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Three Students and Civilian Exclusion Order No. 79

DISC is anything but ‘sustainable’

Annexation Area DiSC 2022_070721By Stephen M. Wheeler

Davis residents have begun receiving calls and mailings from backers of the so-called Davis Innovation and Sustainability Campus (DiSC 2022) in preparation for the June 7 election, when the project will be on the ballot as Measure H.

Don’t be fooled by the rosy promises and endorsements on the developer’s materials: DiSC represents neither innovation nor sustainability. It is another big piece of suburban sprawl promoted by one of Davis’ most aggressive sprawl-builders, Dan Ramos.

DiSC is essentially a greenwashed business park. Business parks are a traditional, much-discredited economic development approach in which cities designate a large area of land on their periphery for whatever commercial development they can manage to attract. These projects are highly motor-vehicle-dependent and undercut efforts to revitalize more centrally located downtown areas.

DiSC materials talk about bike and pedestrian connections, renewable energy, use of native and drought-tolerant species for landscape design, energy-efficient construction, and shuttle buses to downtown. This is greenwashing. These environmentally oriented details are nice (and many are required by existing regulations).

But they aren’t nearly as important as the fact that 1.34 million square feet of new commercial space would be allowed by a freeway exit far from downtown. Approving huge projects that will build out over 20-plus years — almost certainly in different ways than originally envisioned — is just not a good way for a city to move towards sustainability.

Ramos has no clients signed up for this site who will represent innovation or sustainability. If none appear once the project is approved, he will come back to the city asking for changes in previous agreements about uses and types of buildings at the site. If past history is any guide, the city’s staff and city council will let him out of any promises he has made. Indeed, five or 10 years down the line no one is likely to remember what was agreed to now.

The result 20 years from now is likely to be a motley collection of freeway-oriented retail and commercial businesses on our eastern edge, along with high-end housing catering to commuters with jobs in Sacramento or the Bay Area. The I-80 causeway will be even more congested than it is today. And with those homes and businesses attracting drivers from around the region, our greenhouse gas emissions will be higher as well.

Why has our City Council and staff signed onto this project and the previous version, which was defeated at the ballot box in 2020? Because they’re desperate for short-term revenue (fees, construction taxes, sales taxes, and property taxes), and because they’ve failed to take leadership to bring better forms of development to town.

Davis, like most California cities, is desperate for tax revenue because of Proposition 13 constraints. Prop. 13 is another discussion — the state absolutely needs to end that shortsighted limit on how local governments can raise funds. But just because local city councils are searching everywhere for revenue doesn’t mean they should make bad land use decisions locking in unsustainable patterns of development for generations.

What might better forms of development look like? There is strong international consensus that cities should seek to revitalize existing, centrally located urban land rather than sprawling onto farmland. New building should take place in walkable, transit-accessible locations near existing homes, shops, offices, and schools. For Davis this means more incremental development of our downtown, the commercial centers in each neighborhood, and opportunity areas such as the East Fifth Street corridor (which is walkable and bikable to downtown).

Yes, it takes more leadership to revitalize those areas than it does to approve greenfield developments at the urban edge. Existing, low-intensity land uses will need to be relocated, and creative new plans developed. But with leadership these things can be done.

Don’t be fooled by DiSC proponents. Ramos and his friends will use terms like “innovation” and “sustainability” as much as they can to get the initial entitlements to build. But once the project is in motion, they will work the city to let them build whatever will make the most money. And Davis will be the poorer for it.

Stephen M. Wheeler is a professor of urban planning and design in the department of human ecology at UC Davis, and author of “Planning for Sustainability, Reimagining Sustainable Cities” and “The Sustainable Urban Development Reader.”


Susan Rainier

I agree with Stephen. Additionally, we need to have a crystal-clear understanding of why the University wants this so badly - is it to have a closed community of researchers for Monsanto and Bayer to patent GMO seeds? If so, all the more reason to Vote NO!

We already know that the City doesn't have a viable planning department since they don't even follow the progressive General Plan the City has. The Mace overpass will become a Palermo-like traffic jam.

