The quote from the 2010 Studio 30 report is telling: “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.”
A current view of the city’s inventory of sites shows that the problem is even worse than many might have imagined.
City staff identified 124 acres of private vacant commercial land in the city. But that’s actually misleading in itself. When it comes down to it there are basically three large areas within the city that are vacant.
You have the area north of Sutter-Davis along John Jones at 27 acres. You have five parcels along Second St which are about 24 acres. And then you have a single parcel at Cowell and Chiles which is nearly 15 acres.
Of those, the one on John Jones is reserved for hospital expansion. The one on Second St is the Frontier Fertilizer sites and thus unlikely to support new development. And only the one on Chiles is really available. That was the location where there was a proposed R&D park for a time, but there are concerns that the location is too far from freeway access and the site itself at 15 acres is too small for an actual campus.
That is the problem – take out those sites and there is just 60 acres or so of vacant commercial land in the city. Just four of the remaining sites are even 6 acres. Of those, one will become Plaza 2555 while the other will become the URP Mixed-use project.
The best options for high tech commercial development appear to be near Sierra Energy’s project west of Richards, a vacant spot on URP, and some of the spots along Second St. But the numbers are few and far between and dwindling.
There are still some possibilities as Sierra Energy expands, as University Research Park could densify and the city could densify in the core. But if we are looking at a need for an innovation park campus that has the space requirements and access to the freeway, we really are looking at MRIC as being the best location for sizable development.
The demand for commercial development is very different from the demand for housing. It is not simply a matter of making land available. We need to have infrastructure in place so that a location is shovel ready because a commercial entity does not want to have to wait five years for an approval process, vote, and build out – they want to hit the ground running and get their business up and running as soon as possible.
It is not even a matter of build it and they will come. In many cases, what we have to do is recruit important companies and at times that means compete with other locations. For instance, Mori Seiki is a perfect example, we were fortunate to have appropriately zoned land in Davis, we had our selling points, but we had to win a recruiting battle against the Chicago Area to get the company to come to Davis.
Davis has some disadvantages in this process. Land in Davis is expensive. Development fees in Davis are higher than other areas. There is a longer process, particularly if there requires a vote and it is less predictable than other comparable communities. And there is the potential for litigation at the end of the approval process.
Nevertheless, as Barry Broome made clear in his presentation in November, Davis does offer a lot to prospective companies – moving research at the university to the lab and finally to the market is facilitated by the close proximity to the university. Davis has a brand name and a competitive edge in a number of fields.
What this inventory illustrates is that one barrier to expanding our economic development is the availability of appropriate land – there just isn’t much vacant land that is available for commercial development. That is why in 2010, the Studio 30 report recommended that Davis develop the close in Nishi – which has largely been substituted by Area 52 and the University Research Park – and a 200 acre peripheral innovation center which can serve larger companies and also startups.
What we now know is that the sites are even more limited than perhaps we really understood with 17 of the 27 sites less than 2.5 acres and most of the large sites infeasible for this type of development.
The clear next step is for us to expand our inventory with a peripheral park. While 200 acres seems like a huge addition – and it is since it’s actually more than 50 percent larger than the totality of all available land in the city – we need to keep in mind that we are looking at a 30 to 50 year build out.
That means once we approve this site, we are not going to need another expansion in the foreseeable future. Residents can look at this really as a one-time deal.
—David M. Greenwald reporting