Commentary: Rebranding MRIC as Aggie Research Campus… with Housing

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


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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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36 Comments

  1. Ron Glick

    From yesterday: “Once completed, the project proponents estimate it will annually generate $2.2 million in direct city revenue, and have an ongoing countywide economic impact of $2.65 billion of output.”

    79 comments so far on the previous story but not one mention of these numbers.

    My view is we need both the housing and the jobs but the city also needs revenue and this seems like a small amount for the city. I’m sure there will be other cash flows to the city and the school district from multiplier effects but it seems to me that the city should be getting much more out of a project that generates $2.65 billion in cash flow. I’d like to know how the city gets more out of the project than less than 0.1% of the $2.65 billion output?

    1. Rik Keller

      Ron G.: and who knows where those numbers came from? The EPS fiscal analysis done a few years ago has never been vetted, and includes highly inflated figures for rents/property valuations way out of line from actual regional figures.

  2. Ron Oertel

    I recall that David Greenwald recently and repeatedly claimed that the developer was not planning to include housing at the site.  And yet, Robb Davis claimed that the repeatedly developer told him that it was not feasible without housing, when he was on the council:

    https://www.davisvanguard.org/2019/06/a-look-back-at-a-discussion-on-economic-development-in-davis/#comment-408117

    These conflicting claims raise questions of basic honesty.  As well as the justification/reason for pursuing “innovation centers” in the first place. And the reason that other planned innovation and commercial sites have been converted entirely to housing.

      1. Ron Oertel

        I recall that you not only said it, you did so repeatedly on this blog.  You’re actually denying this?

        And as long as we’re discussing honesty, didn’t you also incorrectly claim that WDAAC is not occupying a portion of the former “Davis Innovation Center” site?

        1. David Greenwald

          I expressed an opinion that there wouldn’t be housing. The source of that claim was not based on the developer as I’ve had limited contact in the last year.

        2. Ron Oertel

          So now you’re parsing your (partial) response.  Incorrectly, I believe.

          When I have time, I’ll try to find some of your statements made this year.

        3. Ron Oertel

          Just looked at Robb Davis’ statement again, and noticed this:

          “Why? Because they had told me flat out that they could not build it without adding housing.  I heard this refrain over and over and it is also THE main reason DIC pulled out so early.”

          And yet, a housing development (WDAAC) was approved instead of an innovation center, on the Davis Innovation Center (DIC) site.  The same thing occurred with Nishi.

          Rather than Robb’s conclusion, one might conclude that developers want to build housing, instead of commercial developments.  (Probably even more so, with each local city suddenly attempting to land the same companies.)

          In the case of MRIC/Aggie Research Center, I suspect that the developers are finally “stuck” with at least some promises of commercial development, to go along with their “main course” of more housing on prime farmland.

        4. Rik Keller

          Ron O.: the developers are using the business park uses as a loss-leader to get what they really want: profitable residential development. And we can be sure that it is not actually going to be affordable workforce housing.

        5. Ron Oertel

          Rik:  That’s a good phrase for it (“loss leader”).

          Forgot to mention the Cannery site, in which it was noted on this blog that the owners flat-out refused to consider commercial development.  As well as the other sites around town, that are being converted from commercial to high-density residential.

        6. Rik Keller

          Ron O.: as I recall, you had post after post (correctly) predicting that the developers would return with a housing component. And Greenwald dismissed you every time.

  3. Alan Miller

    And yet, a housing development (WDAAC) was approved instead of an innovation center, on the Davis Innovation Center (DIC) site.  The same thing occurred with Nishi.

    You aren’t wrong on this.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Technically correct… yet so devoid of facts/causality… the facts are quite disparate between WDAAC/innovation center, and Nishi… and nearly all don’t face up to the facts regarding all the iterations of Nishi (3), or the fact that the Nishi property wasn’t even in Yolo County until the ‘1990’s…

      Or that Nishi still has legal access to Solano County.

