By David M. Greenwald
In 2018, only 57 percent of the voters supported a parcel tax for roads—it needed a two-thirds vote and thus went down to defeat. Last month, Measure B, which some were hoping would generate $5 million a year in revenue, went down 52-48.
A small but important majority of voters have sent a message here. They drew a line on a project (Davis Innovation & Sustainability Campus) that they feared would increased traffic impacts on Mace and some drew a line on peripheral expansion of Davis.
Over the last 20 years voters have shaped the contours of Davis. When they imposed Measure J starting in 2000, they slowed down peripheral development. The voters have approved just two major projects in the last 20 years, a student housing project at Nishi—which is closer to infill than peripheral—and a senior housing development north of Covell.
The voters consistently have opposed peripheral development, voting down several major projects that would expand the boundaries—Covell Village, Wildhorse Ranch and now DISC.
But land use decisions like elections have consequences. Not just the intended consequences created by the overt vote choice, but also unintended consequences.
The drive to preserve the town has led to huge changes in the town. We have seen less peripheral housing and more infill projects, a pressure to densify, neighborhood level conflict, soaring housing costs, a declining middle-middle (middle income and middle age demographic 30-55). There are fewer families moving to Davis, fewer staying in Davis, and pressure is increasing on our schools.
At the same time, we have seen an increased pressure on our city resources. Some of this was out of our control—the Great Recession, the COVID-recession. Some of this was failure to plan—the failure to anticipate the impact of increasing pensions and retiree health benefits.
But a lot of this has been self-inflicted. We increased salaries markedly in the last decade, depending on revenues that evaporated. We then resisted structural changes, mortgaging the future to pay for the present, creating huge unfunded needs and a cache of deferred maintenance.
As I have learned through my fifteen years of observing local politics, the biggest problem that we have is that our own self-imposed policies have created a margin which amplifies our errors—and unless we find ways to expand that margin, we will also be living on the edge.
Our land use decisions have contributed greatly to that problem. Cost of housing is one problem. Lack of retail sales another. We rely on voter approval to do major expansions or make major changes, but most voters are understandably risk averse—many have their savings tied to property values, and many are holding on to their cherished notion of the vision of this community.
That is exactly the problem, that people’s ideal community comes with huge costs—intended and unintended? The question going forward is what is the cost people are willing to bear for their ideal community?
We like a compact community with rural and agricultural boundaries. But that also comes with costs. It means that the cost of housing, constrained by the market, goes up. It means that growth pressures force density and taller buildings on the interior.
On the fiscal side, we have eschewed big box retail—a decision that increasingly looks wise given the decline of brick and mortar retail, but a decision that has constantly put pressure on our city finances.
How do we overcome that? One vision was economic development. I embraced the concept of a 200-acre tech park in part because of the promise for revenue, in part because we needed to diversify jobs to capture more of our intellectual capital through graduating students, and in part because I ironically believed it was the best way to hold the line on future growth.
Yes, we expand our boundaries by 200 acres, but it is 200 acres over a 30- to 40-year time horizon.
But we have other options for dealing with revenue needs. We can add taxes. We can subtract city services. We can attempt to do a bit of everything.
That is the key question, where is the revenue going to come from—taxes? Hotels? Economic development? New retail?
Can we work with the university on creating a tech environment that draws more visitors to the university and to conferences that can fuel hotels and restaurants? Can we expand our athletic fields like many other communities to draw soccer and other sports competitions that will bring people in once COVID clears?
In the battle for DISC this year, we attempted to complete a 10-year planning process that started with DSIDE and the Innovation Park Task Force meetings that began in 2010. The idea was, with UC Davis, we could take advantage of technology transfer and create a thriving high tech ecosystem in Davis—harvesting intellectual capital and innovation from the university. The voters narrowly rejected that vision.
Can they reconsider a modified version in 2022 or 2024? Sure.
Should we go back to the drawing board? We can.
But I think we need to be clear—we cannot preserve the city in its 2020 form any more than we could preserve it in its 1996 form or its 1980 form. Change happens.
We need to address a fundamental question—what is our ideal community and how do we finance it? That’s a hard question, because, if we do nothing, we will see that the center does not hold here either and the great things about this community are about to slip away because we can no longer afford to pay for them and people can no longer afford to live here.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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