Guest Commentary: Whats Next for Innovation in Davis – Part 2

Tim Keller speaking at the opening of Inventopia in August 2021

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:

  1. The substance of the project:   What was proposed, and was it a good fit for our needs?
  2. The process of bringing the proposal to a vote.
  3. 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.

Lessons learned

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.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

Related posts

12 Comments

  1. Don Shor

    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!

    Please repeat this over and over.

  2. wesleysagewalker

    Tim, I think there are some good thoughts and insights here, but want to correct you on a few things. Your presentation of the planning process is somewhat correct when it comes to some of the housing projects that have been/may be proposed. That is to say, for some of the projects like WDAAC, potentially Palomino Place, etc, the impetus is coming from the developer who comes up with a project that they then submit to the City to potentially go through commissions and to CC. I would note that I personally do not think it is such a bad idea to have entrepreneurs come up with their own ideas for projects instead of relying on “planners” to define the scope of what they may or may not do, but to each their own I suppose. I just prefer permissionless innovation.

    The factual point I have to disagree with you on, however, is that all of the innovation centers were created and proposed in response to an RFEI that was put out in 2014 by the City of Davis. So, every one of these projects came forward to directly respond to an identified need and vision of the City of Davis. None of these projects were just dreamed up by the developers and plopped into the planning process out of the blue as you seem to imply.

    Instead, every one of the innovation centers that came forward was in response to the City’s request. That RFEI was the result of more than two decades of economic development strategy sessions which identified the need for innovation centers/business parks that create private/public partnership opportunities between companies and UCD since the 90s. Years and years of discussions and meetings culminated in the Business Park Task Force as well as the Studio 30 Process. Matt Williams insists to me that this isn’t economic development planning or strategy, but I do not think that his criticisms here are correct. The failure of H means that the years-decades-of meetings, discussions, task forces, subcommittees, studies, etc. were a giant waste of time because the citizens of Davis didn’t approve any of the identified sites for the identified dispersed innovation strategy.

    So, when there are calls for more planning and developing a new vision, I have to wonder why those calling for consensus building or whatever it is they hope to accomplish think that this time it will be any different.

    The reality is that there is 30-35% of Davis who oppose any and all growth or change from an imagined halcyon era of 1970, 1980, or whenever they happened to move to Davis. There will be no vision that satisfies them that is not fundamentally rooted in stasis.

    There is also a 30-35% segment of Davis voters who are “pro-growth”. They understand that Davis needs to grow and do not feel the need to insist on choosing the colors for the paint swabs to feel ok with projects that produce a reasonable balance between positive and negative externalities.

    Then, as always, there is the middle third of Davis voters who I would describe as growth-skeptical but persuadable. Essentially, their default answer is no, but if you can present a project narrative that appeals to their values, they may be amenable to changing their minds. They also tend to be a bit more persuadable based on appeals to pathos especially as it relates to housing availability.

    The fundamental issue that faces those who want to develop some unifying vision or strategy or plan for economic development is that in the context of Measure J, you have to build a plan around that growth-skeptical third of Davis voters. However, as someone who has spent the last seven years talking with these voters and hearing their questions, comments, and concerns, I can assure you that every person has their pet project or issue that must be satisfied or else they will veto. These personal passions inevitably conflict and do not take into account broader cost-benefit calculations. So, when people claim that we just really need to develop a community vision, the sheer combinatorics of the middle third’s random issues and concerns will almost certainly overwhelm the process.

    The final thought I leave you with is why housing has passed but innovation centers have not. Prima facie, it would seem counterintuitive. Homeowners vote at much higher rates than renters here in Davis and throughout the country. If we just modeled this dynamic with purely selfish rational individuals, we would probably expect homeowners to always vote against increasing supply to increase the value of their property. But, we do not necessarily see this as it comes to Measure J. Undoubtedly, there are some people for whom this is a concern, but there is a significant portion of that persuadable third who are homeowners who nevertheless vote to increase housing supply. Why?

    Well, as I mentioned before, the persuadable third can be persuaded by appeals to pathos, and somewhat, to ethos. The dismay people feel when they hear about the consequences of California’s ongoing housing shortage can provide enough emotional impetus to overcome the traditional objections of traffic and concerns about strangers/others coming into the community. If a project can credibly signal that it is broadly in-line with voters’ ethos (for Davis voters, typically: sustainable, community-building/serving/oriented, offering some sort of redistribution/social safety net), then these voters can tap into their sense of altruism and concern for others to overcome their default concerns of traffic and others.

