It has now been three years since the city put forward RFEI (Requests for Expressions of Interest) in order to bring forward innovation park proposals. The plan brought immediate success as three proposals came forward, but that success was short-lived.
One proposal never got off the ground. A second proposal was suspended and has basically moved to Woodland. And a third proposal has had its share of stops and starts – but there is no current proposal for MRIC (Mace Ranch Innovation Center).
The innovation center concept came forward out of a lengthy discussion process. The city, through discussions at D-SIDE and through the Studio 30 report, recognized it needed commercial space where companies and university spin-offs could go and develop commercial research and development centers that could take university-based research and technology and transfer it to the private sector, which would generate revenue for the city.
That was seen as the best economic development route for the city – and it remains the case today. The community has largely balked at retail malls and other retail centers away from the downtown. The rise of e-commerce has shifted tax revenues away from such local centers anyway.
At the time of these discussions, the city was seen as being heavily in need of more diverse, more robust, more sustainable tax revenue. If anything, the fiscal situation of the town has grown more and not less precarious in the intervening years.
There are no guarantees here, but the last and best chance to develop a research park on the periphery of Davis remains MRIC. The other location near the hospital is away from I-80 and lacks an interested party as a developer. The are no other large plots of land near the city with interested landowners and available space.
Is MRIC the ideal location nearly 3.5 miles from the university? Probably not. But it is located near the highway and it could work if the city voters would be willing to approve the project.
The reality is that there is no project at this time – however, the applicant is asking for the city to certify the EIR even in the absence of a project, and that appears to be a legal option.
There are concerns with going forward at this point. But I don’t think they are insurmountable.
The project that was studied is probably not going to be the project that goes forward. However, changes in the size or scope would trigger at least a partial new study.
The EIR did study a housing component with equal weight. There are many concerns about housing on the MRIC project, even if it would seem a good way to reduce the carbon footprint by providing housing next to work and hopefully avoiding some commutes.
While I think there are some plans to increase the number of workers residing on site, ultimately the developers cannot simply set aside the housing for workers only.
However, the council last year indicated their opposition to housing on the site and voters would have to approve the ultimate project – the inclusion of housing is believed to be a Measure R vote killer.
There is also the concern about what to do about the 25 acres of land that is city-owned. Open space advocates want this land set aside and put into a conservation easement. The city has not decided what to do with the 25 acres and certifying the EIR is not necessarily a step toward a city sale of the property.
Personally, I believe we could find compatible uses for the 25 acres that could work both in terms of creating a conservation easement as well as serving as land for the innovation center. One could think of it as land set aside for experimental agriculture to assist a World Food Center or other ag tech endeavors.
In the end, no matter what the council does here, there are two huge barriers to an innovation center.
The first is that the developer needs to figure out financing. Our suggestion would be to figure out a way to partner with the university to bring the billion-dollar World Food Center to MRIC – that would serve as an anchor tenant and provide the certainty in investment needed to build the infrastructure necessary for expansion.
The second barrier is a Measure R vote which requires the voters to approve whatever is proposed at the site. That will preclude the worst-case scenarios that critics fear. The developers will have to figure out financing and whether to include housing – but that will ultimately be subject to voter approval.
Back in 2014, Councilmember Rochelle Swanson read a letter from Congressman Garamendi who urged the city to move forward with the Innovation Center, writing, “Our nation needs innovation, creativity and technology development from communities like yours to be leaders in agriculture and manufacturing research and to create companies and jobs.”
He added, “Your description to me of the stated desire by so many companies to locate and grow in Davis is impressive and demonstrates the powerful draw that UC Davis has on technology investment. I encourage the community of Davis to get underway with an effective and expedited process to meet this demand so that the university, the community, and the region can benefit from the investment and resulting economic impact.”
We can debate over the perfect project. This will not be a perfect project. There will be trade-offs.
We can work together with the developers to improve it.
But at the end of the day, MRIC is the last best chance to move forward on a project that has the potential to transform our economic and fiscal future in a positive way, and we should do what we can to expedite such a project.
We have Measure R as the fail-safe option to reject bad projects, but now is the time to reach out to the developers to ask them to put forward a project that we can all support and that will help this community move forward.
—David M. Greenwald reporting