Economic Development Series: Nishi Came out of Decades of Arguing about Growth in Davis

Nishi-Scene-1By Mark Braly

The Nishi project seems to me the culmination of decades of land use arguments in Davis.  Ever since that time in the 70s when a young group of revolutionaries seized City Council from the typical real estate and business interests which ran most towns then, planning in Davis has been in flux.  Sometimes the no growthers were on top; other times well-designed projects managed to get through.   But the time for all out development never came back and probably never will.

 I have lived here for 35 years, served on the Planning Commission for eight of those.  Many of the ideas embodied in the Nishi proposal emerged during this time: (1) mixed uses, in the same neighborhood and even same building, (2) ultra green construction and on-site production of renewable energy, (3) urban gardens and forests, (4) density, (5) subordination of autos and parking to walking and bicycles.

The struggle will go on.  Neighbors never will like density.   Proposals are never green enough for cutting edge environmental activists.   Developers will continue trying to chip away at the urban boundary which the city has established.  But innovative, high  quality proposals will continue to get through.

 A product of those  on-going conflicts, Nishi will live or die at the ballot on June 7.  By the way, we can thank those conflicts for Davis’ vibrant downtown in a country where few cities have been able to do this – or started too late.

Nishi is criticized for not being green enough, although it sets a new greenhouse gas standard for the Davis and will go for one of LEED’s highest certifications.  And for being too near I-80 air pollution, although any central location would be.  And this site is about as central as possible, adjacent to downtown and the university. We’ve run out of developable land not near a freeway.  Yet Nishi is big enough to provide an urban forest along the freeway to filter emissions and to locate housing far from the freeway.

Nishi would provide revenue to city government and the economy, though we can haggle over  how much.  Nishi would provide R&D research and start up space for University innovation – jobs – although one minority view is that we don’t need jobs in Davis.  It will provide needed student housing and contribute money to affordable housing off site.

But, whatever the outcome June 7, I hope that Nishi will begin a conversation in the community about our general plan.  The notion that you can decide what should go on a given piece of land now and forever, never made sense to me.  The reality is that what gets built in Davis is a complicated interaction between what the community wants and what the marketplace can pencil out.  Thus, we do piecemeal planning by approving planned development districts.

As we decide the fate of Nishi and choose a new City Council majority, we should give serious thought to the kind of planning that will work for Davis.  That could be form based planning, which puts the emphasis most how a project looks and fits into the community, not what it is used for.  It could be planned development districts, but with more guidance to city council and staff about what Davis should be in the future.

Or, something else that provides a mechanism for molding the countervailing forces of Davis into a plan that actually guides decision-making.

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

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. Michael Harrington

    I refuse to vote for a development that could realistically wreck the entire southern entrance to the City for years to come.


    The fancy maps of the freeway interchange “fix” the Yes on A side are flashing around town?  All developer fantasy …. those are not Caltrans Maps;  there is no formal process with Caltrans right now;  there is no agreement with Caltrans;  there is no $$ from Caltrans.

    In fact, if you take a morning to really study their own numbers, at best the Nishi developers will only have to pay about half of the road construction mess that Nishi ITSELF is creating the need for.  The rest of the huge costs?  To be paid for by you and me, my friend.  It will suck money right out of the local economy, reaping huge profits to the three rich local families who are behind this deal.

    I have been involved in every single local development project since 2000, and this is the worst one by far.  I would have voted for Covell Village before I voted for Nishi.  At least Covell Village had roads around it, and did not need tunnels and total re-do of an entire freeway interchange.  And fresh delta breezes.  And no toxic air.   And no immediate upfront trucks of city cash for the infra-structure.  (But CV would have been a horrible drain on the local economy over the long run, so I certainly am not advocating anyone vote for CV if it comes back.)

    I am ashamed and embarrassed that all five CC members not only voted for Nishi, but are publically shilling for it.  And Matt of all candidates should know better, and in fact does because he says he would have voted NO if on the CC to put it on the June ballot because it was not ready, yet he is pushing Yes on A with voters.    It’s all appalling to me.

