By Tim Keller
In the first installment of this commentary I pointed out how even though the specific proposal known as measure H failed convincingly at the polls, this was not a referendum on the idea of an innovation center itself, but instead was rejected for a variety of other reasons, and that evidence shows that Davis voters ARE willing to support an innovation park “if it is done right.”
In the second installment, I looked at a number of the valid criticisms of the Measure H proposal that were put forward by opponents of the measure in online forums during the campaign. I agreed with many of these criticisms, and thought that many of them were quite avoidable.
I think that whatever we do “next” in terms of innovation in this city must take those lessons we learned into account.
Today, I want to synthesize what I have presented in the previous two installments into the beginnings of a plan for “what to do next.”
Our biggest opportunity
Throughout the course of this last campaign, the biggest thing that I learned is that people who oppose growth initiatives are a very diverse crowd. Yes, there are some hardcore “let’s shrink our population if possible” types, but if the poll I presented in part one of this commentary is accurate… that is only maybe 10% of our population.
The rest of our populace, 90% of it in fact, reports that they are willing to approve some kind of growth, to varying extents — at least in theory…. And yet, this is the same city that (in practice) kills almost all development proposals brought to it, and which grinds almost all infill and redevelopment proposals down into unprofitable dust… so something is still not lining up.
There are two answers to this contradiction which I saw in the various online comments during this campaign: First, is an element of cognitive dissonance. I think that there is a healthy segment of voters that don’t think they are anti-growth, but they probably do have unrealistic expectations, and when projects fail to live up to those expectations, they feel justified in voting them down, while shaking their heads and wondering why the city can’t just give them a better project to vote for.
The other thing I noticed in the online debate is that a lot of people believe that any growth that is going to happen is going to end up being the worst kind of growth, which they tend to label as “urban sprawl.” This is an understandable position given that sprawling unsustainable growth has been the dominant form of growth in North America since the end of WWII.
What is perhaps ironic about that is that these days most pro-growth activists are ALSO against urban sprawl!
The only people who are still pushing for the sprawling single-family residential model is developers, because it is the easiest kind of project to get approved and it is the most profitable.
And that is the reason why I think that there is an opportunity here: I suspect that there may be more common ground to be found on these than we actually realize. Nobody wants urban sprawl, everybody wants bike-ability, everyone wants affordable housing, everyone wants a city that can pay its bills and maintain its bike-paths.
The divisions that we might think exist in this town, are likely of our own making, and they are potentially born of nothing more than the fact that we have not put in the work necessary to create consensus.
Breaking the mold – Davis Style
The other reason why I think we have a chance at consensus around growth is the fact that we are indeed at a transition point in our modern society with regard to how we think about urban development. There is now general consensus among urban planners that the post-war “suburban experiment” was largely a failure, and, slowly, cities and even our state legislature are catching on. That turning point is happening slowly… but it IS happening
( Now, if you aren’t familiar with what I’m talking about, here, I would like to invite you to explore a great series of videos on a YouTube channel called “not just bikes” which you can find here. I consider this must-watch content for anyone who cares about development issues in this city. In fact, I didn’t know that I cared this much about development issues in our city until after I had watched these! They open your eyes to a reality which once you have seen it – it cannot be unseen. )
The most difficult part of this realization, however, is the fact that despite our growing societal acceptance that single-family suburban sprawl is bad, we are STILL left with two generations worth of poorly planned, car-centric cities built out into a pattern which is going to be almost impossible to “un-do”
Which brings me to a point of cognitive dissonance of my own: While this town’s opposition to growth HAS had a wide variety of negative effects over the past couple of decades, in the long term, that resistance to growth here HAS in fact, allowed Davis to stay decently compact as a city. Even the farthest flung neighborhoods are still technically biking distance to campus and to downtown.
Now, if you look at a zoning map of Davis, you still have to admit that our town did suffer its share of single-family / car-centric development. Most of our city is zoned that way. But my point is: It could have been a lot worse.
So I think we have an opportunity to have a brand-new conversation about growth in this community. If we start the discussion with a more sustainable model for “what growth looks like” I’m wondering where those existing dividing lines in our community might end up falling.
I suspect, and I hope, that a majority of Davis voters are willing to embrace a better-reasoned, more sustainable development model. But the only way we can get there is through discussion and through seeking consensus. By proactively asking the questions, discussing them together, testing hypotheses and seeing where we end up.
The fly in the ointment
The challenge with all of this however is something that I pointed out in part two of this commentary, which is that our current process for peripheral development projects is one of “approval of what a developer wants,” not any sort of “plan for what we need.”
So the difficult fact is that, despite my belief that there might be more consensus around development issues that we previously thought possible, it doesn’t actually matter at the moment, because what gets proposed is currently up to the developers, and what THEY want to do is, most likely, is to propose more single-family housing along our periphery, because that is what the machinery of state laws, and existing planning ordinances are greased up to do, and because that is what currently makes developers the most money.
So while I have been talking about new ways of thinking about growth, and an opportunity for a new vision of “what growth means for Davis” to emerge, in reality, the peripheral growth process is completely disconnected from any of that… unless we change something.
What needs to be done
As you might have noticed, this third part of my opinion piece about “what’s next for innovation in Davis” quickly evolved into a discussion of our planning process in general – and that is no accident.
Economic development is not an isolated issue in this city. Our need for economic development has implications and dependencies on a number of other issues, including housing, transit and our climate goals. An economic development plan cannot exist outside of a general planning process, and any general planning process would be incomplete without it.
So with all of the above commentary in mind, here are three things I think we need to start on first as we decide what is next for innovation and growth in Davis:
1) Start by asking the big (and hard) questions.
