Revisiting: What Is Missing in Downtown Davis?

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the Vanguard on October 30, 2014, and written by then-Chief Innovation Officer Rob White.  At the time, the focus was on the innovation center strategy, but Rob White looked at activities by other cities to diversify their downtown economies, which has come full circle with discussions recently on parking, the efforts to update the Core Area Specific Plan, and even form-based codes.  Rob White even references Dan Zack, who came to speak recently in Davis on downtown planning and revitalizing retail.  A reader suggested we re-run this based on current conversation, and that seemed like a good idea.

by Rob White

As the City of Davis begins moving forward with its next phase of supporting the city-wide innovation center strategy, staff have started doing research on activities by other cities and towns to diversify their downtown economies.

Research has shown that the population in the US is in-migrating to urban cores, largely in part due to the creative class. On the Urban Design Associates webpage about a recent case study in Norfolk, Virginia it was noted that “as residents, businesses, and startups re-enter urban neighborhoods, a thriving and creative economy is returning to our towns and cities.”

Additionally, the case study explains that “in neighborhoods where this transformation is taking place, a dynamic environment emerges with a rich combination of leaders, studio arts, food, technology, craftsmanship, light manufacturing, and performance spaces. Innovative regulation, mix-of-uses, and bottom-up development form a culture of constant tinkering.”

The case study goes on to note that “this has become critical to attracting and retaining talent in cities such as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, Chattanooga, Salt Lake City, Omaha, Nashville, and Norfolk.” It is noted that one particular focus was on a 15-block area known as the Norfolk Downtown Arts and Design District and that a joint effort has been undertaken by “the Downtown Norfolk Council, major civic institutions, non-profits, property owners, and the City of Norfolk.” Note that the efforts are a strong collaboration between the private, non-profit and public sectors.

What was interesting in the case study was that one aspect of the revitalization effort by these organizations was focused on identifying characteristics that were important to a vital urban core. Creating a diverse economy is sometimes a trial and error activity. Davis has had a lot of success in rejuvenating the downtown, with less than a few percent vacancy of store fronts. But what are the amenities and businesses that are going to help attract the creative class?

In the case of Norfolk, the list includes a comedy theater and restaurant, a park in place of a dilapidated building, artist lofts, co-working spaces and new bike infrastructure.

In another article on the Better Cities & Towns webmagazine, there is a discussion about efforts in Redwood City (or as the article notes, its previous moniker of ‘Deadwood City’) to change the urban core through a from-based code (FBC) for zoning.

The article notes that Redwood City has become the “new Silicon Valley Hot spot” and that “a few years ago the city of 76,000 wasn’t even on the radar screen of tech companies.” And now, a cloud storage company just signed a lease for 334,000 square feet of office space.

The article suggest that the implementation of form-based code “has opened the floodgates to downtown residential and commercial development, most of which will contribute to a sense of place because new projects must adhere to a code that focuses on placemaking.”

It is reported in the article that Google is looking to move some offices to downtown Redwood City and the vacancy rate in downtown is 2-3 percent, as compared to the regional figure of 8-10 percent.

The article notes that “Redwood City went from also-ran to Silicon Valley tech center” through a community visioning process that resulted in the form-based code implementation. “Before [it] adopted a FBC in 2011, the city’s entitlement process was much like other cities in the valley—expensive and time-consuming.

Dan Zack, Redwood City’s previous Downtown Development Coordinator, noted that “Redwood City promises quick approval, no hassle, if they meet the code… It’s a tough code, but the developers would much rather have that certainty. Once a couple of projects went through and the code lived up to its promise, the flood gates opened up.”

And certainty for business is a key driver in attracting new investment. As noted, there are several cities in the South Bay area of San Francisco that are equal to or rival Davis for lengthy and difficult land use planning and development processes. Similar to our city, there is a constrained land resource coupled with high valuation.

But Redwood City (like Davis) saw that in order to meet its fiscal obligations to the citizenry and keep the community vital, it needed to encourage revitalization of its downtown.

Redwood City focused on two primary drivers to create their new land use framework: 1) create great public spaces and bring “activity generators” to enliven the downtown, and 2) reform the zoning to make the entitlement process more transparent, ensuring that whatever is built takes an urban form based on a community vision.

