Sunday Commentary: Optimism Gives Way to Challenging Times for the City

City Hall

This week in a column that urged the city to recommit to an Economic Development Strategy, we quoted the mayor listing goals from a recent retreat and noting, “No magic bullets here but these are things that are within the control of the City Council, unlike the elements of the dispersed innovation strategy, which we shepherded for 2 years, and in one case, sent to the voters.”

“No doubt about it, we are in a difficult situation,” he writes.  “These are challenging times for our City.”

It reminds me that just ten months earlier, the previous mayor was issuing a call to “Renew Davis,” and noting that during 2015, it had “been nothing short of… a ‘Davis Renaissance.’”  That mayor cited as evidence a reinvestment in our infrastructure, our pursuit of economic development in the form of Mace Ranch Innovation Center (MRIC) and Nishi, the response to water scarcity, and the Healthy Families Initiative, among others.

At the time, some of those were questionable claims.  Elaine Roberts Musser wrote, “I agree that this city is heading in a good direction, and there are many positive achievements to be proud of. I am glad the Mayor highlighted these milestones. However, I think calling the budget ‘balanced’ is questionable. This may be true from a technical accounting standpoint, perhaps (don’t know – I am not an accountant). But the fact of the matter is the city still has huge basic infrastructure maintenance and repair issues that have gone unaddressed for years. In fact the city is considering new tax measures to address the economic shortfall for parks/pools maintenance and massive road repairs.”

Robb Davis at the time challenged those claims as well, noting a December 15, 2015, report where “City staff demonstrated that we are under spending on critical infrastructure and programs by over $10 million on an annual (ongoing) basis.”

He concluded that he was “left with questions…”  He wrote, “Is our budget balanced? Not if our budget accounts for all our costs (which it should). Are we fiscally resilient? Not without greater diversification of revenues. Is our local fiscal situation doing very well? I am simply not ready to say that.”

While there were definitely serious questions at the beginning of this year about the state of the city, in fairness to the previous mayor – the wheels have simply come off.

The balanced budget remains so on paper only and doesn’t incorporate real long term costs.  There are some questions about the real extent of the deficit, but our calculations suggest somewhere between $10 million and $30 million annually over the next 20 years is the gap between what we are spending on infrastructure and what we need to spend.

While the city is likely to revisit this issue, the council was unable to agree on a revenue measure for the June ballot and did not discuss putting one on for November.  That means, at this point, no additional funding for roads, parks, and other facilities.

Most notably, the wheels came off the economic development pursuit.  In July of 2014, the city had two peripheral innovation parks and the smaller Nishi project on the table as sites for economic development.

By the spring of 2015, the Davis Innovation Center closed its project a few weeks after the previous Chief Innovation Officer left.  MRIC was denied a mixed-use alternative by council and subsequently suspended their project.  And Nishi was dealt a narrow electoral defeat at the polls.

So we went 0 for 3 under the previous mayor and suffered the loss of potential jobs and revenue.

Even the Healthy Families program went down the drain with the abandonment of a potential  soda tax.

Mayor Davis’ comment about challenging times seems to hit the nail on the head, for there are no easy answers anymore.

The community remains not only divided on many of these key issues, but almost paralyzed.

A hotel conference center on Richards remains in limbo, at least in part due to ongoing litigation.

The city has seemingly abandoned the dispersed innovation strategy in the wake of the defeat of Nishi and the withdrawal of other projects.  As Robb Davis suggests though, “Anyone can submit any proposal related to the dispersed strategy at any time.  Nothing has changed.  Give us a proposal and we will act on it responsibly and in a timely way.  I will not apologize for a process that is broadly participatory for projects that are subject to a public vote.  That is the only way to do them.  Nearly all the sites in the peripheral strategy involve a Measure R vote. That is the reality we live with.”

But even projects that don’t involve Measure R votes seem bogged down.  The Hotel Conference Center is one example.  Then there is the hotel proposal at the Hyatt House, which was voted down by the Planning Commission amid concerns from the neighbors.  The council is set to act next week on two hotel proposals.

