Guest Commentary: Will ARC Be an Urban Forest Breakthrough or Another Proven Self-Regulatory Failure?



ARC 2050: Propaganda or Vision?   This is a picture of what the developer says a tree-filled Aggie Research Campus will look like in 2050.  If history holds, it is just propaganda, just as are most architectural drawings are, which wildly over promise tree shade. 

Will Dan Ramos’ ARC project break the mold and be the truly “green development” picture here, or will it be as some claim: 40 acres of barren sunbaked parking surrounding an island of buildings and 4 and 6 story apartment buildings?   

Success is not just up to the developer, but city planners, who need to admit it is their existing methods of follow-on tree care that have failed,  and then explore new regulatory/maintenance methods.   In this, they have to remember these follow-on tree care rules are not for developers like Dan Ramos — people who promise good intentions and claim to love trees —  but rather some future out-of-town landlord who will be tasked with managing the project with the goal of reducing costs and improving cash flow.   

by Alan Hirsch

The tree planting plan for the Aggie Research Campus was presented to the Tree Commission Thursday Night.

It looks impressive:

*       7 ½ acre tree-lined park,
*       2 ½ mile-long bike path planted with trees along the Ag Buffer
*       Use of Innovative Suspended Pavement methods so Trees in their parking lots will thrive
*       A commitment to plant enough Trees so there is 80% shade on paths around buildings.

It is beyond what any other commercial development has proposed.

If followed through and done correctly this development, even the parking lots will be shaded urban forest.

BUT  the devil is in the details of implementation.

In Davis and most cities, there is a constant failure to successfully implement tree plans like these.  The pretty pictures of tree-shaded development shown to commissions, councils, and community as part of the approval process are rarely ever fulfilled.

Let me repeat that:  There is an unbroken pattern of failure by landlords and cities to maintain trees over the years.

The promises made initially, fail due to the self-regulation assumption that is built into city regulation.  Landlords, who take over from developers, almost always cut costs, since it is easy to ignore tree care as investors are focused on next quarter’s bottom line, rather than whether the trees are going to thrive over a five- or ten-year period.   And if you are an out-of-town owner, you only care about cash flow, not aesthetics.

Further, the city urban forest department does not have time or tools to enforce promises made by the developer on the subsequent landlords.  And policymakers have failed to incorporate enforcement mechanisms and substantial fines, even when tree abuse can be identified and prosecuted.  Fees are so low landlords look at them as just the “cost of doing business.”

The pattern of removal of large healthy street trees by three separate Davis gas station owners testify to this.

This is not the way it needs to be.

This is fixable if City Management is willing to ask developers, like Dan Ramos, to agree that subsequent landlords will follow a robust tree-care monitoring program to guide their landscape crews.

And the city should include in its base line conditions and the development agreement they and all subsequent property owners who do not follow the plan will be subject to significant, and repeating, annually escalating fines until the problems are addressed.  Fines need to far exceed the cost of tree care neglected by multiples of 5 or 10, so the fines are not written off as just the “cost of doing business.”

These are the four points that need to be nailed down before the citizens are asked to approve the ARC project via a Measure J/R vote, if we believe the pretty pictures being shown are more than propaganda.

These four points in the private/public partnership need to be memorialized in the Development Agreement in order to assure trees are fully a part of the ARC.

  1. The city needs to define best practices regarding both Tree Planting and Follow up Care for developers to follow.  Tree advocates, including the Tree Commission, have been asking for years for the city to update its two-decades-old tree standard but only recently has this effort been taken seriously by city management. Bravo to City Manager Mike Web for finally initiating this in December.
  2. Give developers a robust inspection protocol to assure successful initial planting by subcontractors, a protocol like that now in place for building permits where their reviews take place during the planting process, not just at the end when most the critical tree work is hidden in the ground.
  3. Have the developer reimburse the city for the full cost of 3rd party review of both initial plantings (2 above) and then follow on annual monitoring of trees. This includes the cost of city supervising and hiring an outside arborist to undertake an annual review of the thousands plus trees in this development.  It time to admit city staff does not have the time or resources to see if commercial developments are conforming to their promised landscape plan. The City needs to hire help with this…which the landlords should pay for it.
  4. Set up real and escalating financial consequences if there is no sustained maintenance of trees as (defined in  2 & 3).  These fines need to far exceed the cost of doing it right…and should be both inflation-adjusted given 100 years or longer life of this project.  Fine should also escalate rapidly year to year, and be on per tree basis so fine details are not lost.

