The evolving discussion over the future of the Davis Downtown is critical to the future of Davis. There are certainly those in the community who wish to keep things as they were once, or perhaps as they are now. The problem with that view is that the present is not sustainable. This is an overused cliché, but it is also accurate – change is happening whether we actively pursue change or we stand still.
The only real question is what that change looks like. Right now things look okay in the city, but that is an illusion. The cost of living is increasing, housing is in short supply for large segments of the population, the city lacks the ability to fund basic infrastructure and the city lags in terms of retail space and economic development space.
The tension is there now. We have seen voters turn down a tax measure that would have funded roads for the next decade. Somehow we need to figure out a way to pay for roads and other basic infrastructure. We have Measure R in place, which has limited our ability to grow on the periphery. And we have citizens fighting each proposal to add density to existing development in the city.
There are a number of battles coming in the next few years – there will be a push anew for economic development, a push for affordable housing, a debate over the renewal of Measure R, and a debate over the future of the downtown.
With the latter will be the question of how we utilize existing spaces and maximize our utilization of land. That figures to be a key battle. There are those who see the downtown as under-utilized. There is little in the way of housing. Most of the buildings in the core are one or two stories, and thus, with a more efficient use of land, we could see some of our needs met.
Then there are those who will push back, that we should maintain the downtown as a place with public gathering spaces, that it is great as it currently stands, and we cannot solve all of the city’s problems through downtown planning.
In a way I would argue that there really is no tension between those views if we plan properly. We should be able to develop our downtown more efficiently, retaining its good points, but also better utilizing scarce land.
Interestingly enough, the way toward the future will be shown through a number of potential projects – some are in the core, while some are right outside of the core.
For example, there is a proposed redevelopment of University Mall that would take the current commercial space which is only a single story, retain the bottom floor as retail, while adding a mix of housing to create a four-story mixed-use development that provides the same amount of retail space, but also provides for housing.
If we can do that at University Mall, why can’t we do that in the downtown core? By putting in housing, it will help developers to pencil their projects out with the ground floor of retail and restaurants, and the upper levels with housing.
This is what the new owners of the Brinley Building eventually envision. In a recent conversation, they indicated that the plan is probably ten years off, but in the meantime they will fix up the current building – then the wave of the future appears to be four to six stories, with mixed use.
Traditional retail is a challenge, with changes to the market due to the advent of the internet and the proliferation of online sales. But by providing additional housing downtown, you put people where the retail and entertainment is, and therefore you create energy and a market that was lacking before.
Some of the focus will be not on traditional retail or entertainment, but rather the development of high tech, innovation space – either in the core in the form of offices, co-working and flex space, or near downtown.
Throughout the discussion, student housing has been the pushback from some who argue we also need workforce housing. One place to put that workforce housing is in the core, right where the jobs are located. That could enable young professionals who have graduated from UC Davis to have a place to live that is close to campus and the core, and at the center of what could be the next wave of R&D and other innovation space.
Clearly, the potential is here if the community is willing to move forward with a new vision for what the downtown could be. The irony here is that, with good design, we can maintain the aspects of the downtown which are attractive right now.
Right now the downtown is a safe and walkable space. There is some – albeit limited – open space. But we could actually create better public spaces than what we currently have. Right now E Street Plaza is probably the closest thing we have to public space in the heart of downtown, and even that is fairly small and limited.
With redevelopment, we could have a larger dedicated space and a more efficient use of land. We could have more in the way of entertainment, better restaurants, and by bringing more people into the core area on a 24/7 basis, we will have a better base by which to re-establish some form of retail.
What remains troubling is that some people are not willing to give anything. They oppose peripheral development, they opposed the tax measure, and they will oppose densification of the downtown. Without a new stream of revenue, the city of Davis is not going to be the community we have been over the last four decades. We have to change a little in order to maintain those high levels of service and amenities that make this a great community.
—-David M Greenwald reporting