Guest Commentary: Thoughts on the Proposed Downtown Specific Plan, the Pandemic, and Attracting Needed Investment

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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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”.
  • 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.

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.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. Tia Will

    Thanks, Jim for this very thoughtful article. I would add just two more thoughts.

    1. During many discussions at the Board of Supervisors, I have heard devastatingly affected business owners plead to “open up” without realizing that there is no “opening up” without first adequately addressing the current and likely future course of the pandemic. Without controlling it, we will see no return to anything even vaguely approaching “business as usual”.

    2. There is too much about this particular virus we do not yet know. Will we develop a vaccine that allows for the coexistence of the virus and us as we have for the seasonal flu? If so, it would be a mistake to leap to a major transportation reconfiguration. Will people continue to do large amounts of work from home with a decrease in daily commute from pre-pandemic levels? Too soon to know.

    I am going to urge keeping all these and doubtless many other points in mind using qualities that many Americans, including myself, lack…patience, open-mindedness, and flexibility.


    1. Richard McCann


      On the change in commuting, the pandemic just accelerated a trend that was already happening. Businesses have found through this forced experiment that productivity did not decline (and may have improved). The question will be how much does it rebound due to the agglomeration benefits of colocated workers.

      1. David Greenwald

        This is going to be really interesting. I assume a lot of companies are like the Vanguard – there are things that work real well in the current world and things that would be better going back to the way things were – how do we mesh the two going forward will be interesting.

        1. Bill Marshall

          As will the fact that there could likely be other changes in the environment (or, “environment”… physical, political, and/or economic)… as they say in the mid-west, “Don’t like the weather?  Wait an hour…”

      2. Jim Gray

        Richard and Vanguard Readers— I agree the pandemic “has accelerated many changes that were already likely to happen”; in retail, restaurant, office, healthcare, hotels,  transportation and etc.  We have a schedule for 9-10 more months before the Downtown Specific Plan is Adopted. We face an important choice, do we acknowledge and embrace the fact that the Pandemic is accelerating  change and those potential impacts will be reviewed, debated, and considered?  Or Do we adopt a Plan that thinks the next 20 years will look like the Davis Downtown that was envisioned in 2019 before the Pandemic?

        Healthcare workers and social commentators talk about “Pandemic Fatigue”. They are “tired of this … they just want it to go away.”  Unfortunately it is a virus that is still here and it is  killing hundreds of thousands and disrupting and destroying plans and threatening our future.  Possibly there will be no quick and effective vaccine. Additional waves?  University towns have been identified as “particularly at risk”.

        The corollary to this is we have “Plan Fatigue”. We have been working on this plan for 4 years already and now we want to quantify its impacts.  Can’t we just be done with it? Let’s just adopt it and move on.  We don’t know what the future will bring anyway.

        But we cant let fatigue depress us and distract us from envisioning our new future. The answer is to be resilient.  As the healthcare workers have adopted to new manners and methods for care and best practices — so too can Davis plan for a different and better downtown plan based on reality not nostalgia.

        An update, a supplement that focuses on resilience, flexibility, investment, encouraging change could and should be done as an updated supplement to the proposed Plan! It could and should be done in a timely manner.

  2. Alan Miller

    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.

    I have great respect for Jim Gray and really appreciate this article.  However, I assure all that the Capitol Corridor isn’t going anywhere and the rail and station infrastructure will all be needed and will continue to be used for passenger rail.  It is true that ridership is down significantly for passenger rail, and the Capitol Corridor has been particularly hard hit because a high percentage of ridership is tech-job oriented and those riders have been able to work at home — some likely permanently.

    I oversee passenger rail service planning for California.  We have world-class teams keeping a pulse on ridership trends in the pandemic and working on alternative scenarios for rebuilding ridership as the pandemic eases, including a focus on emerging post-pandemic travel patterns and building an efficient network based on European scheduling principals.  Thus, there will also be a need to expand transfer facilities at the site as the new schedule patterns will allow efficient transfer to a web of shuttles feeding into the system.

    The State of California has declared passenger rail as an essential and growing element in meeting future transportation and environmental goals, and the pandemic has allowed us to take a pause and work with our agency partners in focusing on the future.  I assure you these are not just words: the Capitol Corridor and other state rail services will return strong and will better serve a wider array of travelers.

    There is plenty of parking at the station today, yes, as there is in all of downtown, but that will reverse as the pandemic eases — even if some former daily riders continue to work at home — because the parking lot was far over capacity on weekdays pre-pandemic.  While I agree some additional uses could be found for this site, it is a challenging piece of land to build on including the single point of auto access and that won’t be changing any decade soon.

    1. David Greenwald

      If people reduce the amount of commuting because they can telecommute either full or part time – how does that impact things?  I think it’s a legit question that we may not have the answer to.

      1. Alan Miller

        Some people will continue to work at home post-pandemic.  The question no one knows is how many.  Also, how much will business travel be reduced when in-person meetings can be replaced successfully with Zoom calls — probably a significant permanent reduction.

