by Tim Keller
In my commentary yesterday, I tackled the question of whether the city should continue pursuing an “innovation park” as one of our civic priorities. I presented evidence that suggests that while the voters did convincingly reject measure H, they mostly rejected it for reasons other than the basic premise of an innovation park. In fact, the evidence we have points to the fact that an innovation strategy is indeed acceptable to most voters so long as it is “done right”.
In this second part of my commentary, I want to start the discussion of “what can we do better in the future?” “What can we learn from the failure of H?” and “What specifically should we do differently the next time?”
As we process this, it occurs to me that there are really three categories of issues to analyze:
- The substance of the project: What was proposed, and was it a good fit for our needs?
- The process of bringing the proposal to a vote.
- The packaging and communication of the campaign.
Of these, I want to spend most of my effort discussing the first two. There is a lot to criticize about this the last campaign, and I think that those issues are the bulk of the reason why measure H lost by such a convincing margain. The previous iterations of these proposals actually discussed and tried to sell the merit of an innovation park and they failed by smaller margins – but they still failed. So I don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking that “all we need to do is run a better campaign.” If we do that, we will have lost our opportunity to have a proposal which was simply better on its merits.
More to the point: during the campaign I found myself agreeing with the opposition on a number of points. And while I never thought any of those complaints rose to the level of getting me to vote “no” personally. I think an argument could be made that if the proposal had been better conceived and processed in the first place, the project might have been more successful just on its merits – and the consideration of how to “sell” the project to the voters might be much less important.
When is “next time”?
To be clear, when I say “next time” Im not talking about re-iterating DiSC again, or necessarily even addressing an innovation park via a similar ballot measure… We should be thinking with a clean slate here, I think that simply re-submitting the DiSC proposal again hoping for a better turnout or a better campaign next time would be a mistake… if we do that, we will have lost this opportunity to do something better.
The valid critiques of the DiSC Proposal
“Building an innovation park doesn’t count as having an economic development strategy”
I think it was Matt Williams who first said this to me in this way, and I think he is absolutely correct.
The city started this process with a recommendation of building innovation parks in 2008… but as far as I am aware, it has never had a detailed strategy about what that actually means.
For example: Are we trying to attract companies here from outside or are we trying to focus on providing growing space for companies that started here in the first place? There is a big difference between the two in terms the the city’s potential bottom-line. Also, if we ARE trying to nurture homegrown companies, are there other things we need to be doing beyond just providing space? (Hint: Yes, there are)
There needs to be an economic development plan that dictates WHAT we are building, and WHO we are building it for. I had approached the former assistant city manager when DiSC returned to the City’s agenda to try ensure that we were building the “right” kind of space for the startups at DiSC… and I was told “all of that kind of planning will happen after the entitlement”. In my opinion, that is exactly backwards.
Innovative in name only
The above point dovetails nicely with the second point, which is that “commercial space” is not necessarily “innovation space”. This was pointed out by a UCD Professor Stephen Wheeler to significant effect during the campaign. There were no guarantees that we would actually get an “innovation park” instead of “just more commercial space”.
Now, I am less pessimistic than Dr. Wheeler and I knew that “just adding more commercial space” would, inevitably, still be a net win for our city, even if it didn’t end up actually being an “innovation park” in a formal sense. More commercial space would indeed be a huge improvement over the status quo. But his criticism was nonetheless valid.
An innovation park is a type of commercial space… but you don’t necessarily get an innovation park just by zoning an increase in commercial space. Innovation campuses have a specific type of space buildout, and they have a specific business model.
What is more, we know that the business model regularly employed by Buzz Oates is generally focused on serving established companies with good credit – which almost specifically excludes startups. While I was confident that this was something we could “work out” if DiSC had passed, this fact was apparently not even on the city’s radar.
If we actually wanted an innovation park instead of just more commercial space these issues would have been explored, detailed and confirmed up front. But they were not.
The Housing Issue.
Housing seemed to be a no-win issue for measure H. It was criticized both for not having enough housing, AND for including it, and what is worse, both arguments were valid.
Housing is its own issue, but it is also absolutely intertwined with ALL of the other issues in this city, and we could fill these pages and more with discussion on housing.
I was critical of inclusion of housing with DiSC because zoning laws DO exist for a reason. People don’t want to live near an industrial area that is going to be busy with idling big-rigs and forklifts that are constantly beeping, and you limit what can be permitted in an industrial area if it is adjacent to housing.
