By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – I was asked by a couple of readers to publish the following which had been part of our “Opening Thoughts” in yesterday’s morning newsletter. For those interested, you can sign up for the Morning Newsletter here. I have made a few alterations. While I flesh out a few thoughts, the basics are unchanged.
The basic problem is that there is a core of people in this town that appear to be opposed to any project. There appears to be another core in this town who have created an insurmountably high bar for any project—that even if they are sincere as to their desire for a project that meets their high standards, they have made such a project unreachable.
Words are cheap. Especially words by people who have no experience trying to design and build a complex development that requires funding and investors.
At this point I will admit, I am skeptical about the prospects of finding projects that are actually possible that the naysayers would agree to.
Earlier this week, Matt Williams posted from an email he received.
They wrote: “They have been told ‘no’ twice. Will they listen?”
The message continued, “A complementary question is: Will the current City Council and upcoming Candidates for the three City Council positions ‘listen’? What’s needed is truly forward-thinking, innovative, imaginative and collaborative planning for housing and economic development.”
(Another reader has since shown me that the message was from Nancy Price, a long-time community member who has largely been in opposition to every recent proposed project).
I see two issues here that are in need of elaboration.
The first issue is relatively simple. In 2020, the voters narrowly voted against the DISC project.
There seems to be a notion that the voters voting “no on one project” somehow means you can’t re-work the project and try again. Nothing in Measure J remotely suggests that. In fact, it seems perfectly reasonable (at least to me) to assess what went wrong and attempt to fix the reasons why a majority of voters opposed the project.
In this case, the applicants, believing that many opposed the project because it was either too large or had unacceptable traffic impacts, came back with a smaller, scaled-down project that reduced the size in half and, with it, the traffic impacts.
Even with those changes, DiSC lost even more overwhelmingly than before.
Contrary to the suggestion above, I think everyone will LISTEN. I think it is difficult to conceive that the same developer will come back with a third project. Unless something drastically changes, I think the city is going to have to scramble to figure out what to do about commercial development—particularly outside of town.
But I’m not sure what it means to listen here. Does it mean trying to reconfigure the project so that the voters will approve it, or does it mean not trying a third time? (I think for Nancy Price, it means the latter; for me it could mean the former).
The second statement seems to suggest that the former is actually the answer, but the problem is that I don’t know what “a truly forward-thinking, innovative, imaginative and collaborative” project looks like.
It’s easy to use those words, it’s hard to put those words to paper in a project that can actually be passed by the voters and then built. There are a lot of dreamers in this town who have some good and interesting ideas; the problem is most of those are not practical.
The other problem is that words are cheap and in Davis it’s easy to say no—finding something enough people will say yes to is the trick. But I’m all ears for specifics—what will people vote for? What do they want?
I think the people who messaged me would like to see a broader visioning process. Maybe we are too soon after the most recent vote, but I largely see that at this point as a fruitless exercise.
I will address a few additional points.
First, there has been a suggestion that I have erred in describing the 2020 vote as “narrow.” It was a 52-48 spread, a bit over 1200 votes. Narrow is a subjective term, but I use it here because in 2020 it was more narrow than it was in 2022.
I think that is helpful because it helps us understand the dynamics here and understand better why a smaller, less impactful project would be much more soundly defeated than the first time around.
Second, Matt WIlliams pointed out in an email to me that “a look at the votes that were cast in Measure B, but not cast in Measure H gives a pretty clear picture that the 48% was a ‘soft’ number.”
That’s probably correct, but it gets to the point that Dan Ramos and others made, that voter turnout—or in 2022 the lack thereof—helped to drive the margin. Just as you see a midterm election in the US resulting in a different looking electorate than during the general of a presidential year, so too did it happen here. That suggests that the voters who are less frequent voters are more inclined to support projects than those who always vote.
Third, Matt Williams notes, “One possible answer to what listening means is to tell the developer ‘the voters have told us, and you, in both 2020 and 2022 that your application does not rise to the level of our (form-based?) standards. So we are not going to approve it for placement on a ballot.’”
That’s certainly one possible interpretation. Another remains to try to find a project that does rise to our standards. I still think there are multiple interpretations of how to proceed, but in either case, it is less driven by council and more driven by the applicant’s willingness to come forward with another iteration.
Finally, Matt Williams writes, “Dan Carson should not have to shoulder 100% of the burden for his actions during this election cycle. Those actions were simply the latest chapter in what has become a consistent long-running thread of unilateral autocratic Council decisions. The question is whether the residents/stakeholders of Davis will hold the Council accountable.”
I agree that Dan Carson is not the sole party responsible for the failure of this project—certainly he did not make the call on his own. People continue to point out that there is a disconnect between the council’s preference for projects and that of the voters. That’s perhaps true. But there is also the fact that recent polling has suggested generic support for housing projects, affordable housing, and even commercial projects—but when it gets to specifics and weighing the benefits against things like traffic, the voters end up opposing the projects, even as they continue to support the incumbents on council overwhelmingly.
Will the voters hold the members of council accountable for that disparity in the next election? That will be an interesting test.