Analysis: Looking at the Case against DISC


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

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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21 thoughts on “Analysis: Looking at the Case against DISC”

  1. Matt Williams

    David, regarding the Ag Buffer, your comment is misleading.  The City has not said “No” to the developer’s proposal, their formal answer is that they can’t give a decision on the proposal at this moment.

    I feel an eerie parallel to the Cannery CFD.  The City couldn’t give a decision on the Cannery CFD when they signed the Development Agreement in 2014.  Then 12 months later, when the developer renewed their request for a CFD, the City said “yes” and burdened the taxpayers with over $21 million of additional property taxes.

    One wonders why the City is holding its options open in the case of this ag buffer?

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      Matt – I think it would be a fair assessment to say that the city did not say no, but they also did not say yes. The problem is the statement by opposition states that they do did say yes and that’s not accurate.

      In terms of the parallel, that’s speculation. I think the answer is that they haven’t decided what to do with the 25 acres which will be a separate conversation later.

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          This is the map that Alan is referring to:

          Answer is that no. The dashed lines are the property line, so the buffer is not on Mace-25.

          Question: why didn’t you check with the city before putting out false information?

      1. Matt Williams

        I think the answer is that they haven’t decided what to do with the 25 acres which will be a separate conversation later.

        That is true for the City, but it isn’t true for the voters.  The voters are forced to make a “yes” or “no” decision now.

        The parallel is very clear.  In the Cannery Development Agreement the “city did not say no, but they also did not say yes” with respect to the CFD.

        That ultimately cost the taxpayers over $21 million … and to add insult to injury, not one of those taxpayers was given the right to vote on the taxes they are having to pay for the Cannery CFD.

      2. Alan Pryor

        But to say that open space is “being used by developers” at this time is completely false and misleading.

        Well, since we did not actually say that I would have to say that it is your statement that is actually false and misleading. As you yourself stated above in your article,

        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. (emphasis added)

        Notice the word “proposes” in our statement and compare that with your statement claiming we said “open space is being used by developers”. So who is being completely false and misleading here?

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          Actually you (or someone did) and it changed.

          I had Cecilia photo this from home because I had directly copied and pasted the quote:

      3. Richard McCann

        Because the City has left the option open, if voters disagree and want that option foreclosed, they have to vote “no”. This is a continual problem with City development agreements, as Matt illustrated on the Cannery (and that’s only one of several examples there). The City needs to make firm commitments early on that cannot be negotiated away in the future. Unenforceable promises are inadequate, and perhaps voting down this project could be a message to the City management that it needs to stop installing back doors that give them latitude for giveaways to developers. (And the developers know this happen now so they end run others, like the commissions, to get City management to include these provisions.)

        1. Mark West

          A related problem is the City making demands/changes at the last minute, including ‘negotiating from the dais’ to squeeze that one last concession from the developer. This behavior is just as bad as are the unenforceable promises that Richard discusses because developers are now forced to limit concessions they may be willing to make early on in the process, knowing that they will likely be asked for ‘another million’ when the project comes before council for a decision. If the costs and requirements are all known in advance before a project is even proposed, with no opportunity for late ‘surprises’ of either kind (back doors or legal extortion), we will be far more successful creating the quality projects necessary to meet the needs of the community.

        2. Matt Williams

          I agree with both Richard and Mark.  Both of the behavior patterns they describe create an inefficient, overly time consuming, highly unreliable decision process.  It also feeds the high levels of distrust that exist in the community.

          How do we change that destructive cycle?  Better leadership.  We desperately need that from our Council members and from Senior City Management.

  2. Alan Pryor

    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.

    This is a true statement and it directlty speaks to why the DISC project produces far more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per employee than would other projects located closer to the regional population centers. 78% of the GHGs generated by the project are due to transportation impacts and the average commuter to DISC (and UCD for that matter) will generate far more Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) than would those with jobs closer to the regional population centers – i.e. on the other side of the causeway.

    So if a job in Sacramento reduces VMTs by 33% because it is closer to where a commuter lives, that reduces the transportation impacts by 25% and the overall projects GHG impact by about 25% (-33% x 78%). Since the annual greenhouse gas emisssions from DISC are over 37,000 metric ton equivalents (MTe) per year, a 25% annual reduction would equate to about 9,250 MTe less GHG emissions per year – or a reduction of almost 25,000,000 lbs of CO2e per year. That is huge.

    1. Ron Oertel

      This is a true statement.

      I’d have to disagree, in that it is not actually a true statement.

      This proposal isn’t even viable beyond the stages which include housing.  And if it was, it would then create a housing shortage.

      David’s bias appears throughout this “analysis” – including the comparison to the (publicly-susbidized) Aggie Square, on UCD’s land, adjacent to their medical center. David is referring to 8 acres, of the 24-acre Aggie Square site. It is quite small.

      A better comparison is the 350-acre proposal for Woodland, which “moved” there after failing in Davis.  (Like DISC, that proposal has not announced even a single commercial tenant.)



      1. Richard McCann

        What are you disputing in Alan’s “true statement”? Are you saying that overall net GHG emissions go up regardless of whether the project is located near a regional population center? Your subsequent comment has NO relationship to Alan’s point about GHG emissions–it’s about the wholly unrelated topic of financial viability.

        1. Ron Oertel

          Richard:  Your comment is a good example of why we should (all) read through subsequent comments, to see if such questions are already clarified further down the thread.

          It’s Alan’s description of David’s statement that I was responding to. I don’t believe that Alan intended it that way.

    2. Ron Oertel

      Another, more relevant comparison would be the failure of MRIC, itself. That proposal was given the “green light” to proceed. And yet, it was withdrawn, only to come back with (you guessed it) housing.

  3. Alan Pryor

    To recap, I think their strongest claim is on the volume of cars and parking spaces. The time factor, however, will cushion that blow,

    This is not a true statement. The time factor actually makes the problem worse! This is because the Transportation Study shows that pre-project background traffic on Mace will increase from 30,000 to about 46,000 trips per day over the next 20+ years even if the project is never done. So the “time factor” as you call it actually increases that blow!

    And this does not even include the DISC project traffic. With the DISC traffic the daily trips on Mace balloons to 70,000 trips per day – way more than twice the current level of traffic.

    As we said in our ballot argument,


    DISC is predicted to add more than 24,000 daily car trips onto Mace Blvd. when completed. But instead of guaranteeing specific reductions of this huge traffic burden on an already overly congested thoroughfare, the City is only requiring DISC to create a futureTransportation Demand Management Program. But “figuring it all later” is not a plan.
    We already know how poorly the City managed the still unresolved “Mace Mess” traffic fiasco on Mace Blvd. that backed up traffic for hours. That gridlock was due to the addition of only 400+ cars/day. How can Mace Blvd. possibly handle another 24,000 cars/day without turning it into a parking lot?

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