Monday Morning Thoughts: Creating Public Spaces in Downtown

By David M. Greenwald

While the densification and added residential housing in the downtown plan has gotten most of the attention, one of the big focuses on the Downtown Davis Specific Plan is adding public spaces.

One of the clear goals: “Enhance Davis’ walkable character with an exemplary public realm and public spaces that, together, function as outdoor rooms, in response to Davis’ excellent climate.”

Writes the draft plan: “A successful public space need not be very large or elaborately designed. Trees, seating, lighting and activities, such as food trucks, are enough to create a vibrant community gathering space.”

Goal five notes: “An active and inclusive public realm that promotes civic engagement and health.”

Among the guiding policies: “Establish a new public space and center for Downtown that is centrally located and programmatically different from Central Park, with supporting retail, civic, and cultural uses and activities.”

What was not planned in the past year is what has evolved on G Street and also in the E Street Plaza—Open Air Davis.  It has probably helped that this has been a milder year with relatively little rainfall, but once we dropped back into the purple tier and businesses could resume outdoor operations, things have livened up.

During a time when restaurants were not allowed to operate inside, Open Air Davis allowed key restaurants that normally didn’t have patio access to be able to serve a dine-in crowd—just outside, where people could socially distance and where air circulation was not a threat to public health.

The city has in a makeshift way created a relatively vibrant enclave on G Street.  The city told the Vanguard that they had not really thought of doing this before, but that necessity becomes the need to be innovative.

Now a key question: Should the city consider making this permanent?  Or should the city incorporate the idea of an outdoor gathering area that caters to bars and restaurants as a feature of the new downtown plan?

As someone who works on G Street, I find the atmosphere which previously contained the bustle of vehicular traffic onto the narrow G Street and a few businesses to be okay, but this has the opportunity to be dynamic—especially once standards are relaxed.   Imagine a more permanent plaza arrangement with vegetation, eateries, perhaps some outdoor dining, and maybe even small music or other entertainment?

It could be boon for the downtown and those businesses on G Street.

The downside?  Probably the loss of 40 or so parking spaces—right now not a big deal, but perhaps, come a more normal climate, a problem.

The traffic is blocked on the block between Second and Third Streets on G Street, but G Street was never a great arterial.  E and F Streets generally serve the north-south traffic and Second and Third Streets remain open and accessible.

There of course have been some hiccups.

A week ago the big tent got taken down because of a large gathering that caught the attention of authorities.

“The City is aware of a large gathering that took place this past weekend at one of the downtown tent sites contrary to COVID-19 safety protocols. City staff met this week with the Davis Downtown Business Association leaders to address changes,” the city announced.

The city replaced the large tent with two smaller ones—which probably is better anyway.

“The gathering that took place was clearly unacceptable, and these changes to the downtown tent areas are necessary to prevent gatherings like we saw this past weekend,” said Police Chief Darren Pytel. “We ask the public to continue to abide by State and County COVID-19 rules for their own safety and for the safety of the community.

“The City is trying to help downtown businesses during the pandemic by allowing the flexible use of outdoor space, but public health has to come first” said Vice Mayor Lucas Frerichs. “All tented areas will now be assigned as temporary-use permit spaces where businesses are responsible for space management, cleanliness and alcohol use. We appreciate the continued collaboration with Davis Downtown as we work through these community safety issues.”

These are of course temporary problems.  At some point large gatherings will not represent the threat they do right now.

Of course, the location of these plazas and open air dining and potential for entertainment does not have to occur on G Street.  But to me it makes a lot of sense.  The space seemed underutilized and this has the potential to revitalize the entire block, not to mention change the entire atmosphere of the downtown.

Everyone says no to new changes until those changes are forced on us.  Now let us think long and hard about how to take advantage of this moment.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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23 Comments

  1. Don Shor

    If you create an outdoor gathering area downtown near sources of alcohol in a college town, there will be large gatherings of people drinking on a regular basis. I suggest this will cause problems that will adversely affect the other businesses in the area and will have additional costs to city services.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Not just ‘sources’, but active ‘marketing’… interesting thought, though… could be like the ‘old west’ (as portrayed in the “westerns”… a whole saloon alley… just need to add some casinos, and a hotel or two… with enough video-cams overlooking the public space, Friday and Saturday nights could (on a City-owned ‘pay-per-view’) be a lucrative ‘enterprise’, featuring fist-fights/brawls, knife/gunfights… and maybe some sex…

      Don, I agree that large outdoor ‘gathering areas’, easy access to booze, college town (higher testosterone, little supervision), could well be a ‘Tom Coffins” mix… as far as the concept, the mantra ‘measure twice, cut once’ should guide decisions…

    2. Richard_McCann

      I think if the gathering is out in the open on the street, it will be less likely to have excessive drinking than the smaller enclosed spaces that are now closed off from public view. Having 1 or 2 security guards to cover the entire area will likely be sufficient.

