By David M. Greenwald
UC Davis won’t say it publicly, but then again they don’t have to. They went to Sacramento to build Aggie Square in large part because they knew how difficult it would be to do so in Davis. That’s not the only reason—the proximity of the Medical Center undoubtedly had something to do with it, and perhaps a willing host city.
The loss of DISC (Davis Innovation & Sustainability Campus) undoubtedly reinforced in their minds that they made the right decision. Could UC Davis have done more to help DISC pass? Probably. But the messy fight probably suggested to them it was a better idea to keep their nose out and focus on Sacramento and Aggie Square.
But the emerging legal battle in Sacramento over Aggie Square shows that it is not just Davis that makes it difficult to build new commercial development. The state, to the extent that it is bleeding tech companies and industry and facing a housing crisis, is about to have a moment of reckoning.
I support strong environmental and labor laws as much as the next guy, but if that means we lose jobs and create a housing market that is unaffordable to the average person, then we are hurting the very people we are trying to help and we have to find a way to thread that needle better.
We do this in Davis all too much. In trying to preserve the community that people came here to live in and those who live here love, we have cut off housing projects and access to jobs—which has made the community increasingly less affordable and forced those who do live here to increasingly commute outside of the city, adding to road congestion and VMT and GHG emissions.
We can have great standards and be an environmental leader, but if we force people to drive 30 miles each day to work, are we really helping the environment? Some are no doubt hoping that the pandemic changes a lot of this—and it may.
Meanwhile, Sacramento is now facing a problem that we have seen in Davis so much—the project is bogged down in litigation.
The university is still hoping to break ground on Aggie Square this year, to start the construction of the $1.1 billion tech campus (wouldn’t that have been a nice chunk of capital to infuse into Davis?) onto 8.5 acres of land just south of the UC Davis Medical Center.
But right now those plans are in limbo as two lawsuits were filed—one by AFSCME (American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees) 3299 and another from a neighborhood group.
As Todd Stenhouse, spokesperson for AFSCME 3299, said in a statement, “AFSCME Local 3299 represents more than 3,000 Sacramento area workers, including hundreds that live in the neighborhoods that will be most directly affected by the proposed Aggie Square development.”
He added, “This project purports to attract more than 5,000 workers and nearly a thousand students to one of the region’s most historically disadvantaged communities — inviting significant environmental health and displacement risks to local residents, most of whom are people of color living at or near the poverty line.”
One of the problems, of course, is while the project seeks to bring in thousands of jobs, the number of new housing units is in the hundreds.
This is the problem we face right now in California—the need to connect jobs to housing.
The very people that AFSCME represents seem likely to be benefited by the jobs brought in by Aggie Square.
The city of Sacramento pushes back. They are seeking to become a party on “the grounds that the city and community stand to gain significant economic benefit from Aggie Square,” according to a press release from Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s office.
“We’re seeking to intervene because this is the single largest economic development opportunity in a generation in our city, and we must fight to prevent it from getting bogged down in unproductive litigation that doesn’t help anyone,” Steinberg said, in a statement.
The project is also attempting to bring in new development to the existing neighborhoods, but that has caused concerns of displacement of existing businesses and residents.
That has led some on the council, particularly Jay Schenirer and Eric Guerra, to participate in talks to create some sort of community benefit agreement that would prevent gentrification of the existing neighborhood.
This whole process is a good demonstration of why California sees itself in the predicament that it is in. Even a community like Sacramento is struggling to put a major infill project into its community, that would pump literally billions into the local economy.
So, while we criticize Davis for getting in its own way on these things, it is maybe the more extreme example—but hardly alone in creating an environment that will make the next wave of economic development much harder.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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