By David M. Greenwald
The number one lesson in any democracy is that you have to accept it that sometimes you will win and sometimes you will lose. Accepting a loss is actually more important to the democracy than winning..
That’s hard to do, but it’s important. I have made no bones about the fact that I supported the Davis Innovation and Sustainability Campus (DISC) in all of its iterations. However, I also support the right of the people to vote on projects and control the future of their community through direct democracy.
Some people suggested that this was flawed thinking, arguing that I was acting against my own interests. I don’t see it that way. I don’t think most voters in Davis did either. Just 17 percent of the voters opposed Measure D, the renewal of Measure J. On the other hand, 48 percent of the voters supported Measure B (DISC). Given that there are always some folks who vote against a project but oppose Measure J, it is likely that as few as one third of those who supported Measure B also opposed Measure D.
In a democracy sometimes you win but sometimes you lose.
In the last several years since 2016 we have seen two projects lose by narrow margins and two projects pass by modest to large margins.
A democracy does not mean that you have to like the result. For example, when Nishi lost in 2016, the developers came back two years later with a new design that sought to address the reasons that they thought the project lost. It worked, and the revamped project passed overwhelmingly in 2018 by a more than 60-40 margin.
There is nothing wrong with attempting to understand why the project lost, looking at things that could be improved for next time, and attempting to education and persuade voters to your point of view. That’s at the heart of democracy.
Where I start having problems is when we start going outside of the electoral system to resolve policy disputes. In Davis, that has meant suing to attempt to stop projects. Suing has rarely worked. But it does delay projects, adds cost, and ultimately negatively impacts people living on the margins or struggling to find housing or affordable housing.
I have been very consistent that, outside of a very egregious error by the city and voters, we should allow the voters to decide and leave it at that.
That’s not to say that I think Measure J is a flawless process. I was on the record expressing disappointment that the council did not entertain discussion on potential changes. Even if it ultimately rejected any changes it would have been a healthy discussion. As it turns out, a huge majority of voters support the continuation of Measure J—as we predicted several times during the election. In fact, the overall margin was wider than in 2010, and somewhat wider than we even predicted (I said consistently at least 70 percent, and as it turns out it was nearly 83 percent).
At the same time, I wonder if a commercial project is the best format for such a vote. With a housing project, baseline features can narrow in—units, size, other requirements from sustainability features, affordable housing to mitigation measures.
That didn’t work as well with a commercial project. The project was able to set out some of the parameters we are used to voting on: size, density, FAR, square footage, even the roll out of housing to commercial. But other details were vague.
Some wanted assurances that the project was going to have suitors, but suitors were difficult to nail down when the process was so uncertain and the timeline extended.
A lot of voters didn’t like the fact that some of the assurances were more aspirational and less specific. In the end, it may not have affected the outcome. Voters seemed primarily concern about traffic impacts, even though the project would only slowly over the course of two decades build out—with plans by CalTrans to expand the freeway, perhaps resolving most of the traffic issues.
As such, the city may want to look at alternatives for handling commercial projects. One such alternative that would not require any changes to Measure J would be a pre-approval process. During the next general plan, the city could simply set aside land for urban development, the land could have baseline features to serve as parameters and, if the voters supported the plans, they could approve it in a vote and then allow a normal planning process to develop the land.
That would give a voters a say on where, how large and how fast to grow, but then allow a more normal planning process work out the specifics.
Are voters willing to do that? Hard to know. But at the end of the day, allowing the voters to control the city’s future growth still seems like the best overall policy. What that looks like is more up in the air.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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