Monday Morning Thoughts: Thoughts on Economic Development and Infill As the Campaigns Heat Up

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – I learn a lot from reading candidate responses on some of these issues.  I want to address a few key points that I think need to be fleshed out.

There is a strong sentiment that DISC was flawed in many ways—certainly the traffic impacts were a problem and there was no real way around them.

But for those who argue that the city should simply punt on economic development, I think that’s a grave mistake for a lot of reasons.

The first issue of course is the fiscal health of the city.  Some believe we will have to do it with taxes—but getting at least $10 million in taxes is going to be difficult, as for the most part they too have to be approved by the voters.  It will be expensive to the taxpayer.  And it will tend to squeeze out the middle income voters even more.

We have already seen that the voters are not willing to support a new parcel tax for roads.  There might be alternatives that won’t take a two-thirds threshold, but recognize that the city has known about these problems for a decade and, so far, the only new tax has been an increase in the sales tax.

If taxes were the obvious answer, we would have done them already.

Second, UC Davis is the driver of economic development in the region and UC Davis is making a huge push to expand its technology transfer and make its mark.  Already, UC Davis has bypassed the city of Davis with the development of Aggie Square.  It’s pretty telling in my view that UC Davis has planned, financed and filled Aggie Square in the time it has taken the city of Davis to propose and ultimately vote down two projects.

The bottom line: UC Davis is going to be moving forward with more of these technology and research parks, but they aren’t looking at Davis as a solution.  Ironically, some of the opponents used the lukewarm support of UC Davis as a reason to oppose DISC, when it’s pretty clear that the opposition from those opponents was a key factor in UCD’s non-committal to a project they doubted would get approved.

Davis is still the location where many startups and even move-ups want to locate, with its highly-educated community, the Davis brand name, and its ready supply of high-end workers—and UC Davis is going to move on without Davis unless Davis puts its neck in the game.

In lot of ways, the DISC location was not the best one for an innovation center.  The traffic problems are there.  The distance from the university is another factor.

But the problem is, where else?  It’s hard to see another location that is going to work.  Unless the city wants to go way outside the box, the options are limited.

Third, jobs are a big issue for Davis.  We complain about traffic.  Some of that is the nature of I-80.  But we are making traffic issues a lot worse.  We have basically a community where people either work at UC Davis or they work out of town, which means a vehicle commute.  For all of the complaints about DISC and GHG emissions, we are forcing many people to drive to or from Davis in order to work.  Too many people who work at the university can’t afford to live in town.  Too many people who live in town can’t find work in town if they aren’t university employees, and thus we have exacerbated our traffic issues.

Further, we have made it difficult to retain even a reasonable percentage of college grads from UC Davis.  It’s a strawman argument to say “do the math,” because we can’t possibly retain even a sizable percentage of students.  We know that.  But UC Davis and Sacramento region is still very low in terms of large research universities in retaining talent.

Finally, I want to address one more point—infill.

In general, I am not a fan of peripheral housing.  In fact, it is a reason I have continued to support Measure J despite its many shortcomings.

Bapu Vaitla noted, “I believe that infill housing should be our highest development priority.”

Kelsey Fortune added, “In general, I am not a fan of peripheral development.”

Adam Morrill said, “I oppose any developments that are not currently part of the General Plan, whether they are good for the community or not.  We can no longer condone patchwork amendments to the General Plan as it will only contribute to urban sprawl.  Additionally, we should be looking to develop areas that have already been incorporated in the General Plan before even considering anything else on the periphery.”

The General Plan is badly out of date, and largely won’t be updated for at least five years—I’m guessing on the timeline, but that seems a safe guess for how slow things are moving.

So, I’m not sure how you can stay in compliance with HCD and our RHNA requirements with Morrill’s approach—not that I necessarily disagree with him in principle, just in practice at this point.

Second, we have pursued a largely infill strategy since 2000.  Only two peripheral projects have been approved over that time—and I would argue that Nishi is largely an infill project in everything but name.

That said, I think it’s dicey as to whether we can meet our housing needs this RHNA cycle with infill.  I ran through the dynamics of that a few weeks ago.  Even the City Manager is skeptical they can meet their affordable housing needs for the next cycle.

Are we going to really count on being able to redevelop the downtown and put a significant amount of affordable housing there in the next six years?  That’s what it would take.  And then some, to get in compliance.

I also don’t see how we can fail to build any new housing for five years while we wait for the General Plan update.  So we’ll see.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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19 Comments

  1. Keith Y Echols

    Many people seem to have some magical mystical belief that if you believe in infill development enough, chant it at committees/council meetings enough and use eldritch gold ink to write psalms to the god of new urbanism into the General Plan; that infill development will solve all of the city’s needs regardless of actual realistic development viability.

    It’s the same kind of thinking where they believe if we no longer plan for parking and roads for cars that it will force people to happily abandon their cars and walk and ride their bikes to work (as opposed to simply choose not to move here).

