Commentary: Pause the General Plan Process, We Need a More Unified Vision of the Future



Last week the Davis City Council was united in the idea of moving forward with a general plan update.  But, while I agree with the rationale for why it is needed, I have concerns that the process set forward in it will not be fruitful absent a much more robust visioning process.

While I appreciate the approach that the council took last week and the responsiveness they have to the community concerns, I think that we need to start this process by taking a step back.  I do not think an extra month for initial input from the community through a web-based device, followed by public workshops at the planning commission and city council this fall, is what we need.

I was skeptical about this approach from the start.  In fact, part of me has been skeptical about spending several years on a general plan as it is.  My thinking was – we have critical needs now, why are we going to stop and plan some more?  After all, the community went through a rather extensive housing discussion as recently as 2008 with the Housing Element Steering Committee.

On Economic Development, we had DSIDE, the Innovation Park Task Force, Studio 30 – all of them laid out our community needs rather simply in terms of the need for housing and the need for economic development.

On the sustainability front, we have developed a Climate Action Plan.  On the open space front, we have had recent workshops and community discussions on funding and prioritization of open space preservation issues.

At the same time, the Nishi election shows that this community is not united on the issues of growth.  And, while I believe that there is a large middle camp that could go either way, the election showed that at least the public face of the community is deeply divided.

The Vanguard believes that one of its values to the community is to provide an open and robust discussion platform. This past weekend, I had the idea to see where the readership would take us and laid out five questions, which later expanded to several more questions.

The clear flashpoint issue became apparent immediately and really unsurprisingly – housing.  Interestingly enough, while I think there is some growing debate and discussion over Measure R itself, that is not the hot dividing line.

There are a lot of people who voted for Nishi, were disappointed with the result, who nevertheless continue to strongly support Measure R.  Offline there have been some conversations of modifications.  The No on Measure A side has at least discussed the possibility of strengthening the measure, while others less publicly have discussed ways to keep the fundamentals of Measure R in place, but perhaps reduce the risk and uncertainty to investors which may lead to better and more innovative design proposals.

However, that is not the key dividing line.  The key dividing line, at least right now, in the city is over how to meet our housing needs for students.  People on all sides of the issue are concerned that UC Davis is adding thousands of students, perhaps as many as 6800 over the next decade, and there is not current adequate housing for those new students.

The Vanguard over the course of the last week has attempted to push the discussion to see if there is some sort of consensus.  Interestingly enough, the Vanguard took what it believed to be a middle ground approach.

In setting forth the basis of discussion, I proposed a belief that we need new housing on campus, UC Davis has not done enough to provide that housing, their past commitments and present lack of accountability suggest that even if they promise 90 percent of the new housing to accommodate new students, they may not follow through and therefore we need to plan accordingly.

As I stated earlier, even if they do follow through with their promises, we still probably need up to 4000 new beds in the city to accommodate current demands.

But the prospect for consensus on this issue seems difficult to achieve.  There are those who passionately and with their cadre of statistics argue that UC Davis is responsible for growth pressures on Davis, they have not fulfilled their on-campus housing obligations and therefore we need to pressure them and hold them to fulfill commitments.

On the other side are those who believe that the city of Davis benefits from UC Davis, that our own growth policies are just as responsible for the shortage of housing and that we have no ability to compel UC Davis to provide our housing.

Honestly, I think all three viewpoints have merit.  I have chosen what I believe a middle ground, but this is a community where the center may not hold.

Given the interest in housing, I haven’t pushed on other issues that I think are equally pressing.  The need for economic development, the need for revenue, the need to make our city fiscally sustainable.

In the end, I think if we push through a general plan process, we might produce a fine document – but without a true visioning process, I don’t think we can emerge with some sort of unified vision for the future.

Therefore, I think our best approach is to take the next period of time to do a community visioning process that can guide us through a general plan in a much more unified way.  We need to bring in all the stakeholders, but we also have to figure out a way to bring in people whose voices are usually silent.

We hear from the usual suspects on a consistent vision, but we don’t hear from the people who live in our community, but work in Sacramento.  Those with small children that schlep to school and sports, but who are not actively engaged in the planning process.

That is the vast majority of people in our community and yet their voices are not heard, and they may not have an understanding of the challenges we face as a community – and yet they cast their votes for council and for land use issues, water, taxes, etc.