      Folk here appear to care little (if at all) about facts… just opinions/agendas… whatever…

      Enjoy amusing/self-gratifying… live well in your fantasies…

  4. Rik Keller

    Greenwald stated “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.”

    What is this “expectation” based on? The project proponents have not provided any information regarding this. My expectation is that they will seek to maximize their return and that will provide a small percentage of affordable units as window dressing.

  5. Don Shor

     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.”

    I believe Will Arnold’s assessment is accurate.

    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.

    Nishi and WDAAC addressed provable (Nishi) and perceived (WDAAC) housing needs of particular segments of the population. Since “workforce housing” is meaningless in this case, and I doubt the Davis electorate perceives a desperate shortage of housing for young professionals,  I doubt a housing-included MRIC will pass at all, much less overwhelmingly.  I don’t think this is a comparable situation at all.

    If it didn’t pencil out without housing, why did they propose it initially without housing? Didn’t they vet their own project?

    1. David Greenwald

      Isn’t workforce housing a perceived need? Even some of the folks opposed to other projects have argued that we need workforce housing.

      1. Ron Oertel

        “Workforce housing” doesn’t have a definite meaning.  Nor does it necessarily refer to a development which creates an additional need.

        Some of the “folks opposed to other projects” have noted that approving housing developments intended entirely for students (which could be accommodated on campus) ensures that other needs are not met at those sites. Including pre-existing needs for affordable housing, commercial development, etc. (You know – the same “needs” that you’re now quite interested on focusing upon, but which would be exacerbated by MRIC/ARC.)

        1. Alan Miller

          “Workforce housing” doesn’t have a definite meaning.  Nor does it necessarily refer to a development which creates an additional need.

          Having lost $100 betting that the people of Davis weren’t stupid enough to vote for WDAAC because it helped puppies in need, I now believe that the people of Davis are stupid enough to believe that ‘workforce housing’ will also help puppies in need.

        2. David Greenwald

          That’s true they did – however both the council and voters disagreed with that view and attempted to address the student housing need first. So now we are on to the next issue.

      2. Ron Oertel

        I also have another suggestion for David:

        Each time that he attempts to downplay the existing commercial sites in Davis (or under-utilized sites), I’d suggest that he also include the total commercial acreage that was converted to housing (or questionable “mixed use”).  The tally should also include the sites that were initially proposed for innovation centers, but have since been approved for housing.

        After that’s accomplished, we can then talk about how the “shortage” of commercial space occurred, and the reasons for it. (Here’s a “hint” – developers prefer to build housing.)

        And if David does not accept this suggestion, I’ll probably be there to remind him of it. Repeatedly, even if he subsequently “forgets” this occurred.

        1. David Greenwald

          The problem is I don’t agree with most of your points here – I think they are deeply flawed. Let me give you an example. Cannery was a project I opposed. I think it was a bad project that was poorly executed. I supported at one time the notion that it could become some sort of a business park. The problem as I learned when I studied up on such things is that it was the wrong location for a business park – too far from freeway access. I still would have preferred a better project, but it’s hard to fault them from going away from commercial.

          The other example you give is the Davis Innovation Center. I think you could still build it in the land remaining up there, the problem is that you don’t have a developer who is interested. At the end of the day, it was going to be the Davis Innovation Center or now the Aggie Research Campus – do you really prefer the other location by that much?

          None of the other commercial sites in town are big enough to meet the needs that ARC will.

        2. Ron Oertel

          “The problem as I learned when I studied up on such things is that it was the wrong location for a business park – too far from freeway access.”

          “Freeway access” is precisely the reason that MRIC/ARC would attract inbound (and outbound) commuters.

          “The other example you give is the Davis Innovation Center. I think you could still build it in the land remaining up there, the problem is that you don’t have a developer who is interested.”

          Actually, I provided other examples as well – including Nishi, other sites around town that are being converted to residential, etc.

          The “problem” is that developers prefer to build housing.  Including the MRIC/ARC developer.  And they face even more challenges in attracting companies now, e.g., with the proposal that “migrated” from Davis.