        Our strategy has been to divide ridership into categories and watch trends in real time.  The difficulty is there is no way to predict – yet – what recovery timing or relative return of ridership by category will be.  Be we are already seeing trends – and a slight but study uptick in ridership.

        MTC (Metropolitan Transportation Commission) in the Bay Area has already declared work-at-home and virtual meetings as a strategy in combating traffic and emissions, so a reduction in commuting itself is not a bad thing – though it hurts ridership in the near-term.  The recovery strategy will involve targeting non-commute markets, which are showing a stronger rebound.

      2. Bill Marshall

        “Passenger rail” is not confined to “commuter”, David… might change frequency of service, but not the need for service…

        Davisville (later, Davis) would likely be a Williams or Dunnigan (with nearby Interstates), and have no UCD without the railroad ‘hub’.  The triangle… also originally linking to Woodland, ‘and points north’, as well… hell (as in his nickname ‘give ’em hell’), Harry S Truman (note, no period after the “S”!) did a whistle stop in Davis during his presidential campaign… we (the public) have pictures!

        Trains are as much part of our community “identity” as bicycles… and the two work well together…

        Only for a year in my life, could I not hear trains at night…

        1. David Greenwald

          ““Passenger rail” is not confined to “commuter”, David… might change frequency of service, but not the need for service…”

          Don’t disagree.

        2. Alan Miller

          “Passenger rail” is not confined to “commuter” . . . . . might change frequency of service, but not the need for service…

          That is actually right on point.  Frequency, spacing, hours of service . . . this is all being looked at to serve the altered market, while reducing the overall number of trains temporarily as the pandemic continues, to keep costs down but keep a minimal, essential service running.

    2. Bill Marshall

      … and the rail and station infrastructure will all be needed and will continue to be used for passenger rail. 

      As will the environs… not perfect, but it is a ‘trans-modal’ (inter-modal?) hub… except for airplane, pretty much has it all… train, car, transit, bike, and pedestrian [the airplane thing is definitely not a happening thingy]

      And, perhaps for slightly different reasons, we’re great supporters of passenger rail… no longer commute, but for excursions, family visits (used to visit family in Denver and SLO), or vacation, first thing we look @ is rail… less stress than driving long distances, generally great scenery, reasonably priced (IMO)… also, more efficient, on several levels…

      In short, I agree with Alan M… who may be in a better position to answer the ? as to ownership… I believe the City owns the land, and the depot itself, but is in long-term lease agreements, other ‘requirements’ that came with the City financing improvements to the parking lot, depot, from State (FED?) funds…

      1. Alan Miller

        The ownership control agreements are complex!  The City has control of the interior of the triangle now (used to be the railroad), and the state funded the parking lot for rail passengers, but I’m not sure from a legal perspective how the ownership-control agreements are laid out.

    3. Jim Gray

      Alan and Vanguard Readers.  I am not in anyway suggesting doing away with or failing to recognize what a great resource we have in our Amtrak Depot.  Until recently I was a “frequent rider” to meetings in the Bay Area and to Sacramento.   My goal in using the Train Depot example is to point out that ridership- tourism, dollars spent in downtown by Train passengers has been dramatically impacted and reduced.  We also have a Depot parking loit and related buildings that are in my opinion not particularly enhanced or vibrant.  The Depot and the land, I believe , is owned by the City and I am amazed that we haven’t done a better job of envisioning “possibilities” and trying to attract mixed use private investment to the Depot.  As we recover and go forward wouldn’t it be great if our Depot was dynamic, mixed use, and attracted visitors from throughout the region.  Also it is amazing to me that we haven’t really spent time planning to better link the trains with the UCD Campus.

      In our journeys we have all seen great mixed use Depots. Trains, Food and Beverages, good landscape and public art.  We have a bit of that but it could be so much more.

      I think we also have to be aware that Heavy Passenger Trains are a bit of a dinosaur and require large amounts of public subsidy.  I know that Biden takes the trains and loves Amtrak — one more reason to hope he becomes the next president.

      1. Alan Miller

        As we recover and go forward wouldn’t it be great if our Depot was dynamic, mixed use, and attracted visitors from throughout the region.

        Yes.  What that looks like – that’s not been nailed down, and I doubt agreed upon, nor funded.

        Also it is amazing to me that we haven’t really spent time planning to better link the trains with the UCD Campus.

        There should be a direct bus that runs the same hours as the trains.  This will be made much easier with future, regularized train scheduling patterns.

        I think we also have to be aware that Heavy Passenger Trains are a bit of a dinosaur and require large amounts of public subsidy.

        You didn’t really just say that, did you?  This fallacy has been around since the Nixon years, and that way of thinking is what is dinosaur.  My entire career is based upon rail being our future, and I firmly believe that.  The truth that those of know in the industry – is that highways are massively funded, and airline tickets subsidized by the federal subsidy to the air traffic control system and local airport builds.  Vibrant travel options are good for the economy in all forms – you said so yourself in describing how much downtown is missing with the fewer passengers.