Planting and growing trees is easy. What’s tough is the follow-through year after year of a number of minor tasks needed for them to thrive and become a thing of beauty and utility.  Residents and workers don’t have to settle for acres of gnarled stunted and nearly dead trees that define our city’s parking lots and commercial developments.

So, the real work of sustainability is not in specifying whether trees species are native or drought-tolerant, but setting up a workable system of inspection, monitoring, and enforcement so the trees are cared for over the long haul. The City needs to be willing to do something different, and Ramco needs to partner with the Urban Forestry department by acknowledging commercial property managers don’t care about the trees unless their incentives are built into regulations upfront.

Self-regulation of Tree Care does not work with commercial developments.

Promises Made, Promises Broken.   These are a few of the embarrassing oaks and other trees in the so-called “Oak Shade Mall” at Pole Line x Cowell. The developer promised this mall’s tree plan would accomplish 50% shade in the parking lot area after 15 years.  It’s now 25 years, the mall has changed hands and the new property manager seems to have forgotten this legal promise. But its non-enforceable tree promises, just like a those made  other commercial development around town.  The trees at Anderson Plaza (Anderson x West Covell), Market Place mall (W. Covell x Sycamore), Dollar Tree Mall (8th Street) Nugget mall (E. Covell x Pole Line) all are experiencing varying levels of neglect and city staff has no time or mechanism to enforce promises made as part of the entitlement process.  Self-regulation of Tree Care by commercial landlords does not work.  To add to the current problem the lack of transparency: The City cannot technically release to the public what was agreed to in the “landscape plans” due to copyright. means tree-activists, even city Tree Commissioners, are blocked from getting hard copies to comparing “trees promised” with “trees actual”.  The city should be requiring a release so these documents can be made public as part of the entitlement process.

Will Aggie Research Campus repeat this, or will the city change its method of regulation to assure promises made trees are actually kept?

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. Alan Hirsch

    I want to make it clear here: I believe the success of Urban Forestry Plan proposed by Ramco is up to the City, not the developer.

    I believe the developer will likely agree to what is necessary to bind future landlords to an agreed on tree plan.

    But the city has to ask.

    Last night City staff (Rob Cain and his supervisor Dale Summersile) made not a single comment about what guarantees they were asking to guarantee the innovative tree vision Ramco was presenting.

    I and others have been complaining about the condition of Parking Lot Trees for years, and hearing excuses from city staff that they don’t times or tools for enforcement.

    This is a chance to get it right.

    Up its up to the city.


    1. Bill Marshall

      Alan you have correctly pointed out some “stupid’s” the City and developers/subsequent owners have done… but the answer lies not, IMNSHO, in more City regulation/enforcement… or public ‘watchdogs’…

      I’m not an arborist, am an engineer… but I opine:

      The 50% shading requirement has always been quixotic, and bogus… a ‘fiat’ by utopians, with little regard for reality… and always blaming “someone else”…

      If you want a 50% canopy, say @ 20 years, you don’t plant trees in 3-4 foot diameter ‘tree wells’… even an ‘enginner’ knows that for most shade trees, the ‘canopy’ roughly corresponds to the root spread… hard to achieve when you are compacting earth for parking areas, then covering the future ‘root spread’ under impervious (water and air) pavement.  Duh!  Permeable pavers, gravel, ‘structural soil’, etc., designed and constructed to allow moisture and air to sustain trees, is a necessary stating point… Oak Tree Plaza (Covell @ Pole Line) is “classic”… planned and approved at the early part of the 50% shading by 20 year criteria… plans looked great (artists renditions)… but no botanical science… they used MH barrels with little water/air potential, compacted earth (90%+) and AC paving… that lot has been there 40 years… just look at the canopy!!!

      It is not just lazy landowners… it was stupid design, designs for failure… and it worked… failure…

      If one is serious about canopies in/over parking lots, you have to go in knowing that it does approach ‘rocket science’… much better designs, higher construction costs, much higher maintenance costs for the pavements… I believe the effort to achieve much better canopies is good, and should be pursued… but to do so, it has to go to a true commitment… early on… the “enforcement”/fine thingy, absent a commitment to good design and maintenance… well, ain’t going to do anything towards the ‘goal’ of shading canopy… might be a GF revenue generator tho’.

