The city of Davis is suffering from a number of simultaneous challenges. Over the last few years, it has worked hard to address a student housing shortfall. But, while the city has approved housing for students, there are clear housing needs which have gone unaddressed for young workers, for university employees, and for families.
At the same time, the city is looking at ways to foster economic and commercial development, both as a means for job creation as well as out of the need for more certain tax revenue.
All of these challenges present themselves within a limited framework that makes growth on the periphery a slow, arduous, expensive and uncertain process. Many in the community have opposed further expansion outward. That leaves the internal option of infill and densification as an alternative.
At the same time, while the Davis Downtown remains vibrant, there are signs of cracks there as well. In recent decades, we have seen a shift in the downtown from a retail center to an entertainment center. While some people come to the core area to shop, most come for restaurants, bars, and movie theaters, along with coffee shops and other sources of entertainment.
There are key challenges that have been identified by the city as they head into a future downtown planning phase.
First, the core is an underutilized area. As we have noted, many of the buildings are single story and few go as high as four stories. That leaves very few residents in the core area. There is a work-live imbalance in the city of Davis as a whole, but in particular in the core area, as almost all of the employees live outside of the area.
Moreover, the site remains a challenge. The downtown has few vacant parcels, which means that redevelopment will require demolition and then rebuilding, an expensive process.
The city has commissioned consultants Opticos Design and appointed a citizen body to review the downtown and make recommendations. Their preliminary recommendations are to add residential opportunities in the downtown, increase building heights, mitigate costs and uncertainty through a uniform set of rules, and push for sustainability, among other things.
But change in Davis will prove to be difficult. Here I want to address some of the concerns about changes to the downtown and why these changes could improve things in the city.
We start with a smart growth perspective. There are those who believe we should focus on eliminating Measure R and growing on the periphery. For the most part, I don’t see the community supporting that approach and I think it is poor planning as well as poor environmental policy.
But that means if we are not willing to grow outward, we need to consider densification. Densification is problematic, as it puts existing residents into conflict with new growth.
If there is any place we should densify, it should be in the downtown core, as we put people into close proximity with jobs and commerce.
There are, in fact, jobs in the core area, with nearly 2500 – about 29 percent of all jobs located within the city (presumably excluding the university, just outside of the city). That is with a largely under-utilized downtown. Imagine what we could do with more residents in close proximity to retail and other establishments.
Imagine if we could produce flex space and additional office space, and undergo at least small-scale economic development.
Imagine if we could add incubators and startups to places where there is workforce housing, so that young professionals just out of college and looking to start their own company or looking to work for a startup have an actual place to live, in a new and exciting, more urban environment.
That seems to be at least one vision for what the downtown, in close proximity with the biggest economic engine in the region, could become.
But it will take some work to get there and not just because many in the community will resist.
As we have reported, the economic analysis is less than encouraging here. The Bay Area Economics (BAE) model found, as Matt Kowta put it, “the financial analysis demonstrates that it will be challenging for developers to put together feasible projects in the downtown area, particularly if they have to acquire sites in the open market that most likely include an existing structure with some economic life left.”
Those who believe that this effort is largely being pushed forward by developers are largely mistaken. The people on the Downtown Plan Advisory Committee (DPAC) are not developers. Most are community members. But they see the possibility of what the downtown could become.
But we will have to take steps to make this kind of redevelopment – particularly in an era without RDA (Redevelopment Agency) money – possible.
A big part of that is to reduce project risk and establish clear planning guidelines. This isn’t just an issue for developers. We saw this battle over Trackside, where the neighbors were the ones pushing back that the project violated existing guidelines. Part of the problem, as the city points out, is, “The current regulatory framework is confusing because of the six policy documents, two sets of guidelines, and the existing zoning.”
Certainty means certainty for everyone – neighbor and developer alike.
One thing that is clear is if we are going to redevelop, we are going to have to go bigger. BAE recommends we allow “increased densities, so that developers can achieve greater efficiencies of scale on the limited number of available sites, including better spreading the high cost of site acquisition.”
But there is also going to be conflict. There are those who want to impose affordable housing requirements, even on vertical mixed use. There are those who are pushing to go big on sustainability. In the words of Michelle Byars, Vice Chair of the DPAC, “It has been expressed by the citizens and DPAC as a desire for Davis to do something bold, cutting edge, and to be a global sustainability leader.”
Both the city council and the DPAC recognize the conflict there – the need for a balancing act.
Make no mistake – the challenges are real to try to find the resources to remake our downtown. It will be a challenge to figure out the financing. But the upside is, through this process, we may find a way to revitalize the downtown and the broader community – without the need to blow out our borders.
That is probably one area where consensus might be able to form. We have to remember, if we do not end up going up in the core, the pressure to go out on the periphery is going to ratchet up over the next decade and the trajectory of the city might depend on the perception of the residents for how things are going.
Through good planning, however, we may be able to be proactive and reshape our future using smart growth and environmentally responsible models.
—David M. Greenwald reporting