Unprecedented is probably an overused term in politics. But the local political scene this year probably fits that notion to a tee. We have district elections, we have November city council races with direct challenges, we have a presidential race that figures to draw a lot of oxygen—depending on what it actually looks like, we have the potential for simultaneous school board and city council races, we have protests continuing across the nation, and, oh yeah, throw in a global pandemic with devastating local impacts.
Into that fray throw the Measure R vote for the Davis Innovation & Sustainability Campus. In normal times, normal years, this would be the focus. Now it will be far down on the list, and that probably will work to the advantage of the proponents as I will explain shortly.
But understand how much the picture in Davis has shifted. In 2011, voters got together and massed sufficient signatures to put the water project on the ballot in a revolt against proposed rate hikes. Now, according to well placed sources, there are more than 100 people organized to launch a petition drive because they want more people of color represented on the local school board.
Bottom line is that it may be more difficult to assess the playing field now than previously.
Here is what we do know. Going into the last month, there were a lot of complaints about the DISC project from various segments in the community. The project clearly did not address all of them, but they addressed most of them.
Frankly, we did not see a ton of opposition at the Planning Commission or City Council meetings. You can argue that the positive public comments were generated or manufactured by the yes side (and they may dispute those claims) but it is hard to escape the fact that the number of people calling in to oppose the project at two separate meetings was less than 20 different individuals. And given that all they had to do was make a phone call—they didn’t have to sit at a meeting for two to three hours to make their comment, that is a strong measure.
In 2019, the issue landscape was somewhat tilted against the project. There were huge concerns about Mace Blvd. and traffic. In fact, the city still has not implemented changes to the roadway, but
the applicants have caught a break due to COVID—traffic has at least temporarily subsided as an overriding concern.
Critics will no doubt use this as a major thrust—and rightly so, but the problem will likely not be staring South Davis residents in the face in the four months leading up to the election. That will play in the applicants’ favor.
More than just the traffic issue, the economy figures to be a huge issue. We are facing a potentially catastrophic economic crisis, and we don’t know how bad it will get. The economy could be shut down again. The economy could further collapse if benefits end from Washington. Locally, the business community has been decimated, expected windfalls from hotels will not materialize this cycle, and this is a project that over the long term figures to have strong economic upside.
The proponents will hammer on the economy, revenue, the affordable housing component which will be the largest in the city, and the high sustainability.
The opponents will push back, probably focusing heavily on traffic and the number of parking spaces. They will gain further fodder by arguing that there is no guarantee that the people living in the housing will work on site.
One important note is that, in 2018, the tone of the opposition seemed to work against them. People were concerned about housing, and the level of anger and frustration coming from the opposition campaigns in both the spring and fall did not match voter mood.
The political landscape is even more tilted away from local anger on land use issues this year than ever before. People are worried about the President, the economy, COVID … and now the issue of race and policing has dominated the landscape for over a month and is driving local politics. In this environment, will traditional Davis-political concerns resonate anymore? It is an open question that will be interesting to examine.
It will be interesting to see where the battleground here will be fought.
One area could be on sustainability. The critics have charged that this project is in effect a dinosaur. That it is a car-centric project, it will cause huge amounts of traffic to have to commute from Sacramento and elsewhere. That the impact of 6000 cars and 24,000 vehicle trips will dwarf any sustainability on the site.
That’s where this gets tricky. There is no doubt that there will be large local impacts—especially with traffic. But globally the impact is less clear. The project itself is not going to cause there to be more people, more vehicles globally, and therefore the impact is more nuanced.
If this project is greener than the alternative then it has the capacity to actually be a net reduction in vehicle miles traveled (VMT). This is not just theoretical. The EIR analysis found that the projected average VMT for people coming to this site will be lower than the average in Davis.
Moreover, Fehr & Peers “determined that there is a sizeable number of persons residing in the Sacramento metropolitan area that commute long distances to work destinations west of Davis, including many in the Bay Area.”
Thus they find, “If the employment component of the ARC Project could induce some of these employers to relocate their operations or operate satellite work centers at the project site, many of these trips could be ‘intercepted’, resulting in considerably shortened trip distances. This would reduce the project-generated VMT and VMT per service population below the estimates presented in this analysis.”
This is a heavily nuanced argument, but it demonstrates that these issues are far from black and white.
There are also three wildcards here—two on the positive side and one on the negative.
The letter from Mabel Salon has been heavily criticized for not being strong enough—fair point. Can UC Davis come forward with a stronger commitment and one from Chancellor Gary May?
Second, will there be a major announcement about an anchor tenant? Possibly even an agreement with the university for that, which could address both of these points in one fell swoop?
That would go a long way toward allaying concerns about viability—although the worst case scenario would be the land simply lying fallow.
Finally, while the city can show pretty convincingly the lack of available commercial space, you can argue that with COVID and now what companies have learned about telecommuting, they simply do not need the office space they did a year ago?
That’s speculative of course, but can weigh in on this discussion.
At the outset, the temperature in the room suggests that, if the project were on the ballot today, it would likely pass. Concerns about the economy, the city’s finances, and affordable housing are huge drivers.
That plays to the huge advantage of the applicants at this point, because the opposition would need to rise above the din to make the points about traffic impacts and other harm—in an environment where there will be far louder noise and they are limited in their ability to go door to door.
—David M. Greenwald reporting