Sunday Commentary: Sacramento Moves Forward on Innovation and Economic Development, Leaving Davis Behind

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It wasn’t that long ago that Davis was on the forefront of the innovation discussion.  Here we 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.  That was 2014 – only three short years ago, and yet, it seems like a lifetime now.

But times have changed and while Davis still has potential as the host city of a rising university, it has lost some of the momentum that it had just three years ago.  Concerns over neighborhood objections and land use battles led the Davis Innovation Center and the world-class developers Hines to pull out of a proposed innovation park.  The local portion of that development team ended up simply moving a few miles up the road to Woodland.

Then the Mace Ranch Innovation Center, concerned about financing without workforce housing included in the project, ended up suspending their operations.  While they have come back to get the EIR certified, there is no current project on the table and speculation exists that there will not be one any time soon.

The city also had the voters, in June 2016, vote down what was a 300,000 square foot R&D/innovation facility at Nishi.  While Nishi has come back, it has done so with a student housing-only project.

On the positive side, from the perspective of economic development, is the fact that Sierra Energy is working on its own innovation center, and the Sacramento-based developer Fulcrum Property has purchased Interland with the idea toward densifying the newly-named University Research Park.

But, on the negative side, the long-proposed Hotel Conference Center was downsized greatly to a large meeting room, after litigation exposed potential financing problems with that project.

Opportunities have arisen with the change of leadership at the university, but the World Food Center, for example, has fallen onto the back burner and the new chancellor is focusing most of his efforts on Sacramento as the spot for UC Davis expansion.

One source told the Vanguard the ongoing attacks on UC Davis regarding student housing have taken a toll, as has the failure of the city to move forward on innovation parks.  The result is that Sacramento is being eyed as the spot to utilize the power of the university, and, while Davis is not completely out of the conversation, it is an afterthought.

Many have pushed back against the idea of parcel taxes in Davis to pay for infrastructure and unfunded liabilities, but the alternative is expanding and diversifying the local tax base through
economic development, and that plan is on life support at this point.

As Davis has lost its drive and pretty much its proposed projects, it is now Sacramento that is moving forward.

This week, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and UC Davis Chancellor Gary May announced the Joint Working Group, whose hope it is to shape expanded university presence in the Sacramento region.

In a UCD press release, it says that they have “established a joint exploratory working group to create a framework for a new technology and innovation campus called Aggie Square. Aggie Square is intended to draw on UC Davis’ core mission of research, education and public service, as well as growing the economic vitality of the broader Sacramento region.

“The working group will focus on making recommendations to the mayor and chancellor in three key areas: potential sites within Sacramento to locate Aggie Square; potential city and state funding sources to support the effort; and transportation options to encourage Davis and Sacramento communities to actively engage with such a facility.”

While Davis is at least mentioned in this release, the message coming from the chancellor is about “how UC Davis can engage with Sacramento.”

In the meantime, there was announcement in the Sacramento Business Journal that new members of the mayor’s technology council were chosen.

The Business Journal reports: “A group of 19 people ranging from university presidents to entrepreneurs have been chosen to serve on the City of Sacramento’s Technology Council – an advisory body geared toward providing input to the Mayor’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.”

The plan is that the group “will play an active role in helping provide strategic guidance as the region’s technology sector, referred to as the Sacramento Urban Technology Lab, further evolves.”

This is the kind of work that we should be doing in Davis as well.  While our focus has slipped in recent years, the good news is that if we build it – they will come.  All is not lost.  What we have not had, however, is strong leadership in the area of economic development and innovation.

It was disconcerting to listen to members of council talking about economic development in terms of hotels.  The reality is that the one key advantage that hotels would have brought has been lost – the hotel conference center, which has been greatly downsized.

The city this year should appoint its own technology council with a specific mission similar to the one out of Sacramento.

We have a strong group of leadership at the university and in this community to create a strong team to help guide our thinking as we move forward.  The previous iteration brought us DSIDE and the Innovation Park Task Force, along with the Studio 30 report recommending that we engage in a dispersed innovation strategy, which called for the development of existing space and the expansion at Nishi and also on the periphery.