There is now a Global Movement to Cease Building on Prime Farmland. The reasons for this are obvious and it is not for UCD to make more and more fossil fuel based "inputs" that are killing the soil. REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE WILL FEED THE WORLD not UCD GMOs!

Aaron Wedra

Hey there Mr. Wheeler. I volunteer at the Hattie Weber Museum on weekends. I noticed something on a museum timeline that was really interesting about Ramco Enterprises and Frank Ramos.

Are most Davisites familiar with the 1989 annexation of land that would be developed into Mace Ranch?

A lot of intelligent Davisites read the Davisite. Does this past annexation offer insight into a reason to trust the developer? Could one say that we as a community really enjoy Mace Ranch today and does that build trust for the current land annexation proposal?

I understand that the usage of the land is entirely different, but I'm talking about trust of the developer in general, not in specific.

I'm generally for DiSC, but want what's best for the community. Seems like some of the above is a "let's look at the worst case scenario with possible broken promises". Does the more successful development of our Mace Ranch neighborhood shine light on "a better case scenario"?

I think most people agree that infill is desired, but it's my understanding that an innovation campus would require more space than most infill spaces could offer. I'm to believe that Davis loses some tech companies when they outgrow their space. Maybe I'm being fed misinformation (shrug)? Also, I believe the developer owns the land that would become DiSC. Does that help explain why they would want to develop in a space they already own?

I love talking about this project because the conversations go off in every direction and lead to a lot of learning.

Thank you for any input. I'm about to head out to the Hattie Weber and continue learning about our awesome community.

Darell Dickey

Thank you for writing this Stephen. I am saddened to find that Davis can't seem to do better than this.

Adding green frosting to a project does not make it sustainable or even desirable.


About "Opportunity Areas", I realize that there was some City study about infill possibilities a few years ago, and that it was pessimistic. As I recall about that - and definitely about the City's and e.g. David Greenwald's continued position in the 'Vanguard - there's absolutely no consideration of how different ways that multiple smaller developments in a relatively small geographic area can be inter-connected easily and cost-effectively with services such as semi-autonomous shuttles operating on fixed routes, cycling and walking. Consider the mentioned 5th St corridor, including eventually the PG&E yard - which would be much more strategic at the SW corner of the intended-for-DISC space, though that would eliminate some farmland - and its proximity to (light) industrial sites east on 2nd, and how this can all connect to South Davis via the existing Pelz bridge as well as a new bridge from near 2nd and L to Research Park. Add to that the large parking lots at multiple shopping centers closer to Downtown and closer to campus.

Our biggest opportunity zones are also sources of noise and other emission problems: CA-113 and I-80. The former is below grade between Richardson and Covell, and directly adjoins existing City areas and UC Davis, can have motor vehicle egress directly to the highway... Build on top of it, at grade. I've done some sketches, happy to share... Professor Wheeler's students can join in!

I-80 is more difficult because it was built at grade (cheaply), which also makes it a barrier for every bike and ped crossing.... isn't it bizarre that we treat the highway like a natural, geological etc barrier that will always remain? Building over it would be way more complicated and expensive than doing the same with 113, but as with 113 it could significantly decrease noise impacts. The best solution I think is re-direct it south of Davis, eventually re-connecting in West Sac. Replacing with a new boulevard and a crazy amount of mixed-use development opportunities. There are huge development payoffs, and huge costs... at the very least this should be one of the more alternative "Alternatives" in the EIR for the I-80 Managed Lanes Project.

I live east of Mace. It's simply too far from Downtown and even more so UCD Campus to be part of this Yolo County sub-region's bicycle ecosystem. This is borne out in the Campus Travel Survey: As few with campus destinations travel there by bike from this area. There is no substantial new bike connectivity planned as part of DISC, aside from a crossing to a single nearby school and the local street network of the eastern side of Mace Ranch. DISC will no different, or worse, as most residents there will be available to afford cars, unlike some students. The developers take about "sustainable" this, that and the other, but imagine IF I-80 was in fact being re-directed: They'd scream bloody murder. They know that I-80 will be the most popular route.