    1. Keith Y Echols

      Or let me put it this way:  there seems to be a prevailing attitude among the people and many of the leaders (and potential leaders) which is: “Okay you big bad evil developers, here are the conditions that you must conform to for us to even possibly consider (much less approve) your development here.”   There does not seem to be an approach of: Okay Mr. Developer (and/or business) what do you need to make things work for you.  This is what we need; let’s work it out.

      1. David Greenwald

        This is a very good point. What we see from the opposition is a litany of complaints about project but never a path forward which lays out what they would in fact support.

        1. Mark West

          “This is a very good point.”

          The point has been made many times over the years by a variety of people, yet the ‘Davis spanking machine’ is still in place. It is not just with the opposition where the problem lies, but with City Staff, City Council, adjacent land-owners, business leaders, and competitive local Developers. as well. There is an overall selfish mindset of ‘nothing is going to get done unless I get my piece’ that permeates the process in town. When we collectively say ‘my way or the highway’ regarding projects the obvious result is that the good projects go elsewhere. Measure J simply expands the number of people (by a couple orders of magnitude) who now believe they ‘need their piece’ too.

        2. Ron Oertel

          Farmland/open space is what I’d support.  And I do so without “apologizing” for it.

          I also do so with an eye toward the future, when all of us are no longer around.

          And I don’t advocate for housing shortages (e.g., the creation of jobs beyond what a given community actually needs).

        3. Keith Olson

          Good points Ron.

          Does it ever occur to some people that the “path forward” might be preserving farmland and stopping sprawl?

          Does it ever occur to people that the “selfish mindset” might be developing precious farmland and creating sprawl along with its increased traffic and pollution?

          It’s all in how one sees things.

        4. Richard_McCann

          Keith O

          Is Davis farmland more precious than say, Woodland farmland? Or Elk Grove farmland? Instead of being parochial, we need to ask where else will the impacts occur and how much worse if Davis doesn’t accept that project? We have opportunities to craft better projects that are models for elsewhere. In fact, we can argue that what Davis did proactively prior to 2000 led to widespread adoption across California and even the world. As Keith E points out, we should be looking for cooperative solutions, not just selfish “no.”

        5. Ron Oertel

          Is Davis farmland more precious than say, Woodland farmland? Or Elk Grove farmland?

          No – but those cities are “lost causes” – even when compared to Davis (which isn’t even close to being the city that protects farmland the best).

          As a side note, “farmland” and “open space” are not necessarily the same exact thing.

          Of course, there’s also soil and water considerations, in determining which sites are “most worth” saving.

          Instead of being parochial, we need to ask where else will the impacts occur and how much worse if Davis doesn’t accept that project?

          There’s no evidence that decision which Davis makes will have any direct impact on what other cities choose to protect (or not).

          We have opportunities to craft better projects that are models for elsewhere. In fact, we can argue that what Davis did proactively prior to 2000 led to widespread adoption across California and even the world. As Keith E points out, we should be looking for cooperative solutions, not just selfish “no.”

          If whatever you’re referring to has already been adopted “across California” as you state, than Davis in fact doesn’t do anything “better” than other communities do, when pursuing sprawl.

          And if you (nevertheless) believe it does, I suspect that there’s other communities that would pursue “better” development proposals than Davis does.

          As far as “cooperative solutions” with other cities, maybe you should speak with those other cities regarding what “you” have in mind.  I’m “sure” they’ll listen to you.

          Ultimately, preservation efforts will only be implemented in communities that are open to them.   In other words, this is an example of “think globally, act locally” – much like local efforts to eliminate greenhouse gasses.

          Parts of the Bay Area (e.g., Marin, Sonoma counties) “learned this lesson” a long time ago – well-after other parts of the Bay Area sprawled-into each other. (I suspect that the ability to do so was partly a result of the separation created by the Golden Gate strait, itself.)

          And if other communities want to pursue sprawl, there’s really not much that can be done without purging the politicians (and enacting something like Measure J). (Actually, Marin and Sonoma counties did something similar, a long time ago. They got rid of the growth advocates previously running the place.)

          In the meantime, I’d suggest not pursuing more jobs than Davis actually needs, unless you don’t value “Woodland farmland”, for example.

        6. Keith Olson

          Is Davis farmland more precious than say, Woodland farmland? Or Elk Grove farmland? 

          I don’t think anyone is promoting development elsewhere that doesn’t want farmland paved over in Davis.  Where did you get that from?

    2. Matt Williams

      Keith, the problem that the City government has had for decades, and done nothing to remedy, is the fact that the rate of growth of their spending (increasing costs) far outstrips the rate of growth of the revenues that economic development produces.  As a result any net revenue margin (gross revenues less gross costs) that may exist in the early years of the development is eroded away repeatedly each year until that net margin becomes a deficit.  The City needs to stop adding expenses like a second ladder truck with its very highly paid staffing.  The one fully-staffed ladder truck we currently have has been sufficient for decades, and any new “tall” buildings being built have state of the art fire suppression systems that obviate the need for a ladder truck.  The fire history at URC, with the deployment of the sprinklers there, is ample evidence that the need for a second ladder truck is illusory.