We can re-examine such a plan in light of the Core Area Specific Plan, which could end up producing more space in the core area, the investment at Area 52 and University Research Park, and once again the prospects for engaging in a larger peripheral research or tech park.  Perhaps the city can revisit the idea of a university-private-city partnership to help finance such an endeavor.

But most of this doesn’t work unless the community gets aboard the idea of a tech park.  Without community support, a measure project will go down, and investors will go to Sacramento – and the brand associated with UC Davis will increasingly shift away from Davis and toward Sacramento as the focal point.

The university is going to move on with or without us.  It is time for us to figure out what we want to be as we grow up.

—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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24 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: Sacramento Moves Forward on Innovation and Economic Development, Leaving Davis Behind”

  1. Don Shor

    The city this year should appoint its own technology council with a specific mission similar to the one out of Sacramento.

    We have a strong group of leadership at the university and in this community to create a strong team to help guide our thinking as we move forward.  The previous iteration brought us DSIDE and the Innovation Park Task Force, along with the Studio 30 report recommending that we engage in a dispersed innovation strategy, which called for the development of existing space and the expansion at Nishi and also on the periphery.

    Given public and voter resistance to the outcome of the task forces to date, I see little purpose in establishing a technology council to just basically go over the same ground.

    The city needs a more collaborative process with the university in all aspects of planning and development. A separate tech council will not serve that purpose.

    1. David Greenwald

      Don:

      I think there are two parts of this – one is that a lot of the work that needs to be done is not simply focused on peripheral development.

      And the part that is really needs to focus on changing the culture in the city.  I see a shift already in terms of people focusing on the need for housing and jobs, but I can’t tell you at this point how deep and how actively it will be.

      1. Don Shor

        The innovation park task force didn’t exclusively focus on peripheral development. They identified one site in town which has been entirely ignored (bonus points to anyone who knows what it is without googling it!), and also emphasized that the downtown is part of the economic development potential.
        You seem to be suggesting that such a council should be an advocacy group (“change the culture”). That would not be appropriate for a city-appointed commission.

      1. David Greenwald

        But Sacramento really up until the last few years was really lagging on this.  Davis as a host city for the city university was where people were focusing.

  2. Ron

    Seems odd to be bringing this up while the city is simultaneously in the process of possibly converting two large sites in South Davis from commercial to residential.  (I believe one of those sites recently housed university operations.)

    Actually, three sites, if you consider the loss of commercial at Nishi.  (Make it four sites, if you include the industrial zoning at the Families First site.)

    Not sure how the Lincoln40 site is currently zoned, but that also seems suitable for commercial development.  (So, let’s call it “five” sites possibly converted to housing, primarily resulting from the failure to adequately confront UCD.)

      1. Ron

        I believe the best solution is for the developer to work out something directly with UCD.

        However, if the city is forced to consider this proposal instead, I don’t see why commercial development can’t be included, even without access to Olive.  Supposedly, there are businesses that would benefit from being located adjacent to UCD.

        A primary justification for Nishi was the innovation center component, adjacent to UCD. This should also help offset long-term costs, associated with the proposed housing. (Of course, there’s an assumption that air quality studies would be done, to determine if it’s suitable for housing in the first place. I wonder how that’s going?)

        1. David Greenwald

          My view is that there would have been a commercial development had the original project passed.  If that was so important to you, you should have voted for that proposal.

          The current proposal is not my ideal proposal nor was the original, but it’s also not my money on the line.

        2. Ron

          ”  . . . but it’s also not my money on the line.”

          It’s the city’s money (long-term cost) to provide services for the development, which is ultimately a concern for everyone.

          Again, there’s an access problem, regarding Olive/Richards.  But, I don’t see why the commercial component must be abandoned (as a result of using a different access point).  Housing needs access, as well.

          If it’s just student housing, let the developer work out something with UCD, directly.  (However, I recall that another commenter pointed out that UCD also apparently had concerns regarding air quality.)

        3. David Greenwald

          Ron: You had the chance to support a project as you are describing a year ago, when you voted that down, there was no guarantee it would come back.  Clearly the developer doesn’t feel that it’s viable to have commercial without Richards access.  Maybe you can talk to them about it and pledge your support for a commercial portion combined with student housing.  Nothing has been submitted yet.

