Downtown Davis: Avoiding a Fate of Bars, Baristas and Banks?

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E-St-Parking LotBy Alan Hirsch

The City has begun a process of redoing major parts of its general plan. And downtown is a major focus, one of council’s top 8 goals.

But instead of just “coloring within the line,” using the existing planning methodology, council is exploring a new way that might encourage new investment by front-ending more land use decisions in the general plan, thus allowing more streamlining of approval of projects.  This new method, Form Based (zoning) Code, will be discussed at Tuesday’s council meeting.

Downtown as an Underachiever

We love our downtown.  It has an amazing amount of street life compared to any other city in the region—short of midtown Sacramento—and has, comparable to that of many malls,  foot traffic which retailers pay a premium to be exposed to.  We love being downtown where we can have random meet ups with friends at a yogurt shop or coffee shops, or at our amazing Davis Farmers’ Market 2 days a week.

Yet investors and existing land owners seem to have given up on harvesting this value by building more office/retail or housing here.  Most of our downtown structures are old and run down.  Very few building are 2 stories, much less 3 or more floors.  We still have a landlord milking cash out of a low-density fast food restaurant building that barely covers 1/5 of his valuable downtown land (providing no sales tax to the city while it creates traffic and GHG from idling cars). Even our one major retailer, Ace Hardware, seems content to remain housed in 3 aging prefabricated metal structures of the type often used on farms.

There are few “class-one” office buildings and few downtown apartments to meet the demand of people who want to downsize and drive less but still stay in Davis.

Something is not working to attract investment or encourage existing business to expand to meet an obvious demand, or to utilize the existing foot traffic to create a crucial mass of downtown retailing (and national mall stores with their sales tax revenue) that the cities of Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo have managed.

Now Watermelon Music is leaving downtown—the 2nd major retailer to leave in the last 6 months, and the alarm bells are ringing for all to hear.

Our downtown is becoming a place of Bars, Baristas and Banks.

Though there are many issues, one of the barriers to investment in infill projects is the political uncertainty caused by the city process of land use regulation.

Any downtown site will be surrounded by existing residents, tenants and structures, and they have an interest—often parochial and self-centered—about what is built near them.  In the ideal world, what you should be able to build—and not build—on a piece of property should be well defined in advance by a consensus about the general public good.  However, due to the age and complexity of city regulations, it is in reality almost impossible to build something new that would be economically viable as an infill project without asking for “exceptions” and “conditional uses.”  This forces the investor into a political area to ask for “exceptions” and into having to battle neighbors with their real, and idiosyncratic, needs in the political arena to get approval of these “exceptions,” which in fact are the rule.

This lengthens the time to complete a project, and adds considerable uncertainly to its outcome. Even with most “open for business” staff and council, the obstacles will remain due to the process forced on us by the regulation style we have chosen.

If we could just revise our regulation to offer more clarity to potential investors—and to clarify the essential interests of neighbors—it would reduce the politics of infill development AND encourage investment.  A Win-Win.

As part of exploring this new “style” of zoning for our downtown, the city council has asked Daniel Parolek to return to Davis to share ideas on Zoning Reform. He will be making a presentation Tuesday 7pm, City Council meeting. 

Daniel will describe how other cities have used Form Based Zoning Codes as a tool to facilitate public involvement yet offer more flexibility and certainty for developers. It is being investigated as a method to jump start a revision of the city’s general plan as a way to encourage reinvestment in our downtown. Dan Parolek and Tony Perez will do about a 45-minute presentation which will be followed by 45 minutes of Q&A.   The city has invited the Planning Commissioners and the Chamber and Davis Downtown, and members of the public are encouraged to attend.

This tool has helped the cities of Benicia and Petaluma, and others throughout the U.S. have preserved their historic character while stimulating growth via this new tool.  By front-end loading in the general plan zoning more of how we want building to interact with the greater community, the investors have less uncertainty, when they propose a project, that they can accomplish it.

