Yesterday one of our readers sent me a note asking if there was “any reason we can’t elevate the level of the dialogue to one which transcends the petty squabbling with which your readers seem content?”
He sent a link to a Wall Street Journal article, “Why Cities Need to Create Their Own Global Brands.”
In it is an interesting premise: “A quarter-century ago, cities sought to promote a positive image mainly because they wanted to attract tourists and foreign investment.
“Today, metro areas from San Diego to São Paulo have come to a new realization: If they want to compete against other global population centers, they need to position themselves as attractive places for knowledge workers, institutions, cultural and sporting events, and even film shoots.”
The article interviews Greg Clark from the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program who talked about “why a strong urban identity can’t be forced and when positioning a city on the global stage is essential.”
I have two levels of responses here that interrelate but get to the core problem that the reader identified.
We just have to go back to the innovation park discussion to see Davis’ identity and brand. Davis is the host city of a world class university and, in many ways, it is a typical college town – it has a highly-education population, they are very engaged in local community issues, the town is of modest size, and it is fairly affluent with relatively low levels of crime.
Over the last decade, discussions on economic development have pointed away from peripheral retail malls and toward high tech and R&D – looking at UC Davis as a hub of economic activity that can both attract capital investment and spin research at the university into private sector start ups.
While Davis missed out on the dot.com boom, it has a chance to jump on to the new wave. With the top agricultural school in the world and a town surrounded by farmland, Davis has a chance to jump onto Ag Tech – whether it is traditional agriculture, or related to the World Food Center and the need to develop technology to help feed the world.
Other areas where Davis is well positioned is on green technology and medical technology.
But the Studio 30 report identified the critical shortfalls in the Davis community – which is lack of available commercial space. While the big vision pictures of 200-acre peripheral innovation park proposals have largely failed, the city has a second chance for a more modest spaced R&D at Area 52 and the University Research Park.
It is somewhat ironic that this real push by some in the community to establish Davis as an R&D/tech center identity has exposed the shortcoming of that community vision and really represents the second level of why these conversations devolve into petty squabbling and a perpetual rut.
The reality is that, in the abstract these ideas might sound great, however, Davis continues to be driven by the specific.
Maybe the city voters would have been willing to approve an innovation center without housing, but the reality is that the financing for such centers appears more tricky than for a more traditional development where upfront costs of infrastructure can be offset by more immediate returns on investment.
Both major innovation park proposals got bogged down when they came to believe that some housing was necessary to make the return on investment more assured, and the community balked at the idea of including workforce housing in the proposals.
The limitations of this community appear with the idea of housing and growth.
I don’t think we should blame the citizens for seeking to protect what they see as the greatness of this community. We all came here because Davis was a small, safe, and attractive community. I stayed in Davis largely because of the engaged environment, combined with quality public schools.
Many citizens see proposals for peripheral development as a threat to that core character of the town. They see the drive for innovation parks as a potential threat to the core of the community as well.
And so what this community bogs down on is the specifics of project proposals – we saw this with Cannery, we saw it with Nishi, and now we are seeing it with MRIC (Mace Ranch Innovation Center), Trackside, Sterling, Lincoln40, etc.
We cannot transcend these discussions because, in most ways, they are core discussions. As I wrote today, Sterling, which is a 160-unit, 540-bed apartment proposal with a small affordable component, is really a proxy fight for a much bigger battle over whether the city should add student housing and how much, in response to or to accommodate increased enrollment at the university.
That fight is seen by many at the core of what the future of Davis will look like.
My concern is that I worry, as I have now for ten years, how Davis can remain that community that people love without some sort of incremental and small-scale growth.
We are already seeing the effects of 0.2 percent vacancy. And, for those who believe putting huge amounts of student housing on campus will solve this problem, I think they are very mistaken. Adding huge numbers of students will require commercial development on campus as well, and this community might start resembling Chico, where a huge amount of growth is in the unincorporated areas.
At the same time, we have pushed for commercial and economic development because right now the city lags behind other communities in a tax base. And without more tax revenue, the city will have to raise taxes and will continue to price out families and others of modest means.
In the end, the city is going to change in the next 20 years and we have a chance to determine whether this is positive or negative change. Change will occur.
Can we have the discussion at a higher level and transcend the instant issues? It doesn’t seem that abstract conversations engage community passions. For that, we need to fight inch by inch on the issues of the day.
—David M. Greenwald reporting