Davis Downtown: Is an Enhanced Town Square the Way To Go?

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Looking through the notes from the recent Downtown Charrette, it seemed like there was a lot of area covered and, rather than trying to get to everything, I am going to highlight some key ideas – and here let us focus on the concept of a town square.

Refined guiding principles:

  1. Create an active and inclusive public realm that promotes civic engagement
  2. Create a memorable identity for downtown
  3. Reinforce a sense of place with appropriate character, balanced historical preservation and thoughtful transitions to adjacent neighborhoods
  4. Plan for compact and sustainable development
  5. Provide safe, convenient, multi-modal connectivity into and within downtown
  6. Craft a development program that is financially feasible, economically resilient, and equitable

The idea of the town square, per se, is somewhat uninspiring.  But what they are envisioning is an enhanced town square that has density and a better utilization of space.

If you look at the recent photo I took of E Street, you see the problem – the square is small.  The bulk of the plaza is filled with parking and it is not really very functional as a gathering space.

E Street Plaza is one of the few public spaces in downtown Davis

Right now the buildings to the north are single-story, the buildings to the south are two-story, and both are underutilized as space.

But there are also limitations to these possibilities.

They did some feasibility analysis.  They found that economics improves with density.  For-sale residential may be feasible, on larger lots and/or at higher densities or larger unit sizes.  Office over retail may work in unique circumstances involving high quality tenants.

They note that incorporating parking and/or affordable housing challenges economics further.  In the current environment, “owner-users may develop but returns are unattractive for investor/developers.”

They conclude: “Feasibility challenges in current environment should not preclude planning for change over the next 25-30 years.”

What is interesting, however, as we have noted, is this is similar to what the developers are planning to do at University Mall.  There they would take the existing single-story building and re-do the bottom floor which is retail, while adding three stories of residential.

On the other hand, it seems like the folks who bought the Brinley building are thinking of doing something similar in about 10 years.  They would have a lower floor of restaurants and retail and then add offices, potential flex space and residential to make it perhaps four stories –though the plans are very preliminary.

The Charrette also looked at possible changes along 2nd Street.

At the Design Workshop, “the team selected potential sites for infill, and studied possible scenarios for their incremental redevelopment.”

Stage 1 would be to promote redevelopment of the single-story buildings at street corners into four- to five-story mixed use buildings.

Stage 2 in years five to ten: “Promote further redevelopment of 1-2 story buildings along 2nd Street with 4-5 story mixed use buildings. Include larger opportunity sites in this stage.”

Stage 3: in years 10 to 20: “Over the next 20 years, the remaining underutilized parcels can also be redeveloped. All redevelopment would be guided by development standards that reflect the community vision.”

They also looked at C and 2nd Streets.

First, “Within a time frame of one to five years, enable infill through new accessory dwelling units on existing lots.”

Second, “Within a time frame of five to ten years, promote redevelopment of one story buildings on corners with 2 to 3 story residential buildings.”

Third, “Within a time frame of 10-20 years, promote redevelopment of additional one story buildings with 2 to 3 story residential buildings.”

Moreover, they propose an innovation district at G Street.

They note that the innovation district can accommodate up to 500,000 square feet in 4-5 story buildings.

They write: “The G Street district can be considered a large Opportunity Site that offers a range of possibilities for future redevelopment. One such proposal is to create an Innovation District to attract potential employers. Zoning in this district can be left more flexible to encourage a broad range of uses in medium to large sized buildings.”

Bruce Katz and Julie Wager in “The Rise of Urban Innovation Districts,” write: “Innovation districts constitute the ultimate mash up of entrepreneurs and educational institutions, start-ups and schools, mixed-use development and medical innovations, bike-sharing and bankable investments—all connected by transit, powered by clean energy, wired for digital technology, and fueled by caffeine.”

Finally on North G Street, they propose a new public plaza with four-story mixed-use buildings.

The view would be looking north on the strip mall site next to the Co-Op.

