Commentary: Is UCD’s Move to Sacramento Good or Bad for Davis?

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Sunday’s commentary highlighted the move by UC Davis in collaboration with Sacramento and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg to create a new technology and innovation campus called Aggie Square.  The move comes after years of Davis attempting to get off the ground with its own innovation efforts, only to fall short – largely due to community opposition to housing and development in general.

In an editorial in the Sacramento Bee, the Bee editorial board naturally sees this as a positive, allowing UC Davis innovation to do for Sacramento what it did for Atlanta.

Writes the editorial board: “[I]t makes sense that UC Davis Chancellor Gary S. May and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg are redoubling past efforts to expand the university’s presence in the city, and, more importantly, to leverage UC Davis’ intellectual capital in ways that will diversify the regional economy.”

The idea is modeled after one that Chancellor Gary May helped when he was at Georgia Tech, the Tech Square, which “has used a pro-business mindset and the proximity to the university’s engineering talent to draw more than a dozen Fortune 500 companies and hundreds of tech startups to that city.”

The Bee further notes that the concept has worked in other cities like Pittsburgh, and Madison, Wisconsin, as well.  They write: “Cities need jobs. Companies need research and development infrastructure and an educated work force. University researchers need places to scale and market their innovations.”

That was supposed to be what the innovation parks in Davis were supposed to bring to the region.  But of course, if you never build them – they don’t come.

As the Bee puts it clearly in their editorial: “UC Davis has a top engineering school and not enough room in the surrounding community for growing startups.”

The Bee also points out that “the mutual benefit has to be made apparent. May’s predecessor as chancellor, Linda P.B. Katehi, spoke ambitiously during her tenure of creating a World Food Center in Sacramento, and perhaps of building a downtown satellite campus. Those ideas gained little traction, partly because the economy was still skittish, but also partly part because businesses weren’t
sure what was immediately in it for them, beyond a potential tenant.”

The Bee argues that Chancellor May’s approach “seems more tightly focused” with a firm timeline of initial reports back by April 1.

What the Vanguard wonders is whether this is really bad news for Davis.  We reached out to some leaders in the Davis community to gauge their response.  In order to gain a more candid response, we kept the questions off the record.

Some simply saw it as a bad development for Davis, but a great development for the Sacramento region, but others saw a more nuanced response.

But here’s the problem, maybe this isn’t about Davis at all – perhaps it is simply about UC Davis seeing an opportunity to tap into the Sacramento market in a way that it hasn’t before, other than the UC Davis Medical Center.

But one has to wonder if this would end up being a thing if the city of Davis had already approved Mace Ranch Innovation Center and the Davis Innovation Center and partnered with the university to expand the World Food Center into East Davis.

As one leader put it, it is obvious that the university is well aware of what is going on in the city of Davis.  They see the endless battles over every project, the restrictive land use policies, and vocal opponents spoiling for a fight with them at every turn.

The demand to build more housing on campus may end up with more housing on campus, but it may also have collateral damage.

Every action to establish an innovation center would likely have strong opposition and lawsuits that at the very least would delay the implementation of the project and, at worst, would force the university and city to cut back on its size and scope.

As one person put it: “This is an extremely toxic environment.”  And they added that “there is no welcome here.”

Others saw it as “Davis’ best hope at this point.”  Their thought is that this could raise the conversation in Davis and perhaps gain interest as people and companies will come through Davis, see its strengths and the allure of going to the Davis community.

The key question is whether there will be a critical mass of people in the community, in city hall and on the city council that actually want to capture this moment, have the skills to do so and to get genuine and reliable support from the community.

My own view is that I think we missed our chance.  The Davis window of opportunity was 2014.  We had had a regionally respected chief innovation officer, we had multiple proposals for innovation parks, and the talk was that Davis was the sleeping giant and about to emerge.

Had we been able to strike quickly and find a way to approve MRIC and the Davis Innovation Center, UC Davis would have looked at us as a reliable partner and they would not have had to go over the causeway.

This isn’t ideal, and one reason the World Food Center proposal to Sacramento never really got off the ground, even before Chancellor Katehi got in hot water, is that Davis faculty didn’t want to cross the causeway to go to work.

The Bee points out that there are hurdles even now.  “Transit is a big one. The commute between Sacramento and Davis is just long enough to feel like a hassle.”  Moreover, “Picking a site could also be a quandary.”

