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.