Commentary: Would a New General Plan Mean More Growth for Davis?

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

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Todd Edelman

    Davisville got its start growing things.
    When children grow taller it’s good.
    When people and cities grow wider it’s bad.
    When cows grow bigger it’s good for their owner.
    When cows grow bigger it’s bad for the cow, eventually.
    Actually, most cows have a bad ending.
    When cities grow it’s bad – or at best badder – if the so-called growth of the human spirit depends on that most narcissistic and elite form of urban and sort of suburban mobility, the private automobile.
    It’s good – or at least gooder – if the soul yearns for – and education facilitates – a walking accelerator that doesn’t put others at unnecessary risk, e.g. shared vehicles, bicycles, and public transport.
    This lets children live forever, or at least longer.
    When children live longer they grow taller.
    Taller in stature in and – more important – taller in spirit.
    Growth can be good if you know how to do it.
    It will take some work but we’ll help you through it.
    But to start this class you’ve got to be kind.
    For the most efficient production of farming of the mind.

    1. Alan Miller

      When children live longer they grow taller.

      And if you are trying to equate them with your cows growing, the parallel isn’t going to a good place.

  2. Ron

    I like Todd’s comment.  However:

    From article: ” . . . as the current expired plan has forced the city to use general plan amendments in order to pursue any new developments.”

    No one is “forcing” the city to pursue new developments that don’t adhere to the current plan/zoning.  This is choice that’s being made, and not an “inevitable outcome”.

    From article:  “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.”

    All of these developments have all created significant acrimony for various reasons, within the community. (In the case of Sterling, the result was a loss of a space zoned for industrial, but was used by a taxpayer-supported, non-profit agency to provide services, with a substantial, relatively new investment already made in infrastructure).  In the case of Paso Fino, the council was initially considering selling an adjacent greenbelt to a developer.  After much protest, this plan was dropped.

    A new general plan (and zoning) does not eliminate underlying concerns.  However, it will make it easier for the council to point at a revised document, which states that such developments are “already approved”.

    From article:  “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.”

    Without commenting on whether it’s “good”, or “bad”, that’s accurately called “more growth”.  (Title of article is misleading.) There has already been acrimony, regarding the few proposed developments that have already been proposed in, or near downtown.




    1. David Greenwald

      “No one is “forcing” the city to pursue new developments that don’t adhere to the current plan/zoning.  This is choice that’s being made, and not an “inevitable outcome”.”

      Someone else might know this better than me but I believe the fact that the General Plan is out of date compels them to seek an exception for every project regardless of whether it adheres to 2001 zoning.  But perhaps I’m wrong there.

    2. David Greenwald

      “Without commenting on whether it’s “good”, or “bad”, that’s accurately called “more growth”.”

      Correct that would be growth.  But my point was that given the lack of financing and space, that growth would be limited as well.

      1. Ron

        David:  What you’re stating now is quite different than your first paragraph from the article, above:

        “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.”

        1. Don Shor

          the idea is that the reason people are pushing for a new General Plan for Davis is because they seek more growth.

          Just add peripheral in front of growth. In general I think that’s what most people are talking about in growth discussions.

        2. Ron

          David:  There’s a difference between discussing “constraints” on housing (which nevertheless led to the examples you’ve provided above – such as Paso Fino, Sterling, possibly Lincoln 40, Trackside, etc.), vs. stating that a new General Plan will lead to “no such thing” (growth).


        3. Ron

          David:  “The constraints on housing are why I believe that a new general plan will not lead to additional housing.”

          This statement makes no sense, as already pointed out above.  Repeating it won’t make it any more accurate.

        4. David Greenwald

          How does the statement make no sense?  There are severe limitations on the building of new housing in Davis that have nothing to do with a General Plan.

        5. Ron

          The follow-up comments note some of the flaws in logic, in your article. Even Don notes that a qualifier (regarding “peripheral” development) is needed.

          Of course, in the long run, increased density might also indirectly/eventually facilitate peripheral development, as well.


        6. David Greenwald

          Your basic view is that a new general plan will allow problematic growth policies to seem in line with project proposals.

          My view is that project proposals are inherently constrained by space, community pushback, and lack of investment resources.  Plus anything on the periphery is further constrained by Measure R.

          As a result, I do not believe that a new general plan will speed up growth.  My hope however is that it will allow us to plan better the growth that we need.

  3. Tia Will

    I am known as a slow growth advocate. This is true, but is not the biggest issue for me. I deeply dislike planning by exception. I think it is unnecessarily contentious and costly and serves no one well. I am an advocate for a new General Plan primarily because I see it as a means to a more collaborative, less adversarial means of development which I feel ultimately would lead to a more harmonious city which is my greater concern.

    1. Ron


      Seems to me that the process of creating a new general plan can ultimately create the same concerns and acrimony as the “planning by exception” route. 