Then there are housing issues like Trackside, where a scaled-down version is still incurring neighborhood opposition.  A column came out today noting, “The Old East Davis Neighborhood Association supports development on the Trackside site, as specified by the Design Guidelines.  The Trackside Partners, however, appear to have bought the Trackside property speculating that the city would change the zoning for their project, superseding the Design Guidelines.”

They write: “City of Davis planning can no longer operate on ‘zoning by exception.’”

At the same time, an apartment complex proposed for the Fifth Street site formerly held by FamiliesFirst remains controversial with strong neighborhood opposition.

This paralysis is disconcerting on many levels, because the situation facing the city is increasingly challenging.  The road condition in the city remains critical.  Parks are underfunded and will increasingly become a challenge.  Our critical infrastructure is underfunded at best by millions.

This year turned out to generate very little in measurable progress. There are certainly plans that the mayor listed which could be helpful, but, in the big picture, the city needs revenue – and if it not going to be from economic development, then we need to start moving on a parcel tax and other tax measures to generate new revenue for critical infrastructure.

But right now that looks like a 2018 issue, which means two more years of waiting.

—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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  1. Davis Progressive

    what is the plan is an important issue here.  i get that we can’t invent projects or even get them through, but there has to be leadership by the council to at least make the public aware of the problems – i don’t get the sense that the public knows how far into the hole we are.

    1. Mark West

       “i don’t get the sense that the public knows how far into the hole we are.”

      How can the public know “how far into the hole we are” when Robb is the only Council Member who has demonstrated any understanding of the extent of the problem and even he has stated that he is unclear on some of the specifics? That we have a big problem should be obvious to anyone who has looked at the numbers, unfortunately, that information is not being translated into the public realm.

      “there has to be leadership by the council to at least make the public aware of the problems”


      1. SODA

        To your first reply, I agree and add isn’t it the role of the City Manager/staff with probing questions from CC to identify and lay out these areas of ‘the problems’?

        1. Chamber Fan

          The Council hired a city manager who is not going to take the lead on this.  He has no background in either finance or land use.  So they want to run the show and they are running the show badly right now.  Robb’s work aside, where is the leadership.  Why is Rochelle not stepping forward?

  2. Tia Will

    These are indeed “challenging times”. But I do not see that as a defeat, or even a set back for optimism. I see cause for optimism on a regular basis in presentations at JumpStart Davis. I see it in the recent announcement by the Sierra Energy Research Park. I see it in the hotel proposals and potentially some  other local projects for needed housing.

    A brief story. After graduating with my BA in anthropology and political science, I had applied for a position at the state capital. I misunderstood the nature of the position and the recruiter clearly misunderstood my lack of credentials since at the interview it was made clear to me that this was not an entry level position. The interviewers were very kind and supportive, but rightfully definitive that this was not the right position for me.  I was very disappointed. And yet, look at the result. I gained a better understanding of my strengths and weaknesses and with further research and contemplation, decided that I had headed down the wrong path. Once I re-evaluated the situation, I discovered the better path for me and have built a wonderful career for which I was well suited although it took many additional years of hard work.

    I know that some of you believe that you know the “best path” for the city and that this “best path” has failed. What I believe is that when one path does not prove successful, it is probably because that is not the optimal path. This is not a cause to lose optimism or “give up” but rather a call to try again in a different way.

    1. Frankly

      Some of us are pragmatic realists.  Others are fanciful dreamers.  You can certainly be critical of the former for not bringing enough creative energy to the table of problem solving ideas.  However, the latter isn’t useful at all at such high level abstraction.  Anyone can throw out an admonition that others are not thinking creatively enough and that other paths exist.  But without concrete examples and proposals, it is just a weak deflection that causes yet another distraction.

      If it hasn’t been done before then it likely lacks feasibility.

      1. Tia Will


        If it hasn’t been done before then it likely lacks feasibility.”

        That’s funny because it is almost exactly what my sister said to me when I announced that I was going back to school to be a doctor. She pointed out accurately that no one in our family had ever gone to college, let alone to professional school. She further pointed out that women were not doctors. We had no women doctors in our town and none of my family, friends or acquaintances close enough to talk to about it had ever met a woman doctor. So for us, it hadn’t been done before.  And yet… I am. I do not accept your arbitrary standards on what is or is not realistic or unfeasible, just as I did not accept hers.

