The 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