In 2016, we ran a series of analyses showing Davis near the bottom in per capita retail sales – importantly trailing other college towns in addition to regional neighbors. This weekend, we ran a story based on a city staff report showing that the amount of is generally too small to address our needs.
Based on that analysis, it seems that the city needs to create commercially zoned land that has infrastructure and other needs laid so that a company wanting to move here can do so. The concept of Innovation Center in Davis emerged from a series of meetings in 2010 backed by the research out of UC Davis’ Studio 30.
In examining the available land, Studio 30 writes: “The current isolated and dispersed sites that are available and appropriately zoned are not adequate in terms of size, location, or configuration (and related constraints) to address the emerging market need of an Innovation Center.”
Based on their view, they came up with the idea of the Dispersed Innovation Strategy.
“Studio 30’s research suggests that the City pursue a broad strategy to attract innovative businesses that offers a number of sites that are scalable and range in size so the community can accommodate an incubator, startups and expanding businesses. Some should be directly in contact with the University. This mix of small and large sites allows the city the flexibility to successfully attract, grow and retain innovation businesses. External sites have the potential to support the most jobs because of their size and ability to accommodate a wider variety of both size and type of businesses.”
Studio 30 concluded that the city needs at least 200 acres for development and expansion over at least a 20 year time horizon, though a more realistic window is probably 30 to 50 years.
For me this always seems like a realistic strategy. It is not like we are building a bunch of buildings that will lie vacant for decades. Instead, we are creating the land that is already zoned and set asideavailable commercially zoned land is small and the land we do have available for commercial development with infrastructure laid down. Moreover, if the location is MRIC, there is the added advantage that the land is surrounded by conservation easement – meaning that development there will not be sprawl inducing.
Some people apparently do not believe we need more commercially zoned land. But once you look at the available land in the city – really other than the near 15 acres at Chiles and Cowell and a couple of 6 acre cites in URP itself, there is nothing in the city that is developable and available above 4 acres.
The answer to that is obvious – we need additional land.
This weekend the pushback was the citation of a 2009 article by Marc Levine out of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His decade old research argues: “University research parks are particularly oversold as engines of local economic growth” and he specifically argues that “even world-class research universities are neither necessary nor sufficient in promoting local economic development.”
The article is a decade old, reading back through the Brookings’ Institute work from five years later, I’m not convinced Professor Levine’s research is timely.
But I also wonder how much it actually matters. Davis has had success bringing in a number of world class high tech companies in the last decade (Mori Seiki, HM Claus to name two off the top of my head). It has also been the focal point for a number of large companies that began as local startups and turned into much larger companies (Agraquest is a great example because it grew and when it no longer had space it was bought out by Bayer and then Monsanto and moved to West Sacramento, but also Marrone Bio Innovations and Shilling Robotics among many).
From my standpoint, there are certainly many successful examples of innovation centers and Davis remains well-positioned in this region to leverage that position into at least some modest economic development.
But even if you believe that Innovation Centers are foolhardy and risky proposition – what is the risk here?
Based on the analysis of available commercial property, we do not have enough to do even modest growth of adding one smallish company a year. To do anything – we need to add land.
If we do not create that land, companies will not come here.
What is the downside to undertaking an endeavor that approves 200 acres for high tech companies on the periphery of town? The land sits vacant for decades? How is that different from now?
MRIC is a good location because it is located right by the
freeway off-ramp, but it is also land that is pretty much surrounded by a conservation
easement – which means it is not sprawl inducing.
And worst case scenario, the build out expectation is 30 to 50 years – so we deal with our commercial land use needs for the next half century and if it doesn’t work out, we end up with vacant land sitting there – which is pretty much what it’s doing right now anyway.
Bottom line: there are no guarantees a commercial venture will ever work, but without approving any land we are guaranteeing it won’t work.
And at the end of the day, I really see no foreseeable downside to trying to make it work.
Disagree with that? Fine. What is your alternative? No commercial development? Smaller land set aside? Where do you set aside that land? Instead of hearing no, I’d rather hear alternative suggestions.
—David M. Greenwald reporting