      The end result might be the same:  unwanted development being forced upon neighborhoods.

      In general, residents pay less attention to general plan updates (which is a complex and lengthy process, covering a broad geographic area), than they do regarding specific development proposals in their own neighborhood.  If neighbors are unaware of the significance of proposed changes in the general plan and zoning (and/or do not have the time and energy it takes to participate in the process), it will be “too late” when a subsequent proposal arises.  And then, the neighbors will be blamed for not “paying attention/participating”, and their concerns can be disregarded.  Perhaps that’s what some are counting on.

      1. David Greenwald

        “The end result might be the same:  unwanted development being forced upon neighborhoods.”

        Given the options available – peripheral versus infill, it seems inevitable either way that in a system that allows for no real peripheral growth, you will inherently have infill and inherently that will result in conflict and inherently it will result in the perception by some that unwanted development may be forced upon neighbors.

        This is precisely why my comment yesterday is that you effectively want zero growth.

      2. Ron

        Another possibility is that those who are most active/interested in general plan updates can influence decisions in neighborhoods other than their own.  (In other words, development “over there” is fine, as long as “my” neighborhood is not overly-impacted.)

        In contrast, “planning by exception” ensures that impacted neighbors voices’ are (at least) directly heard, even if those concerns are not adequately considered.  (Of course, planning by exception has its own challenges as you’ve noted, as well.)

        1. David Greenwald

          That’s not really how it works.  The biggest factor in the equation is the developer/ owner and their willingness to invest money on a given project.

  4. Ron

    David:  “This is precisely why my comment yesterday is that you effectively want zero growth.”

    David:  Worldwide, a relatively stable population is ultimately the only way to live on a finite planet.  However, I realize that this is not on the horizon, and that Davis (and essentially every other location) will continue to grow and develop.

    Recently, you asked me to list all of the developments that I wasn’t opposed to.  I did so (and came up with quite an extensive list).

    I then asked you to list all of the developments that you opposed.  (You did not do so.)

    1. David Greenwald

      I didn’t see your post – as I was traveling most of the day yesterday.

      I generally don’t take a position on a project for or against.  However I can tell you I was “officially” opposed to the following projects: Covell Village, Cannery, Chiles Ranch, Mission Village, Paso Fino (at least in the original form), Trackside (in the six story form – no position on the current project), the Senior Housing proposal at Covell, that’s off the top of my head.

      1. Ron

        Thanks, David.

        Just wondering – why Chiles Ranch, and the Senior Housing proposal at Covell?  (I am not familiar with the latter.)

        Regarding Chiles Ranch, I seem to recall that the original plan was to rebuild the barn, to serve some other purpose. (However, I don’t recall that, in the latest proposal.) Do you happen to know anything about that?

        (By the way, I’m guessing that you’re familiar with the history of the Chiles Ranch property. Quite a story behind it.)


      2. David Greenwald

        Here’s a flavor of the Chiles Ranch issue from 2009:

        Meantime, the Covell developers following the defeat of Covell Village in 2005 tried to organize the seniors into pushing for a scaled down senior housing proposal at Covell.  The problem was it was a completely transparent attempt at astroturfing.  Everyone saw through it and eventually they gave up before it got too far into the planning stages. (

  5. Eileen Samitz


    A significant issue that needs to be addressed also, is that UCD’s negligence to provide the needed on-campus student housing is a major problem since UCD keeps trying to push its housing needs onto the City. So the City needs to not be pressured in the upcoming General Plan update to compensate for UCD’s inaction and lack of cooperation to provide the needed backlog of on-campus housing they need to build as well as providing the 50/100 plan at minimum for their ambitious growth plans. UCD needs to step-up to fix the student housing problems it has created.

    1. David Greenwald

      My guess is that by the time the city finishes the CASP, UCD will be done with their LRDP.  I understand your concern, but I see no way that the city can accommodate the 3900 bed gap between 40 and 50, therefore I think you’re raising largely a non-issue.

  6. Eileen Samitz


    Let’s say I hope you are right, however UCD is certainly is dragging its heels on proposing any real solutions to the problem that they have created of the need for far more on-campus student housing. It certainly seems that they are simply running out the clock on the Draft EIR process, and then will either produce no solution to the additional 3,900 units needed on campus, or suggest that they will “try” to add some more beds but not nearly as many as needed. It them would result with UCD continuing to try to push their problem onto Davis and other nearby cities.  The only way UCD can demonstrate sincerity in addressing the problem is by adding the 50/100 plan to the Draft EIR analysis now, not continuing to stall on determining the real solutions.