Davis has done some of this community visioning. And as we move in to the next phase of the city-wide innovation center strategy, we need to take a look at what is missing in our downtown… both physical assets that will create a draw and land use policies that will help to diversify the economy.

The Davis community has supported downtown densification for several decades through its planning and visioning efforts. Even though we no longer have the redevelopment dollars to help move projects along, we are a city that has done significant reuse and revitalization in the past 20 years and we have every opportunity to do so in the future.

So let’s start the next phase of the innovation center process now through your suggestions of public amenities, types of businesses and examples of successful downtown models that we can emulate. And thank you in advance for the constructive feedback and exemplars that you will highlight for staff. We will collect this information and use it for forums and roundtable discussions in the coming months.

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About The Author

Rob White is the Chief Innovation Officer for the City of Davis and was selected as a 2012 White House Champion of Change for Local Innovation. He serves as an ex-officio Board Member for techDAVIS (a local tech entrepreneur industry group), as an executive Board Member for the Innovate North State iHub, and as a Board Member for Hacker Lab and the California Network for Manufacturing Innovation. He is a candidate for the Doctorate in Policy, Planning and Development from the University of Southern California and has a Masters from USC in Planning and Development and a Bachelors of Science in Geology from Chico State.

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  1. Tia Will

    For me, this is a timely discussion of the example of Redwood City. I have just spent the last two weeks in Redwood City house and pet sitting. I have had the opportunity to get a street level view of the redevelopment that Rob discussed. In some ways it has been impressive. Areas of town that were previously run down have truly been or are in the process of revitalization. They have succeeded in interspersing attractive public spaces with walking spaces lined with mixed use buildings with small specialty retail shops, restaurants, bars, and computer based/ internet/ cloud businesses. And, as usual, it has come at a cost. The cost of course is the displacement of businesses which were viable and contributing at the previous rents, but which are now being forced out.

    We are seeing this process in Davis where those who own the land or buildings want to maximize their profit on investment and will do this at the expense of pricing out the businesses that rely on affordable rental space. On the one hand we laud these efforts to “upgrade” or “upscale” an area. But at the same time, we decry the loss of known and loved businesses to the area. Watermelon Music comes to mind for me in Davis as do the majority of the businesses that would be forced out of their location at the Trackside project when and if it is approved. I have spoken to many in the business community who basically just shrug their shoulders and accept this “winner ( or owner) take all philosophy” as part of doing business.

    I cannot help but wonder if this is really the best that we can do, or if thinking in terms of overall well being rather than simply maximizing individual wealth might not serve us better.

    1. Richard McCann

      Thinking of overall well being is useful, but we also need to be cognizant of the economy we live in and what options we actually have. We can wish for redevelopment in downtown without somehow bringing more economic activity which will lead to increased rents, but that’s not how our world works. We face important unavoidable choices. We can’t possibly standstill. UC Davis is expanding (as the UC system should to give greater opportunities to low-income students (which is better than any other institution in the U.S.)), and just look around at the communities around the Central Valley with stagnant downtowns to see what can happen. We have to change if we want to keep a vital city.

      1. Richard McCann

        BTW. here’s the study that shows why expanding student opportunities at UCD are so important:

      2. Tia Will

        Hi Richard

        that’s not how our world works. “

        I believe that we have the ability to shape “how our world works”. Right now we are having conversations within the community about whether or not we want to adopt a difference in how we do basic city planning. Within the past year I have had conversations with a number of individuals here in town about how planning might be done differently and perhaps less contentiously.

        We can’t possibly standstill.”

        I don’t think that many people would argue for stasis as a viable strategy since most agree that change in some form is inevitable. I simply do not believe that change must be accompanied by unnecessary harm to those with fewer resources. Although we have tended to simply shrug our shoulders into a “life is not fair” in the past, I do not believe that this always has to be our future.

        1. Howard P

          Most changes in land use, # of DU’s, are opposed precisely by many of those who have the most resources.

          Am talking not about the richest, but the 35 % most affluent…

    1. Keith O

      I was wondering too.  I used to hang out in downtown Redwood City and didn’t recognize the photo.  I was thinking had it changed that much?  Back in the day Redwood City was kind of an eyesore compared to some of the surrounding towns.  If they’ve improved the downtown then good for them.

      1. Howard P

        Like Woodland, Redwood City is the “county seat” community.

        “Greenies” should research how Redwood City got its name… and it was not for preservation of old growth redwood stands…

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