I am not saying we don’t need a new general plan, what I am saying is that first we need a vision and then a way to implement that vision.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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36 thoughts on “Commentary: Pause the General Plan Process, We Need a More Unified Vision of the Future”

  1. Davis Progressive

    i would just suggest we not do a general plan right now – it’s obvious there is no unified vision for davis.  what do we gain from this?

    1. Frankly

      I agree with you.  Waste of time and money.   All the effort should be spent on changing and/or defeating Measure R or convincing state government to act on the NIMBY problems that plaque parts of the state.

      I am also advocating that Woodland and Dixon develop next to Davis, and that Yolo Country scraps the pass-through agreement and moves forward with one or more of the innovation parks.

      Yolo County should care less and less about Davis as Davis continues its decline into regional political irrelevancy.

    2. Alan Miller

      it’s obvious there is no unified vision for davis

      We should wait for consensus.  Until then, zoning by exception!

      what do we gain from this?

      War.  Troops on each side of Russell.  With catapults.

  2. Mark West

    There is no need to wait for a consensus, although in an era of participation trophies it is easy to understand why some think they are entitled to a vote on every decision. The simple fact is, we already have a consensus embodied by the five people we have elected to represent us on the City Council. It is now their responsibility to gather input from residents, professionals, staff, and any other appropriate sources and then make the decision. That is how things work in the real world, and why things don’t work in this fantasyland created by our well-meaning local activists and the politicians who pander to them.



    1. Alan Miller

      That is how things work in the real world, and why things don’t work in this fantasyland created by our well-meaning local activists and the politicians who pander to them.

      Good to know it was all a fantasy.  I just woke up and dreamed Nishi had been defeated by well-meaning local activists.  #phew!# . . . it was only a dream . . . . . . . . . #¿dream?#

      1. Mark West

        Actually, DP, what I am opposed to is our unwillingness to make a decision.  The wait for consensus approach is just another way of failing to act. The reality is that for the most vocal activists in town, when it comes to questions of development, failing to act is the goal. So by delaying decision-making, we are not working on community consensus problem solving, we are simply acceding to the demands of the few.

        As David points out above, we spent years working on a community consensus for economic development. Where has that gotten us? $100’s of millions in unfunded obligations and no prospects for increasing revenues other than raising taxes.  What an accomplishment.

        We need a functioning General Plan, and I favor community input in the process for developing that plan, as much input as the community desires.  In the end, though, we need to make a decision and move on to the next steps of managing the City and learning how to pay our bills. It is the job of the CC to listen to the input from all the disparate individuals, and then to make a decision that is in the best interests of the whole. Waiting for consensus in a divided community is just a fool’s errand.


    2. Tia Will


      That is how things work in the real world”

      What is this “real world” of which you speak. The last time I looked, Davis was a very real presence in the world. So real, that many, many people want to live hear regardless of how negatively you want to portray the city.


      1. Mark West

        “many people want to live hear regardless of how negatively you want to portray the city.”

        It is not the City that I portray negatively, but the small cadre of activists who think the world should revolve around their selfish list of wants.  The City of Davis is a fine place, filled with many wonderful people and destined to be the home of many more wonderful people, as long as we first overcome the objections of activists like you who are afraid of more of ‘those kind’ moving in to town. I wonder, Tia, why it is you so hate the thought of people living in Davis.

        1. Ron

          Mark:  “the small cadre of activists who think the world should revolve around their selfish list of wants.”

          I realize that you’d find this difficult to believe, but I don’t think that the “slow-growth” movement is based upon selfishness or greed.  (It isn’t for me, at least.)  I also think that the majority in Davis prefer slow-growth, overall, and that slow-growth preferences are not unique to Davis. (Unfortunately, developers and their political allies are in control, in many other areas.)

          Who knows – we might even reach stability/sustainability, at some point.

        2. hpierce

          Ron… you’re “newbie” right?  Less than 40 years?  There was a time, in that period, where developers portrayed themselves as no/slow “growthers”… subdividing at 5-12 lots at time… to maximize profits, particularly as “small builders”… the CC supported that…

        3. Ron


          Yes – I’d qualify as a “newbie” to Davis (less than 40 years).

