In a recent post, Jon Li decried the process used by "Downtown Davis Plan Team Participatory Design Workshop." In addition to those concerns about process, in his view the right solution to Davis's economic problems is to turn the Downtown into 10,000 residences by building six stories, and higher, and having jobs and housing downtown."
In reply, one commenter thought that "the charrette consultants went straight to tall, dense downtown buildings as a first solution" and that that "would probably gentrify downtown to the point where all the small independent businesses would be forced out because rents would go too high."
Interestingly, then, we have agreement that there were problems with the process, but disagreement with the desired outcome: a tall, dense downtown.
Would a tall downtown in fact improve Davis's economy?
It seems to make sense that it would. After all, it seems like you've got built-in customers right there, so how could the businesses not succeed? And if the businesses do well, that's more tax money for Davis.
The logic is reasonable, but that's not how it's working out for San Francisco, according to a recent article in the SF Chronicle. Instead, "San Francisco’s shopping streets are sprouting empty storefronts that linger like urban tombstones." Why? The article suggests three reasons:
- New construction, especially if it’s multistory, can boost the cost of street-level retail space. Small businesses can’t pay that asking price, thinning the market. The city’s wish to limit chains — defined as 11 similar outlets — cuts into the number of potential occupants.
- Shopping habits are shifting to the online world. Red tape encountered in setting up a new business is often cited by merchants as an issue.
- San Francisco’s booming economy. Retail landlords are expecting rent jumps in line with other property owners. Some appear willing to wait for years as empty spaces sit empty below new condo towers or along shopping strips.
San Francisco, it should be noted, fines landlords for empty storefronts. Right now, though, San Francisco's system is complaint-driven, and so many storefronts stay empty and unfined. Presumably, though, to improve on that system would cost staff time, and the fines would have to be high enough to motivate landlords but not so high as to be unfair.
So, if the reason to build higher downtown is supposed to be economic, will that really get us the outcome that we want? And how dense – how urban – do we want the downtown to be, aside from the claimed economic benefits? What is our collective vision for the downtown?
I'd welcome people's thoughts in the comments, and also urge them to discuss these issues with the nine City Council candidates to see where they stand.