By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – For decades in Davis, the debate was between slow growth/no growth and pro-growth camps (although that division is a bit simplistic). But in the last few months, that debate has shifted.
Last night there was a very interesting side debate—both on the dais and elsewhere—it was a “more deliberative planning” versus “just do something now” camp.
And while the “just do something now” camp, of which I am a proud member, won out on the dais, I think the planners have some really strong points.
Frankly, it is refreshing. I think most people understand that we need housing. The debate is now over how much, when, and how/what type. That’s a much more healthy conversation for the community.
Why am I in the “just do something now” camp?
I take the long view. A decade ago, it seemed that everything was lining up to do focused economic development. We had a Chief Innovation Officer, we had community discussions, we had the Innovation Park Task Force, the Studio 30 Report, DSIDE, Davis Roots, Jumpstart Davis—and we had several project proposals come forward. And slowly but surely all momentum was lost, then three either failed Measure J votes or just faded away. Now innovation park development in Davis is now largely dead without a significant change in direction.
So the idea that we can afford to take our time, and do a planning process, I fear could result in similar collapses.
There are some key differences for sure—a statewide housing crisis, the state breathing down our necks—but that apparent momentum could dry up very quickly.
It was a truly great idea. But there is a problem, as City Manager Mike Webb explained: “To be a true specific plan, that it would be a plan that the City Council would adopt and to adopt it and have general plan land of designations be effective. Those would be subject to first going to the voters.”
Councilmember Gloria Partida pointed out that “if we don’t do a full specific plan and have to do the EIR and have to go to Measure J/R/D vote, that’s a huge gamble because it may not pass. It more than likely won’t pass, because people won’t know what’s going to go there.”
She then added, “I think that people would be very skeptical about that. I don’t know that it would pass, we’d spend a lot of time and money and then still have to go through another J/R/D vote when the individual projects came in.”
That seemed to capture the concerns of the council on the Specific Plan.
Vaitla added, “Gloria, I mean, I agree with you that even as a standalone ballot measure, that’s a very tough thing to win for the reasons that you said it’s, people don’t know specifically what’s going there, et cetera.”
And that’s the problem. If you want truly good planning, you have to be able to … plan. And there is always a barrier to that… Measure J/R/D.
I think if you truly want good planning, you have to get rid of Measure J/R/D. OTHERWISE… you have to play politics.
I still favor a modified Measure J/R/D over getting rid of it, but I am pointing out that as long as Measure J/R/D is around, you have to take a political view of the world. You have to put forward projects that can win and when they can win.
If good planning means density, then Measure J/R/D is going to be a huge barrier to density. (We are already seeing objections to the proposed downtown projects over density and parking.)
“CEQA sees added density as being added impacts,” Arnold explained. “The same has also been the case for the voters of Davis.”
He explained, “If you’ve ever looked at a lawn sign that is “no” on whatever proposal is in front of us, almost all of them have a picture of a car in gridlock. That’s almost always the number one argument. There’s what we can achieve in density in a perfect world. And there’s, what are the voters of Davis going to accept.”
Good planning might be 1800 or even more units at Village Farms, but that means traffic impacts and that will create a ready-made campaign that could very well defeat the project.
Measure J/R/D also means timing matters.
Why do I keep pushing for November 2024? Because that is going to be a high turnout election, with tons of students who are likely to support housing.
You go to a special election in 2025, you are going to get pretty much the core voters only, and those core voters tend to be slower growth people. We can see that in the difference between the 2020 and 2022 votes on DiSC.
You might get a project approved in 2025 given everything, but it’s not going to be a “good planning project.”
As long as we have Measure J/R/D as currently written, politics matters more than “good planning.”
Look, I’m not opposed to good planning—I would love to have a robust General Planning, community engagement, lots of affordable housing—but we have to put projects forward that can pass Measure J/R/D votes and that builders can actually build.
Community Development Director Sherri Metzker really captured the dilemma here really well.
She said, “I would’ve envisioned whether we had these projects pending or not, that one of the issues we should take up in our next general plan is the issue of growth. Where does the city project we should grow and how, and all the kinds of things that you’ve actually been talking about.”
In her view, “if you take these two proposed large projects and sort of take them out of the mix, it does reduce to some degree your level or your ability to do that sort of master planning because the decision in essence has already been directed.”
But there are alternatives here. One of my favorites is what Tim Keller put forward earlier this week.
He put the idea of a permanent urban limit line, with an eye toward 120,000 people based on other similarly situated college towns.
He did preface his discussion with the disclaimer: “I am not saying that we need to grow to that size (and certainly not overnight!).”
He sees this as a 30- to 50-year time horizon.
He notes, “Even though 120,000 people sounds like a big leap for a city which is currently only 68,000, a 1% annual growth rate starting in 2020 gets us to 110,000 people within 50 years and a 2% growth rate gets us to 183,000 people in that same period and to 120,000 people in 30 years.”
The map he envisions looks like this:
You can compare in this map the red urban limit line to the current boundaries. Is this really a huge sprawl map? Not to me. Especially with a 30-to 50-year time horizon. And that red line would be a permanent limit line (at least until there is another city-wide vote).
With such a plan in place, we could create a Measure J/R/D substitute that now uses the red line rather than current city limits to indicate the trigger for a voter initiative—and that would in fact allow us to plan for affordable housing, proper density, connectivity and transportation.
With what passed on Tuesday night, we have the opportunity to look toward bigger picture solutions like this while still moving forward. Perhaps that brings the “do something now camp” together with the planning camp.