  3. Misanthrop

    “So we went 0 for 3 under the previous mayor and suffered the loss of potential jobs and revenue.”


    Why you continue to take gratuitous shots like this is beyond me. Robb Davis will be the first to tell you that we have a weak mayor system so the previous mayor is no more responsible for these failures than anyone else on the council. You could have just as easily directed your fire at the current mayor, who, at one of his first meetings declared that “Davis is open for business.”

    The real culprit for going 0-3 is Measure R. Directing the blame anywhere else for that score is misplaced and journalistic malpractice.

    1. Mark West

      I agree with your sentiment regarding the impact of our weak Mayor system, but by all accounts, our current City Manager was the preferred choice of the previous Mayor and as Chamber Fan points out above,

      “He has no background in either finance or land use.” 

      I think it is completely fair to put a significant portion of the blame for the City’s failure to address our fiscal problems (and economic development) directly in the lap of the City Manager, and by extension, the Mayor and CC majority who selected him.


    2. Marina Kalugin

      gosh missy, really?    you continue to espouse the same ole same ole..

      unless this city truly gets run over by the section 8 and the billionaires from the Bay Area, who have little clue being newer in this town…

      measure R will never go away….

      think I am kidding?   that is what David and the DV said about the Nishi farm development.

      Just my neighbors alone who had no clue what was going on there once I started getting out the vote a few days before election day. well just ask some of those paid younguns what happened when the were canvasing our street.

      In a very few days my family and I got at least a couple of hundred neighbors to vote ….

      that is how it is done….

      PS>>>>> some were very sick and elderly and yet they got out to vote NO on A…no on NIshi

      they learned from the Ricci farm development

      and some of you may also…..

      My boxes of docs from that era are found…and they are in a very safe place…

      they will be converted from VHS to DVD and then posted on my new websites..

      Now that I am retiring, I will have even more time to be involved….and will join my many older friends of the last many decades in the good fight….

      local first, then state…. 🙂

  4. Marina Kalugin

    During all of my existence I have been a half-full kinda being…..until recent years when I almost died trying to change things that were way out of my control.

    I still am a half-full kinda being, and since I no longer fear death, after having been on the brink many times now this lifetime….I am beyond trying to convince those folks who have their tiny minds made up.

    If one truly understand life, aka The secret, and buddhism, Native American religion etc, one gets to realize that so much of what people get their knickers in a twist over is nonsense and garbage.

    Even life and death is hardly something to worry about….

    For those who may understand why I post what I do, then you may understand that as a person who always worked 24/7 since infancy, and who is an activist as my primary job, I may sabotage the threads (works wonders) and other truly activist measures I learned some eons ago…

    But many won’t get how everything is related….sometimes they learn later……some never….

    If you truly focus on the good, you will get more of the good….and yet it is easy to be sucked into the drama,  right?

    If you focus on what you want then you may understand those of us who deeply care about much of what goes on in this town and why…

    It is not huge developments getting rid of the sunlight in the downtown.

    I have a friend who came to Davis some years before me….he was a UCD student and a master at Golf…..after he left the creepy cult he and I dabbled in for some of the 70s – he was seen around town doing yard work….many would know him if I only described him.

    As my dear friend, Julie Partansky, RIP and I know you are not far …ever….doing what you can….

    Norm was one of my dearest friends ever…..he is the only one of my friends and family who has been there for me over the decades since the 70s…..and knows me inside and out… failed marriages, my struggles as a single mom…

    Not long ago he was sharing how upset he was when he visited Davis the last time.

    He has stepchildren still in the area….

    Norm could often be spotted riding his bike or walking around town….he was hanging out at the Food Coop..

    and he shared the following with me in recent months..

    He cannot believe what a shocking difference in Downtown Davis…….the trees are gone….the fast food junk is everywhere….the historical homes have been taken down….and even NISHI met its fate as an “Unknown yet suspicious demise” after some developers bought that farm…

    For those of us, like the Butterfly lady in the 60s or was it 70s up in Humboldt county who chained herself to a redwood tree, and lived up there for many months, and who now donate to save the trees near the Wildhorse development, if you haven’t lived my life you may have little clue.

    My struggles are your struggles….everyone on here..

    Though you may not understand it to the depth I have.