The Bee points out: “The temptation might be to nurture several research parks, to leverage a range of UC Davis expertise. But one reason these ventures have worked elsewhere is that, by congregating in one spot, startups, researchers and bigger businesses also generate business for each other.”

At one point, UC Davis was looking at developing the southern end of campus, in Solano County, as a 1000-acre research park, but now they are looking at Sacramento – too bad Davis could never get its act together because it is still the best location and avoids a lot of the transportation and space headaches.

But the leaders are correct – as long as Davis has a toxic environment filled with pushback and lawsuits for all land use projects, UC Davis is going to have to look elsewhere and that means billions in revenue going across the causeway, while our revenue problems are filled either through tax increases or cutbacks in service.

—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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31 thoughts on “Commentary: Is UCD’s Move to Sacramento Good or Bad for Davis?”

  1. Roberta Millstein

    Here’s a hypothesis that the article fails to consider: Chancellor May has big plans, and Davis – with or without innovation center, regardless of the actions of citizens – would always have been too small and too little known for him to pay attention to it.

    I note that when he writes an editorial, it’s for the Sac Bee and not for the Enterprise.

    1. David Greenwald

      I don’t completely discount that possibility, but it’s not the sense I’ve gotten talking to people on the ground with knowledge of the situation

      1. Roberta Millstein

        Well, you didn’t mention the possibility, so that’s effectively discounting it.  And you said that you spoke with “leaders of the Davis community.”  Are those people who are close to Chancellor May, or people who might, I don’t know, have their own agendas?

        1. David Greenwald

          On your first point – I didn’t state it outright, but I did write that maybe it was about Davis at all but rather about the chance to tap into the Sacramento Market, so that’s essentially the a similar concept.

          I speak to a wide variety of people and everyone has their own agenda.

        2. Roberta Millstein

          On your first point – I didn’t state it outright, but I did write that maybe it was about Davis at all but rather about the chance to tap into the Sacramento Market, so that’s essentially the a similar concept.

          Not really.

          I speak to a wide variety of people and everyone has their own agenda.

          Of course everyone has their own agenda.  But I ask again, are any of the people you spoke to really in a position to know what Chancellor May is thinking?

        3. David Greenwald

          “But here’s the problem, maybe this isn’t about Davis at all – perhaps it is simply about UC Davis seeing an opportunity to tap into the Sacramento market in a way that it hasn’t before, other than the UC Davis Medical Center.”

          Yes, I think this encompasses your point

        4. Roberta Millstein

          “But here’s the problem, maybe this isn’t about Davis at all – perhaps it is simply about UC Davis seeing an opportunity to tap into the Sacramento market in a way that it hasn’t before, other than the UC Davis Medical Center.”

          No, it doesn’t.  You’re making it about “the market”.  My point is about whether the Chancellor favors projects that are seen as big and bold (“to boldly go”), projects that will garner attention.  That is independent of “the market.”  It is common for university Chancellors/Presidents to favor projects that are large and attention-getting.

          The reason the difference matters is that, if my hypothesis is correct, it might speak to what we can expect from other town-gown issues, if it turns out that Davis is simply below the Chancellor’s radar more generally.

          “But I ask again, are any of the people you spoke to really in a position to know what Chancellor May is thinking?”
          yes

          Your response gives me so much faith in your assertion.

          1. Don Shor

            “But I ask again, are any of the people you spoke to really in a position to know what Chancellor May is thinking?”
            yes

            Your response gives me so much faith in your assertion.

            You asked a yes or no question and you got an answer. Any particular reason for your snarky response?

        5. Roberta Millstein

          You asked a yes or no question and you got an answer. Any particular reason for your snarky response?

          Because without any additional information, I have no idea whether I should trust the response.  I wish I could always trust the responses that David gives, but I have found that I cannot.  So without additional information I am skeptical.

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            And I’ve learned if you burn your sources, no one tells you anything in the future.

        6. Roberta Millstein

          And I’ve learned if you burn your sources, no one tells you anything in the future.

          Fair enough.  But surely you can understand the skepticism on my part, as a general caution about unnamed sources, here described only as “leaders of the Davis community.”  And to that I’d add, I don’t know anything about the nature of the conversations, how the questions were asked, etc.  Your presentations of issues are not neutral.  Certain questions lend themselves to certain answers, not others.

  2. Tia Will

    The commute between Sacramento and Davis is just long enough to feel like a hassle.”

