Commentary: How Our Downtown Plan Measures Up

Davis has been moving closer to a draft Downtown Plan that figures to transform the downtown – just how much is open to debate and some believe that the plan we are developing is pretty radical while others believe it has not gone far enough.

There was a good piece this week in “Next City” entitled, “Lessons for Any Downtown: How smaller interventions can reactivate, energize and sustain a city’s downtown.”  The piece, written by Alexander Garvin is excerpted from his book, The Heart of the City: Creating Vibrant Downtowns for a New Century.”

He argues: “urbanists should have been conceiving of ways to assist the downtown activists who are continuing to transform downtown America by attracting customers, improving services, altering the activities taking place in particular locations, erecting or converting buildings, changing land uses, opening businesses, and assisting the governments that are reducing the cost of doing business or living downtown.”

He lists six key objectives, “all of which can be of benefit to any downtown at any time.”

They are:

  • Establishing a distinctive image that identifies the downtown as a special, particularly desirable place;
  • Providing easy access to and convenient circulation within downtown;
  • Creating a public realm with plenty of room for people to pursue the activities for which they go downtown;
  • Sustaining a livable downtown environment that will attract and keep people downtown;
  • Reducing the cost of doing business downtown;
  • Making it easy to alter land uses, remodel existing buildings and build new facilities that meet the changing demands of downtown customers.

Distinctive image – this might be the key.  A lot of people believe our downtown is a success.  In some ways, it remains so.  But we have seen the decline of retail.  We have seen the shift from retail to restaurants and bars and entertainment.

One of the keys to the Davis Downtown Plan is the creation of public spaces where people can gather.  There is a sense in the community that the downtown remains a special and particularly desirable place – but as I have noted, that is a subjective view.

There are those who see restaurants and great entertainment options, but not everyone does.  Capturing that image is some of the keys to the new vision.

Providing easy access to and circulation – Davis prides itself on the walkable and bikeable downtown.  But many bicycle advocates do not believe that the downtown is that conducive for bicyclists with frequent stop signs and roads largely dedicated to motor vehicles.

Downtown parking as we know from the long debate over paid parking remains problematic.  The city sidestepped full paid parking by taking a half-measure – adding paid parking to surface parking lots but leaving on-street parking free.

The problem in the downtown right now is that during peak hours, the available parking on the surface streets is limited and below ideal.  That leads to recirculation and congestion.

The city lacks the resources to build additional supply, but others argue that the city does not have a supply issue, there are plenty of spaces available, for example at the Fourth and G lot, right now not enough people are accessing it.

Creating a public realm – In the early discussions focused on the idea of a New Davis Town Square with an objective of reinforcing the heart of the downtown.  The idea was, “Create an active and inclusive public realm that promotes civic engagement.”  Along the lines of the first item, “Create a memorable identity for downtown.”   And, “Reinforce a sense of place with appropriate character, balanced historical preservation and thoughtful transitions to adjacent neighborhoods.”

Sustaining a livable downtown – One of the big pushes for the Davis Downtown Plan will be looking at mixed use for the downtown.  As Michelle Byars explained last September, the DPAC’s first goal: “we believe that the addition of residential opportunities in the downtown will serve our community and the adjacent neighborhoods well.”

There is an overall belief that bringing more people into the Davis Downtown will enhance the character and economic activity of the downtown.

As Councilmember Will Arnold put it, “If it makes sense anywhere to incentivize folks doing mixed-use development, it would be my opinion that the downtown is where it makes sense.”

Councilmember Lucas Frerichs stated that “additional housing in our downtown is important for economy.”

“If we can bring additional housing to the core downtown that has a great lack of housing compared to comparable cities like us – you bring people, you bring economic activity,” Councilmember Dan Carson stated.

Reducing the cost – The biggest barrier to redevelopment is cost.  The BAE’s economic analysis, many scenarios do not pan out, but they found that economics improves with density.  For-sale residential may be feasible, on larger lots and/or at higher densities or larger unit sizes.  Office over retail may work in unique circumstances involving high quality tenants.