  2. Bill Marshall

    … but G St was never a great arterial.

    Untrue, as written… took the automobile to make it not so great… first brick and mortar bank, first real hotel, first real general/hardware store were on that block… it was so important, that with more folk having automobiles, streets got paved, and later that block had diagonal parking instituted, to maximize parking…

    E Street never functioned as a true arterial… F Street, once it got punched thru to Co Rd 29, has functioned as a minor arterial, at least between Fifth Street and Co Rd 29… in the dowwntown, E,F, G all function as collectors.

    If diagonal parking on G was restriped for parallel parking, in the Core, E, F & G would function about the same as each other…

    So, now it gets to the “core” issue… where will ‘public spaces in downtown’ be created?  There are other segments that are as viable as G, between Second and Third… but the segment you address is certainly viable…

    The word “never” was misplaced… if, one has a historical perspective before 1960’s…

     

     

     

  3. Alan Miller

    In downtown plan talks, someone I forget who had a plan for a pedestrian walkway winding from Amtrak to Central Park using street paint, alleys, connecting public spaces, stanchions, etc.  It seems like a great plan that should be incorporated.

    I agree with DS.  In the long run, choosing G Street adjacent to pubs will only create an open space to allow expansion of capacity on the public dime for the benefit alcohol-based businesses and end up creating the sort of atmosphere that lead to the Ket-Mo-Ree murder, except the party would be in the streets instead of controlled at the door and inside the pubs.  Bad idea.

  4. Tia Will

    In response to the advice to “measure twice, cut once” I see some precedents that might serve as models for how to construct safe larger scale events as well as how not to.

    First the positives. Yearly, pre-pandemic, Davis managed to hold Turkey trots, bike races, and the music festival without major alcohol-fueled disasters. These events brought benefits to many businesses as people purchased food and drink and sometimes spilled over into adjacent shops prior to and following the events. Davis was still a college town while all these occurred.

    Then there is the negative. Picnic Day in which there seem to be two distinct factions. The campus events are family-friendly and fun for all who desire a minimal alcohol experience. Then there is the town side in which a few businesses, deciding to maximize profits regardless of what harm may ensue, promote a dangerous environment.

    I see a real possibility to foster a safe and lucrative outdoor environment if our elected officials and our business community will join to create an environment that helps all rather than enriches a few by catering to irresponsible drinking.

  5. Matt Williams

    One of the little discussed aspects of the Downtown Plan is how the inevitable disruption to existing businesses can best be handled as the building of their existing business location is either demolished and rebuilt, or extensively changed.  We are currently seeing that disruption play out at University Mall with the business closures there … with none of those businesses relocating to other space in Davis.  It is fair to say that Downtown can not afford to have that same scenario play out.  There needs to be a well-thought-out, well-executed plan for having new homes (either temporary or permanent) for the disrupted businesses.

    I have publicly stated many times that the South Building of the Davis Ace complex, which is currently listed for sale is the logical first step in transforming the Downtown Plan from planning to action.  The reason is pretty clear … (1) no current tenant businesses to displace, (2) easier demolition with lower demolition costs, (3) close proximity to the AMTRAK station, (4) the ability to coordinate with the planning and execution of the G Street Plaza idea covered in today’s Vanguard article, and (5) once completed, the first floor store fronts and second floor flex space will become logical relocation locations for any businesses that need to transfer out of the second building that is redeveloped.

    Ideally the redevelopment of the South Ace Building should already be underway, but there is probably reluctance to proceed with anything before the Downtown Plan is finalized and legally implemented … which is an incentive to get that Plan approval done efficiently.

     

    1. Alan Miller

      Good idea, but likely the cost of rent in a new building in center city may go to chains and many businesses that local Davis businesses cannot afford.  Generalizing here, but we’ve seen this play out in other cities.