        I know that Biden takes the trains and loves Amtrak — one more reason to hope he becomes the next president.

        I wish I could comment on that, but will keep my mouth shut until retirement.

  3. David Greenwald

    The movie theater issue is interesting – not only the two theaters but also the parking garages that were hardly used even under the best of circumstances.

    1. Bill Marshall

      David… do you remember the “Fremont” in SLO?  Some movies are best viewed on the “big Screen”… ‘Gone With the Wind’, original ‘Star Wars’, others… the original Varsity Theater in Davis, is the closest thing we’ve had to the Fremont, Orpheum (SF), as to ‘historic’ theaters… Varsity went from one screen, to two, and back again… Varsity 2 will not mourn for… but absent structural deficiencies, would hate to see (would oppose) the Varsity go “Bye bye”… if structually unsound, well, “good knowing you”…

      The main two active theaters have parking atop… if the ground-level uses changed, I’d regret losing the statium seating @ Fifth and G, but might not miss the First and F theater…

  4. Richard McCann

    This is an excellent summary of the issues and echoes the themes I’ve been pointing out in posts here. (But I wish that Jim had voiced these concerns during the DISC webinar a few weeks ago because that was what I was trying to get at with my questions/comments.) That said, many of these issues fall outside of the Downtown Specific Plan and are better addressed in a City Economic Visioning Plan. We should undertake that planning process right after the election and try to reach some type of consensus on how we want to move forward. Responding to the pandemic is only one of the many issues that we need to face up to.

    One disagreement is that I agree with Alan that the rail station is unlikely to be changed in a significant way. (For one thing, I’m not sure who’s the property owner and I have to wonder why they haven’t already redeveloped it into an office space if its so well placed.) Note that Amtrak is only a small part of the traffic on that line with freight going by much more often, and that traffic is down only a small part, reflecting the recession/depression conditions.

    1. Bill Marshall

      We should undertake that planning process right after the election…

      Disagree… would prefer that the process is undertaken when the new CC members have been sworn in… just I like I believe(d) that the process for naming/ratifying/swearing in, a Supreme Court justice should be deferred… but it is what it is…

      Hard to tell what the “new” CC will look like… no more than 2 incumbents will move on… might be a 3rd who has previously served…

  5. Ron Oertel

    I never really understand what the “goal” is, regarding downtown (as well as access to Amtrak).  Make it more difficult for anyone who doesn’t live downtown?  Turn it into a semi-residential area? Similar to what they’re doing with University Mall?

    Maybe close off some more public streets, so that businesses/restaurants don’t have to provide their own space for THEIR customers? By making access more difficult and dangerous for anyone else?

    If you want people to ride the train, you provide/maintain sufficient parking at the station. Is that all that difficult to understand?

    1. Keith Echols

      Is parking a limiting issue for the Amtrak station?  I guess if it’s an issue they could always build a parking garage where the current parking lot is.

      As for the plan for downtown?  I always thought the civic plan was: pizzeria, coffee shop, burger place, taqueria, bar, book store, pizzeria, coffee shop, burger place, taqueria, movie theater, pizzeria, coffee shop, burger place, taqueria, Thai place, pizzeria, coffee shop, burger place, Chinese place,…….

      1. Bill Marshall

        Keith E… Amtrak will not build a parking structure… that would be a city project/cost… maybe getting some funding by State/Feds… but in the next 20 or so years (or more) don’t see that as a happening thing…

        Site too small, might actually lose parking in the triangle unless it was 4-5 stories… damn engineering considerations…

        1. Keith Echols

          Yes, I was thinking 5+ stories.  Luckily at that location, it wouldn’t block anyone’s view.  Maybe a parking structure could be financially feasible by capturing some tax revenue by putting some retail on the bottom level.  I’m thinking the town could use another pizza place, some craft organically grown avocado beer, boba toast café and maybe a vegan Sizzler.

        2. Alan Miller

          A parking structure is possible, but an expensive challenge.  The site is an odd shape, and no matter what size your structure is, you need the space for the up and down ramps.  There are also historic considerations with the depot as well as fitting in all the transportation needs at the depot.   And though the rail crossing only sees an occasional train, it is an active rail line, and funneling more traffic over this single entrance point may not be wise as the queue could back up around train time.  It’s also hard to justify the other two structures much of the time.  I will bet that the cost-per-space will be very high and the logistics just too problematic for this site.

  6. Ron Glick

    Twenty-five or thirty two historic setbacks with 300 feet setbacks? The question I have is not what is historic the question is what isn’t?

    Without an intermodal bus hub at the train station or nearby I don’t see the how the plan would make any sense.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Simple… “historic” is in the eye of the beholder… Some think that Mount Vernon, Monticello, Arlington (national cemetery, and Lee home) are historic… others believe they are affronts to history, as Wanshington, Jefferson, and Lee all were plantation owners, and had slaves… the eye of the beholder thingy… should they all be ‘leveled’?

      Or, should they be preserved, as part of our ‘history’, warts and all?

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