They note that incorporating parking and/or affordable housing challenges economics further.  In the current environment, “owner-users may develop but returns are unattractive for investor/developers.”

They conclude: “Feasibility challenges in current environment should not preclude planning for change over the next 25-30 years.”

The key question for the DPAC and ultimately the council may not be the vision of bringing more people to the downtown and developing a more vibrant and mixed-use environment, but the feasibility of making that pencil out along with the other goals.

One key idea for dealing with these costs – and a suggestion laid out by BAE – is to make the process as predictable as possible.

Ms. Byars stated, “We are convinced of the need for predictability for projects for the benefit of both the neighborhood and the businesses.” She said that they “are striving to help the consultants as they formulate the form-based codes intended to provide this certainty.”

“I think what investors fear most is uncertainty,” Councilmember Carson stated.

Altering Land Uses – Going hand-in hand with this will be the notion of form-based codes.

As Dan Carson put it: “If through our re-writing the codes, we can mitigate some of the great confusion… but just how do you navigate the planning process to build anything downtown and set up clear rules about what you can build… and clear demarcations about what you don’t want.”

City Manager Mike Webb stated, “With the form-based approach to things, there’s an element of durability to zoning, to the approach, as uses ebb and flow over time, as market conditions adjust over the decades, the form-based approach gives some resiliency to those changes.”

“The Form Based Code provides greater certainty for developers and residents in terms of process and building form,” the consultants write.  “The inclusion of this area will allow for potential development to be analyzed in the Environmental Impact Report for the Downtown Plan rather than having to analyze future projects on an individual basis.”

Bottom line: the downtown plan seems to be very cognizant of these six factors and the city and DPAC are moving to attempt to address many of them.

—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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    1. Bill Marshall

      Matt… fair question…

      To me, the answer to the question,

      “What is the Heart of the City of Davis?”

      … is the people… past, present, and future (if any future people are allowed, based on some folk who have commented)… yes, zoning, economic vitality, DT, any neighborhood may or may not figure into that, but the “community” is/was/will be the folk who live and/or work here…

      Be they students, renters, homeowners, homeless, etc., it’s the folk…

      Be it downtown business (retail/dining/entertainment, etc), neighborhood business, peripheral business, it’s the people… businesses of whatever stripe, would cease to exist without the people who do business with them…

      Now Matt, if you mean the ‘corporate entity’ of the City of Davis, would say/opine that is the people, including the best of the City employees, the best of those who serve on CC or Commissions…

      Just my opinion…

      1. Matt Williams

        Interesting and thought provoking answer Bill.

        Let me put that answer into context and then ask a follow-up question.  The context was shown by/during the recent State of the City presentations by Mayor Brett Lee and City Manager Mike Webb.  Specifically, amongst the many numbers they shared was an aggregate Annual Budget Shortfall (not enough Revenues to cover necessary Expenses/Costs) of $199 Million.  That was up $27 Million from last year’s $172 Million, which was up $16 Million from 2017’s $156 Million.  So in two years the annual Budget Shortfall has risen from $7.8 million to $10.0 Million.  That’s the context.  Here’s the follow-up question.

        Are the people … past, present, and future … going to make up that $10.0 Million a year Budget Shortfall?

    2. Edgar Wai

      Re: Matt

      I think the heart of the city should be downtown, although not exactly what downtown is today. I hope to see more places where people can make things together in downtown.

      Making things can include crafting, building bicycles, cooking, making furnitures, painting, playing/practicing music, discussing, writing books, making gifts.

      Downtown is a place where people can gather, share their dreams and turn each other’s wishes into reality.

      Then, when they work on things, of course they also need to eat and get supplies. Downtown could be the convenient place to get the supplies to make gifts. The purpose of life is to make gifts.

      Central park can be the lungs of a city.

      People are the blood.

      Our city don’t necessary need a strong retail to support downtown. We could have a strong crafter community and export stuff we make. Who wants to wear generic and brand name clothing when you can design and make your own unique outfit and stuff?

      If you can imagine it, we can make it, together in downtown.

