After five years and a number of false starts, MRIC (Mace Ranch Innovation Center) needed a rebrand, and thus it comes back as Aggie Research Campus which frankly is probably closer to what it really is. As the applicants put it: “The project is designed to support tech transfer from UC Davis and solidify Davis’ role as the ag-tech capital of the world.”
Soon we will get the full process and the community will get numerous chances to weigh in on the specifics of the project – many of which have not been unveiled as of yet – and ultimately say yay or nay through the Measure R process.
Naturally, there are a lot of details that will need to emerge – and should do so over the next few weeks and perhaps months.
Today I want to focus on a key change – the housing component. My expectation is that these are going to be workforce housing units – specifically designed to meet the needs of folks employed at the research park so they do not have to commute to work and add to traffic impacts.
How that will be structured has not been disclosed as of yet, and is likely a work in progress. But there are clearly ways to build the housing in order to maximize the number of people who work on the site.
Housing figures to be one of the bigger questions and perhaps more controversial components – although you can add traffic impacts, overall size, and benefit to the community to that mix.
A key part of this controversy stems from the original RFEI (Request for Expressions of Interest) that the city put out in May 2014 which included the provision: “Acknowledgement of community’s current desire for no residential to be included.”
However, the city by the time the EIR came out pushed for the inclusion of a mixed-use alternative. In a letter in December 2014, Dan Ramos wrote council: “[A]s we have proceeded over the last several months, our team has become convinced that a viable innovation center should contain a housing component such as the one reflected in the mixed-use alternative. This is interesting because we initially were highly opposed to the inclusion of a housing component in our project.”
He argues, “Over time, however, our view has changed. Why? First, because we have learned that cutting edge innovation centers now almost always contain a housing component, the primary purpose of which is to provide housing for those who work at the innovation center. This proximate housing is endemic of the unique live/work relationship prevalent in the tech industry and is essential to the effective marketing of innovation centers.”
The council considered and ultimately rejected the mixed-use project.
In February 2016, only then-Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis was willing to ask the developers to move forward with a mixed-use proposal. For Robb Davis, the city of Davis is “already in a housing crisis,” and “that crisis isn’t going to get better anytime soon.” He added that “we’re going to add a lot of jobs.” He said, “I do have a concern about where some of the people (are going to live).”
Will Arnold put it, when he ran for council in 2016, The main argument for having housing at the Mace Ranch Innovation Center is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” He said, “It’s my opinion that putting housing as part of the Mace Ranch project will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it will reduce them to zero because there will be no project.”
That may have been true in 2016. But in 2018, we saw two housing projects passed overwhelmingly by the voters – it might be time to update our assumptions.
MRIC with housing always made more sense, but for political considerations.
As we know, housing issues are critical for decisions by companies to move to Davis.
Dave Nystrom, the project manager of the University Research Park mixed-use project, told the Vanguard “one of the challenges (businesses in the park) face is hiring people because it’s so difficult to find housing in Davis. People I think have an expectation that if they’re going to work in Davis, they’re going to live in Dixon or Woodland or West Sacramento because the housing market is just so tight.”
Putting thousands of jobs in Davis without providing living space does not make sense from an economic development standpoint, and it doesn’t make sense from the carbon emission standpoint.
There will be those who will argue that we cannot ensure that the people living in the housing work at the park. Okay. But it will be structured as workforce housing.
Will students live there? Maybe. But there are simple factors that could work against it. For instance, they could create a rental cycle off the student cycle – with the rental period starting in February rather than September.
Also, the city is building thousands of student beds and the university is adding over 9000 – some students may move to this housing, but most will want to live in the new housing closer to campus.
If we are looking at this from a political perspective, recent approvals suggest that housing will not doom a Measure R project.
Is there another reason to oppose housing there? Obviously, the form and structure of the housing matters – but assuming they can get that part right, what is the reason for opposing housing?
Back in 2016, Brett Lee, then a councilmember and now the mayor, said: “I’m not in favor of housing on that site.” Instead, he thinks the focus for housing should be in the center of Davis where we centralize housing to the community and focus on densification.
Councilmember Lee did acknowledge that “the applicant has made a pretty good case for this idea that the better-designed innovation centers do have a mixed-use component.” However, “specific to the city of Davis, I am not in favor of a mixed-use component for this proposal.”
Will that change in 2019? Hard to know and Brett Lee declined comment to the Vanguard on a general question reacting to the proposal.
It makes sense from a GHG emissions standpoint and a housing need standpoint – so what good reason is there not to include housing?
Still, from a basic planning standpoint, having workforce housing the site makes more sense than not. It has the potential to reduce traffic impacts, it reduces GHG emissions, and it has the potential to address the need for housing for people working at the site.
—David M. Greenwald reporting