          I’m not sure of your point, though.  Developers are like chameleons.  They’ll respond to (and portray themselves as) whatever is “popular” at any given point in time, as long as they can make a profit.  Not saying that this is a bad thing – just the way it is.  They are businessmen (and women, although there seems to be fewer female developers).

          Seems like you’re describing the difference between small-scale (e.g. individual developers), vs. tract/corporate developers.




        4. Frankly

          You are kind of a crackup Ron.   What do you call a city lacking developers?  Well that would be not a city… It would be a field.  And you would not be here to block development unless you lived in a field.

        5. Ron

          True, Frankly.

          Developers provide a valuable service that’s needed for modern life.  I admire the skill that’s needed to construct buildings.  However, planning (including the amount and location of development) is appropriately determined by residents and elected officials (who represent residents).  Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.  (More often than not, development interests infiltrate local politics.)








        6. Frankly

          Some of the most beautiful cities in the world were build lacking a fantastic comprehensive municipal development plan.  Some of the ugliest cities in the world were the result of “careful” municipal planning.

        7. Marina Kalugin

          Ron, many developers lack skill to “build buildings”…that is up to the managing partners of structural engineering firms to ensure……

          in an ideal world, the architects design the vision, the engineers ensure the buildings are properly built, with proper adherence to current codes and so on,  and the city planning and building provides oversight in the cases of owner builders and such and when there are “differences of opinion” between the landowners and the other stakeholders……the city council is supposed to be able to referee it all….

          Builders will cut corners and try to get away with whatever will maximize profits…

          Thus, my dad…never even trusted a  single project manager to truly uphold the codes et al…  Decades after his death, his masterpieces worldwide are still standing…

          on the other hand, when there is no-one of his caliber providing the needed oversight, we get the toxic mold fiascos in million dollar homes of the 90s and to the present, and  we get the “faulty bolts”  of the latest Bay Bridge reconstruction….a multi-billion fiasco which is already falling apart…

          right after any “warranty” period expires….

          most cities are now awash with so many employees and elected officials to counterbalance the profit making runaway trains/machines  aka developers and cronies…..which have way too much power these days….and things grind to a halt while decent projects try to maneuver that process  – while the largest, and wealthiest, developers push and push and get their way, while the people pay…(like the $10mil forgiven at the Cannery recently)…


  3. Don Shor

    I don’t really know how any kind of consensus on growth, especially residential growth, would be more readily achieved via a visioning process than it would by the regular General Plan update process. A facilitated workshop or something could certainly be held as part of that process, but it would suffer from the same problems as any other civic pursuit here: only the activists would participate, and the result would not be accepted by those on the more extreme ends of the debate unless they prevailed.


  4. Alan Miller

     That is the vast majority of people in our community and yet their voices are not heard

    What do you expect from a bunch of child schleppers?

  5. Michael Harrington

    Don:  Nishi team refuses to work with us.  They still think that 5-0 CC will assure them Ver.2.   Likewise Ramos refuses to talk to us.  There are other solutions that involve working with project applicants who are polite and actually have the best interests of Davis residents at heart.

    1. Misanthrop

      What is there to be gained by talking to you Mike? Do you have anything to put on the table? There is really nothing to discuss. Both Nishi and the MRIC are dead and are not coming back any time soon if for no other reason than the timeline required by Measure R. So why on earth would these people want to waste time talking to you? I have no doubt that they have other opportunities and interests to pursue that don’t require wasting their time talking to people like you.

    2. Frankly

      Mike – the analogy is kidnapping.  You and your cohort kidnap development projects exploiting Measure R and the legal system that allows you to file lawsuits (mostly frivolous in my view), and then after you succeed in securing the “child” from its parents, you expect the parents to come to you and plead for your mercy and generosity.  I don’t see that as a reasonable expectation you should continue to hold.

  6. Edison

    The Vanguard has identified a real, perplexing and probably unsolvable problem. That is, most of the people I know in Davis are too busy to get involved with issues such as a general plan visioning process. They spend much of their time commuting to out-of-town jobs, working in demanding jobs with long hours, attending youth events (Little League, ballet, etc.), helping kids with homework, caring for elderly parents, etc. The main reason why they live in Davis is the quality of the schools, perceived public safety, and the fact that most of their neighbors share similar demographics.  For the most part, they probably don’t read the Vanguard. Rather than subscribing to the Enterprise, they instead read publications such as the Wall Street Journal, Sac Bee or SF Examiner.

