Commentary: Thoughts on a New General Plan


Sunrise-MRICThe last time we started talking about a new general plan in Davis, I was opposed to the idea.  It was 2009, the housing market was collapsed, the economy was down, and we were talking about spending millions during a time when the biggest issue was not land use but finances.

Times have changed. The housing market has rebounded, the city coffers, while desperately in need of long-term revenue for infrastructure investment, are in better shape on an annual basis, and the biggest issues facing the city all involve land use – the need for revenue and economic development, and a student housing crunch.

But is a new general plan the way to bring this about?  That is where I am less certain.

Jim Gray yesterday wrote, “The citizens of Davis and our leaders need to agree upon a goal of adopting a new plan that sets forth a vision for our community going forward.”

This is where I think it gets tricky.  What we saw with the recent Nishi vote is a closely but contentiously divided community.  Six hundred votes separated Yes from No.  There are those who believe that Nishi was a last gasp for the so-called “So No to Everything Crow.”  There are those who tell me that Nishi awakened the progressives who had been slumbering, and that next time there will be more of a show of force against development.

That is not necessarily a view I share.  What I saw is the following.

First, Nishi had a very narrow band of strong opposition.  The leadership group may have grown, but the core group is still a small handful or so of people.

Second, Nishi came a lot closer than Covell or Wildhorse Ranch.  I mean, a lot closer.  Those two were blowouts.  You start torturing explanations when you combine the rhetoric that Nishi was the worst project every (as Michael Harrington claims) with the notion that the progressive movement’s opposition to housing is stronger than ever.

What I see is somewhat different.  You have a small but committed opposition to new projects.  Strong enough to organize around issues, but not even strong enough at this point to put up candidates for city council.  You have a group of supporters of development that is relatively small, but has a resource advantage.

And then you have a large group of people that are largely not engaged.  They don’t go to city council meetings.  They probably don’t read the Vanguard and may not closely follow the Enterprise.  Some of them work in Sacramento, commuting to work, but have kids in the schools and are engaged in local sports and other things of that sort, but not city politics.

This is the largely silence voice of Davis that seems more divided than ever over development.  The question is whether a visioning process can bring those people in.

I worry about that group because in 2014 when the public was polled on the need for a parcel tax, we found that most people erroneously believed the city fiscal situation was good or fair, when it was actually fair to poor (at best).

I worry about the set up here for the engagement process.  I was pleased to hear that the council wanted to extend the initially very short-term outreach regarding the general plan and go beyond computers.  But, as I think more, we are not doing near enough.

I would go away from a passive engagement process that will get input more from the usual suspects than the general population, to a much more dynamic process.

I would start by seeking out the active members of this community who are not necessarily engaged in and consumed by city politics.  Obvious areas for outreach include the PTAs, service clubs, and other organizations around the town.

Reach out beyond the usual suspects to create a much more encompassing and dynamic engagement process.  We need to view a real community visioning process as a starting point.

I worry that if we do not recognize our challenges, we will not be able to engage in them over time.

While I understand why the council is looking at this as a general plan update process, I worry about how long this process will take.  During the meeting on Tuesday, Mayor Robb Davis suggested that we do not need a five-year process.  Others suggested that this should not be a 50-year document.

At the same time, I worry that our problems are now.

We have a real revenue problem.  Right now the council has seemed content with not going with a revenue measure to address infrastructure needs.  Again, I’m not sure when or how that decision was made, but that is the direction that we are going.

There are a number of different thoughts on how to generate more revenue from the city – we have the dispersed model which looks at a combination of existing cites, short-term expansion like Nishi, and then a larger, long-term site like Mace or NW Quadrant.

However, with all of the effort that we spent on Studio 30, the Innovation Park Task Force, etc., that model is, if not dead, on critical life support.

The question that we need to ask is whether we can generate enough revenue with an alternative strategy, perhaps an infill, downtown densification strategy like urban planner Joe Minicozzi seemed to suggest, or perhaps a combination of that with hotel expansion and other infill sites.

