Guest Commentary: Davis is Better Than Good Enough

By Larry Guenther

“Perfection is the enemy of the good.”  We often hear this said, and often what I believe people are saying is, “You’re being too picky,” or, “You’re being unrealistic,” or, “It’s good enough.”  But when it comes to Davis, I want to be picky and I don’t believe I am being unrealistic.  My experience is that “good enough” is settling for something that is mediocre.  It is a hesitancy or unwillingness to do the extra work or take the extra time to make a project extraordinary.

As a remodel contractor, I take pride in my work and am personally accountable for all I do. It is distressing to me that some are willing to settle for what I think of as ‘good enough.’  Do we want Davis to be ‘good enough,’ or do we want Davis to be extraordinary?

There may be times where ‘good enough’ is appropriate.  For instance, projects that are easily changed, or where an elegant solution has yet to be found, but can be implemented at a later date: lane striping, bike-share station locations, public restroom locations, etc.  Sometimes it’s better to learn as you go.  But land-use decisions are not like this.  Land-use decisions, generally, and buildings, specifically, are not short-term decisions.  Nor should they be.  Buildings should be designed for the 100-year time scale.  And for structures meant to last one hundred years and more, we should not be satisfied with ‘good enough.’  We need to strive for outstanding.

For a long time, Davis was known for the extraordinary.  We thought outside-the-box and solved problems in elegant ways.  When Village Homes was built, the designers chose to deal with storm-water runoff in an unconventional way.  Instead of building a conventional underground storm-water system, they built a system using the shape of the land and natural plantings that funneled runoff into natural basins, adding to the park-like quality of the development. Not only did this system have more capacity for storm water than a conventional system, but it was cheaper to build.  Cheaper, more efficient, better.  Creating green, open space while dealing with storm-water runoff and saving money: that is an elegant solution.  This is just one example of design changing something from mediocre to extraordinary. We should be looking for ways to make elegant design solutions standard policy in Davis.

Our solutions for development need to be elegant as well.  Projects need to be extremely well designed so that they address housing, transit, economic development, and environmental impact all at the same time. We need to use a systems approach.  To make residential developments fiscally sustainable for the city and to ensure that they serve more groups in our community, they should have an owner-occupied component.  Owner-occupied residences turn over more frequently, thereby triggering more frequent property value re-assessment and increasing property tax revenue for the city.  Smaller, better-designed units that are comfortable to live in, and inherently cheaper to build and rent or own, will serve a section of the population not currently being provided for.  Incorporating commercial/retail space also adds sales tax revenue to city coffers, along with property tax revenue.  Built-in commercial/retail space reduces the need for driving, thereby reducing the costs for infrastructure and decreasing carbon footprint.  Automobile infrastructure, which takes a lot of room and is relatively expensive for the city to maintain, should be de-emphasized.  Pedestrian, bike, and public transit infrastructure must be central to a development’s design to make alternate modes of transportation more viable, reduce our carbon footprint, and reduce future maintenance costs to the city.  Simply putting a transit stop in the center of a development instead of at its edge makes transit easier to use, and costs no extra money.  Cheaper, greener, more efficient: it’s all about design.

Where we are now is a consequence of all the decisions made in the past.  And where we will be in the future is determined by the decisions we make going forward.  We cannot change the decisions of the past, but we can change where we end up in the coming decades — by making the best decisions going forward.  This is not about perfection, it is about making the most of our opportunities and moving in a robust and meaningful way toward our community’s goals.

I don’t want to live in a city that is ‘good enough.’  I want Davis to be extraordinary.  Extraordinary is harder: it takes more work up front.  But extraordinary planning and design will reduce long-term costs, reduce impacts, increase environmental and fiscal sustainability, and resiliency.

And Davis is worth it.

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About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. Alan Miller

    Land-use decisions, generally, and buildings, specifically, are not short-term decisions.  Nor should they be.  Buildings should be designed for the 100-year time scale.

    Same is true for transportation infrastructure, as LG mentions.  Davis has been doing some of this on the cheap for awhile now.  Where once we used developments to fund bike/ped undercrossings and separated bike paths, we now have semi-dutch junctions, overcrossings where under would be far superior and paint on the street.  One of the side-benefits of development is improvement of infrastructure — but not if Davis builds it on the cheap, satisfying only some of the potential.