    Innovation centers, especially the commercial component, struggle here. Why? Because 80% of people employed in Davis work in the public sector. If you are over 30 in Davis, you already have a job, probably at UCD or in a governmental agency in Sacramento which you can probably expect to work at for decades due to the incentives the public sector creates for career longevity. So, most people in Davis do not find job creation to be particularly compelling because they already have jobs or are retired. No emotional salience there. Furthermore, well paid high tech jobs and the corporations who would provide them tend to tap directly into people’s concerns with equity and their general unease with differential outcomes. People generally object to highly profitable enterprises, individuals, and activities because they think it is somehow unfair and due to cheating or something of that nature. It is all a little vague and conflicting, but there is a pretty deep literature in behavioral econ that has looked at perceived fairness issues which backs up this point. Given the character of Davis voters w.r.t. their political preferences, career choices, and community identity of Davis, I suspect that these concerns about perceived fairness and suspicion of profit-making are above average.

    So, the persuadables in Davis are rather skeptical of “tech jobs” and “tech firms” and don’t find many emotional or ethical reasons to overcome their other concerns. The final hurdle for innovation centers, which is the raison d’etre why the City of Davis put out RFEIs, is that virtually no one in Davis is aware of the fiscal challenges that the City and DJUSD face. Most people in Davis live pretty comfortable nice lives and enjoy the plentiful and high-quality amenities and city services Davis offers. They are generally employed in a stable public career making a steady paycheck that allows them to live in a very nice community or they are retired and own their home. The fiscal challenges the City of Davis faces are somewhat longer term, so there really is nothing of consequence affecting Davis residents right now, so it does not register as a problem. DJUSD has been staving off its bleeding with the tourniquet of transfers to put off the pain of their fiscal issues for a while. But that bill is going to come very soon. Until the consequences of the fiscal deficits become real for Davis residents, people will not be motivated by economic development and  the revenues it can create.

    I will watch what the people who say they love planning and their efforts to see what comes of it. Maybe I am wrong and they can chart a course through the hundreds of parochial concerns of the Davis body politic to deliver a plan and a vision that has broad consensus and is practically feasible to implement and deliver instead of being yet another utopian aspiration. I hope so. In the meantime, I am going to keep working to advance the innovation economy in Davis however I can. I cannot let the last seven years be in vain, and I care about this community enough to keep fighting for it.

    Cheers.

    1. tkeller

      Wes,  I cannot count the number of times that I pointed out to people the fact that the innovation center was a response to a RFP from the city, and not a “money making scheme from a greedy developer”    while debating all of this online.     So I’m definitely not insinuating otherwise with regard to DiSC.

      But my point remains the same:  The details of DiSC, the important details, were ones proposed by the developer, not specified by the city, as it should have been.    There was a definitive “half-baked” smell to the proposal which reared its head especially in light of the objection that a city / county revenue share agreement hadnt been worked out yet.

      That is a sub-problem of all of this which I didn’t address… which is that the planning process for DiSC was essentially only partially done, because nobody wanted to invest the time and effort into “fully” planning a proposal which might not actually get passed by the voters.    And then the voters turn around and complain that the proposal is not fully developed.    That is another symptom of a system which is fundamentally broken.

      The core of the complaint is that the planning and approvals function, especially when it comes to peripheral projects is still essentially reactive  – not proactive.  This was slightly less so with respect to DiSC, but is still very true for any peripheral growth proposal.

      If the city was doing the planning, they would probably put together a 40+ year plan for how ALL of the properties along the mace curve might eventually be built out, how they would interconnect, what kind of services they would need, where their parks and walkable cafe’s and groceries might be… ALL of that.       There is zero chance that the city is going to resolve this unmet need for master planning on peripheral projects, and that is a big problem.

       

    2. Ron Oertel

      The original “idea” from a subset of “the city” was to pursue a commercial-only proposal. Apparently, this doesn’t “pencil out” (which ultimately speaks to demand).

      This also seems to be the reason that the “other” failed proposal (which “moved” 7 miles north) added some 1,600 housing units to their proposal. To a location that (also) was previously-zoned for commercial-only.

      But as far as Don’s idea is concerned (“two” additional developments), what exactly is the point of this?  Build a business park, AND a separate massive sprawling development for those employees to live?  In other words, just “grow the city” for the sake of growing the city?

      Otherwise known as “business as usual”, for most valley cities.

      Apparently, old, harmful beliefs “die hard”.

      If the city was doing the planning, they would probably put together a 40+ year plan for how ALL of the properties along the mace curve might eventually be built out, how they would interconnect, what kind of services they would need, where their parks and walkable cafe’s and groceries might be… ALL of that.  There is zero chance that the city is going to resolve this unmet need for master planning on peripheral projects, and that is a big problem.

      Maybe the voters don’t actually want this.

      Maybe the growth advocates should stop pushing for this.

       

      1. tkeller

        Maybe the voters don’t actually want this.
        Maybe the growth advocates should stop pushing for this.

        “The voters” can always vote no.

        The CITY would be better off with a cohesive master plan, regardless of when a particular part of that plan is passed.

        There is NO downside to having a competent forward-looking planning process.

        1. Ron Oertel

          Seems to me that a lot of time, energy and money was wasted regarding the “innovation center” plans.

          I’d suggest not relying upon a plan that has to be approved by voters.  (For sure, that’s not going to fly with SACOG.)