Thoughts on some of these proposals?

—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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30 thoughts on “Davis Downtown: Is an Enhanced Town Square the Way To Go?”

  1. Todd Edelman

    An enlightened, social safety net manifesting as the Commons. Capitalism, but not at expense of children.

    E St. Plaza should include all of E St. between 2nd and 3rd, the west half of F between 2nd and 3rd and the north side of 2nd between E and F.  A square is one thing, and a pedestrian zone is another, but their adjacent to each other. The former is a gathering and flexible space, the latter is a commercial street without car access. Automatic bollards can control space so it’s safe and quiet in the day but with access for early morning deliveries (and cleaning) plus of course exceptional emergency vehicle access. This is the way they do it successfully not just in Europe…

    A Shared Street, a fake democracy manifesting as deceptive Kool Aid for car-driving, good-hearted people

    See the visual of 2nd St. There’s access for ride hailing vehicles, but for no reason at all there is only one of them in the image. Now consider that private cars not part of some Uber/Lyft Neo-Liberal Clusterf*ck and you can see that the image is a lie. Saying “Shared” is not a magic wand that prevents motor vehicles from continually dominating a space via speed and mass.. Allowing autonomous shuttles and ridehailing/taxis under strict controls for both egress and speed might work.

    A more realistic shared street is for pedestrians, cyclists and autonomouslow shuttles, with the first dominant, the second deferring to the first and the last moving just above walking speed.

    The USA Crapitol of Cycling? It’s our choice.

    The City has lovely and achievable goals for bicycle modal share. The design shown for 2nd St as the main east-west corridor from campus to Amtrak will not do as much as it can for increasing this to 30% of all trips in the next couple of years, 40% by 2030 and 50% of all trips in town by 2040. Part of the problem is the “shared street” design, already mentioned.

    There should be two bicycle-priority routes through town, east to west and south to north, connecting the UC Davis campus at 1st St/ and 3rd, the Putah Creek Path/Arboretum, Old East Davis and 8th and H St. These routes should generally not require bikes to stop, and should be separate from major car and bus routes.

    There’s a problem because 3rd to Old East Davis is a natural and popular corridor that connects to the main east-west path on campus. For some reason the consultant team thinks that the 2nd St. route into campus can work with higher traffic volumes, but the route from A and 2nd to East Quad is serpentine and shared with pedestrians, with obstacles along the way. On the other hand, 3rd St. has a lot of destinations interesting for both pedestrians and cyclists, and 3rd between A and B is already planned as a shared street.

    So I think that a good idea for the east-west bike priority route, is  a compromise that has 1st/Shields further optimized for cycling as necessary, A St. with no parking at all, and one-way for motor vehicles, towards the south or the north starting at 2nd St, a 10 ft. lane, with physical-separation from the rest of A, which is a two-way path from 1st/Shields to 5th, connecting 1st/Shields and the east-west campus path starting at 3rd to Downtown via 2nd St, which between A and B will have parking on one-side only, and as necessary some parking for residents in the current Bear Diner parking lot space.  The 2nd St bike corridor would continue all the way to the Depot and then across the train tracks to 2nd St and J, continuing as a two-way path to the east.

    The north-south route will go from the Arboretum up D to 2nd where it joins the east-west path, then up G St past the Co-op and going around the bend to 8th and H and continuing up H all the way to and under Covell to F St.

    Design speed for bikes should be 15 mph and facilitating side-by-side cycling on a two-way path at least 15 ft. wide, with easy passing by a third cyclist (thus optimizing the route for Type 1 e-bikes, the kind that get assistance up to 20 mph, or so far 15 mph for bike share). Cyclists can use the other streets, except for all of E St. Plaza and the other pedestrian zones on E St. between 3rd and 2nd (or 1st), etc.

    ***

    Three to five floors everywhere, perhaps some six and seven. Last but not least: Housing for all economic levels. Downtown for all!