The problem is that if we wait for the general plan process, it might take us out five more years before addressing that issue.

Likewise, we have the rental housing crunch.  UC Davis is undergoing a Long Range Development Plan (LRDP), but at least in the next few years, there seems no urgency on their part to provide for housing the 6000 additional students and also additional faculty and staff.  They just announced about 50 units at West Village by 2018 – that’s not even a start to fill the existing need, let along the planned expansion.

Bottom line is this – I see a need for a community vision, I see a need for a new general plan, but I also see a need for moving forward to address what we know to be our existing problems.

Can we do all of that within the framework of a general plan?  I hope so, but I’m skeptical.

—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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28 thoughts on “Commentary: Thoughts on a New General Plan”

  1. Michael Harrington

    How about we reduce city expenditures to a sustainable level then talk about the rest of it ? The same gang who jammed Nishi on us are the ones pushing a new GP.


    1. Chamber Fan

      We have reduced city expenditures to the point that they were able to put $8 million in one-time money into infrastructure this year.  We don’t have the capacity to reduce spending by the $32 million or so we need.  Where are you planning to get that?

      1. Mark West

        It isn’t so much that we need to cut spending, but rather to stop the uncontrolled growth in spending, which really means, stop the uncontrolled growth in total compensation. We have always had the power to accomplish this, without losing any jobs or services, but so far the city has refused to act.

        1. Mark West

          The Pugilist  “Haven’t we done that Mark?”

          Not even close…keep in mind that the last big round of cost cutting included the loss of 100 FTE’s with the result that Total Compensation continued to increase.  That was before we overpaid for an underqualified City Manager who subsequently negotiated a raise for current and future employees that the City Council agreed to fund, adding significant new costs to our already overwhelming list of unfunded obligations.

          Michael Harrington “I agree.”

          Too bad you didn’t agree back when you were on the CC voting in favor of the absurd employee retirement benefits that we are now saddled with. How many hundreds of millions of dollars have those votes cost us, Michael?

        2. The Pugilist

          You said we need to stop “uncontrolled growth in spending,” your response doesn’t speak to that issue.  I submit that we have stopped “uncontrolled” growth in spending.  We may not have cut as much as you would have wanted, but that’s a different issue.

        3. Mark West

          The Pugilist  “You said we need to stop “uncontrolled growth in spending,” your response doesn’t speak to that issue.”  

          My understanding is that some value equal to or greater than 90% of our General Fund budget goes towards total compensation. If we want to control the growth of costs, we need to control the growth of total compensation. We have failed to do so, which is exactly what I addressed in my comment.

           “I submit that we have stopped “uncontrolled” growth in spending.”


          If we have ‘controlled’ spending at all, we have only done so by ignoring significant costs that continue to accrue. We have a ‘balanced budget’ because we exclude tens of millions of dollars in annual costs from that budget. That is great for hiding expenditures from the public but not so great for realistic, honest and transparent governance.


        4. Robb Davis

          Mark makes some good points but there are some additional things I would note:

          1. I think about 65% of the GF is in employee compensation and that would be less in this year’s budget because we have greatly expanded expenditures on infrastructure and paying down a portion of our OPEB obligations with unanticipated revenue.

          2. This year’s final budget document will lay out year to year unfunded maintenance estimates in the projections section.  This is based on an explicit request by the CC to no longer “hide” these expenses now that we have solid studies showing what building, parks and street maintenance costs are over the coming 20+ years.

          3. The Finance and Budget Commission is working on 20-year projections that bring all unfunded liabilities into focus.

          4. There are things the CC controls (as noted) in terms of compensation (salaries and incentives, cafeteria cash out amounts) and things we do not (health care costs and required pension contributions).  The MOUs do include the provision that health care cost increases will be evenly shared by the city and employees but we do not, obviously, control the growth rates which, many experts I read expect to increase more rapidly in the coming years.  Even with pension reform we continue to be at the mercy of CALPers and the returns they obtain on investments.  We do know that they are changing their ROI assumptions from current levels down to 6.5% over the next 20 years.  The result of that is expected to be less year on year volatility but higher short-term costs.  Our actuarial analysis is due out very soon and will be examined by the FBC.

