The view has floated around for years – the idea is that the reason people are pushing for a new General Plan for Davis is because they seek more growth. The reality is that, while that may be a motivation that underlies the push from some people’s perspective, I would argue that a new General Plan will do no such thing.
Last year, when Councilmember Lucas Frerichs ran for reelection, he pushed for the city to roll out a new General Plan, with the current one having been approved back in 2001.
At the time, he said that the new plan would help Davis address issues involving growth – as the current expired plan has forced the city to use general plan amendments in order to pursue any new developments.
“Right now we’re doing this on an ad hoc basis; it’s not very strategic,” he said.
Mayor Robb Davis noted in his comments, “We really are planning by exception and that’s not tenable.”
The reality is that while a new General Plan might make for better planning – it will not lead to new growth.
To understand that analysis, we first look at three factors that will determine growth.
First, regardless of whether there is a new General Plan, Measure R will remain the law of the Davis land. That means that any peripheral growth must go to the voters for approval. Measure J was passed the year before the current General Plan came out, and there have been three projects that have gone to a vote, and all three lost.
Measure R remains at least a mechanism that will prevent rapid growth, as the largest open parcels on the periphery will be limited at best and blocked at most from being developed.
Second, Measure R has increased the push for infill and densification. But infill and densification have led to conflict between adjacent neighbors and slow growth advocates on the one hand, and developers and advocates for more growth on the other.
The council has taken a moderate stance on these. They have approved projects like Paso Fino, Hyatt House, the Hotel Conference Center, and Sterling – but they have in most cases required the developer to reduce the size, height and scale of the project.
Third, there is the availability of open parcels in the city. We see potential for redevelopment along B Street, there is the proposed Lincoln40 project, there is a potential development along Chiles, there is a potential development across from Davis Playfields, we have Trackside, and there is a potential project at the District Offices.
All of these projects are moving through the system currently and, while a General Plan update might facilitate their development, most likely it would not change the parameters of the projects – which would be hashed out at the Planning Commission and council level, depending on the level of community and neighborhood opposition.
Moreover, we are without RDA (Redevelopment Agency) money, and it seems unlikely that there will be the available private investment for large-scale redevelopment plans in the core.
Given these factors, it seems highly unlikely that a General Plan is going to impact in any real way the amount of growth Davis sees, except perhaps at the margins.
Peripheral projects will be rare and will face voter approval. The council has been willing to approve infill projects, but they have often scaled back the size and height.
So what will the General Plan update impact?
Some of it will focus on the Core Area Specific Plan. The core area of downtown is in need of redevelopment, in my view, and there is a possibility that a new plan could facilitate some of that. There could be a push for more density, for mixed use with multi-story buildings replacing the single- and two-story landscape, which would enable retails to mix with office use and some residential.
The city has been pushing for form-based codes, which is an alternative form of zoning that prioritizes building appearances and the relationship of buildings to one another within a block or area in town.
“Form-based codes are focused on the look and feel of the public realm,” said Ashley Feeney, Assistant Director of Community Development and Sustainability, at a workshop last fall. “They put a little less emphasis on land use … to focus on a desired urban form outcome.”
As literature cited by Councilmember Frerichs suggests, “These codes concentrate first on the visual aspect of development: building height and bulk, façade treatments, the location of parking, and the relationship of the buildings to the street and to one another. Simply put, form-based codes emphasize the appearance and qualities of the public realm, the places created by buildings.”
Form-based codes “place a primary emphasis on building type, dimensions, parking location and façade features, and less emphasis on uses. They stress the appearance of the streetscape, or public realm, over long lists of different use types.”
These codes entail zoning districts, regulatory focus, uses, design and, perhaps most importantly, public participation – which “is essential to assure thorough discussion of land use issues as the code is created. This helps reduce conflict, misunderstanding and the need for hearings as individual projects are reviewed.”
Again, by itself form-based codes will focus less on magnitude of growth and more on appearance.
My view is that in the past I have often been reluctant to spend the time and money for a General Plan update. However, I am concerned with the fact that we are doing planning by piecemeal rather than on some systematic basis.
The city has clear needs for things like revenue-generating economic development, housing for students, seniors, and families, and core area redevelopment, among other needs. However, for the past several years, we have addressed those needs on a project by project basis, through a series of General Plan Amendments.
What we have not done is create a vision for this community into the future. It is clear that the community does not wish to grow very much, if it at all, and therefore any planning for growth must take that into account.
But there are things we can do to make this community better, even without residential growth on the periphery, and we need to plan in order to make sure that vision is coherent and serves the people of Davis.
—David M. Greenwald reporting