    1. Don Shor

      Draft EIR will be posted this fall. Final EIR in winter. I think it’s safe to assume that they aren’t going to change it from the 40/90 as the official policy. What they say they will encourage from contractors is pretty irrelevant, since it would cost more to add rooms and they won’t be going with the higher bidder. Maybe they can squeeze in a few more, but it’s unlikely to be close to the # of units needed to achieve 50% of total enrollment or 100% of new enrollment. So this is just rhetoric on UCD’s part.
      I also doubt this issue will be addressed in any update of the General Plan. There’s no location, no willing builders, and no public sentiment in favor of building 3 – 4,000 high-density rental units. So renters in Davis will continue to be basically screwed.
      I note on Facebook sentiment building for rent control measures.

      1. Howard P

        Your last point is very significant, in my mind…

        Rent control will probably lead to a combination of:  little/no investment in MF development; increased cramming of students into SF rental units; sale of SF rental units to HO’s.

        Guess I don’t care… sold our SF rental unit to a young family ~ 18 months ago.

        Before that, was rented to young families… only real rent increases were to cover increased utilities, and maybe 10% over 12 years for ‘market’…

      2. Ron

        I’ve always suspected that the city will ultimately have to look into “another” option – periodically mentioned by another commenter, which was apparently pursued in Santa Cruz (and perhaps Berkeley?). (Can’t remember if Berkeley is the other city which had this problem with the university located in their community.)

        Don’t have professional knowledge to comment, beyond that.

        1. Ron

          Don:  I think it’s too soon to completely rule out possibilities.  There’s a cost (financial, and otherwise) for failing to act, as well.

          And, if this issue is not settled now, what will happen in the future (if UC / UCD pursues even more enrollment growth), without considering the impact on the city? (Especially international students, who I understand pay triple the amount of enrollment, compared to resident students.)

          Perhaps it’s time to actually deal with this issue, in a manner which doesn’t totally depend upon UCD to do the “right thing”.

          In general, settlements can include cost reimbursements. (Not saying this is always true.)

          1. Don Shor

            There hasn’t been a slow-growth candidate in years, much less a slow-growth council majority. The public has moved toward a much more pragmatic council in recent elections, casting strong and decisive majorities for individuals from outside the two camps that dominated Davis politics from Covell Village for about the next decade. Slow-growth folks seem to prefer to use lawsuits and citizen pressure to try to achieve their goals, without finding and supporting candidates to actually do the heavy lifting and thankless work of being on the city council. So if there’s going to be a lawsuit against the UCD LRDP, I personally expect it would come from a private attorney on behalf of some small group of plaintiffs.
            I’m just discussing the politics of it, not the merits of any such lawsuit. I’ve kind of been hoping that an objective attorney here in town will comment about the similarities and differences between Davis and Santa Cruz and Berkeley with respect to the lawsuits that those cities filed. UCD seems much more autonomous than UCB or UCSC; they provide all their own safety services, have their own water and sewer systems, and so on. So I don’t know what the basis of any lawsuit would be.

        2. Ron

          P.S. – thought I’d do a quick check to see if your first link included reimbursement from the university, for legal fees.  Yeap – check item #7.7.

          I haven’t even checked your second link.

        3. Ron

          Howard:  I’ve offered no legal opinion, nor will I engage in one here.

          In contrast, some without any apparent professional auditing knowledge have made lots of comments regarding their opinions in that field.  (Not you, lately.) 🙂

          In all seriousness, the field of law is quite complex, and any opinions here would not do it “justice”.

        4. Howard P

          Ron… there are actually professional fields other than ‘the law’… am am not, nor have ever represented myself as a “legal professional”… but some, in professional fields, are recognized as ‘practitioners’, even by attorneys [think, para-legals].  Let’s leave it at that…

        5. Ron

          Don:  Not sure that I’d agree with your conclusion that “slow-growth types prefer lawsuits”. (I’d suggest that’s what happens when leadership is not well-aligned with the vision of a substantial number of residents. However, that starts drifting into another topic.)

          Regardless, those who care whether-or-not students have an adequate place to live might ultimately be the ones most interested in resolving the concerns regarding UCD’s plans.  (Especially as the city continues to densify, and “use up” viable space for development.)

          Even David has noted that it doesn’t seem likely that there’s sufficient viable room in the city to accommodate UCD’s plans. (Despite that fact, some will continue to deny it, or try to pursue other unlikely options.)

          Ultimately, this isn’t an issue “owned” by slow-growth types, despite how some have portrayed it.  (However, it is true that some slow-growth types had the foresight to see this issue arising in advance, and had already taken the lead to help resolve it.)

    2. David Greenwald

      I’m not sure you really hope I’m right because I never said I believe UC will go to 50 percent, only that the City can’t take all 3900 students.

      1. Mark West

        “only that the City can’t take all 3900 students.”

        The City could easily accommodate those students. It is the community that refuses to do so.

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