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DISC is back… and so is bad process

Staff and City Council favor developer interests over citizen input

By Roberta Millstein

This past Tuesday (Sept 7), the City Council formally set in motion the process to evaluate the twice-reborn industrial park/hotel complex on prime farmland outside the Mace curve, now dubbed DISC 2022. Readers will recall that this project was handily defeated at the polls less than a year ago. Now it is back again with half the acreage, fewer amenities, and a smaller proportion devoted to revenue-generating commercial uses. 

Also back again is staff acquiescing to the developer's extremely short requested timeline. 

There have been some improvements in process this time around. The project was made a regular agenda item, allowing for greater citizen awareness and discussion, though apparently a number of people were still caught by surprise. And all of the relevant commissions are scheduled to be consulted from the outset, something that citizens had to fight for the last time. 

However, staff's Tuesday proposal was that each commission can only evaluate the project once. Why? The developer wants this on the ballot by June 2022 and staff wants to comply with that, stating there is not enough time for commissions to have more than one meeting concerning the proposal. Why do they want to go along with the developer?  Well, you will have to ask them, but it is certainly not a timeline that favors citizen input, remembering that commissions are intended to be a conduit for citizens to give feedback to the City.

During the last DISC evaluation, there were literally thousands of pages of Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to look through. Commissions rallied valiantly to meet what was then also a short timeline. They held extra meetings and formed subcommittees and did their best to provide the City Council with informed analysis. Sadly, some of this analysis was withheld by staff, failing to appear in the documents sent to the City Council. Now staff would have commissions' arms tied from the outset. 

Note that this is not the first problem with staff and process we have seen in recent days: cutting down trees at Sutter, the Bright Night solar debacle, the Mace Mess, and pesticide use in city parks all involved staff overreach and cutting citizens out of the loop. 

Some will say that this is the same project as before, only smaller, so we don’t need much input from commissions.  I think that’s blatantly false. The retail portion of the project has shrunk less than other parts, making it seem as though retail is meant to serve more than the site itself, threatening downtown businesses. Same with the hotel. The shuttles that were included in the previous version of project are gone, as is proposed transportation management and a bike tunnel under Mace Blvd, increasing the carbon footprint of the project. There is a significant loss of park space. The proposed riparian area has possibly been eliminated; this is one of the many parts of the project description that is vague. And this is not an exhaustive list of changes. 

Note that these significant changes cut across all of the commissions that reviewed the project last time. 

To the City Council's credit, they didn’t fully go along with the staff recommendation on commission input, although some Councilmembers (Mayor Partida and Councilmember Carson) wanted to. They voted to allow commissions to appoint a subcommittee in advance of the single prescribed meeting, and commissions can have a second meeting, but they must turn in any recommendations within 2 weeks of the date already set out on the schedule. 

Although this ties commission hands a little less, it still ties them. 

Having subcommittees meet before the commission meeting is problematic. The material they need to evaluate won’t be provided until the meeting, so how can they do an effective job?  Also, it is typically at the meeting of the whole commission that issues requiring further analysis are identified. With the restriction that subcommittee meetings occur first, it’s unclear how the mandate of the subcommittees are supposed to be identified. 

Another problem with the timeline is that it does not allow for any commission input into the EIR, as was the case with the previous DISC proposal and with otherwise proposals such as Nishi (which ultimately prevailed at the ballot). Yes, commissioners can offer their individual comments, but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. When the whole commission can vote on EIR comments, it is clearer which comments have a strong backing. I should also point out that the original EIR, developed back in 2015 when this was the MRIC project, is now very much out of date, especially given the pandemic. The burrowing owl surveys are also out of date. Commissions will be unable to provide input concerning necessary updates given the approved commission meeting timeline. 

This is a rush job, favoring the developer and the developer's wishes, with public input being severely constrained from the outset. The City of Davis Commission Handbook says that the commissions are supposed to be the “eyes and ears” of the Council. By restricting commission meetings the council is closing its eyes and covering its ears.



