Yesterday we noted in our preview article on incoming Mayor Robb Davis that there seems to be a push to have an update to the General Plan. Robb Davis in fact becomes the third councilmember to publicly state support for a General Plan update, following support from Lucas Frerichs and Will Arnold during their council campaigns.
Robb Davis told the Vanguard that he wants to “put into place a clear process that we will use to update to the General Plan. This will include defining the scope of the General Plan update (parameters/areas that will be covered/areas that will not be covered), a clear time-frame and guidelines for community engagement.”
This does not have to be and should not be a major undertaking, he explained. The push will be for infill and efficiency of space as well as considering climate change.
He explained, “I do not believe a multi-year process is feasible or needed and I would argue that the focus should be on how we can accomplish more efficient use of space in the city first and foremost.”
He added, “Secondarily, it should focus on updating our climate action efforts as they relate to housing and transportation.”
There is not clear agreement at this point on the form of a potential General Plan. Will Arnold, in answering a question about the future of Davis, noted, “By not having an updated General Plan, we are at the whim of planning by exception. In the best case, we have an opportunity to embrace something that honors our community. At worst, it leads to division, supposition and acrimony.”
He continued, “We need a community where everyone is welcome to participate, and we cannot afford to backslide to the days of uncivil discourse and unproductive belligerence.”
Unlike Robb Davis, he supports a full new General Plan. “Beginning in the goal setting session of Fall 2016, I will propose a comprehensive course for a new General Plan. Not an update. Not an amendment.”
“I will propose that we broaden our engagement beyond the small group of activists and volunteers to which all reading this belong. For a new General Plan to be relied upon, it must reflect the needs of all who rely upon it,” he explained. “With timely action, achievable metrics, and focused participants, this can be addressed with the immediacy it demands. A lengthy process is itself a disincentive to participate.”
He added, “Our goal is to create a new map, reflective of current realities, which does not simply protects us from pitfalls, but leads us somewhere we want to be.”
During his announcement, Lucas Frerichs said that one of the loftier issues he supports “is an updated General Plan. I think that the General Plan currently, there are aspects to it that are very strong and there are several elements within the General Plan, the transportation element, the housing element, that have (been) updated within just the last year or so… but overall the General Plan really serves as the blueprint for how the community wants to grow, or where it should grow, or if it should grow… I think it’s time for it to be updated.”
Lucas Frerichs told the Enterprise in an interview, “It is absolutely time for the city to update its General Plan.”
The Enterprise noted, “While drafting a new plan for city development would take significant amounts of time and money, Frerichs said the current plan, which was approved in 2001, has become outdated. The current General Plan doesn’t include several changes to state law and should include new sections surrounding the city’s adaptation to climate change, he explained. A new General Plan would create a strong foundation as the city truly moves into the 21st century, Frerichs said.”
The current citizen-based General Plan was approved in 2001 and updated in 2007. The General Plan as updated was designed to guide Davis’ growth through January 1, 2010.
In the intro it notes, “A general plan articulates a community’s vision of its long-term physical form and development. The general plan is comprehensive in scope and represents the city’s expression of quality of life and community values; it should include social and economic concerns, as well.”
This isn’t the first time the issue of the General Plan has come up during the ten years of coverage by the Vanguard. Back in 2009, there was discussion about how the city would embark on a new General Plan.
At that time there was the belief that it would be a whole new General Plan. But there was considerable difference on the council at that time as to how the council should proceed. A huge issue was cost – during the height of the recession, a $1 to $3 million General Plan was seen as impractical.
In February 2009, Councilmembers Sue Greenwald and Lamar Heystek argued the need to hold off on any major changes. Then-Mayor Pro Tem Don Saylor believed that this current General Plan no longer can guide us and we now need a new one. Others, such Mayor Ruth Asmundson and Councilmember Stephen Souza, seemed to want some sort of middle ground where there is some update, but on the cheap and perhaps not full blown.
At the time, the Vanguard’s analysis was that this effort to revamp the General Plan fell flat for two critical reasons.
While city staff wrote at the time, “Staff recommends that the Council determine what kind of a General Plan update is wanted/needed while being sensitive to the difficult budget conditions the City faces,” the price tag they put on the effort that would have been led by professional consultants ranged from $1 million to $4 million, with the expectation that a “typical cost” would be between $1.5 and $2.5 million.
Given the decline of the city’s economy at that time, that was a tall task and it would only get worse. Ultimately, the cost was probably the chief reason that the process was dropped by the city.
But there is a secondary reason. Many citizens who worked on the previous General Plan looked upon their work with pride. It was a citizen-based General Plan.
However, the staff report denigrated that work. While the strengths included the fact that it was comprehensive, addressed and contained “smart growth principles,” and was citizen-based, city staff criticized the previous General Plan as being long and unfocused.
They wrote, “The lengthy document of almost 400 pages and 1,000 goals, policies and standards is difficult to use and focus on overall themes, key issues and trade-offs. The connections between the plan’s general visions and principles and more specific implementing actions are not always clear. Policies related to sustainability are not well coordinated.”
Moreover, they added that it was “not clear in its guidance of how the community should evolve in the long term, particularly in terms of residential and non-residential growth.”
Bottom line, staff’s approach here offended many that worked hard on the previous plan and looked upon it with pride.
Former Councilmember Sue Greenwald would argue, “Personally I think there’s no reason to spend 1-2 million dollars that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel when the wheel that we already have is a Michelin. Yes, it would cost 1-3 million dollars to do a comprehensive General Plan. Sometimes discretion is the better form of valor.”
She added, “We have an extremely high quality advance General Plan, we don’t need a new General Plan right now. Our General Plan is what other cities are trying to do. When you hear other cities are doing a General Plan, they are trying to do one similar to the one that we have now.”
And cost was a critical factor, as well, she said. “We can save 1 to 3 million dollars by re-adopting our current plan in essentially similar form. The Housing Element Update which is our legal requirement is good until 2013.”
Meanwhile, Don Saylor followed or perhaps directed staff’s criticism of the citizen-based General Plan.
“I think the General Plan is, as our staff has said, long and unfocused. It is not clear in its guidance. It does not provide for reliable projects for financial and infrastructure planning,” he said. “It requires us to have constitutional crisis over any project that comes before us. It has a lack of coordination with UC Davis plans and is not in sync with the state requirements, some of them are still shaping on climate change, water supply, environmental justice and other issues.”
In the end, the idea of a new General Plan at that time was ultimately scrapped.
But we are now seven years later, we are at a different time and a different place for the city. Three seem to be three councilmembers at least who support the idea of some sort of new General Plan.
The problem I still see is that this community remains divided – in fact it may be more divided than it was in 2009 – on growth and so, while there are good reasons to think about a new General Plan, there is a lot of uncertainty about what a unified vision of Davis might look like, or if it is even possible to achieve.
—David M. Greenwald reporting