    1. Jim Hoch

      “Downtown for all!” This is an impossible goal. If you want kids down there you need to lower/eliminate the “psycho-meth head” population and as noted below the hyper aggressive dogs which are not just one breed. There is a crazy woman in the alley near the Pence gallery who has a couple of chihuahuas that need pepper spray.

      1. Keith O

        Shhhh, it’s not PC to blame the homeless that are drugged up for much of what is wrong with our downtown even though they represent a big part of the problem.

      2. Alan Miller

        > you need to lower/eliminate the “psycho-meth head” population

        I’m not hearing a lot of compathhhhhion from you!  #snap snap snap snap snap#

        1. Jim Hoch

          “a formal curse by a pope or a council of the Church, excommunicating a person or denouncing a doctrine.”  Looks like I need to fly to Rome and catch up on my ring kissing. 

          Interestingly I don’t see where I mentioned the homeless.

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            You wrote: “This is an impossible goal. If you want kids down there you need to lower/eliminate the “psycho-meth head” population and as noted below the hyper aggressive dogs which are not just one breed. There is a crazy woman in the alley near the Pence gallery who has a couple of chihuahuas that need pepper spray.”

            In your world, does it only count if you use the word?

        2. Jim Hoch

          In the world I live in a “psycho-meth head” may be housed either full time or intermittently. Conversely unhoused people can be quite rational and/or at least inoffensive.  If your income consists of $750/month from SSI living in a tent in an obscure location is a very rational decision. With $0 for rent you have $25 of spending money per day and many of your basic supplies can be had for gratis from various organizations.

          People of this description are not a problem, they tend to be low profile and avoid conflict with both the housed and the unhoused.

          Psycho-meth heads often have  a place to live but avoid it while binging. Many of the people you may think of as “homeless” are not really, it’s just that their home will not allow particular behaviors so they stay gone until they get tired enough.

  2. Ken A

    The only reason that the “E Street Plaza” is (as David says) “it is not really very functional as a gathering space” is not due to the size due to the homeless (and the pit bulls that the homeless like so much) that tends to keep most (but not all) families from “gathering” there (or going to Baskin Robbins for ice cream).

    P.S. Earlier this month I heard on the radio that Baskin Robbins closed and I was thinking that we were going to lose the Davis location:

    https://sf.eater.com/2018/7/13/17568730/last-baskin-robbins-ice-cream-closes-san-francisco

      1. Ken A

        It seems like most time people “gather” there are less than a dozen others.  The E Street Plaza is not a great spot for an event with 1,000 people but the size is fine as a “gathering” spot.  The list of things you “could” do in the plaza (like meeting friends before dinner or a puppet show for kids) is longer than the things you couldn’t do (like host the UCD graduation or land a 747)…

        1. David Greenwald

          It’s fine as a gathering spot.

          It’s not great for open air concerts or music.

          It’s not great for an outside venue or a mini-farmer’s market.

          It’s not great for a political rally or campaign.

          The two spots that seem to draw campaign announcements are Central Park and the Train Depot.

          The plans they presented seem to create more a place where you can have events in the heart of downtown.

          I guess we can discuss whether that would be helpful, but right now E St Plaza doesn’t serve that purpose.

          1. Don Shor

            It’s not great for open air concerts or music.

            It’s not great for an outside venue or a mini-farmer’s market.

            It’s not great for a political rally or campaign.

            The two spots that seem to draw campaign announcements are Central Park and the Train Depot.

            The plans they presented seem to create more a place where you can have events in the heart of downtown.

            Right. So we already have the open space needed for those purposes. I think a big plaza on E Street would be largely a waste of space.

