by Jim Gray
The City of Davis and the Citizens of Davis are re-engaging in an effort to review and adopt a Downtown Specific Plan. This effort has been underway for nearly 4 years; on January 10, 2017, the City Council directed the City Staff to proceed with Core Area Plan, Zoning and Design Guideline Amendments. By way of background, the plan is intended to create a vision for downtown Davis through 2040. The plan is designed to create a guide for long term development policies and address recurring challenges and establish a vision for the kind of place that the community desires. I would like to challenge us to consider the plan in light of the Pandemic and encourage updating it to be more resilient and with an eye towards stimulating investment.
This process has been underway for four years, or in other words almost the entire time that Donald Trump has been president. A high school graduate could have finished their undergraduate degree at UCD in this time period. Or maybe a better way to think about it is that we have gone from a period of full employment and Goldilocks economy to Pandemic, Lockdown and Recession all while working to draft this plan.
No doubt about it, this planning effort has been really extensive. A Downtown Plan Advisory Committee (DPAC) was established with more than 20 community members. Well-meaning people volunteered their time and expertise. An outstanding consultant team was assembled that included Opticos Design, Aim Consulting, BAE Urban Economics, Fehr and Peers, Siegman and Associates, Lotus Water, Placeworks, Caravaglia Architecture, Farr Associates, Urban 3 and more. City Staff included City Manager Mike Webb, Director of Community Development and Sustainability Ashley Feeney, Director of Community and Business Engagement Diane Parro, and Planner and Project Manager Eric Lee and others. There have been numerous public forums and workshops, 25+ is my guesstimate and hundreds of citizens have participated. There are nearly 60 different formal written comments to the Draft EIR – 6 other City Commissions have formally responded to the Draft Plan and Draft EIR. Clearly, this has been a herculean effort. No expense has been spared. I hope we choose to measure success by the creation of a good implementable plan and not by process alone. No one can doubt the process or professional approach to date.
This coming week, the last week in October of 2020, there will be a Public Workshop on October 28th for the Draft Plan with the Davis Planning Commission. The purpose of the workshop will be to receive an updated staff report, to receive public comments, and particularly to focus on; Built Environment, Historic Resources, and Mobility and Parking. In addition, there will be a Notice of Preparation Public Hearing “Scoping Meeting” to receive comments on the adequacy of the Environmental Review, on Thursday October 29th. It is anticipated that in December there will be another Planning Commission Workshop dealing with Infrastructure, Implementation. And then a third workshop on the Draft Form Based Code will be calendared. The final EIR is scheduled to be ready in May or June of 2021 and the City Council will hear and review the final plan and document in June or July of 2021.
What do we have and what is missing? Are we about to get a Downtown Specific Plan which will stimulate economic investment into our downtown? Is this a plan to preserve the status quo or to guide us for the next two decades? This initial document was prepared prior to the Pandemic and I don’t believe addresses many potential threats and opportunities brought on by the public health crisis and the resulting economic and business changes. Here are some matters that I would like to recommend be considered as the Plan is coursing its way towards adoption.
- Theatres are closed, filing for bankruptcy, and most believe that this venue for the delivery of entertainment is destined to go the way of Vaudeville Shows. New movie releases will likely be streamed or on demand and the multi-screen and independent art cinema is likely to become as common as a Blockbuster video store. A recent LA Times article reports that 70% of the theatres are likely to file for bankruptcy. Downtown Davis has 3 theatre locations. One is City owned and two have large parking garages built to support the movies. Let’s update the Downtown Plan to encourage and stimulate redevelopment of the theatres for other uses. The theatre industry is asking for a taxpayer bail-out. Let’s face the facts and plan for better uses. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/business/story/2020-09-30/hollywood-fears-for-movies-theaters-survival-amid-covid-19-pandemic
- Amtrak Ridership through the Davis Station is reported to be down 87.5% during the Pandemic. Revenue is off 87.3%. Amtrak is warning of severe cutbacks in service and projecting multi-billion dollars losses for 2021. Amtrak ridership and the Capitol Corridor line are important pieces of infrastructure which should potentially be considered for adaptive reuse. There is plenty of parking and updating the plan to consider additional uses on this City owned Depot site is probably a good idea. https://csanders429.wordpress.com/2020/08/21/pandemic-still-depressing-capitol-corridor-ridership/
- When many of us think about downtown Davis we think about restaurants and the owners, chefs, and servers who provide us with our favorite foods and beverages. Most of downtown’s restaurants have been clobbered! I hope I am wrong, but I wouldn’t be surprised if 40%-75% of them fail in the coming year. Many of them are barely surviving right now, and most who are surviving are doing so because they have been able to establish outdoor seating in the street or public sidewalks. Parking for take-out and ease of pick-up and delivery isn’t addressed in the current plan. Each one of the restaurants needed a “special permit” to build their outside seating. Our proposed plan doesn’t do anything to streamline outdoor eating or pick up or delivery. Unfortunately, few if any of the on street outdoor dining venues appear to be a fit place to share a meal when the weather turns cold. The New York Times reported on a City program that has become a vital lifeline and allowed more than 10,000 restaurants and bars to take over sidewalks, streets and other public spaces in NYC. And to do so in a manner that will allow their use on cold winter days. Why don’t we have a competition for design ideas to allow attractive, permanent outdoor facilities? The City of Chicago just did that and came up with great ideas and designs. https://www.restaurantbusinessonline.com/operations/winners-chosen-chicagos-outdoor-dining-design-contest
