By David M. Greenwald
Last week, UC Davis, the City of Sacramento, and project developer Wexford Science & Technology celebrated a critical milestone in the Aggie Square project with a ceremonial groundbreaking.
As UC Davis noted in a release, “Aggie Square is an innovation hub that brings together university research and teaching, industry and the community to create opportunities for communities across the region. It will be home to research programs, private industry partners, classrooms, student housing, and public-facing programs that engage local communities and entrepreneurs.”
“Aggie Square is the ultimate ‘innovation ecosystem.’ It’s part laboratory, classroom, workplace, business incubator and community gathering place,” said Gary S. May, UC Davis Chancellor. “We’re building a place where companies, researchers, students, faculty and community advocates work side by side, where cutting-edge UC Davis research powers innovative companies, and where UC Davis provides training for up-and-coming industries and for residents who live in surrounding neighborhoods.”
“I’m proud that our city has partnered with both UC Davis and our community to make Aggie Square a reality,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg. “We are creating an economic center with thousands of new jobs, and the people in our neighborhoods will be the primary beneficiaries. Aggie Square stands as an example of what is possible.”
Construction on Phase 1 of the project will begin this spring. This phase includes two buildings designed for science, technology and engineering and a Lifelong Learning Building dedicated to classrooms and public programs.
Aggie Square will address the need for additional research space in Sacramento, especially “wet lab” space for both academic and industrial use. It will help attract both government and private research funding to Sacramento and UC Davis.
“The Aggie Square project is a significant milestone for economic development in the Sacramento region, which will continue to propel the state capital of California into a world-class science community,” Greater Sacramento Economic Council President and CEO Barry Broome said.
He added, “UC Davis’ Aggie Square mixed-used innovation district will have 1 million square feet of research, wet labs, commercial space and will help continue our efforts recruiting the best and brightest life science companies.”
This is good news for the most part. It shows how quickly, with a collaborative relationship between city and university, these projects can get planned and built out. This will be a tremendous benefit both for UC Davis and the region.
At the same time, it is a reminder of what could have been for Davis. When DISC came before the voters in 2020, one of the complaints from critics of the project was a lukewarm (at best) statement from UC Davis. Why was UC Davis not fully backing the project?
The answer is why would they put themselves on the line for a project that might never pass a vote at the ballot box? Why would they subject themselves to the Davis spanking machine?
The history here does not bode well. In the early 2000s, for example following the passage of Measure J, UC Davis recognized that they needed more housing on campus and they planned West Village. But what happened when they had community meetings was so over the top, that it colored UC Davis’ entire approach to development in Davis ever since—even 15 years after the fact.
Still, when the city of Davis came forward with their RFEI and put forward potential innovation center proposals in 2013-14, UC Davis, which had set aside land in Solano County for a large innovation center, decided to scrap those plans.
It was only when both innovation center projects fell apart in Davis, and with Gary May on board, that they started looking toward Aggie Square.
Think about this timeline. In 2010, the city of Davis first had D-SIDE discussions about the need for economic development. The Studio 30 report came out in 2012—a decade ago now. The RFEI’s went out in 2013 and the first plans landed in 2014.
It took until 2020 to get one of those projects to a ballot, where it was voted down. So, the soonest one of the projects could be approved is in 2022.
Meanwhile UC Davis and Sacramento announced plans for Aggie Square in April 2018, and four years later it is breaking ground.
Why would UC Davis get behind a project in Davis when its prospects are long, drawn out, and uncertain?
And yet, we know that if we entitle land in Davis, it can succeed in bringing in top companies as well as be a fertile ground for startups. Even with limited space, Davis has managed to have many successes over the past decade.
We have seen startup ventures like Ag Start and Inventopia fill up their space.
This week the Sacramento Business Journal reported that the “Davis-based Botanical Solution Inc. has raised $6.1 million to expand its development of agricultural and pharmaceutical compounds derived from plants, and it’s looking for a research and development lab space in Davis or along the Interstate 80 corridor.”
What Davis lacks is space for additional startups and space for larger and more established companies to come here. But until UC Davis and others are convinced that Davis voters will support such projects, they’ll be looking to put their money and their reputation in places where they know the community will support them.