The first thing that I think is absolutely necessary is to force ourselves to stand back from the particulars of the various growth issues before us and ask ourselves some more fundamental questions. What is Davis’s purpose? Who is Davis for? What does our success as a city look like?
One idea that I particularly like to frame that particular challenge is through the concept of “balance.” From chemistry to mathematics to finance to our ecosystem, all of these disciplines seek to “balance” their equations: to find a correct answer by evenly weighing all of the constituent inputs.
I think that the first thing we should do is attempt to look at our city through this lens of balance. How do we balance our city with respect to the university, and with respect to our economy and with the environment?
Just like the chemists, and the mathematicians, I would want this to be a quantitative exercise. Let’s look at the basic datapoints of our city: The raw numbers around our population, our job base, our city finances, our transit system etc.
If we can start with the right data, we can answer a LOT of questions which are currently left to the realm of opinion and debate, such as: If we build peripheral housing, there certainly are environmental impacts involved, water will be consumed, farmland will be lost. But if we do NOT build peripheral housing, what does THAT future look like for the environment? How is THAT decision different. And which scenario is actually better for Davis?
At the moment, these are issues around which there currently cannot be ANY agreement, because we simply do not understand the big picture. So I think that our first priority should be doing THAT fundamental research.
Luckily, because we are Davis, we have no shortage of people in this town who are capable of executing this thought experiment. In fact, I think that this kind of thing could be executed as a community and campus-based design competition. If we resource it sufficiently to get the basic data into the hopper, we could ask both citizens and students for their inputs on how they think we might best “balance” Davis. I think the results would be fascinating.
2) Create an economic development plan.
We need to develop a detailed economic development plan. Something that:
- Develops a specific strategy that is specifically tailored to the unique strengths weaknesses and opportunities of Davis;
- Researches, vets, and recommends a set of best practices around that strategy; and
- Lays out the variety of tactical plans needed to execute that strategy.
This is the simplest of my three proposals. There is no excuse for us not having such a plan. This plan should be incorporated into the “balancing” of Davis as described above, and I’m volunteering to help.
3) A citizen-led planning process for peripheral growth.
With the first two proposals in mind, the last thing that I would suggest before we even think of suggesting an “innovation park” again, is the creation of a master plan for peripheral growth.
Now, I don’t want to pre-judge the conclusions of any of the above processes. After all, someone might pencil out that if we re-zone a significant amount of our core areas to higher density we might need much less peripheral growth than we suspect.
But for now, let’s assume two things: 1) Is it that peripheral projects are going to be proposed no matter what we are doing in a city planning process? and 2) That we have a reasonable expectation that peripheral growth is going to have to at least be part of the mix as our city goes forward.
With those assumptions on the table and the fact that I pointed out above that our peripheral growth process has zero capability for master planning, we are left with a need to get creative.
My proposal for this situation is to call for a citizen-led planning process. A group of self-organized residents who will work together, in concert with the owners of the likely peripheral properties to come up with a master plan, and a call for a moratorium on peripheral projects until that master plan can be worked through.
While such a process would of course not be formally binding under the law, the political calculus involved serves to make it quite powerful:
If the community has gone through a process to plan these properties together, and create a vision for how they will be built, what features they have, how they work together, then a potential developer would be a fool not to comply with that plan.
In fact, I suspect that the owners of those peripheral properties who are interested in eventually developing their land will be more than willing to buy-in and support the process, because it will save them money over the alternative of waging a costly and potentially unsuccessful Measure J campaign.
I can’t tell you how many people I talked to during the measure H campaign who complained that the plan was rushed, or not fully thought through, or was something being foisted upon the city by a developer who didn’t have our actual needs in mind.
A citizen-led planning process would resolve ALL of those complaints. Not only would we get a better set of developments which reflect our actual needs, but the developers would have a much easier path to getting their projects improved.
THAT is what we call a “Win-Win” scenario: Better process, better results.
Conclusion: Let’s start fresh, and let’s start planning, and let’s start NOW.
As I stated in part one of this commentary, the failure of measure H can be a good thing, if (and only if) we learn from that failure.
I have laid out a lot of the lessons that I think we should be learning from that failure and proposed a couple of concrete next steps.
My mother always admonished me to never complain about something unless you are also willing to be part of the solution. The good news here is that not only am I willing to be part of the solution, I have been having conversations with a number of people, who are also willing to help make a difference. I think that we have everything we need in this town to accomplish all of the above.
While I have suggested three different initiatives that we should be undertaking, I don’t actually think that I am proposing anything that is overly difficult or unobtainable.
The plans we develop do not need to be overly detailed, with EIRs and detailed traffic studies etc. They only need to be based on good baseline data and sound analysis.
It is also worth stating that our desire for having a good citizen-led planning process should definitely not be turned into an excuse to create a process which is obstructive by design. Everything that I mentioned above should take us no longer than a year once it starts, and it is reasonable to limit the scope of our work to be “only as comprehensive as can be accomplished in a year’s time.”
But if we can develop these higher-level plans, if we can create a process, a framework for detailing what we want and why, and if we can do that based on sound science and logic, then we can make great strides in terms of long-term planning for our city.
At the end of it, not only would we have a well-reasoned high-level plan to turn over to the formal processes of the city, but along the way we would have created a community of engaged citizens committed to seeing those plans through.
Those are my thoughts. I look forward to hearing people’s thoughts on the above ideas. And if you have better ideas for what we should do, I’d love to hear those as well.
Those who want to offer their own ideas are encouraged to reach out directly, and I hope that together we can figure out “what is next” for Davis in a compelling, and well-reasoned way.
I have had so many pleasurable conversations with my fellow citizens on these issues over the past few months that I am looking forward to this journey as much as I am the destination.
Tim Keller is a Davis resident and Founder and Executive Director of Inventopia.