          I guess my message in all of this is that we are trying to create more transparency around our true liabilities and we are putting resources towards maintenance and OPEB needs.  Will the improved revenue picture continue and allow a more aggressive approach to dealing with these issues?  Obviously it depends on the broader economy. There is NO DOUBT in my mind that we need to continue to focus on cost containment across our entire budget and compensation is a significant part of that.  Another key area is evaluating ways to deliver city services more efficiently–this is something we need to approach more actively but we are being led by the police and planning departments in this regard.

          Bringing this back to the GP… I think our efforts in this regard are (among other things) to enable more opportunities for redevelopment in our core and along the 5th street corridor that will create more efficient land use and greater revenue per unit of land.  I also expect it will create a path to more creative use of existing retail areas with increased housing and revenue the ultimate goal.

        5. Mark West

          Robb is right, and I stand corrected.

          The City’s budget incorporates many different funds, some of which are discretionary, and some restricted in how the monies may be spent. I don’t have the details in front of me, so instead of getting ‘lost in the weeds’ trying to understand or explain the fine print, I tend to think about things in approximations and equivalents (Robb, to his credit, prefers to use more precise language and values). For instance, our General Fund, which represents most of the City’s ‘discretionary spending,’ totals to roughly $50 million, give or take. Total Compensation for current and retired employees on an annual basis totals to a very similar value.  The 65% value that Robb cites is the amount paid out of the General Fund for compensation, but it does not represent the total obligation as some of the ‘compensation’ is paid through other fund accounts and some simply is not funded (a situation which is currently evolving).

          Our annual shortfall comparing ‘revenues-in’ to total ‘obligations-out’ has been estimated to be on the order of $30-50 million.  In other words, to meet our current obligations on an annual basis we would need to nearly double our General Fund (immediately). What is the specific number down to the penny?  I don’t care, nor do I need to know. It is enough to understand that our obligations completely swamp our current revenues, and a large fraction of the problem is the amount we pay out in Total Compensation.

          The other piece that Robb does not mention, and I do not have available (but have seen) is the current rates of increase for Total Compensation, Total Costs and Total Revenues.  Those values, and how those rates have changed over the past decade, would answer The Pugilist’s question more directly. Perhaps someone from the FBC would provide that information.

        6. Robb Davis

          …current rates of increase for Total Compensation, Total Costs and Total Revenues

          I have this information but not with me.  I will try to post it later today if I get a chance.  FBC folks helped pull this together with staff’s assistance.

    2. Jim Gray

      Michael… A General Plan is an important document to guide a community forward.  An updated plan allows for the residents to set forth a vision of where they would like the city to grow, what aspects should be preserved, and what facilities or features of our community should be enhanced.  It also provides us with an opportunity  to describe Davis’ place in the world and the region. A new General Plan allows us as a community to focus on the challenges we would like to address. Done well it will provide an updated guiding document for the residents, the business owners, developers, city staff, and others to have a “big picture framework” for planning.

      I would like to note that the issue of city expenditures is not really a General Plan Issue.  As a Banker and Businessman and as a Tax Payer tracking and managing expenses is very important and something to be done all the time.  But budgets have both Capital/Infrastructure elements and Operating/Recurring Expenses.  The General Plan has 15-20 elements and the staff expenses is not really part of the General Plan.  Implying that if we cut “high city salaries” we don’t need to update the General Plan is just wrong.  And then this name calling stuff isn’t a good way to foster collaboration, or civil dialogue or active listening and it is also Dead Wrong:

      The same gang who jammed Nishi on us are the ones pushing a new GP.

