Answer: I don’t believe that we are.
Opponents of the Aggie Research Campus have found some fellow travelers among people who are more inclined to support the project—concerned that the ability of the city to process a large and complex project is compromised during the COVID-19 crisis.
From the start, the opposition to the Aggie Research Campus has been fighting the battle on process grounds. It actually seemed a little strange to me since I think they probably have a fairly potent argument with traffic impacts on Mace—that everyone acknowledges and clearly the city and applicants will have to resolve before the project goes forward to the voters.
The process issue is a more tricky. It is not clear that process issues matter to the average voter, who seems to weigh the downsides and inconveniences of a project against its need.
Nevertheless, at each step the opposition has attempted to argue that this process is rushed, they need more time, they need more input. This was all before COVID-19. Now they have an actual reason to make this comment, and I don’t believe that we should dismiss it flat out.
In Sunday’s Enterprise is an article that the review of ARC will continue during COVID-19.
“I wouldn’t support a delay in the EIR deadline that would compromise the opportunity for us to consider putting this project on the November ballot,” said Councilman Dan Carson. “And the reason why is when this crisis is over, we’re going to need housing and jobs and city revenue more than ever.
“We need to keep things in motion that could help with that. That’s without prejudicing the process that we need to have, the deliberative process,” Councilmember Carson added.
I agree largely with the councilmember. For those who argue that we can only do essential business, I wonder why future housing and jobs are not considered essential0—especially in the midst of a housing crisis and especially as we sit on the edge of a potentially devastating economic downturn.
In the comments, Colin Walsh, one of the leaders of the opposition, takes issue with the councilmember’s point.
“The question that Dan Carson does not answer, is why it is imperative to him to put this massive business park on the November ballot?” he asks. “There is no rush here.”
Colin Walsh is right, there is no rush here. But what he fails to explain is why putting a measure on for November—or at least moving forward toward that option—is rushing things.
Consider this: Aggie Research Campus re-emerged in early June of 2019. That means a November vote will be nearly 18 months later.
That also fails to appreciate that there has been a long process of discussion already. After all, the project initially came forward in June of 2014, as Mace Ranch Innovation Center. That is six years ago already.
It feels like we have been talking about an innovation project on that side of town for a long time—oh yeah, we are. The Studio 30 report came out in 2012 and, even before then, the site to the east of Mace was viewed a likely location for such a project.
We understand that there are complex traffic issues—we are well-versed already on Mace Blvd., having had this discussion now for over a year about traffic impacts there.
It has already had an EIR process. It will have effectively a second one. It will go through the full commission process.
Going through a normal EIR process is not rushing it. You might have argued as some did that Nishi in 2018 rushed through the process—though it too was a second run.
The voters, by the way, disregarded that complaint in 2018 and approved the Nishi project by a 60-40 margin.
So why November? Probably because we have a Measure R process that requires a project go on the ballot. As some have pointed out, Measure R gives us the right to vote and be the final say on projects—but that also imposes artificial timelines.
That means we have to finish the planning process by July in order to get it on for November—that’s still one year since the project came back forward.
Timelines for Measure R projects are always compressed by the necessity of the election timeline. Opponents of projects are always complaining that projects are rushed, but fail to recognize that the reason for that is the artificial timeline.
I don’t feel you can have it both ways—if you want a Measure R process, which I support strongly, then you have to accept that financing and others issues combined with the election timeline force the question to be called in a more compressed manner than you might prefer.
There are people who will be distracted during this time due to health concerns, child care issues and family illness. The city itself is focused heavily on the COVID-19 response. That might be a reason not to do things at this time.
On the other hand, a lot of people are simply sitting around in their homes, binge watching Netflix. The video conferencing alternatives make it easier to engage and follow at home. People can call in to do public comment and email their comments to the council and other commissions.
In a way, this has the potential for better engagement than before.
Frankly, I see no reason to determine that we can’t do this at this time. If we get to June and the world is still shut down, and things are looking grim to re-open the economy in time for the November election, I think that it is the appropriate time to re-consider a November ballot on this issue.
But we don’t have to make that decision today. If the world goes back to relative normal this summer, then I see no reason not to have an election on ARC. We will have plenty of time—based on past elections—to debate this project inside and out.
I think we should try to go through the process and see where we are in July. If at that point it looks ominous, then perhaps waiting a little longer is in everyone best interests. In the meantime, proceeding with the process is not rushing things.
—David M. Greenwald reporting