Monday Morning Thoughts: Key Questions Moving Forward on the Davis Downtown

E Street Plaza

On Tuesday, the council will receive an update to the progress of the Davis Downtown Plan.  While we have followed the progress of the public workshops and some of the planning, there are key questions that are going to have to be addressed.

One key question is going to be: what is the vision for the future of downtown?

There are those who believe that the downtown is great as it is.  I am not one of those.  For nearly seven years, I have worked every day in the downtown.  What I see is a downtown that is walkable, but increasingly brings together cars, bikes and pedestrians in a way that it often amazes me there are not more conflicts resulting in collision.

I see a downtown that is continuing to lose its retail base, as retail shifts away from the smaller store front and toward the internet age.

I see a downtown that is increasingly focused on restaurants and entertainment, even though in a lot of ways the downtown is lacking in quality of restaurants as well as quantity of entertainment.

Therefore to me the biggest question is what should our downtown be?  I see those who want it to stay as it is, those who want to emphasize the utilization of public spaces, and those who believe we should densify – with taller buildings, more residential and mixed use, and a utilization of street level retail and restaurants with office and flex space above and residential above that.

The Bay Area Economics (BAE) group prepared a pro forma on the financial feasibility “to evaluate the feasibility of retail, office, and residential (for-sale and for-rent) projects, including mixed-use projects.”  Their findings were not encouraging.

BAE concludes that “development feasibility in Downtown Davis is challenging under current conditions.”

The takeaway is that “developers undertaking speculative real estate development projects in Downtown Davis face unique challenges, including scarcity of sites, high site acquisition costs, and limited profitability.”

So if we are looking at the redevelopment of the downtown, a key question that the council is going to need to address is how is this going to move forward financially?

For many, one of the biggest challenges is that we as a community have basically said we are not going to grow outward for the foreseeable future.  The last major peripheral project in Davis was over 20 years ago, Wildhorse.  Since then we have voted down Covell Village in 2005.

Will the voters approve West Davis Active Adult Community?  Maybe.  But even if they do, that appears to be the only major peripheral development on the horizon for the foreseeable future.

There are many who believe that if we do not grow outward, we must densify.

We have seen some efforts to densify outside of the core area with Davis Housing Live and now the University Mall redevelopment project, both proposing seven stories.  But the six-story Trackside on the edge of downtown was reduced to four stories, and, even then, it incurred major pushback from its neighbors.

There also appears to be no great consensus that the downtown should densify.  Clearly that needs to be a discussion that is hashed out.  But the other key point to focus on is feasibility.

The key takeaways from the BAE Report were:

  • Economics improve 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
  • Incorporating parking and/or affordable housing challenges economics further
  • In the current environment, owner-users may develop but returns are unattractive for investor/developers
  • Feasibility challenges in the current environment should not preclude planning for change over the next 25-30 years

There are important ways that the City of Davis can positively influence development feasibility, including:

  • Reduce project risk and project timelines by establishing clear planning guidelines for the desired development types and reducing or eliminating discretionary review processes;
  • Allow increased densities, so that developers can achieve greater efficiencies of scale on the limited number of available sites, including better spreading out of the high cost of site acquisition;
  • Limit requirements imposed on downtown development projects which would translate to increased costs that do not bring corresponding revenue increases; and
  • Consider entering into public-private partnerships with developers to help put together feasible development projects that attract new businesses to downtown. This could include utilization of city-owned land on terms that help to bridge feasibility gaps where there is an expected return on the city’s involvement.

Given all of this analysis, here are some key questions that council should address sooner rather than later.

First, what is the vision for the Davis Downtown?  Are we seeing it as a continuation of what we have with small modifications?  Do we wish to enhance public spaces and entertainment possibilities?  Or do we see it as a place for economic development and mixed-use development, with larger scale residential meshing with urban uses?

Second, what do we see as our biggest advantage?  What do we offer that other communities cannot?

Third, what is the goal?  Do we see this as a way to finance city services?  Do we see this as a way to spawn economic development?  Do we see this as a job producer?  Are we attempting to bring people from the region into our downtown?  To what end?

Fourth, we need to understand feasibility.  How are we going to get the funding to finance whatever plan we do come up with?

Finally, are we going to play it safe or are we going to be bold?

The bottom line is we can have a great plan, but if it gets bogged down in community dissent or stalls due to lack of funding, it does us little good.  We need a way to move whatever comes out of this from conceptual phase to reality.  That is no small undertaking.

—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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5 thoughts on “Monday Morning Thoughts: Key Questions Moving Forward on the Davis Downtown”

  1. Tia Will

    “Reduce project risk and project timelines by establishing clear planning guidelines for the desired development types and reducing or eliminating discretionary review processes”

    How does this differ from “picking the winners and losers” that seems to be decried by much of our business community, unless it is perceived as to their advantage….sometimes called public-private partnerships which sometimes seem beneficial to both and sometimes not so much so.

    These are genuine questions since I know very little about business as you all know.

    1. Mark West

      “How does this differ…”

      The former incentivize certain types of development (by any potential developer or business owner) while the latter imposes an arbitrary process to determine which developers or business types will be allowed to utilize that incentive.

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