- The proposed Plan has to have a realistic, honest conversation about Historic Resources. The Draft Plan identifies 25 buildings which are Historic in the downtown. It also has indicated that 7 more buildings should be added for Historic purposes. There is a suggestion that the bike lanes on 3rd Street also be designated Historic. As drafted, now the Plan will maintain existing historic protections including Historic Resource Management Commission (HRMC) review of significant project proposals “within 300 feet of designated historic resources”. The HRMC asked for clarification in their comments to the Plan; “that the Downtown Plan and Code would supplement the current HRMC process rather than replacing it.” It then goes on to suggest that no building or investment can be built within 300 feet of those 32 buildings without supplemental review, hearings, potentially new EIR’s on each project? I challenge the City Staff and consultants to map out the historic buildings and draw a 300-foot radius map from each site. Show that map to the public and to the property and business owners. Also show what impact a 300-foot buffer would have along the bike paths on Third Street from B to K Street. I believe that the math would show that there is at least a ½ acre buffer around each property that is “potentially historic”. Much of the downtown would need additional review and delay from investment. Let’s have a crucial conversation. Let’s have a plan and environmental document that is clear about what is a truly historic resource. Let’s solve or eliminate the setback idea. Adopting a plan full of duplication, creating special interest silos, and conflicting policies will not serve our downtown or lead to reinvestment and the resources for preservation. We have to find a balance! The National Main Street Center identifies that a better approach to Historic Preservation is called for. They point out that “we’re falling short in two specific ways: Firstly, our core preservation tools do not serve all kinds of preservation well—and in fact can undermine our broader efforts to save buildings and support the people and enterprises that enliven those buildings. Secondly, our financing mechanisms for building rehabilitation are inadequate to the task”. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-02-08/why-historic-preservation-needs-a-new-approach
- The University of California and the students and the events at our campus used to attract 40,000+ students to campus and our town and hundreds of thousands of visitors to Picnic Day, Whole Earth Festival, sporting and cultural events and to scientific and professional meetings. Those students and their parents and visitors are in many regards the lifeblood of demand for goods and services in our downtown and throughout our community. Attendance is virtual now in many regards, and most events have been canceled or curtailed. Our Plan has to envision slow-downs, recessions and unfortunately Pandemics. Figuring out how to bring more housing, more residences and more diversification and investment to downtown Davis should be the priority. Linking campus to the community should have greater focus as well.
- I think it is important that we recognize that the Pandemic and the public health response and good urban planning including planning related to climate change, embrace similar methodologies. Pandemic and the planning of resilient cities and regions by Reza Banai, of the Elsevier Public Health Emergency Collection of the National Institute of Health makes this point very well I believe. The emergence of the coronavirus Pandemic motivated that recent paper, September 15, 2020, which revisits the nexus of public health and the city, itself a main source of a pandemic which similarly threatens the lives and properties of the world population gradually through climate change. The paper argues that pandemics expose both the vulnerability and resilience of the urban system. The discussion of the urban system and the pandemic is comparative, with the recent coronavirus and climate change, a persistent, long-lasting pandemic. The paper notes implications for reconfiguring the resilient urban system of the future effectively with pandemic as change agent and the comprehensive plan and its regulatory zoning ordinance as implementation tool. Pandemics, while exposing the vulnerabilities of the urban system, are also a driver of positive change in planning resilient urban form of the future. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7490286/
In closing, I hope that we can quickly build upon the four years of work that are invested in the proposed Downtown Specific Plan. I hope that we can simplify the plan and heighten the focus upon attracting investment. I hope that we adopt a plan that sets a course on the future for downtown Davis that is resilient, innovative, dynamic and attractive. I think it is time to update the plan and have urgency in its adoption and implementation. I hope that we can incorporate and learn from many of the changes brought about by this horrible Pandemic. We have an opportunity to streamline and stimulate investment for the next 20 years. Or we can continue to fight decades long battles about our downtown and do so in a piecemeal approach, trying to make everyone happy, adopting conflicting public policies. If we choose the latter, this proposed plan that is still 9+ months away from adoption, will gather dust and be out of date before it is adopted. Much is at risk! We can do this!
Jim Gray is a longtime Davis resident, and commercial real estate broker and developer.
Support our work – to become a sustaining at $5 – $10- $25 per month hit the link: