Monday Morning Thoughts: If We Don’t Build It, They Can’t Come


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

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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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13 thoughts on “Monday Morning Thoughts: If We Don’t Build It, They Can’t Come”

  1. Rik Keller

    Greenwald: you are in full “Field of Schemes” campaign mode. In the opening paragraph you mistakenly conflate retail development and business/“innovation” park development. Then you desperately try to ignore the most comprehensive available study regarding the failed promises/hype of research park development. 
    Here’s the reality: you push a research park as the  key component of a solution to the City’s fiscal deficits. But research parks are a generally boondoggle that wildly overpromise and underdeliver. They aren’t even financially feasible with massive amounts of public financing. So then you’ll need to hype ancillary uses like hotels, retail, and residential needed to try to make such a project pencil out.
    This is how bad planning happens.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      “But research parks are a generally boondoggle…”

      But the basis for that statement is actually in question here. I’ve also pointed out that the city simply needs more commercial space and you haven’t addressed that point at all.

      1. Rik Keller

        Greenwald: you uncritically push the stale and failed ideas of people like Barry Broome without even bothering to examine the reality and actual performance of these types of developments.
        This is not community watchdog journalism. It is corporate lapdog blogging.

        1. Richard McCann

          I reviewed the study you are relying on from an earlier post, and I responded to the lack of validity in those findings. I’ll quickly summarize what I see as two key problems:
          – Biased data set: communities that developed innovation parks were more likely to be experiencing economic distress than those that didn’t. Why try to fix a problem that doesn’t exist? The study fails to account for the differences in economic trends between the two sets of communities, instead using a “snapshot” as two sets coincidentally pass each other on the economic ladder.
          – Serial correlation in the data: This is an econometrics problem, but the analysis failed to look at changes in trends, instead looking at base conditions which are dictated mostly by inertia. 
          So, I’m unconvinced by a single study that could have obvious problems.

        2. Craig Ross

          It appears his sole purpose here is to take potshots at David.  He didn’t respond to criticism of his sources.  He didn’t respond to questions about what he saw as the bigger answer.
          Not only are his scholarly links very dated (10 years is a lifetime in this field) but he’s also posting bloggers who have clear bias against this type of economic development (how ironic given his shots at David).

  2. Tia Will

    “It is not like we are building a bunch of buildings that will lie vacant for decades.”

    I would like to rephrase this. It is not like we are intending to build a bunch of buildings that will lie vacant for years. That does not mean that this is not a possible outcome. On the local level, look at the fate of the buildings on the Families First Site. Look at some of the storefronts downtown that have remained vacant for months ( years?). On a recent trip to Costa Rica, I saw another manifestation. Near the condo we rented was a massive structure which had clearly been intended as luxury apartments/condos, now gutted and remaining as a hulking, deteriorating skeleton. 

    My point? No one ever designates land or builds structures intending the project to fail. That does not mean that this is not a possible outcome. I am not arguing for or against anything other than this simplification of potential outcomes to include the favorable only.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      Yes Tia, and I agree with that point, but in this case, other than the basic infrastructure, you really would not build the buildings until someone is ready to move into them. That’s why the build out rate is over the course of several decades.

  3. Tia Will

    Yes. Understood. But setting the land aside for that purpose means that it becomes unavailable for other purposes which in the future might seem more pressing.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      That’s why we make a judgment at the start as to whether a high priority need is commercial development/ innovation park. There is a chance to change things down the line, of course.

    2. Mark West

      “But setting the land aside for that purpose means that it becomes unavailable for other purposes which in the future might seem more pressing.”

      Which is exactly why State law allows for zoning decisions to be revisited by a majority vote of the CC and why it is counterproductive to believe that the zoning, specific plans, design guidelines, neighborhood agreements, or any other planning document should be viewed as the final word and inviolate. The needs of our community will change in the future and consequently, we need to maintain flexibility.
      It is the economic situation in our community now that dictates the need for more land zoned for commercial development, a need that was in fact identified (and ignored) in the 2000 General Plan.

  4. Don Shor

    Not too long ago, when Sakata Seed America was looking to relocate some of its operations from Morgan Hill, there was an easy choice near Woodland.

    Land values in Morgan Hill, a pricey suburb roughly 15 minutes south of San Jose, were two to three times what they were in Yolo County, where Sakata ultimately decided to build its $18.5 million, 215-acre Woodland Innovation Center. Sakata, which had run smaller research operations in Woodland in the past, would have a larger center to recruit students from UC Davis — one of the world’s best agricultural schools. And Sakata could take greater advantage of one of the Capital Region’s secrets: It has some of the best land in the world to grow seed.

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