Over the next nine to ten days, the year of 2018 will run its course. We have seen some interesting changes in Davis in the last twelve months – last year at this time, we were asking if a Measure R vote could win – this year we saw two of them not only win, but win overwhelmingly. We have seen new leaders emerge on the city council and school board.
We also see that while some issues were resolved this year – some of the biggest questions will remain. (1) What will Davis decide to do about the downtown? (2) Will the voters renew Measure R and what will that look like? (3) Will voters renew the current sales tax and will the council consider additional taxes to pay for roads? (4) Will the city undertake economic development and will an MRIC project emerge in 2019? (5) Will the voters support a parcel tax to increase teacher compensation? (6) Will the nation sink into recession? (7) Will the state replace the former RDA with a new tax increment to fund affordable housing?
These are of course not all questions that we can and will answer in 2019. But the thing is that increasingly I view the world not as discrete years, but rather in terms of two year cycles. We just completed one two year cycle, the next two year cycle will culminate in election in 2020.
I am not really going to address point 6 as that moves quickly beyond our scope, other than to say that point 6 will probably play as big a role as any in determining the direction of the next two years. Already there are signs that the district may sink into another funding shortfall which will require the board to simultaneously consider maintaining our current level of programs while at the same time figuring out ways to address the compensation gap.
The city may well have to grapple with a decline in revenue in the short-term as it tries to figure out intermediate term solutions for infrastructure funding shortfalls, and longer term solutions for affordable housing and economic development.
But what I want to address is a bigger picture, 30,000 foot issue for the community. To me the big question is not whether we will have to change in the next decade, but rather in what way we will change.
Last week I was meeting with a city official and I made the point that if you look at the window of the café we are in, you see the real dilemma that we face as a community. On the surface you see a lovely small town that lacks congestion, has great character, and is quaint.
But look closely. If you look closely you will see single story buildings in the heart of town that is the underutilization of valuable and scarce space. If you look closely you will see empty retail establishments. If you look closely you will see a downtown that has transitioned away from retail as its commercial base. And if you look closely you will see the cracks on the pavement and notice that they go all the way to roadbed and thus the road which on the surface appears okay, actually needs to be ripped up and rebuild at great cost.
In a way, that is this community in a nutshell. It looks good on the surface, and only with a closer look do you see the problems. These are not necessarily problems that require us to fix immediately.
For too long we have ignored these problems. We want to preserve the Davis we love but many of us have failed to recognize that we cannot do this without making some change.
Davis is a community that is relatively small and affluent. Many people moved here because they prefer the small town atmosphere, they like the perceived safety, they like the engaged and informed electorate, they love the walkable and bikable community, and they either work for the university or like the proximity. Many have chosen to live here as well for our great schools.
For many years we have fought hard to protect the Davis that we envision. We have done this by limiting growth. We have done this by limiting the number of retail establishments so that we are not overrun by a peripheral mall and national chains.
We all want what is best for this community. Increasingly however, I see a community that is no longer sustainable long term without making some change.
My views on this have changed over the years because as I have learned more the facts have become rather unmistakable. Davis is on the verge of declining. I know that I repeat this point a lot and many view it as Chicken Little alarmism, but just as climate change is a very real threat to civilization, Davis faces its own existential threats that if we evaluate logically and use math, we can clearly see this is true.
We do not have the money to support our great schools. We do not have the money to support our roads let alone the parks, bike paths and green belts.
That is a reality. Don’t believe me? We just voted down a parcel tax for roads. How do you expect us to find the money to pave our roads into the future? The school board is about to put another parcel tax up for consideration because our schools lack money to attract and retain quality teachers.
This is the tip of the iceberg. We are not seeing the big picture.
We have choices as to how to approach this – but the plain and simple reality is that Davis as we know is not sustainable. We can continue to limit growth and Davis will become more expensive. We will also have to either cutback on city services which includes roads, parks and bike paths or we will have to raise taxes making Davis even less affordable.
I have not always seen this myself. I have come to these views over a good deal of time.
My evolution has been slow. When I first got involved I believed that Davis had come off a time of rapid growth and we needed to apply the brakes. I supported Measure J, opposed Covell Village and Cannery as too fast and the wrong kind of growth.
Recognizing before many the fiscal peril we were in – I fought to limit the growth of compensation and reform our pension system.
But by 2013, I realized that cuts alone were not enough and we needed revenue. And now having watched families and students struggle to find housing and jobs in Davis, I realize we have to do more there as well.
The key is balance. I still believe we can maintain the things we love about Davis, but by willing to make small and incremental changes. We should look at infill and densification as a way forward, but we also need economic development and I believe by developing MRIC, we can take advantage of our strengths as a community and expand on them.
Taking university research, transferring technology to build clean technologies that help feed the world are in conjunction with our professed values in this community.
We need to balance the need to grow and expand housing, jobs and revenue with our desire to keep Davis the great community it is.
The reality is that most of these proposals will mean some sort of modest change for Davis. Most of the housing proposals are not asking us to spread outward, but rather to grow upward, to become more dense. The voters did approve Nishi which is largely in most real ways infill.
The voters did approve WDAAC which is the first peripheral project approved since Wildhorse over 20 years ago. And I think adding a 200 acre innovation center with a 30 to 50 year build out will allow us to become fiscally sustainable with only a relatively modest impact on the overall community.
If we don’t make these kinds of changes you will see housing costs go up, fewer families with children living in town, a greater strain on our infrastructure, a declining quality of schools, roads, parks, bike paths and green belts.
So we have a choice – we can modestly growth to us allow us to preserve our great community with its amenities, or we can hold fast to what we have and watch as those very treasures slip out of our grasp.
That is the big question that we will have to grapple with in the cycle and beyond. We owe to future generations to at least be honest with ourselves as we plan their future.
—David M. Greenwald reporting