    If one of you on this DV is one of the ostrich people, you will enjoy a lovely life, being poisoned and watching the boob tube 24/7…..listening to mainstream media and enjoying lovely vacations elsewhere.

    while your family and friends die off way too young due to the policies of this country…due to cancer, and Alzheimers, and effects of Autism and Aspergers…

    Real life should not be so horribly damaging to the human body or the human spirit…

    Real life however should have some balance.

    For those who have other ideas, may I share something I learned some lifetimes ago,   that we all have Heaven on Earth if only we would care for it and for each other.

    and we all make our own Hell.

    Your choices, and only your choices, are what make it your heaven or your hell…

    If you think that one can blow up this planet and go to some pie in the sky dreamed up place where vestical virgins will pleasure you 24/7…..ala the Koran…

    of if you think that if you blow up one part of the planet and not be affected forevermore….

    you are very sadly mistaken….

    This planet would be way better off if we all sat on a hill or a meadow or a beach and meditated….

    or passed around the joint..  though I haven’t had time for that since the late 60s.

    Enjoy this Sunday or do some important work…..

    My ex, who many of you know, said it was because I always had a hands up and was “lucky’….those who know how much I have always worked and scrimped and saved…and donated and shared….know better….

    I do not believe in Luck … an old Chinese Woman….I know that one creates ones own destiny…and by the time you become my age…one no longer cares about PC nonsense or speaking one’s mind….Elders in Asia are revered and listened to.

    In the US they are chopped up and thrown away..

    May you learn something from this post..

    If the mods get rid of it as “off-topic” you can see it on my FB wall..   🙂

    Marina Kalugin (maiden) Marina Rumiansev (married) Marina Kalugin Rumiansev (after separation) Marina Kalugin  (finally back to my original identity)

    In the 60s I would come to UCD and other UCs while my dad, a structural engineer would inspect his jobs.  I learned way more than I realized…

    Lowell HS ’70, UCD 70-73….finding myself on PELP 73-79….UCD reentry student and UCD staff member starting in 79…UCD alum ’81, career staff member Chemistry dept 81, time off for kids 83-91,  managed my own business and attended MBA at Sac State U during the time “at home” with brilliant children…went back to work when became a single mom…though working full time very involved in children’s education, a leader of the group for saving the Ricci farm and then attempting to make the Woodridge development better than the original proposal,  leader of PACE Parents Advocating for Children’s Education…often encouraged to run for City Council and or DJUSD…

    wth had time right?   Especially when I moved into the management realm at UCD>>>..currently and still working EVERY day…outgoing Manager of the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics…and personal friend since 1999-2000 or so of Emily Prieto  (then a recent UCD grad who we hired as our new Undergrad Advisor at the Department of Evolution and Ecology.. now also known as Emily Prieto Katehi…and the daughter-in-law of the best chancellor I had ever worked with since 1970 🙂

    Now you may know some of the rest of the story….consider this my somewhat CV or Biosketch…it is only a tiny fraction of this one part of this lifetime….







  5. Edison

    I don’t know much about the Davis City Manager. However, I know from working almost 40 years with a number of excellent managers in diverse cities that a strong-willed, visionary and energetic city manager is a necessity in any city that has a part-time city council.  Economic development and other goals simply won’t happen without such a person. The city managers I’ve worked with that fit that description include Sy Murray (Cincinnati), Robert Bobb (Oakland), Bob Thomas (Sacramento). Also, regardless of what one thinks about the Golden One Center, it simply would not have happened without the vision, negotiating skills and economic development acumen of my former boss and mentor, Assistant Sacramento City Manager John Dangberg. Perhaps Davis cannot pay what it would take to attract a city manager who can lead economic development efforts, but in any case I don’t think it’s fair to point blame at our city council. They devote many hours and don’t get paid much. They can set the course of policy, but need a top administrator who can carry out their vision.

    1. Don Shor

      It’s pretty much the voters that have derailed the economic development strategy that has been put forth. So I’m curious, in reading this: did you support Nishi? Did you take a public position on it, write letters to the editor, support it on the Vanguard? No need to ‘out’ yourself, I’m just trying to figure out where you’re coming from when you make these sorts of criticisms of the city manager.

