Commentary: Will Davis Be Left Behind on UC Davis Innovation Expansion?

In the past few weeks I have had some good and insightful conversations with various members of the community on economic development, innovation, and UC Davis.  Last night we had a great turnout at our Student Housing Townhall Meeting.  We will have coverage of that in the coming days, but the main point I make here is that for two hours the representative from the university was on the hot seat about housing issues – and rightly so.

It was pointed out to be that it looks like the focus on the Davis campus will be UC Davis student housing, whereas Sacramento is focused on benefiting from UC Davis economic development.  And in fact, as Davis continues to debate land use policies, it is now Sacramento, Woodland, West Sacramento and Dixon who are all benefiting from UC Davis’ presence, and building innovation centers.

Last week the announcement hit home that UC Davis and Sacramento will be collaborating on the development of Aggie Square which “will serve as a collaborative technology and innovation campus that leverages the university’s strengths to become a catalyst for economic change, create jobs for our graduates, and help spur the economic vitality of the broader Sacramento region. It will serve as a model public-private partnership, increasing technology transfer and creating equitable opportunities for residents in the community and region.”

As Chancellor Gary May put it last week, “For UC Davis’ part, Aggie Square is a tremendous opportunity to leverage our strengths in fields of clean transportation, clean energy, public policy, the arts, agricultural and food technologies, and more.

“Aggie Square will give our students easier access to companies for internships and employment — and make it easier for companies to collaborate on research with our faculty, post-docs and graduate students,” the chancellor writes,  “This hub will also open up more learning and job opportunities for our undergraduates. They could even live in Sacramento and commute to Davis, using electric vehicles that would take them across the causeway, emitting no more pollution than their bicycles.”

He added, “We look forward to working side-by-side with community leaders and a range of public and private partners in the region to bring a new wave of economic development and new jobs and housing to Sacramento.”

From Sacramento’s perspective, “Building this new center of innovation alongside the existing UC Davis Health campus will not only ensure a tight connection to the school’s great minds and resources but will also create jobs and economic development in the heart of Oak Park, along with more real opportunity for young people from all low-income neighborhoods in Sacramento.”

Clearly these efforts will benefit the region, but, from Davis’ perspective, this is a lost opportunity.  Davis was actually ahead of the curve in 2014.  We were out in front – having three proposals for innovation centers.  People forget that in addition to Nishi, which was voted down with its 300,000 square feet of research and development and MRIC (Mace Ranch Innovation Center) which remains at least a possibility, Davis had world class developers Hines investing money for an innovation center.

But land use realities crept in.  Neighbors in the nearby Binning Tract began to complain, and Hines saw the writing on the wall and pulled out, followed by the locally-based development team as well.  The local development team has moved up the way to Woodland to do a project there, and we have recently seen that Bayer, which moved from Davis due to lack of available and affordable space, is investing in West Sacramento.

And Davis, well, we have student housing.

This week we saw the relaunch of the UC Davis World Food Center.  The World Food Center’s mission is “to mobilize the research, educational and outreach resources of UC Davis to promote innovative, sustainable and equitable food systems.”

“The renewed program intends to work on local, national and global scales to support scientific research, extension and policy developments at UC Davis that address these goals,” said Kent J. Bradford, the newly appointed interim director of the World Food Center. Bradford is also a distinguished professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and director of the UC Davis Seed Biotechnology Center. “We are excited by the opportunity to enable the unique resources of UC Davis to be focused on improving the diverse aspects of food systems.”

The Vanguard has often seen a clear nexus between the mission of the WFC and innovation centers like MRIC, which would be able to accommodate the high tech, agtech vision of the center and sustain its experimental agriculture and other needs.  But the city has been slow to recognize the potential – and by city I mean more the community than the city government.

For all the debate we have had over university-expanded enrollment and housing needs, we as a community have failed to see the promise of the university.  Within the UC system, UC Davis perhaps uniquely and alone is poised for high growth potential – and I don’t just mean in size.

The flagships of the system have been Berkeley and UCLA, but both of those institutions remain landlocked.  UC Davis has the ability and vision to expand and could end up by the middle to end of this century becoming the dominant campus, given its scalability and proximity to the capital.

That is the good news.  It is certainly good for this community and this region.  At the same time, Davis remains hopelessly locked in land use arguments over who is going to house the students at the university, rather than in leveraging the economic capital likely to flow from the university over the next 20 to 50 years.

As a result, Sacramento figures to thrive with their Aggie Square while Davis remains mired in the same land use battles of the last 40 to 50 years.  It doesn’t have to be that way – but it will take vision from our leaders and courage from our citizens to break out of that.

—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. Ron

    Regarding Aggie Square, and/or the World Food Center – those would be perfect for the Nishi site.  Access to the Nishi site for such University-oriented developments could remain as currently proposed (through UCD).  Such a development could also include housing, if air quality is subsequently proven to be safe.

    It’s time to put the brakes on the current, compromised proposal, and work toward something better.