      There is no conspiracy by Developers to push a new General Plan.  The City needs one!  Our current General Plan is outdated and should be updated to help guide our City’s Future.  I am acting as an individual and community member –who is a real estate developer and broker by profession– with no particular financial interest in a particular development proposal and no financial interest of any kind in Nishi, that will benefit by a new plan — and if you are referring to me as  a “Nishi Gang Member” that is a total misrepresentation.

      I am happy to debate the merits of the need for an updated plan.  And in that debate I will also continue to recommend attributes for a new plan to stimulate discussion.  Happy to debate the needs personally or publicly with you;  but in the future I would hope that you could do that without “bashing city staff” and without “falsely alleging that it is a Nishi/Developer Conspiracy”.

      1. Michael Harrington


        I don’t mean to be negative, but a lot of harm came to the city and its civic participants by the way MRIC and Nishi were handled.

        And yes, there is a group of you folks who push these big, ill-thought out developments.

        And no, the vision you push for Davis is not mine, and so far, not the majority of voters in Davis.

        And yes, your vision of the GP process is totally geared to big projects and developments and growth being codified into the GP.  We will never let that happen.

      2. Eileen Samitz


        I understand your situation as a developer and real estate that you are, by profession, very pro-growth and it is not hard to understand why. You are certainly entitled to you opinion and input regardless of if it is monetarily motivated. That said, your perspective on growth in Davis is not the same as the vast majority of Davis residents who not involved in development and real estate. So while you repeatedly keep advocating for a new General Plan, it is actually an update to a citizen-based General Plan that is underway.

        1. hpierce

          The two recent (last 10 years) projects in Davis that I know Mr Gray was involved in to some extent (primarily as “matchmaker” for owners and potential developers, is Chiles Ranch and property at the corner of Drummond/Cowell/Chiles… both sites created 20 years or more ago, and both primarily used for the cultivation of weeds.  Would it be your preference to see those remain in those used?  Both did/will require General Plan amendments.

  2. ryankelly

    It’s my understanding that the General Plan has an expiration date, which has come and gone.  It can be argued that much of it is timeless and some sections are inconsequential (i.e. the section about preferred placement of garages (really???), but the actual planning part needs to be updated.  If it is not, then this document cannot be referred to as we move forward.


    1. hpierce

      I believe only some elements of the GP have an “expiration date”, but many other elements have a “Best used (reviewed) by” a reasonable amount of time (depending on element).

      Perhaps, we should push for “review of GP, and amendment/update as necessary/appropriate”.  I’d strongly oppose any new elements, as we already have several that are not required by State Law.

      We’re already processing and approving a bunch of GP amendments ~ every quarter.  Seems silly, if an updated GP could avoid all the processing needed to do that.  Piece-meal zoning is not particularly good for anybody!

      1. Mark West

        If the desired result is to reduce the number of GP amendments that are required during processing of proposals, then one of our goals should be to build in as much flexibility in our zoning as is feasible. The greater the number of restrictions imposed, the more likely that GP amendments will be required.



          1. David Greenwald Post author

            That is a very cynical statement. Given Measure R, it’s not even clear what types of flexibility could be written into the general plan that could be exploited.

        1. Grok

          David, Trackside is a good example of how a looser general plan could be exploited. What was proposed was inconsistent with the principals in the current GP, but a new GP might explicitly allow for much larger buildings on the edges of downtown – just as an example.

          In fairness you are right that measure R offers important protections to the city when it comes to peripheral ag land.


  3. Alan Miller

    I’ll tell y’all how to get the General Plan process moving along and completed right quick:  the City Council should pass an ordinance that there will be a moratorium on zoning variances and planned developments until the General Plan update process is completed.  That General Plan will done in no time!

  4. Michael Harrington

    Robb:  thanks for your post.  And thank you for your NO vote to the raises given after Thanksgiving 2015.  Also, I couldn’t stay, but I liked your list of changes for CC meeting process and public communications.  Good luck as Mayor!  (It’s 10x more work than a regular CC member usually has to do …)

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