    And let me remind readers that there is no tax sharing agreement with the County, and in fact if Yes passes, they can TELL us the percentage split, and there is NOTHING we can do about it. The deal should have been cut and signed a year ago, before the County has this in the bag.

    And there is no deal with UCD for that RR underpass. Nothing. And no formal meetings for it, either.

    Vote NO on A, NO on Nishi.

    1. The Pugilist

      The problem that Harrington is missing is that the entrance is already wrecked.  So how do you fix it and will this make it any worse?  How often does Harrington drive through the tunnel in the morning, noon or evening?  It takes a long time to drive through.  So would creating a new entrance and widening West Olive work?  I think it’s worth a try and without this project, no way do we get the funding to do this.

      1. hpierce

        So would creating a new entrance and widening West Olive work?

        No.  It would not relieve the current situation, nor offset the additional traffic.  At best it would be a “push”… at worst it would be negative… am thinking the latter…

    2. nameless

      To Michael Harrington: You would have voted for Covell Village, which would have added huge costs to the city, e.g. 4th fire station among other necessary city services; yet are opposed to Nishi which has the potential of actually generating tax revenue for the city.  Your logic escapes me…

      1. ryankelly

        I think he may have supported the development of the horse ranch near Wildhorse – Eileen Samitz campaigned for that.  While on the City Council, he also lobbied in support of a development of apartments and houses to be built just north of Davis on Hwy 113 along the frontage Road there – a leap frog development out into the County.  That didn’t fly with anyone.

  2. Frankly

    By the way, we can thank those conflicts for Davis’ vibrant downtown in a country where few cities have been able to do this – or started too late.

    While I agree that there is some justified back slapping for the work done keeping Davis’s downtown vibrant by preventing peripheral retail, I think it is a overshadowed by server other factors.

    Look at any college town and you will see a vibrant economic hub next to the campus.  Davis just happens to be situated such that the campus keeps the downtown hoping.

    But there are a lot of cracks and holes.   Retailers are leaving the downtown because of high rents and because the non-student residents are less frequently shopping downtown for two reasons:  one – there is limited parking, too much traffic and too many students.   Two – the non-student residents are getting more geriatric and less likely to part with their money.

    The measure of vibrancy is not just what is visible in the humanity milling about.

  3. Nancy Price

    In the mid-1980s, more than 60 local downtown businesses signed a petition to oppose transforming the Central Park area into a 3-tiered shopping mall and a small group of citizens with “vision” ran a referendum against the then City Council’s 4-1 vote for that mall. Now we have an incredibly vibrant central park/community commons and Farmers Market.   What’s the take-away?  It wasn’t just that those of us who founded SOS:Save Open Space that saved the park were “environmental activists,” it was that we saw the immense possibility of a different plan – a different vision – if you will.

  4. Michael Harrington

    The downtown needs help, and soon.

    After the CC has wasted 4 years on the cheerleading for the three exterior Hail Mary projects, maybe it is time to stop that foolery and pay attention to the residents and businesses who make the downtown their home.

  5. Michael Harrington

    Pugilist:  Ask me later.  I’m busy;  gotta go put up signs.  Had another property owner request 43 signs this morning, on top of the other 150 or so requests already this week.  Cheers.

    1. The Pugilist

      Some of those property owners are putting up your no signs against the wishes of the tenants – you may be losing more votes than you’re gaining.

  6. skeptical

    Typically landlord signs alienate voters in large apartment complexes, and less so in the smaller complexes.  Apparently, size matters.



  7. AnEcho

    Lilywhite elderly “progressives” oppose building new housing stock to enrich themselves and through their actions ensure that low income black/brown college students attempting to better themselves through education will face exploding rental prices and landlord exploitation through the eye-poppingly low vacancy rate of 0.2%.

    Well done, folks

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