    1. Howard P

      And your expertise in that assertion?

      And the wisdom of putting a ‘world food center’ in a “toxic soup bowl”?

      Coherence, mon ami?  Ou, pates? Pour d’autres raisons? [can’t figure out how to put diacritical marks on letters… mon mal]

      1. Ron

        Instead of focusing on the positive aspects of the suggestion, we immediately have the usual negative comments without any substance to them. Air quality is less of an issue, for commercial development. (And, if you believe that air quality is an issue for ANY development on the site, then you should state and vote as such.)

        Sites such as Nishi are not in plentiful supply. And, if the Vanguard is going to start touting University-oriented innovation centers (while ignoring the loss of Nishi – even before the vote occurs), it’s certainly going to be pointed out.

        Note that I won’t have time to respond all day, today.

        1. Howard P

          Note that I won’t have time to respond all day, today.

          Tres bien…

          But you have been inconsistent, and I call you on that… if you consider that to be “usually negative”, so be it… I suppose anyone who says anything that conflicts with your opinions, or calls you on inaccuracies, inconsistencies, is a “negative commenter”… so be it… can deal with that…

          There are other elements of your limp riposte…

          “And, if the Vanguard is going to start touting University-oriented innovation centers (while ignoring the loss of Nishi – even before the vote occurs), it’s certainly going to be pointed out.”

          Too many falsehoods and inconsistencies, too little time…

        2. David Greenwald

          “Sites such as Nishi are not in plentiful supply.”

          We had a 300,000 square foot innovation center at the last Nishi proposal and you voted no. The ship sailed. Davis lost.

        3. Ron

          I believe you are making some incorrect conclusions, regarding my previous statements.  I do think that air quality should be tested on-site (as recommended), before considering any housing on the site. And then, a determination made from the results.

        4. Ron

          David:  Again, access could remain as currently proposed (through UCD), for a university-oriented innovation center.

          Alan: I’m glad to hear that you’ll miss me. (I recall that you recently stated something similar to what I’ve noted, today. David has made similar points, regarding the Nishi site. So have others.)

          It’s not too late to get something better, at the site. Such sites (e.g., adjacent to UCD) are not exactly in plentiful supply.

          (And by the way, don’t drink beer in the morning.) 🙂

          1. David Greenwald

            You’re still focused on the wrong aspect of this. The point here is that the university isn’t looking at Davis for their big project.

        5. Mark West

          “The point here is that the university isn’t looking at Davis for their big project.”

          And why should they, after the community spent the past few decades telling the University to ‘go away’? The University is a goldmine of new ideas and opportunities and all Davis has to do to take advantage of all that gold is be open for business. Instead, we choose to proclaim our undying support for artificial scarcity and protectionism, allowing these opportunities to pass us by. It really is an amazingly poor approach for a community that likes to trumpet how well educated we all are.

          1. David Greenwald

            I really believe there is a strand of anti-university thinking going on in this community. Not with everyone, but in certain segments of the population

        6. Mark West

          “I really believe there is a strand of anti-university thinking going on in this community. “

          Yes, a very vocal strand. They, of course, will deny that they are ‘anti-University’ or ‘anti-student,’ but their actions speak much louder than their pretensions. Fortunately, you can identify them by their continuing support for Measure R.

    2. David Greenwald

      See you’re missing a point here Ron – whether Nishi is perfect for Aggie square or the WFC is irrelevant because right now UC Davis sees Davis as being too difficult to get a project approval at. You can argue all you want about whether a project of this sort can get approved and where it should go, but as long as the perception is that a project proposal will get nitpicked apart and as long as hotels and apartments take two years to plan in Davis, UCD and any major investors are going elsewhere where they don’t have to deal with the prolonged and expensive planning process.

      1. Ron

        Well, that argument would theoretically apply toward a housing project (e.g., at Nishi), as well.

        And yet, they’re “giving it the old college try”, once again.  Shows you where the money actually is (in housing), for developers.

        Perhaps the developer doesn’t want to invest in a new EIR, to provide Davis with an opportunity for a better development at the site. Seems like the developer is simply going the easiest/quickest route, at this point.

        It’s not too late to push for something better. And, if that doesn’t occur, I’ll probably be on this site reminding everyone of the lost opportunity. I will almost certainly be fighting a subsequent peripheral development proposal that is nowhere near the University.

        1. David Greenwald

          The private developers are attempting to put forward a project for housing that they believe (hope) can pass. The university is looking at Sacramento for their tech expansion plans because they know they don’t have to go to a community vote and the city will roll out the welcome mat for them.

        2. Ron

          Well, if the “welcome mat” is not there for a university-oriented innovation center proposal at Nishi (e.g., with access through UCD), then I’m not sure why you think the “welcome mat” would be placed on a peripheral site much farther away from UCD.

          I’ll almost certainly be noting this, in the future. Especially since such a proposal would likely include housing (something that you’ve noted is not likely to pass).

