What is Davis’ Missing Ingredient?

Speaker shares Lessons from Downtown Portland.

by Alan Hirsch

In the 1970’s downtown Portland was dying: poor air quality, empty store fronts, competition from suburban malls and office buildings with abundant parking. But now its Downtown is considered a model for the rest of country: a vibrant center of economic, cultural and social activity.  A great place to work and live.  What can Davis learn from the tactics that allowed this transformation?

On Sunday, March 19th  Robert Liberty, a key leader in Portland’s transformation will be in Davis to share this fascinating political, economic and civic-culture success story. He will provide us with ideas we might use in the update of Davis’s own core area plan that is just beginning. The talk will be followed by panel of local civic leaders and developers reacting to these ideas.

This important event will be held in City Hall Chambers from 6:30 to 8 PM. Tickets are available on DFF-Portland.Eventbrite.com. (watch for a possible venue change as the event is very popular and we want to have room for walk-in seating). This Davis Futures Forum event is co-sponsored by the City.  Tickets are free, but a donation will be requested at the door to support future such events.

Liberty is the Director of the Urban Sustainability Accelerator at Portland State University. There he uses his extensive experience to help communities like Davis develop and implement sustainability plans and policies. He knows Davis quite well: He is currently a consultant working on an analysis of possible redevelopment of the Davis District headquarters sited across from the Farmers Market.

Liberty began his career with his appointment as the first legal counsel of Thousand Friends of Oregon, a highly respected nonprofit founded in the early seventies by Governor Tom McCall.  At that time, Downtown Portland was falling into a downward spiral of urban decay, sprawl, and the multiple problems stemming from car-centered development in the region. Retail businesses were losing out to suburban malls, and the downtown area was violating federal air quality standards on average once every three days. The results of the changes implemented during the initial period were already evident 15 years later, with Portland being transformed into a highly recognized model for the livable community movement. It was attracting admirers from all over the country.  This transformation is quite amazing as in the early 1980’s real estate development dramatically slowed due to high interest rates during the later Carter/ early Reagan administration to curb inflation.

Most experts agree that there were two critical turning points that led to this unlikely transformation of Portland. One was the State’s urban growth boundary requirements, enacted in the seventies, which contained growth in urban areas and reduced sprawl.  The other was the leadership of a new Mayor of Portland who, in 1972, revamped the City’s governing structure to increase the level of citizen participation while initiating a Downtown Plan for the urban core.

By 1980, Portland’s urban core had begun to blossom, and an update of the Downtown Plan was needed to guide its scale and development.  The new plan addressed: 1) a mix of densities, activities, and land uses – especially retail and housing, 2) pedestrian amenities, 3) efficient management of parking resources and 4) increased transportation options.

City leaders since then have continued this pattern, implementing new plans and ordinances that have built on the success of the old, and helped Portland continue as a role model for many communities across the country.

Liberty’s talk will not be academic, but will be highlighted by his real world stories of navigating the local politics of development and community consensus building. He served as Executive Director of Thousand Friends of Oregon and later as an elected member of Portland Metro, the region’s highly admired planning agency – analogous to our SACOG.  His skills range from the technical, to the strategic, administrative, legal and political.

What is Davis’s Missing Ingredient?

Davis already has many of the advantages of Portland.  It has an urban growth boundary, (Measure J/R and County General Plan ag protection policies). An unusual range of transportation options for a small town, which includes buses, bicycle paths, pedestrian walks and even an inter-regional railroad station in our downtown.  Our highly successful Farmer’s Market serves as a magnet and foot traffic generator. We also have an active and engaged citizenry and business community.

The question for Davis is: What ingredients do we change…add…or remove…to change the current dynamic that does not seem to be working.  Why are there empty store fronts and few proposed new building project in downtown when so many external factors are in our favor: fast growth in our prime industry (the University), low interest rates, and being located at the peak time in the economic cycle?

Liberty’s talk will suggest some new ideas we might incorporate into not just our formal plan, but government process, or culture and NGO/civic structure.  To assure a seat at Liberty’s talk on Sunday at 6:30m, please obtain a ticket at Eventbrite: DFF-Portland.Eventbrite.com. Seats are free, but a contribution to support Davis Futures Forum is requested at the door.