    As a result of these dynamics, they’re as equally unlikely to respond to an on-line general plan survey as they are to attend a community meeting on the subject.  The only potential approach I can see that may attract people to a community event would be hold such sessions dispersed throughout the community; i.e., don’t just hold them at City Hall or the Senior Center, but use meeting rooms in other locations such as the elementary and junior high schools throughout town.  If something like this is not attempted, I fear that the meetings would simply attract the same people who’ve been involved for many years (many of not most of whom would be from central Davis).

    Also, not to sound negative, but I spent almost 40 years involved in community and organizational strategic planning, all of which entailed various “visioning” processes.  Looking back, I have to say that much of those efforts was nothing more than “feel good” bureaucratic gobblygook and psychobabble. A detailed “visioning” process can take up a lot of time and energy and leave the participants feeling drained without really accomplishing anything concrete.  I don’t know that I have a solution to this, but I do suspect that if you asked many Davis residents whether they’d rather spend an evening or Saturday morning involved in a visioning process versus doing something more personally rewarding (swimming in their pool, hiking, playing golf, watching their kid play soccer, etc.), they’d virtually always opt for the latter alternatives.  I think they’d probably say “We have a planning commission and a City Council–figuring out that stuff is their job.”


    1. Misanthrop

      Mostly agree except for the publications. The Wall Street Journal has become just another Murdoch property. What was once a giant of american business and journalism for more than a century no longer has any more credibility than Fox News. In fact I would argue that the Wall Street Journal is now a paper designed for Fox News viewers who want to read the news but can’t.

      The Sacbee is a shell of its former self. A once great California focused paper that tried to swim through the rip tide of the digital media revolution and has mostly failed by taking on massive debt in the Knight-Ridder purchase when they should have conserved cash or diversified into television and radio.

      The S.F. Examiner? Does it even exist anymore? People in Davis read it?

      1. South of Davis

        Misanthrop wrote:

        > In fact I would argue that the Wall Street Journal is now

        > a paper designed for Fox News viewers

        Fox news is designed to attract low IQ Republicans (who like to look at young women with shiny legs in short skirts).  The WSJ is designed to attract big government Republicans and big government Democrats (who are in business)

        > The S.F. Examiner? Does it even exist anymore? People in Davis read it?

        It still exists (but is no longer “The Monarch of the Dailies”) you can read it on line at


    2. Frankly

      What you write is a piece of the reason that direct democracy approaches do not work unless your aim is to slow and halt progress and change.

      We elect representatives to dig into the issues and make informed decisions on our behalf.

      The other thing that is true about bottom-up participation (and the field of project management has best-practices to deal with this) is that critics are much easier to find and engage than are visionaries and people that possess the ability to even participate in visioning efforts.   In project management you engage the critic in planning for a set period, but then move to design-build and the critics are done and expected to either be followers or leaders related to the change.  In organizational project management continued opposition to the project after the design-build decisions is dealt was in ongoing project risk-management.  For example, the project manager would work to find ways to have those people neutralized (removed from the project or fired from the organization).

      Measure J/R makes for corruption in what might otherwise be effective governance.  It gives perpetual power to the perpetual critic, and takes power away from the visionary.

  7. Ron

    Frankly:  “What you write is a piece of the reason that direct democracy approaches do not work unless your aim is to slow and halt progress and change.”

    It depends on what your definition of “progress and change” is.  For pro-development types, it apparently means never-ending development and expansion of urban footprints.  For “slow-growth” types, it might mean a change toward stability/sustainability.  Very different goals.


  8. Edison

    Misanthrop:  Sorry, I meant the SF Chronicle, not Examiner.  Thanks for the correction. Yes, I know a number of people in Davis who subscribe to the Chron, particularly the Sunday edition.  It apparently has good reviews of music, books, etc., along with travel articles not found in the Bee or Enterprise.  I read the WSJ not for the editorials but for the news stories (better written and more in-depth than the Bee) and the book reviews (which results in more purchases from Avid Reader).

  9. Roberta Millstein

    If the broader community could genuinely be engaged, then I agree with the article that it would be good to pause the process and have the discussion first.  Of course, that’s a big “if.”  Not sure if anyone knows how to do that.

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