In the spring of 2014, Davis had three projects on the front burner to create the space needed for an economic development program, which appeared to have a world of possibility for this community. With the apparent defeat of Nishi at the polls and the withdrawal now of both the Davis Innovation Center and the Mace Ranch Innovation Center, Davis appears on the cusp of missing out on a huge portion of the technology transfer wave from UC Davis.
On Monday the Vanguard urged the council and the community not to adopt an immediate and automatic “no” answer to even looking at the possibility of fast-tracking the MRIC project onto the November ballot.
During the council item on Tuesday, it became clear, even as the hour grew late, that it would take a major commitment and a heavy-lift from the developers, council, staff and the commissions to make the project work.
Reality sunk in for not only the council but for myself. The lift was going to be too heavy. I think the message from Robb Davis, a strong supporter of the project, should have made this clear.
He argued that “what’s most important is bringing forward a project that can pass.”
“It’s going to be difficult to nail down the level of detail that makes it possible to pass it on the ballot,” he said. “I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say this doesn’t have a prayer with the voters.”
He would add, “I have an optimism about this project. I have a belief that it can pass. But I know what it takes to pass…” Again, the mayor pro tem was arguing that this isn’t a project that can pass.
Robb Davis was 100 percent correct here. We saw where Nishi fell in June and part of it was the belief by some that the project was rushed on the ballot and needed to have additional details worked out. MRIC, under these circumstances, would be Nishi magnified by 100 on that complaint. The residents of this community would have claimed the process was rushed and they would have been 100 percent correct.
Unfortunately, the frustration by the developer comes through in the letter. Dan Ramos writes, “The reception to our proposal was disappointing, with a majority of the Council expressing a variety of concerns and focusing on perceived obstacles to its implementation.”
He adds, “Foremost among these, despite the fact that we’ve already been working with the city for about four years on our proposal, was a desire to have our revamped project undergo substantial and costly additional processing before the matter is referred to the voters. And it was clear that a majority of the Council is not inclined to proceed with referring our proposal to the electorate for a November 2016 vote.”
Mr. Ramos would have been better advised to count to three before sending that letter. I can understand his frustration, but the fact is that the council, I think in this case, having just been through Nishi, was rightly wary of rushing through another project.
I firmly believe that a good project could have been placed on the ballot for March 2017 that would have avoided these issues.
It is my belief that this is a huge loss for our community. I understand the concerns of some about jumping Mace Curve, but the reality is that this project would have been bracketed by a conservation easement. The 218 acres of land on Mace Curve and the 200 or so acres north of Sutter-Davis hospital would have set up this community for the next 50 years or more to absorb economic development and technology transfer from the university that would have enhanced our community and provided critical revenue to continue to provide us with the services and amenities that are in peril now.
The economic crisis in this community is real and, unless we find revenue sources, the next 20 years will see a slow decline in the quality of life we now take for granted.
As though to pour salt on our wounds, Dixon City Councilmember Jim Lindley illustrated our loss with an opportunistic post, noting, “The City of Dixon is ready and willing to welcome an innovation center to town. We have hundreds of acres on I80 that are within 4 miles of UCD. We are well aware of the long-term benefits to our community and recognize the value of working with the development community to quickly bring the project to fruition.”
He added, “We of course do not have all of the problems with hand-wringing and fretting over every inconsequential project detail and therefore are much easier to work with in delivering projects. We have a robust citizen engagement process and our folks are business friendly. In fact, we welcome all businesses to Dixon that have experienced difficulty with Davis.”
Where Do We Go Now?
Where does the apparent finality of the loss of MRIC leave us?
Right now, Nishi is in a holding pattern. The final election results will be available on June 22, reportedly. There is perhaps a 30 percent chance that the remaining ballots will flip the results.
More likely, Nishi will have to consider its options and, given the close outcome, it may well come back in 2017 with another iteration.
Sierra Energy, who was partnering with Nishi, has been expanding Area 52 and has hinted that they will come back with another option if Nishi is unsuccessful.
Unfortunately, that likely means the resulting loss of more Davis-native companies like Schilling Robotics, that will need land space to expand their operations – or follow companies like Bayer-AgraQuest out of town.
Some have suggested that Davis can now focus on infill in the downtown area. There was mention yesterday in a comment about the Joe Minicozzi presentation.
However, I think there are two primary problems with that idea. While I found his presentation compelling, the fact is that, given costs in California and the loss of redevelopment, there is likely not the capital to be able to do large-scale redevelopment and densification of the downtown area.
The second problem is that, while small and dense infill might enhance land value ratios, as Mr. Minicozzi explained, it doesn’t provide us with the space for expansion of existing companies like Schilling.
I think we need to revisit the work that has already been done here. In 2012, the city council passed a resolution that the city would “pursue a ‘Dispersed Innovation Strategy’ offering flexible space (scalability) supporting needs of growing and new businesses. A combined approach of near-term close-in hub with mid-term, larger less constrained edge sites offer the best mix of University proximity and expansion capability for the City…”
One of the first suggestions was that we utilize existing space. However, even within that dispersed model there was a recognition that we lacked sufficient space to pursue even a near-term strategy.
The near-term strategy: “The Gateway (Downtown Research & University Innovation District) option offers the best close/in location due to the proximity to University and property owner and University interest, and should be pursued as the City’s top innovation center priority.”
However, right after the near-term strategy was also a mid-term: “The East and West ‘edge’ sites offer viable options for location and size of larger innovation centers meeting needs of growing mid-sized companies, and should be continued to be explored as part of a mid-term Dispersed Innovation Strategy.”
It is important to understand what Studio 30’s report indicates. “Studio 30’s research suggests that the City pursue a broad strategy to attract innovative businesses that offers a number of sites that are scalable and range in size so the community can accommodate an incubator, startups and expanding businesses. Some should be directly in contact with the University. This mix of small and large sites allows the city the flexibility to successfully attract, grow and retain innovation businesses. External sites have the potential to support the most jobs because of their size and ability to accommodate a wider variety of both size and type of businesses.”
But here is a key point raised by Studio 30, “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.”
The study continues, “With available reasonably priced land and effective marketing to innovative high tech companies, Studio 30 estimates Davis could absorb up to 10 percent or around 100,000 square feet of the 1-1.5 million industrial/office square footage absorbed annually in the Sacramento region. Because of this Studio 30 estimates Davis needs at least 200 acres for business development and expansion over a 20 +/- year time horizon.”
They continue, “A combination of one ‘close in’ hub or incubator with one (or in some future time, two) larger, less constrained (and presumably less costly) edge site offers the right mix of University proximity and identity with the expansion capability to address job growth and rapid business expansion.”
So, from the start, Studio 30 recognized that, while in the short-term they were suggesting we pursue a small location – because that’s what we had, ultimately that wasn’t going to suffice.
Unfortunately at this point, all of the identified spots have fallen by the wayside due to land use concerns. But the reality is that the city lacks the revenue to continue to provide the level of service citizens have grown accustomed to, and maintain our infrastructure.
In short, while people worry that development will result in the loss of our small community, the lack of providing at least some land for economic development may do the same.
While I do not want to see Davis sprawling in all directions, I also do not want to see Davis riddled with decaying road infrastructure and closed parks and schools. I believe a small compromise on land use would have enabled us to thread the needle to achieve both goals – of small as well as sustainable.
Right now, we are in danger of losing the latter as we hang onto the former. The next few months will be interesting to see the direction of the pivot.
—David M. Greenwald reporting