Two of the city council who heard Daniel speak in Davis in May at a Davis Futures Forum event have asked him to return to do a full workshop on Tuesday for council as well as the Planning Commission. The Davis Futures Forum speaker series had  previously brought city planners Chuck Minicozzi and Chuck Marohn to town.

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29 thoughts on “Downtown Davis: Avoiding a Fate of Bars, Baristas and Banks?”

  1. South of Davis

    Alan wrote:

    > We love being downtown where we can have random meet

    > ups with friends at Yogurt shop or coffee shops

    I would have written “Some people” love being downtown (since most of my neighbors as well as my friends west of 113 often go close to a year without ever setting foot in downtown Davis).  A large number of Davis residents actually try and avoid going to (or driving through) downtown Davis.

    > Yet investors and existing land owners seem to have given up

    > on harvesting this value by building more office/retail or housing here.

    I don’t think that “investors and existing land owners” are the ones stopping housing from going downtown.  I’m pretty sure that it would be harder to build a six story “Parkside” of “Peetsside” apartment over retail next to the park or Peet’s coffee than to build a six story building next to the tracks…

    > Now Watermelon Music is leaving downtown — the 2nd major

    > retailer to leave in last 6 month, the alarm bells are ringing for all to hear.

    I have never been to Watermelon Music and as far as I know I have never met anyone that has been inside Watermelon Music.  When the people I know (of all ages) want some music they take their phone out of their pockets (or purses) and buy it on line.  I went on a hike in Tahoe over labor day weekend and noticed that my hiking boots are getting worn out.  As we were resting I looked at the size on the tongue of the boot and ordered a new pair of the same boots in the same size on Amazon (that cost $25 less than when I bought them at REI next to the Sacramento Costco a couple years ago).  Going forward we need to get ready for less downtown retailers as less and less people will wast time shopping and/or pay for parking when they need to buy something.  Unless I am going to eat it, drink it or need to try it on I buy almost everything on line.

    1. Don Shor

      I have never been to Watermelon Music and as far as I know I have never met anyone that has been inside Watermelon Music

      That tells me a great deal about the people you socialize with.

      When the people I know (of all ages) want some music they take their phone out of their pockets (or purses) and buy it on line.

      Yeah. They’re not a record store. They sell musical instruments, sheet music. That kind of thing.

        1. Frankly

          WM is likely not leaving town, just leaving downtown.  This is one business lucky enough to locate an alternative property in the city of Davis that might work.  There is scant choice out there.

        1. Frankly

          I do know where but since I am involved in the transaction I cannot say.  I can only tell you that it is not downtown.

          Your point is a good one and it relates to the service value.  I hope Jeff and Ron stress that in their marketing going forward.

      1. South of Davis

        Don wrote:

        > That tells me a great deal about the people you socialize with.

        This past weekend I was at a party in SF and talking to someone who mentioned playing old Dylan tunes with Micky Hart this summer (but I didn’t ask where he buys his instruments and sheet music)…

        P.S. After years of guitar lessons as a kid I switched to the bass guitar since according to many “even people with no musical talent can play the bass”.  It turns out that they were wrong and I have so little musical talent that even playing the bass was hard for me.

        P.P.S. I have been told that my old 1960’s Fender Jazz Bass is now worth a lot more than the $175 I sold it for in the late 70’s…

    2. Frankly

      I do agree with some of this… the ease of Amazon 1-click makes it difficult to make a case for the alternative of spending the time to travel to a store and find parking… and all of the other customer-service issues that can occur.

      Unfortunately for those that want to see Davis look like a medium-sized European village, it ain’t in the cards.

      Our vision for our downtown is significantly broken.  It is my opinion that not for Davis Ace, all the cracks would haven been more visible by now.

      These days, big box and on-line are the utility shopping choice for the majority of shoppers; and the town-center small boutique retail only works in locations that are vacation destinations… where there are a lot of outside visitors that like to browse and purchase unique products (think Sonoma).