          “At the end of the day, it was going to be the Davis Innovation Center or now the Aggie Research Campus – do you really prefer the other location by that much?”

          I’d have preferred that only one of those sites be developed at the most – preferably the WDAAC/DIC site.  Mace Curve provides a logical boundary for the city.  (And, the site consists of prime farmland.)  Not to mention the already-existing traffic impacts in and around Mace Blvd and I-80.

          “None of the other commercial sites in town are big enough to meet the needs that ARC will.”

          I wouldn’t assume that MRIC/ARC will pass – especially with housing (which appears to be the “real” goal of developers).

          Perhaps you could remind us of the initial “justification” for innovation centers in the first place. And again, how many acres of existing sites within or outside of the city have already been converted to housing – including the other proposed innovation center sites.

          After you tally this up, maybe then you can discuss the “shortage” of sites.

        3. Ron Oertel

          By the way, has the MRIC/ARC developer provided any indication of the commercial rents that they would charge?  And, how it would compare with other sites in the region?

          Also, might there be an incentive to provide a “sweet deal” for the first couple of commercial tenants, to “prove” that there’s market demand?

        4. Ron Oertel

          I would think that developers would know (in advance) what kind of commercial rent they could achieve (today), based upon the existing, comparable market rate in Davis and the region.

          It’s not likely that a new development in Davis will be “less expensive” today, or anytime in the future.  Probably a reason that the developers “need” the housing to subsidize the commercial development.  (What does that tell you regarding the probable price of the housing?)

          I’d also conclude that (in order to convince the council or voters that there’s sufficient market demand for commercial space at the price they ultimately need to charge), there’s a built-in incentive to offer a very good deal to the first commercial tenants. (Especially if those commercial tenants are willing to claim that they need “housing” for their employees. As if they’re not going to live someplace cheaper, nearby.)

          Then, they’d have approval to build what they really want – market rate housing.

    2. Bill Marshall

      If it didn’t pencil out without housing, why did they propose it initially without housing? Didn’t they vet their own project?  – Don

      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. – Article/David

      QED…

      The bolded text is consistent with what I have heard, from multiple sources… my assumption (based on the obvious) is that the proposal changed due to needing support from City planning staff…

      That said, having ‘workforce housing’, whether project generated, or helping with the current realities, sounds real good to me.

      If the project fails, no skin off my back… but the male bovine fecal matter thrown in this “discussion”, offends my olfactory organs… many arguments lack facts…

      And, for the usual opiners, at this point, am neither a proponent nor detractor.. I’d like to know more facts… there appear to be some, who care not about that…. so be it…
       

  6. Ron Oertel

    Alan:  Yeah – “workforce housing” might include people who work at establishments such as retail nurseries, restaurants, local retail, and people who work at UCD (from janitors all the way up to UCD professors).  (Not sure, but I believe the chancellor has his own possibly UCD-subsidized residence.)

    Anyone who is locally employed.  (A wide range.)

    Come to think of it, I guess that would include anyone who works in the region, as well.

  7. Ron Oertel

    David:  “So now we are on to the next issue.”

    Maybe for you.  I think it’s important to understand the bigger picture, as well as how you operate (which ultimately leads to an incessant advocacy for a sprawling, freeway-oriented development).

  8. Ron Oertel

    Regarding the “rebranding” effort, I wouldn’t be that surprised if the other planned centers “rename” themselves (e.g., “Aggie North” – Woodland, “Aggie West” – Dixon, etc.)  😉

    Of course, there’s already an “Aggie Square” – Sacramento, in the works.

    “Aggie all the time”!

    Probably should have built them all years ago – then no local city would be facing any fiscal challenges! Didn’t they realize how many millions they could have made by now, by “partnering” with these developers? 😉

  9. Alan Miller

    Odd acronym choice.  To most students in Davis, the ARC is what now encloses the old Rec Center on campus.  So Davis may have two ARC’s (very useful in case a biblical flood hits the Sacramento Valley).  It’s also where homeless students, many of whom apparently live in one of the Safeway Parking Lots (though no one will tell me which one), shower in the morning.

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