on what it is we want as a community. Let’s plan and develop with results in mind. Let’s figure out how to do public private partnerships that work. Let’s loudly say we want good schools, a strong downtown, good jobs, a reduced carbon foot print, and also say we want jobs, and innovation and a dynamic and growing economy.
Let’s extend opportunity and provide paths for a better future. Davis is a fabulous community to be a part of. We have a great University that attracts and trains a bright and talented work force and that fosters great research on global problems and opportunities. Let’s leverage that and embrace it. Let’s not blame the University on our growth but instead let’s as a City plan to grow and innovate symbiotically with them. Let’s leverage what can be done best by the respective players. Let’s all try to be part of the solution.
We want to create a community ecosystem that isn’t afraid of change but embraces it. We need to update our General Plan. We need to be resilient and try again and again to create jobs, opportunities, and extend those to others. We need to create an ecosystem for entrepreneurs to succeed. We need public policy and guiding documents as well as elected, business, and community leaders that focus on success and outcomes. With those ingredients we can achieve economic development and a brighter future for Davis.
— Jim Gray is a longtime Davis resident. Senior Vice President with Cushman and Wakefield, and a commercial real estate broker and developer for over 30 years.
Editor’s note: following the decision by Mace Ranch Innovation Center to put its pending project on hold, the Vanguard decided to re-start a community discussion on the future of economic development in Davis. As such, we are reaching out to a very diverse group of people and starting May 1 we are hoping to publish one op-ed a day on this subject. We are pleased to announce that so far we have over 40 commitments and counting. Beginning today, we will publish one article per day for the month of May into June. If you would like to add your voice – please submit your piece on the future of economic development in Davis (800 to 1000 words).
May 1: Robb Davis
May 2: Elaine Roberts Musser
May 3: Dan Carson
May 4: Matt Williams
May 6: Peter Bell
May 7: Bob Fung
May 9: Rob White
May 16: Alan Humason
May 17: Mike Hart
May 18: Judy Corbett
May 19: Mark Braly
May 20: Susan Rainier
May 21: Tia Will
May 22: Anya McCann
May 24: Bob Poppenga
May 27: Dushyant Pathak