Roberta L. Millstein

Susan, just a small clarification: UCD has not been involved in the project at all and has not even endorsed it. The claim that university-related research would be done there is just a developer hope without any basis.

Aaron, are you aware of this document on the City's website, documenting the antics of the Ramos family?

It is required reading for anyone who wants to know why many longstanding Davis citizens react to the Ramos family the way that they do, and why they are skeptical of any promises concerning DiSC.


Aaron Wedra, could you please tell me how development of Mace Ranch has been "successful"?

Aaron Wedra

Thank you for the website Roberta. I read the entire section—It's such important info that built off of the tidbit I was able to learn about in John Loflands book "Davis: Radical Changes, Deep Contants".

Todd, actually, that's what I'm trying to test out. And it is something the web page Roberta sent did not directly address. Today, IS Mace Ranch considered successful?

I would like so much to talk with people who have input on that.

Overall with Frank Ramos annexation of Mace Ranch area, I can totally see how that land development went against what our voters, commissioners and council members wanted at the time for slow growth, and that seems to be a fact. I can see that IS a reason to be upset. Also, I read that certain positive project features that were initially proposed were removed by the time the City agreed to accept the project at risk of losing it to the county.

But now, 33 years later, who has written an account of the progression? I'd love more resources.

Roberta L. Millstein

Aaron, so let me get this straight.... when the people of Mace Ranch, who have the most to lose from DiSC in terms of traffic to their already impacted streets, are given the ridiculous promise that 12,000 additional car trips a day won't make traffic worse, they should go along with that, knowing that promise is likely to be broken (knowing that it can't really be kept and that this developer has a history of breaking promises), on the assumption that 33 years from now someone might be live DiSC and not be unhappy? Because that sounds like the argument that you are making. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for a vote.

Ron O

I say that each resident (not just those at DiSC) should own two vehicles, to get the full $800:

That oughta help.


Aaron, Mace Ranch is suburbia with some off-street bike paths to help kids get to two elementary schools and one junior high, and some buses focused on those with university destinations. Lots and lots of lawns, some parks, a private lake. I lived there for most of a year, and based on my experience neighbor-to-neighbor nice things are far less then in other neighborhoods I've lived in here that are much closer to Downtown.

There's much "Davis" about it, aside from local child-focused bike network which doesn't get kids on their own to an ice cream cone like the ones available in Downtown, or even - for older kids - directly to the closest nice supermarket to help with shopping. (Not being a snob about Target... but clearly a lot of people favor Nugget over it).

I am not equipped to do a financial analysis.

Aaron Wedra

Thank you for the input folks. Yes, Roberta, in a funny way, that was my logic.

Oh and on the point that folks can't seem to find statements on DiSC from UCD, a retired UCD public relations person suggested to me that it's against UCD policy to be able to influence the outcome of such projects and they would not be legally able to make statements. Not sure if anyone else can verify whether or not that is the case here.

Roberta L. Millstein

I don't think that is quite correct, Aaron. E.g, from this interview with Chancellor May about the Nishi project:

TCA: I know the university has announced its support for the Nishi Housing project. What are your thoughts on the project?

GM: We have to be careful, because as a 501(c)(3) organization, we’re prohibited for campaigning for individuals or for campaigning for ballot measures, however we think this would be a useful thing for our students to have more housing. I think everyone can agree on that. We did enter into an MOU with the developer to put a roadway between downtown and the development, should the ballot measure pass. We are supportive and we hope it works out.

So, they can't campaign, but apparently they can make supportive statements -- which they did for Nishi but have not done for DiSC.

Colin  Walsh

In contrast to UCD's lack of involvement in DiSC, look at Aggie Square in Sacramento. This is what UCD partnering with Industry looks like.

There was a time 18 years ago that UCD wanted to build a project like Aggie Square in the West Village part of UC Davis, but Dan Carson and others sued the University and the University changed plans.

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