Right now the way we do development projects is largely driven by developers. We have a developer who owns or controls a specific piece of land come forward with an application for a project. It goes through a city approval process whereby the community, the planning commission and ultimately the city council deliberate and weigh in on the project. If the council approves it and it lies outside the current city limits, it goes to a vote of the people and they get to have the final say.
I will argue that this process is not good for either the citizens or the developers. As we know, the voters have now approved just one in four Measure J/Measure R projects. The citizens get to weigh in on the process but the developers decide ultimately what they are willing to build, the type of project, etc. The council ultimately decides whether it is good enough to approve.
For the developers this is a lengthy, expensive, and ultimately uncertain process. The return on investment for housing is such that a few projects have come forward, but as we look toward our economic development needs, this process may simply be too uncertain.
We have had essentially three innovation park proposals come forward since 2014 and only Nishi in 2016 even got to the voters. The Davis Innovation Center project never got farther than an application. There was too much risk, too much uncertainty and, rather than risk millions on an uncertain planning process, the developers moved up to Woodland where their project has already been approved.
The Mace Ranch Innovation Center (MRIC) has already spent millions on an EIR which is certified by council, but they have financing problems and uncertainty about voter intentions. That project remains on hold.
Finally, Nishi as a mixed-use project got to the voters with 300,000 square feet of R&D space but it lost by 700 votes and the next iteration, which passed, does not have an innovation park component.
Given that developers who want to build research parks can go to other communities, I feel this process does not work. However, contrary to the beliefs of some, I do not believe we need to fundamentally change Measure R to change the way we approve these project. Instead, we can leave Measure R as it is and simply bring voter approval of a project to the fore.
Instead of having a developer submit an application, we should have a community-driven and city focused process to identify where and what we want. Put it on the ballot ourselves and if it gains voter approval, then allow the developers to come forward to design a project through the normal planning process for a non-Measure R project.
Here is how that would look. The council in consultation with the community would find a location where it wants to put the innovation center (you can do this for housing as well, but there are some advantages to doing it for an innovation center).
For example, I would suggest you start by looking at around 300 acres on the east side of Mace. Why 300? I would take 200 as an innovation center and 100 to put into either an urban farm or some sort of easement to protect open space on our borders.
Then instead of voting to approve a project, the voters would vote on whether to exempt that land from a further Measure R vote.
In order to do that we would need parameters. We will call them Baseline Project Features. Here is a big advantage for the community – there is no applicant, so we create the parameters we want. We can specify the density. We can specify the FAR (floor area ratio). We can specify sustainability features. We can specify environmental mitigations. We can specify traffic impact mitigations. We can specify that it has no housing or we can specify that it has housing.
We have to have an EIR, which would be an expense but it would not be a full EIR.
We then hold a vote. Someone asked, how are citizens supposed to vote on a project that hasn’t been defined?
That’s why I think this works better for an innovation center than housing. You don’t define an innovation center the same way you do housing. We have basic parameters that can only be changed through another vote like density and type of development, amount of commercial space, R&D space, but a lot of that has to be fluid since there is a long build out period anyway.
Why would the citizens do this?
First, they control the process. They don’t have to wait for a developer to come along. They don’t have to haggle over housing or types of sustainability features.
Second, it makes it far more likely that a developer can come forward with a project because they will have certainty.
Third, I really believe this is the only way we are going to get larger scale economic development.
What’s in it for the developer?
First, they get certainty. They don’t have to put money into a project and hope the voters will pass it.
Yes, they will probably have more requirements than they would had they initiated the process, but, at the end of the day, they know that they just need to work with the city within defined parameters and figure out a way to make it work.
What if the developer doesn’t want to develop that land?
That’s always a danger. Two things on that. First, by moving land within the urban boundary, we have increased its value greatly. That means if the developer doesn’t want to build it, they can probably flip the land to someone who does. Second, they may choose to hold onto the land until they are ready. But at least we have something approved and can work with them to convince them to develop it.
Are there risks and downsides?
There always are. In the end, we will prevent the developer from coming back with a housing proposal without a new vote. But working within the parameters gives a lot of leeway for things to go wrong.
Given that other communities are competing for innovation centers without a Measure R process, this is a way to get the university to partner with us, to get investors to buy in, and to get state funding for a project.
The best part from the perspective of many is that this will not impact Measure R at all. It leaves the measure intact – it simply shifts when the vote occurs.
—David M. Greenwald reporting