          1. Don Shor

            I think E Street is pretty much fine the way it is right now. It functions, it is in scale to the businesses that are there.
            I think there is too much focus on the notion of open plazas in downtown areas as somehow being applicable to Davis. This article really makes some excellent points:
            http://urbanscale.com/blog/5-features-great-public-spaces/
            It isn’t the size of the plaza that makes it successful, it is the diversity and nature of the nearby businesses. Adding some residential would perhaps enhance that. Building tall (by Davis standards) buildings facing down onto a plaza makes that open space less open in feel. Redeveloping eliminates the local tenants, and the new rents required to sustain the redevelopment precludes them from returning. Then the property manager faces the same issue they’re dealing with at malls and strip shopping centers: they are trying to recruit tenants from an ever-dwindling number of small retail chains. Even fewer are willing to take a risk on a multi-year lease in a small college town. What that leaves is college-oriented eateries.
            Every time I see one of these imagined town plazas with little tables and fountains scattered about, I want to ask: in today’s changing retail environment, what are the retail stores you see populating this plaza to make it viable?
            I would suggest that multi-story buildings will change the retail mix of the downtown, and probably not for the better in terms of product selection or revenues to the city. Overall redevelopment would likely yield financial benefits, but for other reasons.
            I suggest a retail consultant may be missing from this process.

        2. Ken A

          It is just over two blocks to the current (Full Size) Farmers Market (Less than 1,000 feet as the crow flies) so I don’t think we need a “Mini” Farmers Market on E Street.

          It is not a great spot for a big “concert” but plenty of people over the years have gone there to play music (and often have some cash tossed in a guitar case or bucket).

          It may not be a great place for a big rally, but I have gone to small campaign events over the years there (for people who won).  The winning candidates may disagree with David that it is “not great” for an event.

        1. John D

          Yeah, just like SLO, only minus the…

          Downtown City Hall

          San Luis Obispo Superior Court

          San Luis County Clerk & GSA

          County Department of Planning, Building & PW

          Downtown Repertory Theatre

          San Luis Obispo Public Library

          US Post Office

          Mission San Luis Obispo de Telosa

          Abercrombie & Fitch

          Urban Outfitters

          Pottery Barn

          Banana Republic

          Victoria’s Secret & PINK

          Apple Store

          Ross Dress for Less

          San Luis Obispo Museum of Art

          Cal Poly Alumni Association

           

          While a larger Downtown Plaza would be nice – location, weather, proximity to other regional centers, and year-around tourism do make for major differences between the two Downtowns.

           

        2. John D

          More for David’s contemplation, then……in the event he might have misconstrued the TIC.

          Remarkable how many conflate SLO as an instructive comparator.

           

           

  3. Alan Miller

    TE is 100% correct on making 3rd Street the natural cross-downtown bikeway.

    Using 2nd makes no sense and if a consultant is recommending that they should be immediately dump-ED.

    1. Mark West

      I agree that 3rd is the more natural bike way, but I think the problem with the traffic plan is more basic. Downtown should be the destination, not the pathway to get somewhere else. This is especially true for car traffic. Transit through the downtown by auto should be the lowest priority consideration.  The plan should focus on transit to and from parking locations on the edges of the downtown, not on moving cars through the area. Blocking 3rd to through auto traffic would help with this process, as would putting the new central plaza on 3rd, between E and F (the only bold and forward thinking idea I’ve seen from this process so far). The 3rd street promenade first described in the 1961 CASP comes to mind.

  4. Mark West

    What is missing from this process is a financial analysis of the impact of proposed changes for the City. We have a greater than $8 million annual deficit in town, so all proposed changes need to include an assessment of the impact on that deficit. In order to accomplish that, the first step should have been an analysis of the net revenue for the downtown as a whole, and on a block by block basis (if not parcel by parcel).

    Once you have that, then potential options can be better evaluated. Does it make fiscal sense to expand E street plaza, giving up the parking revenue and adding new expenses for policing and maintenance, or would it be better to incorporate the existing plaza into a redevelopment project with the surrounding parcels?  This is just an example of the type of analysis and discussion that should have been at the core of the process. The design and function are important too, but it makes no sense to prioritize them over the fiscal reality that the City faces.  If the priority decision is that we need a new central plaza (in addition to the Farmer’s Market space) the financial analysis would help assess the optimal location.

     

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