I live a few houses from the edge of the city, at the Mace curve. While I support development here I think the way it’s being done will result in failure. There’s no community participation.


Oh man, I was hoping you were referring to the old DISC roller hockey place. Now that would be a great thing to bring back.

Alan Miller

Where does it say the bike tunnel will not be included this time? That was one of my main issues last time around so I am very interested in a cite on this.

Colin Walsh

The project information from the developer is posted on the City website here

I have not found any mention of a underpass or tunnel under mace in those documents and there is no indication on any of the maps that there is any tunnel. I think it is pretty safe to read that as there is no plan for a tunnel under Mace at this time.

Will they add it back in after there is public pressure? Who knows, this project has been ever shifting since first proposed and will continue to shift until when/if it is actually built. The current project description states, "precise building locations and other Project features represent a logical layout which may be subject to change." and further notes that, "the precise size, location and configuration of a building or residential structure may fluctuate"

Todd Edelman

There's Commission input, and there's Commission input: The reliably Staff-friendly Chair of the BTSSC seems to think his job is to assist Staff as much as it is to advise the Council. What this means is that even if a BTSSC sub-committee develops a critical argument against the project, he's likely to give Staff the last word.

Let's also not forget that Carson and Partida refused to meet with the BTSSC sub-committee on DISC I.

The threats to Downtown businesses are not to due the businesses in this project, but in this location. Every home in Davis should be in walking distance to a wide variety of services - that is, if we want to be adult about our Climate Goals - the problem is that everything here is too far from the rest of the City. Look at vehicle vs. bike parking at Target: There's barely any of the latter.

Having only one meeting for every Commission for this project is a joke - there's no way to re-check any recommendations. And again with the BTSSC, the Chair and others on it didn't want to set up an exceptional meeting during DISC I.

A grade-separated crossing can be a bit safer than a properly designed surface intersection with removed free right turns and so on, but the main advantage is for ease of use of motor vehicles. Imagine crossing a surface road at Richards, Pole Line or Mace: It's so much easier than going up the biggest grades in town. So I predict that the developers of Son of DISC will throw this back in as candy for the project. Or will they throw back in the shuttles, the transportation management? It's doubtful. This project is a joke.

The Vanguard story emphasizes more than this one the mild push back of Arnold and Frerichs. Was that exaggerated?

We know who is running for higher office in town. What do we about the Staff members that are running over democracy and a sort of Davis-Constitution Texas-style? (Today, AG Garland referred to them as "terrorists").

Colin Walsh

Carson seemed perfectly happy to accept staff recommendations to drastically limit commission input.
Partida suggested subcommittees be formed and meet in advance of a single meeting.
Arnold emphasized that the city has been considering a business park for 10 years, but still thought commissions should be allowed more time.
Frerichs politely pushed for more time for commissions to do their work and spoke specifically to the lack of information subcommittees would face meeting in advance of a single commission meeting were materials will be presented.
Chapman spoke less and later and seemed to agree with Arnold and Frerichs.
I think it is fair to credit Arnold and Frerichs with persuading their fellow council persons to allow commissions 2 weeks each to look at the project vs only 1 week with no subcommittee.
The end result is still an unprecedented limitation on the commissions and diminishes public input.

Karen L. Baker

Roberta is spot-on with her analysis. Once again, citizens are faced with cleaning up the sloppy job of City Staff and City Council. The residents of Davis voted this boondoggle down and yet, just like a vampire, it keeps reappearing.

Ramos has not reached out to those of us who will be most impacted by the of added vehicles on Mace Blvd.: there has been no dialogue with residents of Mace Ranch whatsoever. And let's also factor in that we are in a severe drought: what is the likely water usage for a hotel, conference center, labs, homes, ?

