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Monday, December 01, 2008

Guest Commentary: Keep The Old Cannery Site Zoned High-Tech

We are Running Out of Usable Parcels for High-Tech

by Sue Greenwald

On Tuesday, the City Council will be deciding the fate of the only significant remaining parcel of land within our City limits which is large enough to accommodate new medium-sized high-tech companies. If we don’t retain the existing business park zoning of the old cannery property, we are unlikely to attract substantial new high-technology industry to Davis, and Davis is likely to lose out on the green-energy research and development funding that is central to the incoming administration’s fast-tracked fiscal stimulus program.

The old Hunt-Wesson cannery site at Covell and F street is currently zoned for a high-tech oriented business park. Shortly after the old tomato cannery closed, the land was purchased by a southern California development corporation. The company, Lewis Planned Communities, bought high-tech industrially zoned land and has been lobbying to change the zoning from high-tech oriented business park to housing ever since they acquired it.

Lewis has presented their rezoning proposal as “mixed-use”, but in fact the parcel, at only about 66 usable acres, is not large enough to include a major residential component and still be a viable high-tech business park. I’ll be blunt: “Mixed-use” is, in the case of the Lewis proposal, a euphemism for a housing subdivision. If the council is serious about promoting economic development and serious about attracting high-technology companies to Davis, the council will turn down the Lewis proposal at our meeting this week.

A number of arguments have been raised by those who wish to turn our last significant business park parcel into housing. Let me dispense with a few key questions quite briefly. “Is this parcel viable as a business park?” According to industry realtors and to our city’s hired consultant, the answer is “yes”. “Would high-tech companies find the site attractive?” Again, the answer is “yes”. And, no, high-tech industry does not need, or necessarily prefer, to be near a freeway.

So why hasn’t this parcel already become a high-tech business park? As long as the council signals that we will entertain suggestions of rezoning, it is only natural that the parcel’s owners will hold out for more profitable housing. I have talked with mayors and planners from Cupertino to Seattle, and have found that they too struggle with the pressures from developers to rezone their scarce high-tech land to housing. At some point, the city has to give developers and land speculators a clear message that we will retain our industrial zoning. Only at that point will the owners decide to work cooperatively with the city to develop a business park or to sell the land priced realistically at its true business-park land value. In today’s financial climate, developers are unlikely to choose to tie up precious capital while paying property taxes if the council stands resolute.

Some have suggested that we rezone the Hunt-Wesson for housing and annex new peripheral land for a business park. But annexation is a long and cumbersome process with an uncertain outcome, it entails less revenue for the city, and it would result in poorer land use planning.

Fiscally, any hypothetical annexation of new land for a business park would result in less revenue for the city than using the cannery site. Land like the cannery parcel which is already within our city’s boundaries has a tax formula that was set many years ago. When we annex new land today, we must negotiate a tax split with the county, and such terms are certain to be less favorable to the city than our existing formula. If we annex new county land, the city will receive a lesser share of the revenue.

In terms of timing, annexation would take too long. We have attracted some important high-tech companies recently, but we are now out of land for additional mid-sized companies.

Although the national economy and residential real-estate are currently at a stand-still (Davis has approved 160 ownership housing units which remain unbuilt, not even counting the Grande or Simmons sites), there is a likelihood that the incoming administration is going to fast-track funds for green technology research and development. President-elect Obama has already pledged $10 billion for green technology R&D, and green technology is a major component of his fiscal stimulus plan. Davis should be a beneficiary of this program, but without the land zoned and ready to go, we will have no chance of becoming a green technology center. This opportunity will come only once.

Finally, in terms of land-use planning, it is far better to have our clean, high-tech jobs within walking and biking distance of our neighborhoods, rather than further from town.

Some have suggested that we use the PG&E site between 2nd and 5th Streets at L Street near downtown for high-tech industry. From a smart-growth perspective, this would be the saddest decision of all, because the twenty-five acre P.G.&E. site is the only site available for a visionary, high-quality, transit-oriented townhouse and condominium development within walking distance to downtown and AMTRAK.

We stand at a fork in the road. It is time to break the old patterns of suburban sprawl by building our jobs near our existing housing, and our housing downtown near our existing jobs and mass transit hub. We can do conventional planning, or we can do smart growth. We can position ourselves to become a high-technology and green-technology center, or we can let the chance slip by. We have the chance of a generation to make the right planning decisions, starting Tuesday night.

Sue Greenwald has served on the Davis City Council since 2000. She was Mayor from 2006-2008.