          1. David Greenwald

            ” I’m not sure why you think the “welcome mat” would be placed on a peripheral site much farther away from UCD.”

            At this point, I don’t think it will. We have work to do to restore what we’ve lost in the last nearly four years.

          1. David Greenwald

            You had your chance for an innovation park at Nishi – you voted no. That ship has sailed.

        3. Ron

          Again, access was a concern, regarding Nishi 1.0.

          Access to a university-oriented innovation center can remain as currently proposed, through UCD.  (The third time I’ve noted this today, and the third time you’ve ignored it. And some folks wonder why points need to be repeated so often, on here.)

          It’s not too late. I recall that some folks believed that Nishi 1.0 was the “only chance” for development at the site. Seems to me that the developers might be trying to save money, by avoiding a new EIR. Is that a reason to settle for something less than ideal at that site?

          1. David Greenwald

            There’s always something. Always a reason to say no. But if you don’t say yes every so often, you lose out not only on the instant project but future opportunities.

        4. Ron

          That’s pure nonsense. As long as there’s money to be made, developers will always try (repeatedly).

          Of course, that goes back to the other point, which is that the evidence shows that developers are primarily interested in building peripheral housing, not commercial developments.

          1. David Greenwald

            You keep wanting to shift this issue back to Nishi and away from the point of the article which is that Davis landuse policies has led to investors and the university bypassing Davis.

        5. Ron

          I don’t agree with your conclusion.

          In contrast, you want to shift the conversation away from a site which would be nearly ideal, regarding something that you constantly advocate for. (And, is something that you’ve previously acknowledged, as well.)

          There’s nothing preventing UCD, the Nishi developers, and the city from working together to make that happen.

          Avoiding the cost of a new EIR (if that’s an issue) is not a “justification” to settle for something less-than-ideal. Sites such as Nishi are not in plentiful supply.

          1. David Greenwald

            The article was about UC Davis going to Sacramento to create the Aggie Square. You inserted Nishi into the conversation.

            “There’s nothing preventing UCD, the Nishi developers, and the city from working together to make that happen.”

            Yes of course there is, the university isn’t going to waste time and energy on a project that will require approval from the Davis voters. That’s the whole point of the article. You disagree with that conclusion? I want to hear your case.

  2. Howard P

    Back on topic…

    It appears to be unfortunate that there was/is a lost oportunity in the choice UCD felt necessary… right or wrong… but c’est fini…

  3. Jeff M

    Davis will certainly miss out on most significant opportunities.  That is what we expect with a city that has given veto power to an army of fixed-mindset, hand-wringing, over-educated, old hippies.

  4. Alan Miller

    > Neighbors in the nearby Binning Tract began to complain, and Hines saw the writing on the wall and pulled out

    I seriously doubt that the loudly complaining tract, not in Davis and unable to vote, was the primary reason.

    1. Howard P

      You are correct… Binning Tract folk are burrs in the saddle, but essentially impotent, politically… which is fine…

      If the Binning Tract was proposed today (or even 30 years ago), it would not exist…

      Anyone who lives there has no standing, in my opinion, to complain about peripheral growth or “leap-frogging”… yet, some of those folk have.. they wanted to stopp Sutter Hospital and the West Area water tank…

    2. Mark West

      Hines left due to the financial risks associated with Measure R. Pointing a finger at the residents of Binning Tract is nothing but an attempt to blame someone else for a problem that we created.

      We will not see a proposal for any significant commercial development as long as Measure R is in place.

  5. John Hobbs

    “> fixed-mindset, hand-wringing, over-educated, old hippies.


    How to make friends and influence people:  insult them.”

    I have to cop to being an old hippie. I like to think I keep an open mind. Since the neocons consider any education beyond junior high school excessive for the working class, at the risk of being considered a rapacious social climber, I’ll cop to “over educated” as well.

    I wonder how those sins compare with malicious misrepresentation, in Jeff M’s aberrant world?

  6. Mike Hart04

    We have spent millions on Sierra Energy’s Area 52 on Research Park Drive to project to create a privately funded innovation center adjacent to UC Davis. The only remaining issue was to obtain the land for parking to support the expansion needed from UC Davis. We have requested purchasing a narrow strip of the adjacent vacant lot from the university since 2016 which would enable this project to move forward. We are excited to have Chancellor May at the helm of UCD so this final roadblock can be removed and the project can move forward. Chancellor May has asked staff to proceed with us to make it happen in the near future. Staff has suggested to supply parking in adjacent lots as an immediate solution and we are working toward getting the agreements in place quickly.  Innovation can happen in Davis as well as Sacramento!

    1. Alan Miller

      This message brought to you by Sierra Energy Area 52 on Research Park Drive.

      > Staff has suggested to supply parking in adjacent lots

      Why don’t you just have your employees land their flying cars behind the building?

      1. Mike Hart04

        That is fine for our employees, but as a business accelerator flying cars are not provided to start-ups coming out of the university… we don’t want to spoil them.


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