      Folk need to THINK… maybe why Rob Cain was silent [I strongly suspect he’d agree with me, at least on the basics]… unless there is a paradigm shift, there is no reasonable solution.  Banning of “tree topping” is silly, based on the (literally) underlying problems… same as to ‘performance standards’, after design/construction under the current rubrics…


      1. Alan Hirsch


        I think we probably agree on most thing.   esp difficulty of reaching 50% in 15 years…and.that is problematic legislating a standard that, to this time, seem unreachable for most of retail lots. (NOTE: Kaiser and some other industrial/owner occupied development lots have done a lot better…why?) .  That is why I duck the question on arguing for what is the right  “performance” standard (% shade) but suggest a “best efforts” standard… defined by annual monitoring of care by 3rd party arborist, hired by the city but reimbursed by property manager.

        If you wanted to correctly managed forest of 1000 trees, like ARC will be, you need professional help..(an arborist not a therapist) advising you and not just trust landscape crews with untrained workers would do the right thing.

        And I agree it is hard to get good tree canopy in parking lots unless some new (rocket science) techniques are used. Ramco has agree to this, that is why I say it can be a breakthough project…if there is follow through care.

        I would appreciate talking (Zooming?) with you 1;1 sometime to discover more of your thoughts.  Contact David G and he will give my email.

        Thanks for taking the time to engage with me on trees. You likely know more about paving — from rocks & rocket science – that me.  I’d love to learn from you.



  2. Alan Hirsch


    City Manager Mike Webb pointed I made a mistake in stating there was a “cover up” of landscape plans by not being able to release them to the public

    Mike is Absolutely Right:

    The plans are copy righted so they can not be released to public.

    The developer could theoretically sue the city for release of document saying how many and where Oak/Pear/Hackberries are planted in the Target Parking lot, and what flowers are planted where.

    There is no pro-active “cover up”  of document.

    But of course, result of this failure to release document means are citizens, even the tree commissioner,  are unable to audit if developer’s tree promises match current reality. And no one can see how well the city is doing policing the public interest around trees.  , The city did anything nothing to pro-actively to create this situation,

    Of course the city could have developers sign a release so public can obtain all landscape plans. Will be this asked for ARC and all future developments?

    So,  lets also add “full transparency by pre-approving public release of the final landscape plan”  to the regulatory reforms needed around trees.

    As my op ed suggests: success for ARC’s Tree plan is up to the City, not the developer.  The developer needs a partner.



    1. Bill Marshall

      Of course the city could have developers sign a release so public can obtain all landscape plans. Will be this asked for ARC and all future developments?

      Wrong question… will bet heavily, and give odds, that the developers don’t own the ‘copy-right’… more likely, the landscape architects… re-word the question, and the question is still a good one… the problem is likely that if the public has access, that ‘public’ will include competing landscape architects… who would then be entitled to ‘borrow/steal’ what amounts to intellectual property…

      Solution (if any) is above my paygrade, and beyond my ken…

      1. Alan Hirsch

        You probably right. the landscape architect probably owns the landscape plans copy right, and needs to be asked to sign the release—  but his client, the developer, and developer needs to get this as a condition of approval.  These documents needs to be made public documents.

        Will Davis make it a policy to the citty should obtain a copy right release for all landscape plans that are approved as part of a development?

        This is a question for Ashley Feeney, head of community planning and developments.



    1. Alan Hirsch

      The claim only 16 acre for parking.   this is tiny footprint, and assumably as it means a lot of parking garages.

      This project needs to break new ground by being transit oriented as 6000 cars/ 24000 trips a day in single occupant cars is “very 20th century” outlook.

      In my talks with the developer team, I am told they are trying to do Transit Oriented Development land use with hi density around bus lines to make it attractive….. but I am at this point unsure if they have done the best they can.


      1. David Greenwald

        I think by the time all is said and done we can get that number way down. One thing to think about, the current COVID crisis could completely change the way people think about work.

  3. Doby Fleeman

    I got the beauty of trees, particularly in parks, in greenbelts and along our city streets – but parking lots?

    Why not encourage the use of solar canopies over these areas?  If the city wants to encourage more solar why construct on Ag land and wildlife easements?

    Why not get a twofer – reduce heat islanding, reduce landlord maintenance, strengthen our local power grid, create new revenue model for the city?  Let city lease the land area for a nominal fee, then construct a solar farm using a model similar to Yolos Grasslands – but without compromising precious soils?

    Has anyone proposed this approach?


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