    It doesn’t just “feel like a hassle”. On many days, it is a hassle. Because of location and timing of my practice I have commuted over the last 25 years at various times from Davis to Rancho Cordova, Sacramento, & Roseville.Drives that use to take 30 to 45 minutes now take 45 to an hour depending on traffic.

    We frequently see innovation centers, Davis economic strength, housing, & traffic discussed as though they were completely separate issues. Does anyone really believe that had the innovation centers been developed in Davis we would not have seen more demand for housing which is currently a “crisis” here in Davis ?  Less traffic ?

    Davis, as a small city is simply not the best location for large projects such as a World Food Center or major manufacturing hub. Chancellor Katehi apparently appreciated this as does Chancellor May. I do not believe this makes Davis “toxic”. I do believe that it makes Davis pragmatic and realistic about the type of future many want for our small city. I believe that Davis plays a key role in education in our region but need not monopolize that role. A regional approach will almost certainly serve the purposes of an expanding UCD better. than isolation in Davis.

    1. Ron

      Tia:  “Drives that use to take 30 to 45 minutes now take 45 to an hour depending on traffic.”

      That, coupled with sprawl/loss of farmland and impacts on limited resources continues to be ignored, both regionally (and beyond).  Seems like we never learn.

      Tia:  Does anyone really believe that had the innovation centers been developed in Davis we would not have seen more demand for housing  . . .?”

      At one time, I was not necessarily opposed to a commercial-only development, to help balance out the primarily residential development that has occurred in Davis.  However, even with all of the residential development recently-approved (and/or under construction), that doesn’t seem to be “enough” for some folks, even without an “innovation center”.

       

  3. Jeff M

    Davis is only too small because of the quantity of small-minded people that are allowed to block development progress.  The opportunity exists for Davis to become a larger city that checks all the boxes for a progressive Utopia (zero energy, green, public transport and bike connectivity, etc.); however this opportunity (that most other communities would fight to have) is squandered due to the twitchy and reactionary dislike of change that afflicts a personality type that Davis tends to attract.

    Woodland, Winters, Dixon, Sacramento… they are all thankful for the small-mindedness of Davis residents to reject growth and send it packing away to other communities.

    But meanwhile Davis continues to grow in population of older and younger residents that are net drains on fiscal resources, while chasing away the young working professionals and young families that tend to be net positive fiscal resources.

  4. Tia Will

    the quantity of small-minded people that are allowed to block development progress. “

    Another, less judgmental way of looking at this might be “the quantity of people who have a different vision than mine for how they would like Davis to develop”.

    I know very few, if any people who believe that Davis should not develop at all. It does not move the conversation forward to dramatize or hyperbolize (if that is a word) the views of others.

    1. Jeff M

      It isn’t that these Davis blockers of change have a vision different than mine; it is that they have zero vision and can only fake it.  For example, they might claim they have a vision of a denser core where cars are not needed, yet they resist and block development projects that would provide just that.

      When your demands for a city are different than all others, it isn’t a sign that you are smarter than all others.  It is more likely a sign that you are making big mistakes.

      There is no over-dramatization or hyperbole here.  The fact is that there are opportunities squandered.

      1. Ron

        Jeff:  I think we’ve seen examples of the type of “vision” that you suggest, in ever-expanding cities across the region.  (Many of which aren’t all that wealthy, despite demographics which are quite different from Davis.)

        It’s amazing, the number of commenters who try to convince everyone of the “problems” resulting from a (relative) lack of never-ending growth. Must be difficult to continually try to convince others of the problems, let alone the “solutions”. (I know that the Vanguard is trying pretty hard, though.)

        1. David Greenwald

          It seems like the problem is that there isn’t a happy median between rapid growth and virtually no growth.  In fact, Davis has periods of punctuated growth and then periods of no growth.  Boom or bust.  Neither appears to be optimal – each with their own set of problems

        2. Ron

          David:  There’s lots of growth occurring right now (e.g., the Cannery, Chiles Ranch, Grande, Sterling . . .).  Not sure that there was ever a period in which “no growth” occurred – even during the multi-year recession, which impacted the entire region, state, and country.

          The primary “problem” area regarding residential development has to do with student housing (from a university that’s pursuing/focusing on non-resident students to obtain triple the amount of tuition), and the related lack of an agreement with between the city and UCD.

