A lot of changes are in the works for the city. This week we have seen three big ones, but there is more to come. Within a few months, several more senior planners are reportedly retiring and that department will look completely different in the next few months, especially from how it looked this time last year when Mike Webb was the community development director and Ashley Feeney was his chief assistant.
One of the big pieces of news this week is that the city is hiring a finance director. Given City Manager Mike Webb’s expertise on land use but not on finances, this was a move that made a good deal of sense. But what didn’t make a good deal of sense is why we have gone nearly four years without one – during times of great fiscal challenge.
A second big piece of news is the more or less formal confirmation that long-time City Attorney Harriet Steiner is retiring. At some point, we should probably revisit the fallout from the handling of the Picnic Day incident, because it has had a much greater impact than one might expect.
Finally, the city will be looking to make a hire to fill the vacant community development director spot. Mike Webb is going to have the opportunity to almost completely remake that department in the next few months. As noted a year ago, he was the director, but was promoted to city manager.
Ashley Feeney was the natural replacement for him, but this spring, he left to take another position in the private sector. The city has brought in the very capable Heidi Tschudin to be the interim. But now comes the time to fill that position permanently. We have heard that, in addition to the director, at least three long-time planners are planning to step down in the coming months – that is some turnover in a department that long had great stability.
Planning and land use is going to be an extremely important issue in the next few years. As we know, we have had numerous student housing proposals in recent years. But there will be a focus on downtown redevelopment, mixed-use, and probably affordable housing in the coming months and years.
At the same time, one of the biggest questions will be what the city manager intends to do about economic development. When the city of Davis brought in Chief Innovation Officer Rob White, they brought in a high profile, regionally respected individual who also had land use and other municipal experience.
However, when Mr. White left, the city replaced him with someone who lacked that kind of land use experience. Economic development in the last few years has seemed to take a back seat to other priorities, but what is clear is that the way forward to job creation and revenue generation will be a robust program.
The city manager has two options – he can hire the next planning director to be someone with economic development experience, or he can create a second position – economic development director, or whatever label you choose to make the positions separate.
My preference would be to have a planning director with background in economic development, but to have a separate position as the economic development director.
One of the biggest problems in the previous position is that we made a tremendous amount of progress until economic development devolved into land use disputes, and so I think the city needs to look at ways to keep the two functions separate.
Along those lines, the city needs to create a new economic development director and it needs to be a high level position. Why high level? In order to function properly it needs to be autonomous. One person I spoke to recently said that the EDD really needs to operate almost like an unofficial sixth councilmember – meeting with and working with the public. The position needs to be insulated from political pressure and I believe separated from land use and other more political issues.
This is the key. The EDD needs to focus on the vision of economic development, working to recruit companies and working with startups. If they get bogged down in land use issues, they will be much less effective.
I have already presented one of my ideas on how to achieve this. The basic idea is to create land that is set aside in a pre-approval process for innovation centers and commercial use. In other words, we should go through the land use fight first. We have our public process, we figure out what land use provisions we put on the spot, take it to a Measure R vote or the equivalent thereof and then turn it over to the EDD whose job it is design the space and recruit occupants.
This way the EDD does not have to micro-manage land use issues. Put it another way, issues like traffic impacts, LEED certification, transportation, mitigation and the like are all important issues for the community to address. But they are a distraction from why we have an economic development director.
The best way to fix that is to allow us to deal with those issues first – led by the planning department – and then turn things over to the economic development director.
Moreover, most folks wanting to build innovation centers are going to want to have a location that is more or less shovel-ready.
Look at the two recent examples. In Davis, we had Rob White solicit for applicants through the RFEI (Request for Expressions of Interest) process. That led to two good applications. However, once the applications were made, the process got bogged down in land use issues. Eventually, the Davis Innovation Center folded. The Mace Ranch Innovation Center got its EIR certified but has basically suspended its operation.
In the meantime, the folks from the Davis Innovation Center moved up the road to Woodland, where they have a project that has already been approved.
Who is going to want to invest millions in Davis when they can get approval elsewhere in the region, within six to 12 months, with no heartache?
One way for us to get around that problem is to duke out the land use details first, and then bring in people to make it happen.
One thing that is clear, and talking with all five current councilmembers confirms it, everyone sees the need for economic development. My one concern is that there is not really consensus on what that looks like – which is why the next hires will be so important.
—David M. Greenwald reporting