      1. Matt Williams

        Alan, at past Downtown Plan Advisory Commission (DPAC) meetings, you probably heard me strongly advocate for a rent structure in any redeveloped Downtown building that holds the per-square-foot rent for the storefront commercial space to a level that is consistent with current per-square-foot rents being paid by local Davis businesses now.  Landlords are going to be unwilling to do that unless they are able to recoup the revenue lost by setting the rents for the residential units (and possibly the second level flex units) enough above market to generate their target combined revenue.

        That revenue balancing algorithm is a challenge to residential rental affordability, but it is a definite positive step toward keeping commercial rents affordable, which will help current local businesses stay in business.

        By the way, I do not believe Davis is, or ever will be, attractive to “chains.”  Davis does not have enough organic retail product demand to make sense for most national chains.

    2. Bill Marshall

      For that site, Matt, it should be 3 (or 4), not 2, stories… no SF residential nearby, probably more ‘bigger bang for the buck’… the rest of your points resonate, and nothing new under the sun… Jennifer and Doby were looking at such a concept, discussing it with City staff at least 12 years ago… even had some early conceptual drawings… I was in some of those meetings…

      1. Matt Williams

        Bill, I believe a minimum of 5 stories, but even better 7 stories, is ideal for that site given its immediate proximity to mass transit.  Storefront commercial at street level.  Second level flex space that can support both residential and commercial (office space and possibly even lab space).  A minimum of 5 levels of residential above the second level.

        A UCD student Zachary Cosenza has submitted a series of 12 letters to the Enterprise editor over the past six months, many of which have focused on the Downtown Plan (see https://www.davisenterprise.com/?s=%22Zachary+Cosenza%22).  Zachary would be a good addition to the Vanguard dialogue … and I say that having disagreed with the central points made in a number of those letters.  His most recent letter Downtown Plan is good – so far is particularly germane to this current discussion.

  6. Todd Edelman

    Innovative

    In its current iteration G is the most normal business/mixed-use street in town. Normal, as in the most common form of this type of street throughout history.

    It’s probably the best thing that’s happened street-wise – public space-wise – since I got into town in 2016. When I first visited at maximum tent implementation it felt like a revelation… for a USA city.  It’s curious that after one particularly sour event the tent configuration was changed immediately; activists and neighbors complain for years and it takes a process to just add some traffic calming, or to waste their time when the reaction is meaningless changes in how yard waste is picked up. Outside of a small part of Downtown, during this pandemic Chief Pytel’s led the charge for zero changes to traffic configurations, even as speeds of motor vehicles increased.

    Alcohol policy is terrible in the USA, and there are perhaps hundreds of thousand of public squares and streets the world over home to businesses with no limits on sales of at least certain types of drink. A few large public squares in Europe have banned alcohol outside of premises but only after huge, violent events, and generally only at certain times. If there’s a more to do here and it looks good and alcohol licenses are limited it should be reasonably fine.

    G St is most likely classified as a local street and further local ordinances will hopefully make it more concrete that there’s no entitlement for vehicle storage there. As always, the issue is not parking, but access, and we need to work harder to make a trip Downtown by foot, bike or public transport fun, safe, affordable and convenient… for people who can’t find it in their heart to park at a more peripheral location.

    1. Darell Dickey

      I’d like to emphasize my favorite part:

      “As always, the issue is not parking, but access”

      And I do that as a response to the assertion in the essay that the loss of *parking* is a large concern.

      1. Keith Olsen

        the assertion in the essay that the loss of *parking* is a large concern

        That is a very large concern in a town that doesn’t have enough parking already.

  7. Ron Glick

    I’d be for closing streets in downtown if there was a busline that went downtown from where I live without the need to transfer at the University. Otherwise I’d be opposed.

      1. Alan Miller

        Actually they can.  Quite common set up is no private autos, but allow buses, bikes peds and autos with a temp permit to make a pickup from a store.

    1. Alan Miller

      There needs to be a bus line from where EVERY person lives to downtown 😐

      (And YOU get a bus line!   And YOU get a bus line!   And YOU get a bus line!)

  8. Don Shor

    These public plazas are such a fixture of urban planning that it might be worth revisiting some basic questions about them before any move toward permanent implementation.

    Who would purportedly benefit from such closures?

    Is there empirical or modeling evidence about the fiscal impacts on businesses, property owners, downtown residents, and the city as a whole?

    Who would be adversely affected?

    Can the adverse effects be mitigated?

    If the answers veer into adjectives like “vibrant” and “bustling” then you’re using planner jargon. A more objective analysis would be in order.  And there are a lot of stakeholders in a proposal like this who would need to be respectfully listened to.

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