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Friday, June 08, 2007

Commentary: What Changed in the West Village Discussion

Back in early April, the Council majority was not only against annexation of the West Village development on the outskirts of the UC Davis campus, they were nasty about it. (See: Enterprise Article on Mayor Slanted; Mayor Greenwald's Response)

At that time, Mayor Greenwald supported a very basic motion:
"It shall be the position of the City of Davis that annexation of the University’s West Davis neighborhood is a goal that we strongly support in concept."
As Don Saylor said at the time:
“We have no staff analysis in front of us, there are questions of the analysis that are not before us, there are questions of the assumptions that are not before us. This is incredible... And then there's a request to change council policy.”
What Saylor and in fact the Davis Enterprise at the time failed to note was the reason that there is no staff analysis was that the council majority refused to allow this to be agendized as a normal agenda item and instead had to be brought before the council as an item submitted by a councilmember which allows for no staff work to be done on it.

After much debate, ranquor, and sheer tenacity, the issue was back on the agenda, this time with full staff report. Mayor Greenwald deserves much of the credit for keeping this issue alive and forcing the council majority to put it on the agenda. Without her tenacity on this issue, there is no doubt, that this issue would have gone away.

Staff of course, remained very skeptical on the cost impact on the city. The basic view of staff was summed up in this statement:
"Staff acknowledges that annexation of West Village poses a number of challenging issues related to governance and delivery of services that need to be further addressed and fully understood prior to final Council action on the annexation question. The fact that the City would not gain land use authority with annexation is already a significant factor that diminishes the value of annexation. If police and fire services were also retained and provided by UCD, it would be difficult for staff to justify bringing West Village under city jurisdiction given that we would not be directly in control of most urban services provided its future residents."
As Paul Navazio, the city's director of finance said on Tuesday,
"The current assessment of the fiscal analysis, on the operating revenues and the operating costs, is that overall the project does not generate sufficient revenue to cover costs, it generates more revenue under an annexation, then in a non-annexation, if the city with council direction sat down with the campus to explore revenue sharing or supplemental revenues, to help off-set the city costs, it's our sense it would be potentially cost effective from a fiscal standpoint and it would cost the tenants and the residents less and make-up the costs of the campus providing services."
The elements were aligned here once again that pointed to the same result as April: you had a council that previously expressed skepticism (and criticism of this issue) and a staff declaring the project does not generate enough revenue to cover the costs.

The key concern that Greenwald expressed is the infeasibility of having a huge development on the border of Davis, without connection to city governance. This notion was also affirmed by Councilmember Heystek.

Moreover, the staff report revealed that the cheapest alternative--the one that was most cost effective was for the city to annex West Village. That means that with a concerted effort on the part of the city and university, a deal can and should be arrived at that would benefit all sides and pave the way for annexation. The only reason that this was discovered was the vigilance of Mayor Greenwald, who would not allow the issue to die.

On the other hand, even as part of the city of Davis, the annexation would not grant the city any kind of land use authority, which gives UC Davis design control. There will be no access point to Russell Blvd., meaning that the neighborhood will be somewhat isolated from the rest of the city, even as part of the city.

What changed that made this annexation a possibility now, whereas just two months ago, it was dismissed almost out of hand?

One difference was the presence of ASUCD and numerous UC Davis students.

A key concern for students was having access to city government and municipal representation. In their resolution passed unanimously on May 24, 2007, ASUCD affirmed their support of the annexation of the West Village Development by the City of Davis. ASUCD Senator Andrew Peake read this resolution into the record. Several other UC Davis students also came forward in support.

While the students and also resident Ron Glick, made compelling cases for the enfranchisement of students, Saylor remained concerned about the costs to the current residents of the city and the current voters and taxpayers. Saylor's stated principle that "any new project would pay for itself." This is an interesting viewpoint in light of previous fiscal decisions by Saylor that have been less than fiscally sound.

Councilmember Heystek urged the discussion to continue. He countered Saylor's argument by suggesting:
"If that were a standard adopted by council, then we would cease to have affordable housing, because it is clear that affordable housing projects do not pay for themselves. But I think it is ludicrous to say that all of our affordable housing costs need to be mitigated by an overall revenue stream. I don't think that would ever be a philosophy that this council would adopt."
Heystek went on to point out how many different projects would not get done if this philosophy were adopted. His core point that gets back to the issue of enfranchisement was this:
"The thing that we cannot quantify in this whole discussion is the value of civic engagement as the result of inclusion of students, faculty, staff in this new neighborhood. We cannot put a price on that. "

"But we're not talking about what we really do embrace as a whole council. I think the whole council embraces the sentiments of ASUCD, embraces the sentiment of increased civic engagement, the sentiment that we cannot continue to divide our university community between voters and non-voters in the city. I do not think that is something that the council embraces."
One of the key differences in this discussion was the presence of the students and the issue of enfranchisement. Talking to a councilmember after the meeting, it seemed clear that their presence changed the course and trajectory of the debate, and injected energy and passion that were absent in April. The council simply could not look the students in the face and deny annexation. That does not mean that this will go forward, but at least there was consensus about reopening negotiations between city, county, and university.

My own take on this follows from many of the comments expressed on Tuesday. First, I agree wholly with the students, with Sue Greenwald, and with Lamar Heystek on the need for enfranchisement. That I think was the most compelling argument.

I think Ron Glick who spoke at public comments summed it up very well when he discussed the mistake made 50 years ago that denied students on campus voting rights in city elections:
"To deny our students the right to vote is a great tragedy, and I would like to aspire to higher things than property taxes."
Second, I think Sue Greenwald's point is very important:
"We can't have a massive development the size of Winters perched on our borders."
I have seen cities with massive developments on their border that are not annexed by the city, and in general it is a huge problem for the city. It often leads to commercial development that ends up sucking money out of the city without giving money to the city. Looking at this from a strict fiscal analysis now assumes that all things will remain constant into the future. Saylor's argument while compelling, I think was easily countered by Heystek, but moreover, is very short-sighted in terms of its fiscal view.

My biggest concern is really the lack of access point onto Russell. This is a problem because it isolates the community from the rest of the city. Frankly, this is a problem regardless of annexation. It is not a reason to not annex it, it is a reason to negotiate with neighbors and the university to fix that problem.

Overall, the difference between April and June, illustrates the need for transparency in government processes. Moreover, it illustrates a debate point that seems to recur at every council meeting and that is, we need to have our meetings end by 11 pm to ensure public involvement. I will comment more on this later, but I think one of the responsibilities of councilmembers should be that they should expect to meet every Tuesday night. And if they are to be out of town, the show must go on without them.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting