In 2012 campaign, there was no talk about development or housing. In a city like Davis, known for its divisive wars over growth from Mace Ranch to Wildhorse to Measure J and Covell Village this was a change. A change marked by the collapse of the real estate market and perhaps by growth fatigue that led to the narrow passage of Measure J in 2000, and Measure J’s less-narrow renewal in 2010 in the form of Measure R.
But starting in 2015 with the rising concern over student housing and the impending LRDP by UC Davis, growth returned as an issue. Nishi was on the ballot by 2016. By 2018, Davis had passed its first two Measure R projects – two electoral outcomes that as recently as the spring of 2018 seemed questionable if not unlikely.
The voters in Davis are no longer inclined to oppose every project. We have seen a substantial change over the last decade. In 2005 and 2009, large majorities opposed two projects – Covell Village and Wildhorse Ranch. But by 2016, the voting results started to shift. That year, Nishi was defeated, but much more narrowly than either Covell Village or Wildhorse Ranch, and then two years later in 2018, as the extent of the student housing crisis became clear and the housing crisis statewide has captured attention, both the projects put before the voters were approved by substantial margins.
Polling – some public and some private – now shows that housing affordability is the top issue in Davis, and nearly two-thirds of all voters are more likely than not to vote for new development(s).
Despite the recent Measure R electoral results, the opposition to growth in Davis remains strong. Opponents waged small but vigorous opposition campaigns to both Nishi and WDAAC in 2018. While they were decidedly on the minority side, the fights were strong – if perhaps a bit mild in comparison to Mace Ranch and Wildhorse of years past.
Davis voters remain highly polarized. And while it is true that the most recent electoral results show a majority supporting those two developments, there is still a strong contingent of 35 to 40 percent that will simply vote against any project. That reality means that every project that is put forward to a vote has a low margin for error – which is why in 2016, Nishi ended up losing despite a clear need for housing at that point. Some Davis voters argue that creating that low margin for error is exactly the intent of Measure Ja and Measure R. it forces developers to avoid any errors that move their project to the wrong side of the margin for error. Their argument is that better attention to detail in planning produces better projects – projects that are actually good for Davis.
If the pendulum has swung back toward the side of development, the major question for many people is, “Will that open the door to rapid growth like we saw from 1980 to 2000?”
In many ways, Davis has been the history of punctuated equilibrium.
From 1980 to 2000 for example, we saw the approval of major projects like Northstar, Wildhorse and Mace Ranch and the population during that period grew from 36,000 to 60,000.
And then it seemed to have gone too far and the pendulum swung back. The approval of Wildhorse with an affirming vote after opponents places the measure on the ballot and a bitterly waged campaign, along with the looming Covell Village project led to the passage of Measure J in 2000 by a narrow margin.
That was a major policy swing. From 2000 to 2013, there were no major projects approved in Davis and you can really argue that the full 20 year period marked a period of time where only the Cannery was built. There were no other major projects that were approved and built-in Davis from 2000 to 2020. The crash of the Housing Bubble and the “Great Recession” may have significantly contributed to that absence of major projects.
Indeed over the last twenty years have seen very little approved and a much more modest population growth going from 60 to 65 thousand in 2010. And currently estimated at 69,000.
So are we headed for a period of massive growth? Voting inclinations suggest that possibility. But as historians have pointed out, Davis has always had slow growth tendencies even when the actual reality on the ground did not match up.
I would argue there are a number of reasons why we won’t see a massive shift at this time. For one thing, Measure R is the law of the land. It requires voter approval of new projects. And while voters seem more inclined to support projects now than ten years ago, Measure R is a clear brake on growth. Second, major infill spots are filled. And third, even if the voters are more likely to support peripheral development – with the conservation easements that currently exist in the Davis Planning Area, the ability for the city to grow even if it wanted to peripherally is limited.
Finally, I would argue that boom and bust is not a great way to grow. With the Downtown Plan coming to a head and a General Plan update on the near horizon, I would argue we ought to look for a moderate path forward – somewhere between the small but dedicated group that wishes to block most if not all development and the group that is relatively small that wants to repeal Measure R and grow more rapidly.
First, we need to identify the housing that we need. With the student housing crisis, I was supportive of efforts to put mostly small scale apartments in town that could serve the needs of students. I think that made for solid growth principles in that it was infill, it was dense, it provided for a clear need, and student renters were encroaching into neighborhoods previously dominated by single-family homes.
Those trying to block Nishi and Lincoln40 with lawsuits, I think they do so at their own peril. Angering students as we have seen, slowing down the building of new homes could actually lead to the council approving more student housing.
With student housing largely taken care of for the next decade anyway, the city needs to look at ways to provide workforce and family housing. With limited ability to build on the periphery, that may be a huge challenge.
The Downtown Plan however at the very least could provide – if funding works out over time – opportunities to add to the housing base without huge disruptions to existing neighborhoods and without building on peripheral lands.
In terms of housing for families, that is more problematic. Here I think that apartments are poorly suited for families and too expensive. Looking at affordable by design – smaller homes as well as big “A” affordability is probably the way to go, but in the absence of government-provided redevelopment subsidies, funding will be problematic.
Finally, this city is not going to thrive without more revenue sources and a diverse economy. The city has long lacked a mechanism without taxation to provide for critical revenue and expand its economy. Moreover, we lack sufficient accessible and developable commercial space and any large space at all over about 14 acres.
A project like ARC would provide that space. But it also fits well with a middle-ground approach to development. Critics will point to 200 acres of development, 2.6 million square feet of R&D space, and 4300 or so parking spaces and argue this isn’t a middle ground approach – this is a massive project out of scale with the rest of Davis.
But that’s a limited view of the project. The flipside is that it is limited in several key ways. First, with a prolonged buildout period it could reasonably fill our commercial needs for as long as a quarter to half a century. That means that while would approve 200 acres today, it could take until 2040 or even 2070 before the land is filled and there is a need for more commercial space.
Moreover, the project itself is largely bounded by conservation easements which means that the project will not lead to more growth outward onto farmland. In fact, the project is more likely to help close a more or less permanent urban limit line preventing much in the way of additional growth in that part of the town.
Finally, it will help the city take care of its commercial and fiscal needs without the need to introduce more in the way of retail sprawl, of big boxes, and other means that cities add to their retail base.
In short, while it appears large on the surface, it actually helps limit future growth in Davis.
And that’s the key – approving growth that does not lead to more growth while filling current needs. Finding a sustainable middle path will be crucial to creating a viable future for Davis.
—David M. Greenwald reporting