  6. Marina Kalugin

    Wow, and we had such a manager…..then he left for UCD and was a vice-chancellor….some may remember him…..

    he even returned for a while…any guesses?    things have really never been the same for the town since John left…

    Perhaps we could entice him back from retirement again…..but things are way more complicated now and circumstances are much harder for all.  But a true master will shine when the circumstances are at rock bottom.

    Does anyone know if he moved away?   Last I heard he was considering it.


  7. Edison

    Don: Sorry for any misinterpretation. I was not being critical of the current city manager. I don’t know anything about him, his background, or performance. I was merely trying to make the observation that in cities with which I’ve had experience, the city’s success was often directly related to the vision and actions of the city manager.   I vigorously opposed the Nishi proposal, primarily because of its inclusion of student housing. As I’ve noted in previous posts, I strongly believe that UCD has been highly negligent in not providing nearly enough on-campus student housing.  I believe that approving Nishi would have let UCD “off the hook” and further enabled its continued poor planning and behavior. I would have probably easily supported the Nishi project if it had been comprised 100% of an innovation/technology park. I also thought the MRIC innovation project was fine, with or without housing. I think it was too far from campus for any students to have been seriously interested in living there. I was disappointed when the developer withdrew the original proposal, and then came back and tried to force the council’s hand with a proposal they did not even have a chance to review in advance.  I’ve reviewed the Sterling DEIR and think the reduced density student apartment alternative may in fact be a reasonable compromise, assuming that the affordable housing units would remain in a structure separate from the student units.  (I think that integrating student units with affordable family units could pose some of the difficulties that Matt Williams has cited previously.)

    1. Don Shor

      My guess is that in the cities where you’ve had those experiences, development is a process that involves the city staff and council and isn’t a practice of direct democracy. There’s a reason major developers are trying to determine the outcome of the Woodland city council election: that’s all they need to get what they want with respect to planning and development decisions. So it doesn’t matter whether we have a strong mayor system, or a very aggressive city manager; it’s the voters who decide in Davis.
      By the time Measure A came before you, MRIC was off the table. The north Davis project was off the table. So in joining with those who opposed Nishi because of housing on the site, you acted to block the only economic development proposal likely to go forward in this town for at least a few years.
      Nishi was the end result of a long economic development planning process, conducted by a task force and various commissions over the span of several city councils, establishing a dispersed economic development strategy focused on some specific peripheral sites that were vetted and analyzed in detail. If you wanted to design a process for economic development via citizen input and oversight, you couldn’t have come up with a better iteration than what was done. Council members worked hard on it, and shepherded the economic development strategy forward even as the other projects fell by the wayside.
      So really the blame for the “challenging times” that the city faces now rests with those who blocked the economic development strategy without participating in it, without presenting an alternative economic development strategy, and without ever articulating what their vision was for how to balance the housing needs of the city and the budget issues against the other things people value.
      If, in fact, you publicly and vigorously opposed Nishi, then it’s clearly time for you and others who are putting the housing issue above all else to identify how you see the city moving forward to balance the budget. I think the council members and city staff, and those of us who supported the peripheral sites, have pretty much done all we can at this point. Your turn.

  8. Marina Kalugin

    interesting how some folks talk about “letting UCD off the hook”…in reality UCD never wanted to be let off of any hook….and has doing much more than is humanely possible given time and money constraints to build housing as quickly as possible to house all students who want to live on campus…or nearby.

    Some of the real issues include that students are not eligible for the low-income 25% mandated affordable units… and instead of letting students rent those units, the developers advertise in low income areas such as Oakland and Oak Park, and fill up the units that were not needed in the first place with out of towners ….many of them were unemployed where they came from and are still unemployed or underemployed.

    Much of the so-called “affordable housing” which is not massive tenement type apartment complexes, though they are lovelier than many places I have lived in Davis,   is not affordable for the typical low-wage earner that one would hope the affordable units would go to.

    As a result, there are assumed “shortages” when actually poor development choices create these “shortages”.

    And, yes, there is not enough of what is needed, while many units of overpriced junk is now proudly advertised at the Cannery and it is being bought up quickly by those who make a fortune in Silicon Valley….as it is still way cheaper here.

    Thus the divide expands….and the housing also only caters to the upper and the lower earners.


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