      Further, even the gross revenues that economic development produces have a significant ramp-up period before the City sees any of that revenue … typically five years or more.  It is rather like a lottery ticket.

      F

  2. Ron Oertel

    But we are making traffic issues a lot worse.  We have basically a community where people either work at UC Davis or they work out of town, which means a vehicle commute. 

    And yet, Matt just noted (in another article) that “local workers” (whatever they are, and however they’re defined) primarily live outside of town.

    Which is it?  Can you guys make up your mind, regarding what you’re pushing for?

    For all of the complaints about DISC and GHG emissions, we are forcing many people to drive to or from Davis in order to work. 

    And yet, you advocate for more of this (e.g., via something like DiSC).  Go figure.

    Too many people who work at the university can’t afford to live in town. 

    This is not what’s happening.  Instead, developers build housing that’s cheaper (and have garages, etc.) in places like Spring Lake.  This does not necessarily mean, however, that those who work at the University “can’t afford” to live in Davis. What you’re referring to are people who are essentially “bargain shoppers” (looking for more for their money), and don’t believe that Davis’ benefits outweigh its drawbacks – including the price that they’d have to pay (in Davis) to get the same thing that other nearby communities provide more cheaply.

    Too many people who live in town can’t find work in town if they aren’t university employees, and thus we have exacerbated our traffic issues.

    Sounds like those folks should move out of town to where their job is.  Is that what you’re advocating?

    All of this just sounds like self-contradictory “reasons” (and assumptions) to build more of everything, with no analysis or facts whatsoever. Just praying to the development gods, to solve straw-man problems.

  3. Ron Glick

    David said :

    “In general, I am not a fan of peripheral housing.  In fact, it is a reason I have continued to support Measure J despite its many shortcomings.”

    “That said, I think it’s dicey as to whether we can meet our housing needs this RHNA cycle with infill.”

    David slices and dices his way through  to support a policy that is doomed to fail to address housing needs. He knows it but like our current batch of candidates his fear of bucking the dominant paradigm is greater than his willingness to speak truth to the readers or voters as the case maybe.

    1. David Greenwald

      There’s another way to look at this – which you continue to refuse.

      Point A: The voters supported the renewal of Measure J by more than 80 percent of the vote

      Point B: The majority appear to say they are for housing but prefer infill over peripheral.

      Point C: We cannot meet our housing needs – particularly affordable housing – through infill

      Point D: Something has to give. The battle however isn’t on Point A but rather on points B and C.

    2. Ron Oertel

      In regard to the state’s war on its own cities, the entire thing is doomed to failure.  Not immediately, but over time. Already, the governor himself has significantly failed to deliver what he “promised” in regard to housing. (Which, of course, is great news in reality.)

      One only has to look at a place like San Francisco – which not only can’t spread onto farmland, it’s also experiencing a declining population (more than 6%).  Good luck forcing them to grow, in the manner that the state is attempting to mandate.  (Unless, perhaps – the state itself funds all of the Affordable housing that their effort is primarily focused on.)

      And that’s without even getting into the wealthy cities along the coast (where the vast majority of the population lives) that also aren’t expanding outward, and are actively (and passively) fighting the state.

      And all of this occurring during a very significant housing market downturn, to boot.

      Good luck YIMBYs, Wiener, and Newsom. (And UC Davis’ own Professor Emendorf.)

      Now, if the state politicians wanted to actually address the underlying causes of what they claim to be concerned about, they’d have more credibility. It would start by bucking the same interests which supported their candidacy for office, so that’s probably not going to happen.

      Ultimately, in a game of “chicken” – they’re not going to fully declare war on their own cities to any significant degree. Those are, after all, their “customers” (and include those who voted to elect them).

  4. Matt Williams

    We have already seen that the voters are not willing to support a new parcel tax for roads.  There might be alternatives that won’t take a two-thirds threshold, but recognize that the city has known about these problems for a decade and, so far, the only new tax has been an increase in the sales tax.

    .

    Regarding the bolded observation, the motto of the City Council is “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself!”  … and they have proposed nothing and let the problem fester.

    BTW David, where did you get the $10 million figure.  Dan Carson throughout the Measure H campaign insisted it is only $6-$7 million.  He did so both verbally and in print.

    1. Ron Oertel

      Regarding the bolded observation, the motto of the City Council is “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself!”  … and they have proposed nothing and let the problem fester.

      The only thing I fear in life is a few potholes (aka, “nature’s speed bumps”).  And Davis is “oh-so-much-worse” than everywhere else in California.  It’s a miracle that a car hasn’t been swallowed-up by one of these sinkholes, by this point.  🙂

      And the only “fester” I support is usually referred to as an “uncle”, and generates enough “green energy” to light a lightbulb in his mouth.

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