      Davis does not have that except for college students and the few visitors related to UCD business.

      So we should be prepared for downtown Davis becoming an entertainment hub for students.

      Unless we do some creative things to attract more people from outside the area to spend money.

      But I don’t see it happening with Measure A, the loss of RDA and the typical downtown Davis voter that appears to be against almost any development.

      Now, maybe with some more nice Hotels in and around the downtown we will increase the number of visitors to Davis and they will spend more money downtown.

      Sure, we know how well that is working out.

      1. Don Shor

        These days, big box and on-line are the utility shopping choice for the majority of shoppers; and the town-center small boutique retail only works in locations that are vacation destinations

        This is a popular belief, but it isn’t true yet with respect to internet sales (I don’t have info on big box as a percentage of retail right at hand). E-commerce right now is about 8.1% of retail sales. It’s up significantly and increasing steadily, and certainly a factor for many specific types of retailers, but it isn’t the percentage of sales most people seem to think it is. As to your analysis of the present and future condition of downtown Davis, we would need to see the sales tax revenues to the city by category (which they can provide, just not by merchant) to know what impact e-commerce is having and what the future might hold for Davis.

          1. Don Shor

            Yes, but the key question really is what has been the trend in sales tax revenues to the city. I think the announced death of downtown as you’ve alluded is, as they say, premature. You and I don’t buy high-end womens’ clothing (I assume), but somebody does.
            I think it would be very useful to see what the tax revenue changes have been for retail vs. dining.

        1. Frankly

          Most of the high-end dresses purchased by Davis’s well-heeled are done so at Nordstroms.  I know because my wife snatches bargains at All Things Right and Relevant.

          I am a prolific consumer and other than Watermelon, Ace and De Luna’s… and food and beverage… I can’t remember spending a dime on anything in Davis’s downtown over the last couple of years.    And two of those three are gone or going away.  And the only reason I still spend a lot at Davis Ace is the location of the satellite store on Covell.

  2. Alan Miller

    Something is not working to attract investment or encourage existing business to expand to meet an obvious demand

    It’s called Prop. 13.

    The bane of California.

    1. South of Davis

      Alan wrote:

      > It’s called Prop. 13. The bane of California.

      Even with Prop 13 California has higher taxes (and more regulation) than most states.  If we got rid of Prop 13 California would lose a LOT of business (mostly small family owned business that would make the big corporate GOP-Dem. donor base very happy)…

      P.S. Next time you are at a small family owned jewelry store, garden center or hardware store ask the owner if it would be easy to pay an extra ~$3K a MONTH in taxes without Prop 13…

      1. Mark West

        Much of the extra taxes, fees and perhaps even regulations have come about as a direct result of needing to replace the revenues lost through Prop. 13. We didn’t reduce taxation through prop. 13, we shifted the population paying the taxes away from long-term property owners. We also created a disincentive for redevelopment as Alan M. suggests.

        1. Frankly

          Sure… and you think all those extra taxes and fees are going to evaporate after eliminating Prop-13?  Get real.  The tax revenue that would have come from no Prop-13 has already been replaced, it is just more controlled at the State.  And by now even if we had more tax revenue flowing from property taxes the State would have found a way to pilfer more of it.

          Next time you are talking to a 50-year old retired state worker you might understand why.

        2. Alan Miller

          I actually agree with MW on this one.

          As for what Frank Lee and SofD says, I’m not talking about the effect of eliminating Prop. 13 to fix things, certainly not all at once — the effects would be staggering.  My point is, Prop. 13 broke the system, maybe permanently, by creating a two-tiered property taxation, the step-up of which has grown on the order of magnitude of around 2000%!  Nutzo

  3. Nancy Price

    While real-estate and insurance offices and other low-foot traffic businesses expand in downtown,  basic retail finds higher rent and little attractive space.  Many surveys of downtown have recommended putting some of the lesser foot-traffic businesses on the second floor and that is always resisted. Go figure.