Roberta L. Millstein

One point that I neglected to mention in my article, but meant to: why is the developer's proposed timeline so short -- again! It was short for the first DISC and it is short for DISC 2022, too. There seems to be no reason other than to limit citizen input. Why does this need to be on the June 2022 ballot? Why couldn't it be on the November 2022 ballot? Or if it had to be on the June 2022 ballot, why did the developer wait so long to bring the "revised" proposal to Council? It's not like they were working on a lot of new details to give to the City. What has been provided to the City is very vague.

So, given that context, staff and Council going along with the developer's accelerated timeline seems even more unwarranted.

Colin Walsh

I think another really important thing to understand about staffs attempts to limit commission input is that there was no notice to the commissions that such a limitation would be imposed. Neither staff nor council asked the commissions if 1 meeting was enough to get the work done. I think this lack of inclusion of the commissions in the decision to limit commission input helps show this for what it is, an attempt to limit commissions and the public’s ability to properly analyze and offer feedback on the project.

Roberta L. Millstein

Excellent point, Colin. And thanks to everyone for their comments so far.

Todd Edelman

Seems like there should be a more or less concrete template for Commission review of projects based on objective criteria.

Commissions can on their own vote to have exceptional meetings, but it shouldn't be necessary.

If that's sorted out, what safeguards are in place to ensure that it's respected?

In relatively small towns, what can be done to ensure that powerful entities don't run over process and don't pay various organizations to look the other way about contentious issues?

For example, it seems fair to assume that Yolo Food Bank might encourage the growth of trees that benefit bees and that the organizations behind Paul's Place might appreciate a nurturing setting at the "Davis Health District" that serves their clients. But when an entity like Sutter Health provides huge funding to these projects, it seems predictable that tongues have been removed, so to speak.

Ron O

In regard to Todd's 9:51 P.M. comment above, I also have questions as to the reason that "Cool Davis" isn't more concerned about a peripheral freeway-oriented development with thousands of parking spaces.

Perhaps its close relationship with the city is the reason?

"Cool Davis Initiative was founded to help the City of Davis meet its goals set out in the Davis Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, approved in June 2010 . . ."

Matt Williams

Ron, Cool Davis is one of the City's contracted vendors. Your use of the term "close relationship" should read "contractual relationship."

Larry D. Guenther

This happens for every ballot-required development. The applicants choose to have it on the June ballot vs. the November ballot and the City bends over backwards to make it happen. Why? Because fewer people vote in the June election. The City had a choice between community process and accommodating the developer. As always happens, they chose to accommodate the developer.

Pam Gunnell

The council acts as if they have no responsibility to the valid concerns of the electorate. I believe Covid has exacerbated and sharpened this disregard. The council no longer has to meet with citizens face to face or look out at a council chamber full of people. All we are allowed is a prerecorded message, spoken into the ether.

Roberta L. Millstein

I agree, Pam. The Council talks about how the recorded messages have increased participation (which they have) but I agree with you that they decrease accountability. I get the sense that the CC members are often not paying attention... cameras off, they might not even be listening at all. And as you suggest, there is nothing like making remarks and votes to a people's faces.

To be clear, I'm not saying that we should be back to face-to-face now. But I think the CC should be making an extra effort to be accountable to citizens under these circumstances. Instead, they have headed in the other direction.

Alan Miller

"I get the sense that the CC members are often not paying attention... cameras off, they might not even be listening at all."

They do that when everyone is in person too. But actually I'm 100% agreeing with you, that the Covid-19 Zoom Meeting Fog has made this 100X worse. It's just an opportunity to tell one of my favorite City Council stories. And to be fair it was a different Council. Here's the story:

I was speaking my three minutes (remember the gold old days? #sigh#). At one point I looked at each council member and realized every one of them was looking down, reading from their laptop. I stopped talking for long enough for them to realize something had changed and look up, and said (roughly), "Excuse me, not one of you is looking at me and I don't think even listening. If we're going to take the time to write something up, take the time to come down here on Tuesdays, and speak in front of you, the least you could do is pay attention to what we have to say!" They all looked stunned.

Roberta L. Millstein

Fair enough, Alan. It's harder to ignore someone who is right in front of you, but as you point out, not nearly hard enough.

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