This event is part of the Davis Futures Forum series, a university-city-community collaboration that has brought world-class urban planners to Davis. It is the fourth in the series that has so far has included Joe Minicozzi (Using property tax-land use analysis as economic tool), Chuck Mahron (Long term Municipal Sustainability impacts for new projects), and Daniel Parolek (form-based code).

A Transportation Timeline for Portland

This timeline shows the death….and rebirth of non-auto modes in the City. First with the formation of Tri-Met, a regional public transit system, then with the removal of freeways from the general plan, replacement of roads by parks in downtown.  The courage to do this hints at a broad civic consensus the old ways were not working.   Can Davis community find a consensus for similar rethinking of the status quote in its rewrite of a new Downtown Core plans?

Source: https://www.portlandoregon.gov/transportation/article/65562

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

Related posts


  1. Alan Miller

    What is Davis’s Missing Ingredient?


    Did I win the cruise?

    PS. Did an anonymity plague take all the regulars this morning? Or are all today’s topics snorers? Spookily quiet around here.

      1. Matt Williams

        David’s purge has a chilling effect.

        Chilling effect on the number of commenters, but possibly not on the number of readers.

        For me the chilling effect is much more a result of the proliferation of local versions of Donald Trump’s rhetorical style.

        — Face-to-face insults

        — There’s nowhere he won’t go

        — Belittling the responses of others

        — I believe it, therefore it is true

        — If you don’t believe it, then you need to shut up

        1. David Greenwald

          And the previous system had deterrent effect on people who didn’t want to wade through the insults and glib responses.  The metric we’re looking at is readership.  I spent the day with a lot of new readers today.

  2. WesC

    Davis arguably already has one of the greatest public transportation systems for a town anywhere near this size.  It is called Unitrans.  A quick glance at their route maps will reveal that it covers almost every neighborhood at all hours of the day. I think most people mistakenly think that it is only for UCD students.  I have taken Unitrans on numerous occasions and the buses are safe, on time, clean, and fellow riders polite.  If you do not feel like driving, walking, biking to virtually anywhere in town it is definitely the way to go.  For a mere $1 fare for a non-UCD rider you cannot beat it.

    1. Alan Miller

      Unitrans is hardly public transit.  It’s not a grid, it’s a spoke system with all lines going to campus precisely because it is a student-based system.  It also gravely cuts service when students are not in town.  It does a great job for what it is, but it is not a valid City transportation system.  And the assertion that Davis “has one of the greatest public transportation systems for a town anywhere near this size” is ludicrous.

      1. Colin Walsh

        I agree Alan. Unitrans is a great system if you want to go to campus, but if you want to go anywhere else it probably means waiting for a connection on campus.

        1. David Greenwald

          It’s an interesting point.  I made the point to someone yesterday that I’ve lived in Davis 20 years, and never ridden Unitrans.  I rode Yolo Bus a few times early on, but probably haven’t in 19 years there.

        2. Richard C

          …. if you want to go to campus, but if you want to go anywhere else it probably means waiting for a connection on campus.

          That’s the perception of a lot of the non-student population.  I’ve found that it’s pretty easy to get around with a little creative thinking; for example, if I want to go to a movie downtown I can take one bus to the MU and then walk about 8 minutes to the theater.  It does require checking the schedule.  Also, it does not work too well for evening shows as the buses quit running too early.  It is also a problem during school breaks when the buses run on a reduced schedule.

  3. Sharla C.

    Not too long ago, I decided to take the bus home to Davis from the Sac Airport.  I will never do it again.  The ride took 1.5 hours and meandered slowly through Woodland and Davis before the stop near my home in East Davis.  I have used public transportation in the East Bay and San Francisco extensively and there is an unspoken expectation of behavior that is followed.   Hoever, there appeared to have no standard of etiquette followed by fellow passengers on the Yolo bus.  Passengers had loud, obscenity-laced conversations with other passengers that boarded and even with the driver.  One conversation took place between a woman sitting near the front of the bus and a man sitting at the rear, with them shouting their responses out over the heads of other riders.  It was really uncomfortable for me. I would rather poke myself in the eye with a hot poker than do that again.


