The hidden agenda to stop The Cannery

By From page A6 | November 15, 2013

By Dan Carson

Much has been written in these pages lately about The Cannery project, but one aspect has received little mention. I refer to the disingenuous campaign by the owners of the Covell Village property to manipulate Davis public opinion to try to derail The Cannery project next door.

They apparently hope its defeat will open the door to the rebirth of their oversized and poorly conceived housing tract that was soundly defeated by the voters eight years ago.

The Davis Enterprise recently quoted a Covell Village representative as dismissing the idea that they are trying to bring back their project. In a little-publicized letter to city officials last April, though, their lawyer asserted that “the development of the Covell site is virtually inevitable; the issue is when, not if.”

The 59 percent of the Davis voters who rejected the enormous Covell Village and its 1,864 housing units in November 2005 might disagree. At the time, many critics argued that reuse of the site of the old Hunt-Wesson canning plant next door — within the city’s boundaries — was a much better plan.

It took a few years, but ConAgra, the cannery site owners, and their development partner came up with a remarkable plan with 547 housing units embracing a good mix of innovative housing types, extensive bicycle paths and parks, and an urban farm showcasing the “farm-to-fork” movement.

They soon faced various demands from the Covell Village owners to link planning of The Cannery to future development of their land. For example, the urban farm was to be downsized and shoved to a back corner. Play ball with us, they promised, and our shareholders will let you run a bike path southward from the project through the Cranbrook Apartments to provide a safe path for Cannery kids to get to school and resolve a critical bicycle connectivity problem.

When their demands were refused, they began hiring lawyers and waging a campaign to sandbag The Cannery that is well-documented in city records.

First, they announced they would object to an easement for the bikeway through Cranbrook, making the bicycle safety of schoolchildren a bargaining chip for their agenda. Then, in August, Covell Village lawyers suddenly insisted that The Cannery pay for $9 million-plus in bicycle infrastructure and roads next to and through their agricultural fields. This calculated sneak attack came 14 months after the scope of Cannery bike path studies was determined and four months after the deadline for commenting on The Cannery’s environmental impact report.

Even if the project could shoulder these costs, fulfilling their wish list would ensnare the project in further environmental reviews and delays and trigger a Measure J vote of the public.

Local bicycle enthusiasts took the bait — hook, line and sinker. They started circulating petitions demanding the bicycle route through Cranbrook that The Cannery team wanted in the first place, but added a demand right out of the Covell Village playbook for a second bike undercrossing of Covell between J and L streets.

In response, ConAgra and its partner have offered to pay for more than $13 million to build that second undercrossing; additional or improved bike paths along the north and south sides of Covell, Pole Line Road, Birch Lane and J Street; upgrades to the bicycle tunnel under the railroad tracks at H Street; and other public projects.

The plans allow the City Council to choose to construct that bike path southward through Cranbrook at The Cannery’s expense; otherwise, children would take an undercrossing of Covell at the southwest corner of the project and then ramp up to an existing east-west bicycle pathway on the south side of Covell.

Based on these and other generous offers by The Cannery, the City Council should approve the project now while ensuring that a safe bike route for kids is built. Going southward through Cranbrook makes the most sense — if the Covell Village property owners stop their blockade of this route.

Meanwhile, it is time for the Covell Village developers to cease their attempts to undermine The Cannery. They can start by cooperating with efforts to provide safe bicycle routes for kids to school.

In the past, some Covell Village property owners have made significant and generous contributions to various Davis civic causes that deserve applause. However, their continuing campaign against The Cannery is a big mistake that likely will prove self-defeating and divisive to the Davis community.

— Dan Carson is a 25-year resident of Davis who publicly opposed two major peripheral developments — the university’s West Village and Covell Village.

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