        4. Ron

          Don:  “I think the horse you are beating is dead.”

          Good.  Maybe they won’t proceed with a vote unless concerns are adequately addressed. (Including the lack of an “innovation center” component.)

          Even David notes that this isn’t an “ideal” proposal. (Is there an “abundance” of such sites, so that the city doesn’t need to ensure that a desirable proposal is put forth?)

          And again, why couldn’t the developer work out something with UCD, after Nishi 1.0 failed?

          1. Don Shor

            Maybe they won’t proceed with a vote unless concerns are adequately addressed.

            I expect it to be on the ballot. I suspect they are looking at the fact that it’s the same people raising the same objections, that those folks won’t be satisfied anyway, that they lost narrowly last time, and it’s a simpler project so they are likely to prevail.

        5. Todd Edelman

          Clearly the developer doesn’t feel that it’s viable to have commercial without Richards access.

          Yes, surface traffic to Richards would be a huge problem: A solution for access to the commercial part of Nishi 2.0 is the already-discussed bus and bicycle access plus a 24/7 self-driving electric shuttle on a fixed route between Davis Depot, Downtown, Nishi and a parking structure on top of the 80-Richards interchange that would also catch cars from the region before they go under the train tracks.

          It’s not a leap of analysis to determine that people voted against Nishi 1.0 because of the false idea that cars had to access the site, and even Davis streets. Davis Depot fills up early in the morning, parking in Downtown in general is going to get more difficult, and even more if and when the outcome of the Downtown Core process is a large pedestrianized area and improved conditions also for cycling – the size and quality of all of this – or perhaps it being the outcome at all – will be threatened by a perceived lack of parking, but the 80-Richards parking structure solution is a key if not the key to a viable, mixed-use Nishi, a resilient Downtown and a Park & Ride-able train station that doesn’t bring car traffic into Downtown from the south and east-west I-80 approaches.

          As the 80-Richards parking solution could also be a quick stop for regional buses – not only drivers but bus passengers too would use the self-driving shuttles – it’s worth considering adding it to the planned by Caltrans I-80 bus/HOV/BYkePASS project, beyond the separate current plan of Davis for the interchange which is to increase safety and add temporary capacity for cars entering and exiting town, and to do some minor to moderate improvements for cycling infrastructure.

          I think I may propose this for the long-term agenda at the BTSSC meeting on January 11th.

  3. Ron

    David:  “And the part that is really needs to focus on changing the culture in the city.”

    The culture espoused by the Vanguard needs changing.  (Or, at least ignoring.)

  4. Tia Will

     It is time for us to figure out what we want to be as we grow up.”

    I have a problem with this conceptually. A city does not “grow up”. This implies that at some point it is immature and at another point it is a responsible “adult”. What a city does is to evolve. It may do so rapidly, or slowly, or in boom/bust cycles. It can do that through public city planning, or it can default to the developers and let them decide the evolution of the city on a case by case basis. I prefer the option of planning, and then respecting those plans and creating an equal playing field in which all have to abide by the same rules.

    I also favor planning as a region. I believe that the university should be seen as a regional benefit, not a resource to be hoarded by Davis. Just as it was appropriate for the medical school to move to Sacramento to be close to the patients, so there may be other operations of the university that are more appropriately located in Sacramento. Davis is best suited as a location for Vet medicine and agricultural studies. Other functions of the university would likely thrive whether in Davis, Sacramento, Woodland….

    I do not believe that given the fiscal difficulties that we find ourselves in, that the answer has been in the past to “grow our way out of trouble”, nor do I believe that will be the most productive way in the future.

    1. David Greenwald

      You’re talking the comment in a direction not intended.  A city does grow and evolve.  We went from a farm town to a small host city for a fledgling university, to the host city of what is now a 40,000 student top ten public university in the nation.  What does that mean for the community?  What should this community look like?  There are life cycles, and yes, the comment was a bit flippant, but meant in that light.

  5. Jim Frame

    The word I got was that UCD can’t be bothered to talk with Davis interests about economic development, but that an out-of-state university may soon be sponsoring a Davis manufacturing incubator.  I find it both ironic and encouraging that another university’s brand may be splashed across the front of a building in UCD’s backyard in the near future.

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