My view: Chancellor understands the need to partner with Davis on housing, but not innovation
A commenter yesterday made an interesting point that bears more scrutiny. Some people have chosen to analyze the impact of UC Davis from a predatory perspective. UC Davis, they argue, has made choices to grow, especially by adding out-of-state students, which imposes costs on the city of Davis.
I have often argued that the city has a net benefit from the university. After all, the university is the major economic engine, not just in Davis but across the region. They hire a tremendous number of people and drive the economy. Some have argued that, without the university, Davis would simply mirror Dixon or other small towns in the region.
But this poster made an interesting point that Davis owes UCD a lot of its uniqueness and value “because the rest of the state taxpayers finance a major university in our midst.” From that standpoint, there is a ton of state revenue coming into Davis and thus the notion that UC Davis should mitigate its impacts on the community seems misplaced.
The poster argued: “In return, we have an obligation to accept the students that the state has assigned to our campus. UCD is not a major corporation–it is a government institution that benefits all of us. We are not in a position to impose growth controls that ‘close the gate’ because that means obstructing opportunities for others elsewhere in the state.”
With that said, it was obvious that the university was going to have to expand their student housing well above where they have traditionally provided
in Davis. The current percentage is 29 percent of students housed on campus. The upgrade to 8500 beds puts that number up at 46 percent.
That is a vast improvement. Critics of the university, along with opponents of city housing growth, have often correctly argued that UC Davis has the lowest or second lowest percentage of housing on campus in the UC system. That is a source of frustration for many in the community, who believe it is time for UC Davis to do more.
However, at the same time, I think from UC Davis’ perspective Davis has always been a community that is relatively small without real barriers to growth other than community opposition. This isn’t a geographically-bound community like some in the Bay Area. This isn’t a city that bumps up against other cities like a Berkeley.
If you look at the growth patterns at UC Davis and the city of Davis, up until 2000, they grew together. And so what is really happening here is a change in the ecosystem. UC Davis has been slow to adapt, but so too has the community.
The comments by Chancellor Gary May the past week demonstrate the extent to which he gets it on the housing front.
The chancellor in his announcement indicated that he was encouraged by the city council’s recent approval of housing developments in Davis. It is clear that behind the scenes the announcement was the result of the campus and city leaders working together to get to a real solution here.
Said Gary May, “While we are planning the most ambitious student housing construction campaign in campus history, housing market changes cannot be resolved by UC Davis alone.”
He said, “Providing a greater abundance and diversity of housing should help ease some pressure on the Davis housing market.”
That’s the key. As we have pointed out, with the new additional 2200 beds, we have a real chance to get our vacancy rate into an area where it is workable and no longer problematic for renters.
My point of frustration, however, is that while we have made real progress on student housing – a real crisis – we have not made progress on economic development, and our relationship with the university appears headed in the wrong direction there.
In their strategic plan, entitled “To Boldly Go,” the chancellor talked about the need “to raise the profile of the university.” A big part of that is “stronger engagements (with) the city of Sacramento around innovation.
“This idea of Aggie Square will certainly have some appearance in the plan in some form,” Chancellor May said. “The idea there is for the university to partner with the City (of Sacramento) to engage with the business community and do a better job of taking the many wonderful ideas that come out of the laboratory and get it to the marketplace. One of the main motivations for doing (this) is economic development and job creation. I always thought that innovation (was) one of the most important and sustainable ways to create new industries, new jobs and new opportunities for not only our students but the region and the community.”
It is hard to blame the chancellor for looking to Sacramento and certainly nothing prevents Davis from launching its own initiative with the university along this front. I suspect if we plan it and build it, the university will joyfully applaud it.
Some leaders in this community even see this as a positive for Davis, believing that some companies will want a Davis address and to headquarter in Davis. One leader told me that this is the best hope for Davis at this point.
The university ignores the fiscal condition of its host community, over the long term, at its own risk, one of my readers pointed out to me last month. The prospects for Davis are limited, given the ecosystem within which we operate and the mentality of the community.
Still, it seems that the council has been much more willing to engage and do battle on housing – a necessary fight. They are planning perhaps as soon as June to make another foray into Measure R territory.
At the same time, they will be willing to engage in some sort of battle for revenue.
But what we don’t have at this point is a viable economic development strategy. Right now, Davis resembles a community running out of options. The build-out of the city is nearing completion. At this point, the city is relying heavily on infill and density to attempt to stave off the housing crisis and, without sizable plots of land to develop, the dispersed innovation strategy developed eight years ago is doomed to failure.
We have seen the leadership and the drive for housing and even the revenue measures, but really, since 2014, economic development at the city level has slipped.
So if Gary May sees Sacramento as the future, who can blame him. Sacramento seems to understand something at this point that we do not, as the Bee put it in an op-ed last month: “Cities need jobs. Companies need research and development infrastructure and an educated work force. University researchers need places to scale and market their innovations.”
But Davis doesn’t see it that way. Too many residents have their jobs and are not looking to the future. Too many residents are retired or about to retire.
What does that leave for the future of Davis? Not much, I’m afraid.
—David M. Greenwald reporting