        3. David Greenwald

          That’s not a lot of growth and part of the problem has been that there was virtually no growth over a 15 year period basically from 2000 until Cannery came on line.  And even now, there has been no apartments since 2002, Sterling has been approved but it hasn’t broken ground.  The pent up needs are tremendous.  And then there’s commercial development which has lagged.  On the other hand, prior to this period, we had a large number of large peripheral developments which led to the 2000 passage of Measure J.

        4. Ron

          David:  “That’s not a lot of growth . . .”

          Sir, I beg to differ.  🙂

          David:  “The pent up needs are tremendous”.

          Hmm.  I wonder why?  Might there be a large public entity adjacent to town, which is creating the need?  (An entity that is pursuing triple tuition from select groups, for example?)

          David:  “And then there’s commercial development which has lagged.”

          Yeah.  MRIC was “forced” to withdraw their commercial proposal.  And now, there’s “no way” to make it work without housing, it seems.  Thereby defeating much of the purpose.

          Go figure.

          By the way, if the Vanguard wants to focus on a “lost” innovation center site, perhaps it’s time to take another look at Nishi. Personally, I’d rather see that site become the solution to all of the “problems” that the Vanguard continuously suggests that the city is facing. That’s a pretty large site, right next to UCD. Seems like the developer is already counting on access through UCD, regardless.

           

           

           

        5. Ron

          Oh – and if you’re concerned about commercial development, perhaps it’s time to “put the brakes” on rezoning commercial/industrial sites to accommodate housing:

          2 sites in South Davis, each about 7 acres.

          The Sterling site (also about 7 acres?), which was previously zoned for industrial use.

          The loss of commercial at Nishi.

          The probable rezoning of the former skilled nursing facility on Pole Line Road.

          Any sites which are zoned for commercial usage, along Olive Drive.

          Any others?

        6. Howard P

          Ron… there has been no “loss” of commercial @ Nishi… Nishi is not in the City… pretty sure that the County zoning is Ag.  You can’t lose what never has existed…

          Also question your acreages on the other sites, as I believe was pointed out by others previously…

        7. Ron

          Howard:  The “loss” of commercial, between the Nishi 1.0 and 2.0 proposals.  (Pretty sure that you understood that.)

          I don’t think anyone has challenged the size of the other commercial/industrial sites.  (That information is pretty easy to find and verify, if one wishes to do so.)

        8. Ron

          Again, I’m not seeing why motor vehicle access is “required” via Olive for commercial, but is not “required” for residential development.

          My main point is that Nishi is a large site, adjacent to UCD.  Rather than focus energy all over the place, perhaps that should be carefully considered, first. (Partly to ensure that the long-term cost of any housing, if appropriate, is sufficiently offset by commercial development.)

          The first place to start is with the recommended air quality study, to determine if it’s suitable for residential in any form.  (Something that UCD apparently didn’t want to deal with, after Nishi 1.0 failed.) But frankly, some officials in the city seem to think they have more “expertise” than a UC Davis air quality expert.

          If the latest proposal fails, it might be time for the city to collectively “look in the mirror”. (But, I suspect that others will be blamed, instead.)

        9. Ron

          Again, motor vehicle access via Olive was a primary concern, regardless of my own preferences.  We’ll see if the lack of an innovation center component, air quality concerns, or insufficient Affordable housing will sink the latest proposal.

          Personally, I’d prefer the city to stay out of it, and let the developer deal directly with UCD.  (That’s always been my preference, and is something that the developer had an opportunity to pursue after Nishi 1.0 failed.) But, the city seems hell-bent on presenting this to voters again, apparently to the point of purposefully disregarding an expert regarding air quality. (And, so soon after the first attempt failed.)

        10. Ron

          David:  Really, I was referring to the Vanguard’s preferences for more growth and development.  If air quality testing shows that there isn’t a concern, perhaps something far better than the current proposals could be pursued at the site, from your perspective.

          Didn’t you mention a “village” concept at another university – as something you’d prefer to see?  Or, perhaps some of the ideas you presented in your article today? Perhaps with a viable plan to discourage motor vehicle access (regardless of the access point)?

          Alternatively – if air quality remains a concern, perhaps it really is only suitable for an innovation center, without residential development.

          There really aren’t an abundance of such sites, so close to UCD.

    2. Howard P

      Just see Ron’s comments… e.g.,

      Jeff:  I think we’ve seen examples of the type of “vision” that you suggest, in ever-expanding cities across the region.

      So, “any” doesn’t seem to be at issue…

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