    1. Mark West

      Infrastructure improvements of the type you want are expensive and require relatively large developments to fund them. As long as our approach to development is limited to small-scale infill projects we won’t see those sorts of infrastructure projects, unless they are funded by State or Federal tax dollars. That is one of the trade-offs we have to accept with our decision to limit development.

    2. Howard P

      Alan… I oppose the notion, philosophically, that new development should make up for “the sins of the past”…

      Mitigation, yes… ex post facto mitigation, no… just my opinion…

      1. Alan Miller

        No, I’m talking about the sins of the recent past and near future, in other words, the present – ish.  I’m talking about improving how we get around.  That is timeless.

  2. Richard McCann

    So long as we continue to require a high-risk, late-in-the-development process, electoral project approval, we will not get the innovative, ground breaking developments that Larry is calling for. The developers with the required financial and planning resources will steer away from Davis to to other communities where they have more assurance of a return on their investment.  I absolutely agree with Larry’s points, but our process is badly broken as is apparent from the failure to approve a single new development under Propositions J/R. Perhaps someone can rethink this so that there is room for negotiation, but right now that’s not possible. No one has the power to “yes” to a proposed mitigation from a developer, so why should they make an offer?

    1. Jeff M


      This was a good article by Larry, but I think he is a bit off track from the actual meaning of “pursuit of perfection is the enemy of the good”.

      In business we pursue excellence.  There are trade-offs with everything.  I am sure Larry’s clients have to make trade-off decisions over costs, schedules and design form and function.  Excellence is striking the perfect balance.  But time is a component of excellence.  It is the pursuit of some undefined future state without a schedule that is the problematic “perfection”.

      Would Larry really welcome a project for a client that would bog down in analysis paralysis unable to make a decision for what they wanted him to do?

      The phrase is leveled at people that cannot make a decision or will not make a decision for fear of making a mistake, or fear of getting something less than they think they can if they keep holding out.

      I had a business partner like that.  It was all analysis and talking and nothing significant got accomplished.  I used to cause him some anxiety by reminding him that delays or doing nothing was still a decision fraught with risk of error.  Business tends to look at risk from both sides… the risk of doing something wrong… making a mistake in action… and the risk of missed opportunities from doing nothing, or doing it too slowly to be effective.

      It is not really true that structures need to last 100s of years.  Just reading an article about housing in Japan that is frequently torn down and replaced to better suit the next need.  Of course if we build well then structures can possibly be repurposed.  But there is little in Davis that is built well enough to be repurpose useful.  There are structures in Woodland that can be and are being repurposed, but much of Davis is tear-down ready… if not for the weirdness of our citizens seeking some perfection that cannot be defined and does not appear to exist in any other community.  My sense is that these Davisites have traveled to places overseas that are thousands of years old and they think we should just stop changing Davis and it will somehow one day be like those places.

      And one last thing… maybe only 10% of the human population is truly visionary and can see a future state and then put a design and project together and lead it to that future state.  Larry has to get this is his job.  In fact, it is why he gets to do his job.  Measure R puts thousands of people incapable of visulizing a future state, incapable of putting a design and project together and incapable of leading the project to successful conclusion… in charge of making the go vs no-go decision about projects to develop a future state.  The other principle “lead, follow or get the hell out of the way” applies.  It is one of the big reasons why our founding fathers thought direct democracy was as dangerous as was tyranny… it becomes tyranny of the majority… or in this case, NIMBYranny.

      1. Todd Edelman

        In mobility infrastructure design “the perfect…” is often used as an excuse for not trying as hard to solve something for a similar price and in a not too dissimilar time-frame, or enabling activity facilitated by unqualified persons… and while anything can eventually be corrected it’s extremely expensive to do so.

        This is why, for example, the garbage design for the intersection at East Covell, J St. and Cannery Ave will likely never be corrected. It’s a classic American cheerleader-y way to spin something in its defense.  But then also Robb Davis says that “we learned our lesson” in intersection design with that garbage – that’s my adjective – in the context of trying to come up with something better for West Covell at the proposed very imperfectly – my adjective – placed active adult community, but Taormino Sprawl Associates doesn’t offer to fix the Cannery design, does it?

        So, perhaps

        an actual meaning

          is too concrete to describe something that is interpreted or rather utilized in quite varied ways. In other words, as perfection is in a way a synonym of “actual”… I think you grok? In an etymological discussion you’re probably correct, but maybe not a political one?

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