  4. Carson

    Look at the ridiculous process the city and NIMBY’s have caused with trackside center.  Cost the group of investors hundreds of thousands in extra compliance to replace a POS shopping building with a wonderful infill multi use development.  City needs to set parameters for development, dependable and transparent, and if a project meets it… it goes… shrieking nimby’s be damned.

    1. Alan Miller

      City needs to set parameters for development

      Good idea, such as zoning and Design Guidelines.  Hmmm.

      shrieking nimby’s be damned

      All hail Satan.  Carson has revealed himself as the Master of the Underworld, here to condemn the residents of Old East Davis to be DAMNED to HELL for opposing the Trackside Development.

      What Carson doesn’t know is that God is on the side of Old East Davis.

      And I want names.  Names, dates and locations of shrieking.  I’ll talk to the offenders personally and demand that they tone it down a few notches to yelling or screaming.  Shrieking is one step too far and is undignified.

  5. Tia Will

    City needs to set parameters for development, dependable and transparent”

    The city had already done so. They were called zoning and design guidelines.

    Since many of the neighbors would have fully supported a mixed use project that was within the current zoning and design guidelines, all of that time and cost could have been avoided had the project developers and investors chosen to approach the neighborhood from a collaborative point of view. Yes, there have been costly delays and I see that as a real waste just as Carson has expressed. I just see it as a faulty process, not a cause for demonization of either developers or neighbors.

    1. Carson

      Having attended the meetings at OFH and reading about the project, you know as well as I do that the zoning, design, setbacks etc rules were unclear and at times almost totally opposed to each other.  No one with any knowledge on the subject would describe the rules on downtown redevelopment/construction as clear, dependable or transparent.  The process has been contradictory, capricious, and ridiculous.

       

      1. Carson

        Let alone the fallacy that early and “collaborative” discussions with OED would have led to their approval or even neutrality of a project.  They have stated as much.

        1. Alan Miller

          the fallacy that early and “collaborative” discussions with OED would have led to their approval or even neutrality of a project.

          It seems to be working for Licoln-40 and ACE, and worked well for several other developers with infill projects in the neighborhood who got projects built.

          They have stated as much.

          No, “we” haven’t.  Your entire statement is based on a false reality, that collaboration means giving in to the developer anything they want and not opposing the project, because in your reality that is the only proper outcome.  Collaboration means . . . I’m not going to say it, you know damn well what it means, Mr. False Logic.

          Collaborative talks at the start could have lead to a lot less headaches for everyone.  Then again, if you want to build a four-story building where you can’t, you have to propose a demonic behemoth of an abortion first.

          Let the games begin.

           

      2. Alan Miller

        the zoning, design, setbacks etc rules were unclear and at times almost totally opposed to each other.

        “At times”, yes, but that doesn’t excuse buying a property on speculation (or assurance) that the zoning would be changed to allow for anything you wanted to build, such as a multi-story building completely surrounded by one-story buildings (or no buildings at all) on all sides.

        As for the shrieking, any contradictions in regulations and documents of the City are the responsibility of the City to get right, not the citizens of the neighborhood.  So perhaps you should shriek to the Council to have an attorney revue their own documents for consistency when they create a new regulation.

        However, that seeming contradiction is actually covered by a regulation that states (paraphrasing):  “where regulations contradict, the most restrictive regulation shall apply.”

        In a flaming tip-of-the-cap to irony, that statement itself is elsewhere contradicted.

        1. Matt Williams

          Alan Miller said . . . However, that seeming contradiction is actually covered by a regulation that states (paraphrasing):  “where regulations contradict, the most restrictive regulation shall apply.”

          That is a very powerful regulation, the citation of which I would very much like to add to the Bookmarks in my Firefox browser.  Can you post the link here for everyone Alan.  That will address a whole lot of back and forth discussions.

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