The Planning Commission decided relatively early that they would not attempt to make a decision on Wednesday night. That’s because what turned out to be 100 people spoke (or more to the point, left messages) during public comment—with a heavy tilt toward support of the project. Sixty-six of the 100 callers outright supported it, and another nine did not take a clear position while 25 of them opposed the Davis Innovation & Sustainability Campus (DISC).
The matter will come back in a week with no public comment and only deliberation by the commissioners.
The commenters marked a tale of two cities. A large number of students called in, seeing the project as a way to create internships and jobs and to support student and university needs. Others including community members and business leaders also called in and saw the project as the route toward economic development and revenue for the city.
For those who opposed it, it was too large, it would change Davis, the process has been rushed and city staff and the developer have not been responsive to commission and community concerns.
Assistant City Manager Ashley Feeney told the city that “economic growth when done right translates to long-term fiscal health of the city. It provides additional dollars available to support city services.”
Feeney said that the city has “the opportunity to capitalize on being host city to the UC Davis campus.” There is value to that, he said. Companies see value in “being close to campus in that environment.”
He said having an innovation center “allows companies to locate and create an ecosystem that promotes monetizing research. That can pay big dividends.
“Are we maximizing the benefits of campus?” he asked. “We’d argue and the studies show that we are not.”
During his lengthy presentation, attorney Matt Keasling, representing the developers, noted that this project would use 100 percent renewable electricity and have all-electric residential units.
“This is the first business park in the nation that has made that commitment,” he said. “I saw a few comment letters that we should hold everything in Davis to a higher standard because we ought to expect more particularly in the areas that matter to this community in sustainability.
“This is a commitment that hasn’t been made anywhere else and you will have the first innovation park that makes that commitment to 100% renewable electricity,” Keasling said.
He added, “We also to my knowledge are the first for-sale residential project in the city that is committing to go 100 percent electric – that means no natural gas in our residential units. And that electric is all from renewable… generated locally and used locally.”
Matt Keasling addressed concerns about the use of the city-owned Howatt Ranch for drainage, from which the applicant has backed off, as well as the use of the agriculture buffer which is subject to agreement with the city and could be pulled back if no such agreement arose.
He addressed the issue of no demand for the project and the fear that some have that the developer will only build housing, pointing out that in order to make that change it would have to go back to the voters for approval.
His biggest point was perhaps with respect to UC Davis.
While stopping short of endorsement, in a letter from Mabel Salon who is the Community Relations Officer for the university, she wrote, “UC Davis supports the recent progress and strategic economic development led by the Cities of Davis, Woodland, Winters and West Sacramento.”
While UC Davis does not explicitly endorse local land use measures, they note, “We expect collaboration from many private and public partners to expand these ongoing successes and bring innovation forward with ideas that will ultimately become the next big thing.”
She adds, “UC Davis supports the effort of local cities to consider other strategic development projects in the region such as the Davis Innovation and Sustainability Campus, the Woodland Research and Technology Park, and the City of West Sacramento housing and riverside development efforts. With each of these projects having a unique development focus, a unique timeline and specific community serving attributes, we see an assembly of careful readiness strategies that are poised for community consideration and then approvals for construction.”
UC Davis called the project “a win-win for our overall regional community and for UC Davis.”
Students—undergraduate, graduate and a surprising number of international students—weighed in, in support of the project.
Several representatives from the Graduate Student Association weighed in. Jonathan Minnick and Gwen Chodur, who both spoke during public comment, supported the resolution that GSA unanimously endorsed.
In it, they argued, “DISC will provide opportunities for UC Davis graduate students, scientists, and engineers to spin-off technologies, thereby turning their research into a company in Davis.”
As the Vanguard published on Wednesday, ASUCD, the student government body, unanimously endorsed the project.
Kyle Krueger, ASUCD President, said, “This project would be incredibly beneficial to the student body.” He spoke of the work of a 12-member student environmental sustainability body which studied the project and determined that the project “is effectively mitigating environmental impacts.”
The Chair of the International Undergraduates at UC Davis noted that we are in a recession and there is no telling how long this downturn will last. “According to the experts, it could take our economy nine years to recover,” she said. “In nine years, we could have thousands of jobs generating millions for the city at the DISC. It’s coming at just the right moment to make our goals.”
On the other hand, Richard McCann, while not taking a position on the project itself, was dismayed that the city staff and developers ignored the recommendations of the Natural Resources Commission.
He found it most disturbing how the staff addressed the comments of the NRC. The commissioners met with the developers over a period of months to put forward recommendations.
“The staff report contains a number of objections that should have been addressed to the NRC during those meetings,” he said. “The Planning Commission should consider NRC recommendations on their merit with no further input from the staff. The developer should be able to speak for themselves to address the issues that were raised by the NRC.”
Students from Emerson Junior high expressed concern about the use of open space that is burrowing owl habitat.
Other community members expressed outright opposition to the project.
In a letter published separately in the Vanguard, Alan Pryor, a member of the NRC himself, accused the commission of “being played” by staff, “in order to ram through the DISC project under artificially imposed deadlines.”
He writes that “they have created an artificial deadline to get this before Council because they know that the less time you have to do a careful review of the project, the more likely it is that you will hustle it on to Council without any substantive changes…and this clearly benefits the Developer.”
Tim Hoban noted that the project was sold as being for technology, “but now is essentially a residential project.”
Former Planning Commissioner and Council Candidate Pam Gunnell noted that previously the MRIC (Mace Ranch Innovation Center) project had as an alternative the business park plus housing. In 2017, the EIR found “the mixed use alternative was environmentally superior.” But it was “only environmentally superior because the housing served the employees and it was never their goal to have housing as part of the business park.”
She said that in the current proposal, “the housing no longer served business park employees but was open to anyone. This cosmic shift came at the 11th hour.”
Ron Oertel added, “There are still 6000 spaces or allowed up to that amount, about 5000 of which are for non-residential usage. It’s really more of a residential proposal and you can tell that from the phasing of the housing with most of it being built during the first two phases.”
The commission will be back next week to determine whether they will recommend the council certify the EIR and move forward with placing the measure on the ballot.
—David M. Greenwald reporting