      Davis on Google map looks like a heart, more so if we could include some part of UC Davis.

  1. Alan Miller

    “Reinforce a sense of place with appropriate character, balanced historical preservation and thoughtful transitions to adjacent neighborhoods.”

    Oops . . . tripped . . . caught yourself at the top of the staircase . . .

      1. Bill Marshall

        It wasn’t 30 years ago… not even close to that…

        Not saying Alan is ‘right’… Aggie Hotel had serious structural/building code issues…

        1. Alan Miller

          WM, Alan is right.

          No one expected the Aggie Hotel to remain as is.  What we asked for, as is done in many places, was to keep the historic facade, especially on the west side.  The rear of the building where the parking lot was could have been 4-5 stories and still blended in just fine, the south side could have been changed to store fronts.

          As with so many such structures, a victim of benign neglect.

        2. Bill Marshall

          Alan, note I was not saying you were wrong… just was not affirming the previous post of yours…

          I affirm the part about,

          What we asked for, as is done in many places, was to keep the historic facade, especially on the west side.

          There were technical issues (costly ones) that worked against that.

          As to “benign neglect”… went far beyond that… and not sure about ‘benign’ over many of those years…

          Fact also is, beyond lack of maintenance/repairs, the building codes changed a lot over the years… seismic, fire safety, use of asbestos-containing materials over the years, ADA, etc., etc.

          Kinda ‘like the Marshall Hotel in DT Sacramento… which is now also gone, but I understand they are trying to save a piece of the facade.  Buildings, like humans, are ‘mortal’ (and, in many cases, mortar)… but we should document their existence, their influence, and fondly remember our experiences with them…

        3. Mark West

          “What we asked for, as is done in many places, was to keep the historic facade, especially on the west side.”

          Why? So you might imagine that no changes have taken place? Some old buildings are worth saving, others are not. Half-way measures are mostly expensive and stupid. Aggie Hotel had some interesting history so maybe someone should write a book about it if they want. There was no justification for saving either it or the facade.

        4. Alan Miller


          Those of us who fought to preserve the Aggie Hotel believe in historic preservation as part of the fabric and character of a town.  There are many examples of towns who value this and have done amazing renovations with old buildings and facades.  See several such examples along the R Street corridor in Sacramento now.

          So you might imagine that no changes have taken place?

          No.  What does that even mean?

          Some old buildings are worth saving, others are not.

          True.  The Aggie Hotel was worth saving in our opinion (those that fought to preserve it).  It was at what many consider the main Davis corner (2nd & G).  Davis has very few saved buildings relative to nearby towns.  See Sacramento, Vacaville, Winters, Woodland.

          Half-way measures are mostly expensive and stupid.

          As I stated above, there are many examples of great building/facade renovations that create redevelopment while preserving the character of the area and making for great walking and retail areas.  Aggie Hotel, IMHO, was for Davis a great opportunity for such, lost.  You may have a different opinion and/or values, but using the word “stupid” is unnecessarily condescending.

          Aggie Hotel had some interesting history so maybe someone should write a book about it if they want.

          Someone did, as I’m sure you know.

          There was no justification for saving either it or the facade.

          Great minds, do not always think alike.  Despite what “they” say.

        5. Mark West

          Alan M. – The term I used was inappropriate, sorry. Preserving the ‘facade’ of an old building may be worthwhile if that idea works within the design of the new building, but it is also frequently quite expensive to accomplish. Was your group willing to put up the funds to help make that happen in this case, or were you expecting to spend the developer’s money?

          Redevelopment is already a very expensive proposition, so much so that it rarely happens in our downtown, which is why the buildings there are so dated and often rundown. While there is value in preserving the best of our past when appropriate, I see little value in preventing redevelopment in the name of preserving something simply because it is old.

        6. Matt Williams

          Alan, it is often said that Davis is an architectural wasteland (unlike Woodland, which has an abundance of architecturally meritorious buildings), but architectural beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  What buildings in Davis do you believe should be preserved because of their architectural merit?

          Which Davis buildings do you think should be preserved for reasons other than architectural merit/beauty?

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