          I’d be curious as to who you believe would participate in such planning, on “behalf of” the city. Isn’t this the same approach that was applied regarding all of the failed “innovation center” proposals? A relatively small group of people who thought it was a “good idea”?

          Then there’s the fact that what developers propose/prefer is different than what the plan is.  In fact, that’s usually the way it is (e.g., the inclusion of housing at DiSC, the loss of the Davis Innovation Center – replaced by WDAAC, etc.).

          I like the current plan, myself – continue farming in that area, and allow it to act as a logical boundary for the city.

          For that matter, some will argue that even “infill” plans are meaningless (see Trackside, for example). Essentially something to be discarded at the first opportunity/proposal that arises.

          Again, I’d suggest that the development activists stop “planning” what they’d like to see replace prime farmland.

          “My” plan is to fight those who continue to create such plans.

        2. Bill Marshall

          There is NO downside to having a competent forward-looking planning process.

          Actually there is…  for folk who want/need ‘stasis’, and might actually prefer going back to an earlier time, perhaps a couple of days after they were born… they are “out there”… maybe buying a house in the Bay Area, even Marin, for ~$11/SF…

          No planning is needed for ‘stasis’…

          I’m not one of “them”… I trend towards ‘realism’… but I’m ‘weird’, to many…

        3. tkeller

          I’d be curious as to who you believe would participate in such planning, on “behalf of” the city.

          ANYONE who is willing to engage in the process in good faith

          “My” plan is to fight those who continue to create such plans.

          So… that pretty much disqualifies you…  convenient.

          This says SO much about you Ron.  You are already against “plans” you know nothing about…  what a shame.

           

        4. Ron Oertel

           

          ANYONE who is willing to engage in the process in good faith.

          Apparently, you’re defining “good faith” as someone who supports development as follows:

          plan for how ALL of the properties along the mace curve might eventually be built out, how they would interconnect, what kind of services they would need, 

          Yeah, I definitely would not be engaging in “good faith” regarding that goal.

          So… that pretty much disqualifies you…  convenient.

          Seems to me that the pursuit/planning for a peripheral business park “disqualified” a lot of people, right up until they voted overwhelmingly against it.  Twice now – in the same location.  Even though it was claimed to be “half” the size of the first proposal.

          And the Davis Innovation Center (previously-proposed for the site of WDAAC) “disqualified itself”, before high-tailing it to a town 7 miles north which seems that it would be more to your liking regarding “process” and “plans”. Adding 1,600 housing units during that “move”.

          Apparently, you (and a few others on here) don’t actually like the results of “full participation” in the process.

    3. Richard_McCann

      Wes

      I think you’ve identified the problems pretty well, but I have one key disagreement and I see solutions to the other issues.

      First, while there may have been discussion about the innovation parks for decades, it was among a closed group that really didn’t engage more than a small group who were interested in the business aspect. There was never a larger discussion about the real purpose of the parks other than “innovation sounds cool” and “other university towns have innovation parks.” So I agree with Matt on this view. We need a much more specific focus that draws in Davis citizens as to what they want in that vision. The Downtown Specific Plan actually showed what can happen with that engagement and it generally has broad support. The innovation park planning process never did that.

      And along those lines I think we need a better education process about what the City actually faces. Outside of the readers of the Vanguard, few people know the City’s situation. It’s how to solve this dilemma that we need to take on. Other towns have solved this problem–let’s look to how they did it.

  3. Richard_McCann

    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.

    This passivity toward accepting what the private sector puts forward is why I’m glad that asst. city manager is now gone. I ran into the same attitude about the Downtown Specific Plan. Government is the mechanism by which the community (us) create our collective vision (such as the Declaration of Independence) and tell individuals what we prefer. This is different that just being passive consumers. We shouldn’t devolve into the Austrian economics perspective that we should just be a collection of decentralized individual decisions. Milton Friedman had it wrong. If we want to move forward and break through the cognitive dissonance that Wes describes, we need to proactively create that vision. The City spent significant resources creating a vision for Russell Blvd, which is trivial in comparison to our economic and fiscal future. Let’s make at least the same effort on an economic plan that goes beyond just innovation parks. Anya and I wrote an article with one such proposed vision consistent with the values of many Davisites. Let’s see if others appear.

  4. Richard_McCann

    BTW, I can also echo Tim’s experience of not getting sufficient engagement from the developer. I had a fairly in depth conversation at one point about what aspects might be considered to promote the project and then silence. What that silence indicated to me was an apparent unwillingness to take the one last step to actually committing to the principles and features that the developer was voicing. The developer wanted an out, much like The Cannery has gotten as that development has been rolled out. The public is becoming wary of supposed “promises” that are later reneged on when few are looking. And when a few citizens raise concerns about those changes, they have been belittled by key people in the City as not being valid. These experiences have been much of the motivation of the leaders of the “no growth” faction. We must improve the credibility of promises made in these proposals if they are going to succeed.

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
$ USD
Sign up for