Just because we have both a need for innovation space AND need for housing, does not mean that the two should be blended in the same property!
My opinion is that the “bad” housing design for DiSC was actually the fault of the city for not having its own, more robust and integrated housing development plan. Housing and innovation are not “either/or” issues, they are “yes/and” issues. They need to be pursued simultaneously and with some amount of coordination.
Lack of a master plan
Which brings me to perhaps the largest issue which really needs to be addressed, which is the fact that our planning process, as it currently exists, is somewhat broken.
Many have pointed out that the city does not likely have adequate infill opportunities to even meet our minimum housing goals, much less engage in proactive economic development. That means that to solve our simultaneous economic and housing crises, peripheral development is going to have to be at least part of the long-term solution.
Now with that said, stop for a second to understand just how peripheral growth projects are processed by the city at the moment: A developer comes forward with a plan, it gets run through the city’s commission system ( derailing them from other planning functions) and then it gets put before the voters if the city council deems it worthy.
Think about the mace curve, and think about the two DiSC proposals. Think about the Shriners project which is now in pre-application.
The only way, under the current system for these properties to be developed is for the developers to propose what they want to build, (not the city!) and then let us respond.
This is not a “planning” process, it is an “approval” process, and there is a world of difference.
So think about what the combination of these factors really means: Peripheral growth is our best opportunity for addressing our economic and housing crises… and we have NO proactive planning process for peripheral growth!
I might fall on the “pro growth” side of the spectrum, but that thought still really disturbs me.
A lack of engagement
Finally, one of the refrains that I heard quite often with respect to DiSC was that the developer failed to engage with the community to hear their concerns.
On one hand, I don’t blame them, given just how toxic the topic of growth can be in this town.
I was not a formal part of the Yes on H campaign, but I was an early endorser because of my volunteer work in economic development, and for that support I was publicly attacked and harassed.
One of the more vocal anti-H activists actually got temporarily kicked off of Nextdoor for violating the platform’s policies on cyber-bullying. It actually got THAT bad.
So on one hand, I understand where the developer might not want to proactively “engage” with citizens outside of their formal process requirements, because it invites a spectacle of toxicity which doesn’t help anyone.
But at the same time, I myself asked multiple times for a meeting with the project’s planners to discuss what their plans were, what they wanted to develop, and to offer my support in helping to define a successful project. There was nobody in this town who was more naturally aligned and rooting for the success of this project than me.. and even I never got a meeting.
And that really was a shame, because while there is a small segment of our voters who will vote against every project, the number of people who exhibit that kind of toxicity are even smaller. The people we need to focus on are the much larger population of voters who are moderate, and who ARE willing to vote for growth – if the process and proposal is good.
I had side conversations with a number of people who had specific concerns about measure H and who were voting no… It seemed to me that their concerns were ones which really easily could have been addressed by the developer if they had taken the time to listen – but they didn’t.
At the end of the day, I think it is those voters, the ones in the middle who are the only ones that tactically matter in this town. THEY decide if a project passes or not. So skipping over the engagement / involvement of those voters during the early planning stages is a huge mistake.
The above points can all be seen as parts of one story: The story of a city that was so focused on “getting an innovation park done” that it lost sight of why it was trying to build an innovation park in the first place.
This is understandable perhaps, given that the drive to set up these parks really started back in 2008, and many of the people who were involved up front, like on the city’s innovation taskforce, and the city’s innovation manager had long since moved on by the time DiSC 2 came on the docket.
There is a great business author named Simon Sinek who wrote a book called “start with why” and he gave a TED talk that sums up this idea which you can find on youtube here.
I submit that the biggest failure of our city’s efforts at establishing an innovation park stems from the fact that we lost our “why”. – We got so caught up in trying to just pass anything that had “innovation” in its title, that we lost sight of what we are actually doing…. And this fact was not lost voters of Davis who turned it down.
To be continued…
I am interested in seeing the discussion that this part of my commentary generates. I maintain that the failure of measure H can, and should be a good thing long-term for the city, if (and only if) we can learn from the above failures, address those failures, and “do better next time”
I will conclude my commentary tomorrow with a discussion of how we might go about engaging in this learning process and “doing it better next time”
Tim Keller is a Davis resident and Founder and Executive Director of Inventopia.