    1. Alan Miller

      Route 42 attempts to operate as an infrequent intercity express between towns, and as an infrequent local bus service in three towns, and does both with great mediocrity.  I attempted to make suggestions to improve this about 30 years ago at public meetings, and pretty much gave up when little happened.  They added the airport loops which function OK for downtown Sac or Woodland to the Airport, but the basic problems with Route 42 persist.

      The lack of etiquette on public transit is not limited to Yolo Bus.  Regional transit has the problem in spades, and seems to lack the will to do anything about it.  It is common for riders to shout into their cell phones heavy smatterings of “m****r f****r” and “n****r” without regard to those around them.  I could care less personally, but it irks me that allowing such drives off many riders who won’t tolerate such.  RT tried to ban “smelly people” and got a load from homeless advocates and had to back off.  That just drives off the majority of us who don’t want to sit next to someone who has soiled themselves.  Public transit operators need to have a zero tolerance for such or the only people riding, especially outside commute hours, will be obnoxious, smelly people.

  4. Colin Walsh

     inter-regional railroad station in our downtown

    This is a great asset to Davis, but it is starved for parking and local bus service. Davis is a regional transportation hub. People drive in to the City from the surrounding area to take the train to San Francisco. I have personally met daily commuters from Woodland Dixon and Sacramento. I have also met people coming in from Yuba City and places north going in to San Francisco for the day or a few nights.

    It is disappointing that the most likely place to expand parking is in the pipeline to be developed as apartments.

      1. Alan Miller

        This has been proposed in the past.  Unlikely to be cost effective due to the odd shape of the limited space available for a structure. Any structure no matter the height needs a minimum space for ramps, and only the remainder is available for parking.  There is also the matter of funding source.  This should be a regional project due to the numerous cities that feed into the station by automobile.  If it is jointly used also for downtown parking, a funding district would have to be set up, probably by benefit per individual business, a very difficult sell due to the extreme cost per space.

        The current lot night use (which I and another resident proposed and saw through for state OK due to limited rail passenger use after 5pm) is essentially a freebee for downtown businesses for evening use, paid for by the state.  Even more valuable today since it was set up 15 years ago due to the proliferation of dinnertime businesses downtown.  Note this use is revocable at any time by the state should passengers for the Capititol Corridor not find parking for the lot’s primary use.

        1. Colin Walsh

          The existing train station lot is s triangle because it is in the triangle of a three direction rail interchange. The vacant land on the Olive Drive side of the tracks with easier freeway access and without the limitation from being surrounded by existing train lines would have been a much better place for a parking structure. The new structure being built at the Emeryville train station is a good example of what could be done on the Olive Drive side.

          As to funding – this is more than just a Davis issue, and regional funding should be sought. One would think that now is a good time to seek regional funding for this since a member of the Davis City Council is currently the chair of the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority Board.  Davis would certainly need to contribute, but this is not just a Davis issue, this is a regional issue.

          Also, getting all day parkers out of the triangle lot and on to the Olive drive side of the train line could also have freed up short term parking for the downtown in the triangle lot.

          In any case, the land is in the hands of private developers now and they are planning on building the Lincoln 40 apartments not parking. If that plan goes through, it is a missed opportunity for the City, and the region. There are several other places student oriented apartments can be built, but there are only a limited number of places adjacent tot he train station that train parking can be built, and that lot is the best.


    1. John D


      Further to your point might be this quote from the Portland Business Journal showing results of their 2014 Downtown Portland Business Census:

      The Downtown Portland Business Census and Survey, released Wednesday, reveals that employment in Portland’s downtown area grew by 5 percent between 2013 and 2014. All told, 96,605 workers toil in downtown jobs.   The number of businesses also spiked, from 4,404 to 4,693, or 6 percent.”

      ““The ongoing growth in employment and businesses downtown has been great news for the region,” said Schlesinger in a release. “We are especially encouraged to see growth concentrated in traded-sector industries like technology and finance, since traded-sector jobs are known to pay a family wage.”

      For a full copy of the report, along with demographic employment stats, visit:


      Could part of the answer have something to do with the number and quality of jobs outside of the university?

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for