By David M. Greenwald
In Davis, if you look at some of the private polls, most developments start out with between 35 and 40 percent of the people automatically opposed to the project and they are pretty much going to oppose any project. That makes for a very narrow window for projects that can pass.
What we have seen is those projects like Nishi-2 and WDAAC that did not appear to have many external impacts have a chance to pass, while those with perceived traffic impacts have not.
So, right out of the gate, DISC had two strikes against it and pretty much everything went wrong for it from there and yet, as I write this, it is only about 850 votes behind and there is at least an outside chance that twelve thousand or so ballots remain to be counted in Davis (just guessing) and that those could flip the result.
I wouldn’t bet on it though—simply illustrating how close it actually was.
When the project was first assessed back in 2014, there were strict orders not to put housing into the project. By the time it came back in 2019, it had 850 units of housing.
This was a tricky issue, but honestly, especially in 2019 at the height of the housing crisis, how can you put forward a commercial project of this size without at least some housing?
There was some talk that this project morphed into a housing project, but if you look at the baseline features, you realize that they have to build out one-tenth of the commercial space before they can add housing. This wasn’t a project where they could build housing, sell it, and use the housing revenue to fund commercial.
They put the number of housing units in kind of the middle. The fact that they had housing clearly upset some voters. The fact that they didn’t have enough housing to accommodate all of the housing needs left them open to criticism that they would create additional housing demand.
If they come back with another proposal, I would suggest they put more housing on the site. You will get hit no matter what you do in this respect, so you might as well attempt to maximize the reduction in vehicle trips.
Proposing this project during COVID probably didn’t help greatly. We are definitely during a time of uncertainty. There were those who believe that we might see a radical shift in the way we do commercial business, and I agree. But at the end of the day, there are a lot of things for which you still need physical space—manufacturing, wet labs, experiments, and even things like collaboration and incubation.
What is the future going to look like? We don’t know. We don’t know if this will lead to huge shifts away from commutes and working in offices.
At the same time, we know that the tech industry, clean technology, agricultural tech, food science, bio tech and the like will be in huge demand in the future. Those I spoke to in and around the industry—both those with interests in the Davis market and those without, believe that Davis will have no problem filling the space and the demand is there to absorb 100,000 square feet a year.
It is never a perfect time anyway. After all, had the project gone on the ballot in 2019, traffic would have been an even bigger concern.
COVID definitely hurt DISC. But here I would also criticize the proponents of the project for not more aggressively pushing back and getting people who could speak to these concerns to get on the record. There was some of that, but I think on the margins this was the biggest avoidable area that needed countering.
Another factor is one of their big strengths in the past with these projects—mobilizing UC Davis students, many of whom would have walked precincts in support of the project and some of whom would have voted for it but weren’t in town.
But as we know from 2016 and Nishi, that was a mixed bag and even in 2018 when most students supported Nishi, they did not vote in huge numbers despite the housing crisis.
Unlike the 2018 Measure R campaigns, which I felt didn’t have a lot of strong arguments against that weren’t just subjective, this one was always going to be tough with traffic impacts—and add to that COVID and the uncertainty. But that said, I was continually amazed with some of the things that came out of the No side that were really unsubstantiated. Also still taken aback that an article about a possible tenant for DISC was treated as some sort of an October surprise, but an article that made all sorts of questionable claims about demand and supply was seen as perfectly legit.
Still I think most of this played a minor role. The question is how to fix it going forward. There will be the temptation perhapsl because it was fairly closel to come back perhaps in two years. Students will likely be back. The uncertainty of COVID will have faded—or at worst, we will have learned better how to carry on our lives in the shadow of COVID.
What about the planning process that a wide range of people have pushed? Recently it was Matt Williams and Richard McCann. Previously we saw people like Doby Fleeman pushing for a visioning process.
I don’t disagree that we need to have a new General Plan. I am a bit puzzled why the Downtown Plan has taken so long.
On the other hand, that ignores the fact that there was a fairly extensive visioning and planning process starting with DSIDE in 2010 and continuing through the Studio 30 report and the Innovation Park Taskforce.
And yes, there are flaws with those efforts. As I pointed out in 2013 at one of the meetings, half the room was missing. But even if it were there and present, one of the problems I think what you face is that there is a contingent of folks in town who simply will oppose any large scale proposals on the periphery. I am not sure we get to any sort of shared vision or buy in.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t do it—just that it is not a panacea. That said, the reluctance for the city and other leads to seek out community engagement is a problem and it remains baffling. But I think at some point people just grow tired of getting raked over the coals.
What about the prospects for Measure J changes? At times, I have pointed out we don’t actually need to modify Measure J in order to make some changes. We could set aside land for in a pre-approval process and then engage in a planning process post-approval. That doesn’t require changes to Measure J.
We saw that for a lot of people the lack of specificity of DISC was a reason to oppose it. In a lot of ways, this was a project that was about land use changes and the actual specifics would come later and people were skeptical.
We move at the speed of trust, but trust is a commodity in short supply in our political world, and that is not limited to Davis.
The results of Measure D should be a cautionary tale for anyone viewing reform of Measure J as a strategy. We figured at least 70 percent would vote for Measure D, and the actual number was over 85 percent.
Yes, I believe if there had been opposition and a more rigorous debate that some of was soft. But not that much.
In the end, I think people need to accept that Measure J will be an enduring feature of the Davis landscape, and we either learn to live with it or let it consume us.
Can we survive long term the way things are going? I am skeptical about that as well. First, I think we are pricing the middle class and the families out of this community, which will bite us hard in the future. Second, we have now effectively ceded economic development to Sacramento, Woodland, West Sacramento and Vacaville.
In a way the second is a byproduct of the first—the people who would benefit from economic development were not necessarily the people voting in the Measure B election. That’s a bigger problem than people recognize because we have structurally locked people out of the process—albeit unintentionally.
Going forward this is going to take a lot of leadership. Ten years ago, even six years ago, I saw a lot of it. But those people have gotten worn down—by the time this was on the ballot, we saw a few visible people and not much more.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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