By David M. Greenwald
With the election coming up in just over two months, and ballots dropping in early October, about five weeks away, it is good to start an in-depth look at the issue of the Davis Innovation and Sustainability Campus (DISC). The opposition has posted their website, replete with arguments against the project, and this piece will evaluate those arguments.
The debate will come at an interesting time. On the one hand, traffic congestion is a centerpiece of their campaign, but traffic is down. On the other hand, lack of commercial space is the centerpiece to the Yes on DISC campaign, and the economic slow down has led to greater vacancies—in particular in the downtown, and, some will argue, has changed the way offices function, perhaps on a long-term basis.
The website leads with the quote from Davis Planning Commissioner Emily Shandy and her comment from February: “You want this to be the most sustainable, innovative tech campus in the United States. But you have come to us with a car-dominated, auto-centric proposal on the edge of town, far from the capitol corridor station, not linked to good transit, with huge parking lots and parking structures…”
But, of course, she also voted to move DISC forward to the council in June.
“We’ve been debating this project for a while—it’s come before us multiple times,” she said. “At this point if this is the project that they want to take before the voters and try their luck at the ballot, we should empower them to do that.”
They point to five specific facts: 24,000 cars added to Mace, 313,000 square feet of existing commercial space in Davis projected to become vacant, eight percent increase in Davis carbon footprint, 5600 parking spaces, and seven acres of Davis taxpayer-funded open space land used by developers.
Of the issues raised here, the traffic one is probably the most real. We know that Mace has during times of more normal travel been congested during peak hours, and we would expect the additional traffic generated by DISC to add to that.
How much and when is subject to some question. There are mitigation measures, there is a Transportation Demand Management Plan, and there are plans to expand the capacity of I-80—which will probably coincide with the ramp up of traffic at DISC, should it be approved.
During his comments at the Planning Commission meeting, Greg Rowe noted, “I still have questions about the 24,000 trips per day,” but added “the thing is that’s 20 to 25 years from now.” He said there’s time for the city and others “to figure that out.
“I still have a lot of reservations about the project,” he said. But “Davis has one of the most highly educated populations in the country… and I think there is really a need for a dynamic innovation culture in Davis to match the needs and abilities of our populace.” He noted, “I don’t think we can predict what’s going to be here in 20 or 25 years, but I don’t think we should be reluctant to change or to take a chance on getting there.”
Moving past the traffic issue, the claims get more spurious.
The opponents are citing 313,000 square feet of existing commercial space and arguing demand for business offices is plummeting. DISC has a sizable offering of office space at their project, but they are also offering lab, manufacturing and flex space.
The opposition argues: “This inexorable and unstoppable trend will cause a glut in existing office space, causing office rents to plummet while simultaneously precipitously lowering commercial property valuations.”
On the other hand, we know that Aggie Square, which is seeking medical-technology and other such innovation in Sacramento, has already filled its space. Davis seeking space to develop its Ag tech, clean tech and bio tech sectors is a natural draw and, given the build-out period of 20 to 25 years (and, really, 25 years is optimistic), you have to plan not for the near term but the long term.
The complaints also ignore a big part of why Davis needs to build DISC in the first place—they have lost a number of growing homegrown companies over the last decade, precisely because they lack move-up space.
Davis identified about 124 acres of vacant commercial space, but half of that is not available for many reasons and, of the space available, only one is as large as 14 acres and the rest are seven acres and smaller. That means that if another Mori Seiki with its more than $1 million in annual revenue for the city wanted to move here, they couldn’t do so.
The problem that Davis faces is laid out in the Studio 30 report from 2010, “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.”
The study continues, “With available reasonably priced land and effective marketing to innovative high tech companies, Studio 30 estimates Davis could absorb up to 10 percent or around 100,000 square feet of the 1-1.5 million industrial/office square footage absorbed annually in the Sacramento region. Because of this Studio 30 estimates Davis needs at least 200 acres for business development and expansion over a 20 +/- year time horizon.”
A third point that the opponents hit on is the eight percent increase to the Davis Carbon footprint.
This is a misleading argument as we have pointed out previously. The problem you have is that without this project it is not as though you don’t have people somewhere attempting to get to their work. The question is not whether DISC generates an increase to the Davis Carbon footprint, but rather whether it increases the overall carbon footprint.
The best way to think about this is that carbon emissions are largely a zero sum game in terms of global impacts. In other words, if I move 10 jobs to Davis, I’m removing 10 jobs from somewhere else. The sheer fact that I create 10 jobs in Davis does not all of sudden add those jobs to planet.
So the only real consideration here is whether the jobs or impact created by this project is greater than the impact created by the jobs being located elsewhere.
The question therefore rests on whether Davis’ requirements are more rigorous than the replacement level requirements would be.
Finally, we have the claim about seven acres “of Davis taxpayer funded open space being used by developers.” That seems to be the most dubious of these claims.
No on B claims: “The Developer also proposes satisfying the City’s agricultural buffer requirement by encroaching on the Mace-25 Open Space purchased with taxpayer funds. This is a breach of the public’s trust.”
From the June 30 CC staff report:
“A portion of the Ag Buffer was proposed to be located on the city’s property, known as Mace 25. There is no agreement on the project using a portion of Mace 25 as part of the agricultural buffer and the developer understands that they will be obligated to provide the buffer entirely on the DISC site if no agreement is reached in the future. The City is under no obligation to grant an easement on the Mace 25 for the project agricultural buffer. This is discussed in detail within Exhibit H of the Development Agreement.”
So it is true the developer did propose it, but the city did not grant it.
You can argue that they may grant it later—even though the city removed that from the DA and has not agreed to it. But to say that open space is “being used by developers” at this time is completely false and misleading.
To recap, I think their strongest claim is on the volume of cars and parking spaces. The time factor, however, will cushion that blow, as will design changes to the I-80 corridor expected to occur during the long build-out of this project.
The existing commercial space vacancies are probably overstated but there is clearly a bit more in the way of uncertainty now than there had been. Still, the tech industry has held up fairly well during this economic downturn, and the experience of Aggie Square bodes well for this project.
The carbon footprint projections miss the offset, and the seven acres is completely misleading.
—David M. Greenwald reporting