We Need Commercial Space and an Innovation Center—That Doesn’t Mean We Don’t Need to Make Sure This Is the Best Possible Project
There was a lot of confusion—at least by one commenter—on the difference between supporting the concept of an innovation center and supporting the current proposal. I want to clarify this as much as possible, as I think it is important for general understanding.
I have not been shy since probably 2013 about my belief that we need an innovation center. It comes down to a few key factors. One, we need to find more sources of revenue that are not tied to tax increases. Two, the city is too reliant on auto sales for its sales tax and does not have a diverse enough economic base. Three, we lag in per capita sales tax revenue. Fourth, we have a billion dollar university churning out high-tech spin-off opportunities and not taking advantage of it.
A final point to make is that, given the uncertainty about the economy longer term, I think it is even more urgent now than before—even though, as I have stated a number of times, this is really going to be a benefit to the community ten years from now rather than in the immediate term.
A key question is whether the need for innovation/high tech/commercial space needs to be peripheral.
Does it need to be peripheral?
In 2003, San Francisco took a long-underused swath of land just south of the new ballpark and turned it into Mission Bay. Unfortunately, we don’t have that type of available underutilized land at this time. Even the PG&E corporation yard is only listed at about 27 acres.
The question was pretty thoroughly analyzed back in 2010 when a lot of the questions first came up
Both the Innovation Park Task Force and Studio 30 analyzed available sites and their potential and came to the conclusion that we needed about 200 acres to do what needs to be done over a 20- to 25-year period of time.
The Studio 30 report analyzed the situation and came to the conclusion that we really need to do three things. First, develop existing spaces. Second, develop a near-in innovation space. At that time it was Nishi—but clearly now we are looking at Sierra Energy and the University Research Park. And third, we need peripheral.
The conclusion, as Studio 30 wrote, “The current isolated and dispersed sites that are available and appropriately zoned are not adequate in terms of size, location, or configuration (and related constraints) to address the emerging market need of an Innovation Center.”
That was true then, and it remains true now.
So yes, if you believe that we need more commercial space—and our analysis last year of available space that could be built in the next 10 years is probably about 60 acres in land that is no more than about 15 acres in contiguous size—then we need to go peripheral.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Aggie Research Campus is the answer.
The question that was posed was: Assuming that there are no drastic changes to the ARC proposal, do you support it?
While that seems straightforward, the reality is that we are still early in this process. They are still evaluating the Supplemental EIR. The planning commission has not a public meeting and the council has not weighed in.
A lot is going to change. And frankly, there is a lot I would still like to see with this project. Why would I declare support for the project now, even if I think we need the project?
The bottom line is that there are a number of changes I would like to see, and I am going to highlight five of them for this piece.
First, I agree with some of the public commenters at the BTSSC (Bicycling, Transportation and Street Safety Commission)—I think it was Nancy Price and Alan Pryor— in that we really need to have most of the mitigation measures locked into the project baseline features.
As Pam Gunnell noted in her comment on the Vanguard, we need “the certification of an SEIR which makes unequivocal the significant and unavoidable traffic impacts.”
In the end, a lot of voters will have to weigh between two key factors—traffic impacts and revenue generation.
We need to do everything we can to minimize those traffic impacts, as that is going to be a huge quality of life factor. But so too is the revenue generation.
Second, we need to create as much certainty with this project as possible. I don’t like the idea that a later governmental body will determine the affordable housing. We don’t need to do that.
What we should do is basically set aside land on the site, and turn it over to an affordable housing developer to raise the money and build the housing. And I would probably go further and suggest that we have an affordable housing site dedicated off-site as well.
Third, we saw what the fiscal analysis said in 2015. I think that, while $2 million in revenue is a good start—and also probably a conservative figure, we have the potential to hedge our bets by creating a $2 per square foot CFD (Community Facilities District). That would mean if the entire project gets built out to 2.6 million square feet, we generate around $5 million in revenue on top of the property and sales tax.
That is a good way to ensure that the project will generate the revenue we need it. That could push it from generating $2 million to $7 million—and $7 million is a game-changer.
Fourth, we need to reduce parking spaces. And lock into the baseline features a transportation plan to reduce traffic into the innovation center. There are a lot of ways we can do that. I favor a train and shuttle system, and maybe a Sacramento-based shuttle system as well. With a little innovation, we can solve some of the traffic issues.
I agree we cannot just wave a magic wand and reduce parking spaces, but we can create an enforceable plan that does so—and we need to do that.
Finally, there were concerns raised about whether the developer can get to 60 percent of the housing occupied by workers. There are ways to deal with that as well. I would like to see the developers put again into the baseline features commitments to co-housing that be owned and operated by the innovation center, rules that set the rental date for February so that students are less likely to attempt to move in, requirements that renters must pass independent credit checks or sublease from their companies, and also provisions that have companies purchase and subsidize housing on site.
The thing that always amazes me in these projects is that when you want something stopped, everything becomes an unmovable barrier. If your attitude is how can we improve something, you identify problems and then identify solutions.
I think that a lot points raised by the critics and outright opponents are important and need to be addressed. Where I disagree is the extent to which we can actually address them.
In the end we are going to have to trade off between potential traffic impacts and revenue, between preservation of open space and building on peripheral land and securing a sustainable economic future. Fortunately, I believe that the location of this project, locked in with conservation easements, mitigates those concerns—and I believe by building a project with such a long time horizon, we can actually reduce the overall pressure to grow on the periphery.
—David M. Greenwald reporting