The Cannery series
Part 1: The history and final design
Part 2: Impact on surrounding neighborhoods
Part 3: Senior housing
Part 4: Sustainability
Part 5: Cannery Farm
Part 6: Business park vs. residential
This is Part 6 of an ongoing series discussing the various aspects of The Cannery project.
The City Council will consider the final design of the residential development over several meetings in October and November, after the city’s Planning Commission reviews this month. The project is not subject to Measure J/R, which requires voter approval of any proposal to convert county farmland into residential use in the city.
As long as there have been proposals to develop The Cannery site in North Davis into a residential neighborhood, there also has been support in the community to build a business park there instead.
Fears abound, even at the City Council level at times, of Davis continuing to evolve into a bedroom community, where people live in town but commute out to places like Sacramento or the Bay Area every morning for work.
Meanwhile, stagnant sales tax revenues and rumors of more large businesses absconding from Davis, similar to Bayer CropScience, formerly AgraQuest, who left town earlier this year in search of larger — and cheaper — land and facilities in West Sacramento, put even more pressure on the local economy.
Some city leaders have viewed this site, a 100-acre vacant parcel and the last large piece of undeveloped land within city limits, as a chance to reverse that trend and bring the jobs and the industry here.
So, the question arises, before the council approves the final design of The Cannery and indelibly locks in 547 units of housing and only a small percentage of space for industrial use: What does the city really need? More business parks, or more housing?
Based on the location of the site, Councilwoman Rochelle Swanson, who’s perhaps the most outspoken advocate on the council for economic development in Davis, says she’s comfortable with the residential-to-business park distribution in the proposal.
ConAgra Foods has carved out about seven acres of the 100 available for business park use.
“We have assets that can’t be replicated anywhere else,” Swanson said Saturday. “So while on one hand, yes, do we need to have business park space, an innovation park? I (think we) do, and I still hold to the fact that the market will bear out at a location other than The Cannery, something closer to Mace (Boulevard) as a better option. But we also have to have a place for people to live.”
Swanson added that considering the demographics and the residential needs of the community, the city should focus on market rate affordable housing and housing that can serve seniors who are looking to downsize, both of which could be accommodated by the project.
The location of the site — at the northeast corner of East Covell Boulevard and F Street — in relation to the rest of the city, meanwhile, has been a problem for business park prospects in the past.
About seven years ago, when Lewis Planned Communities was developing the property, the City Council was still interested in building out the site as a business park.
Lewis hired Colliers International, a company that specializes in luring businesses away from the Bay Area and down the I-80 corridor, to gauge the interest level in The Cannery site as a business park.
Jon Quick, a Davis resident and the vice president of that company, recalls not having very much success.
“The site alone has challenges because of the access,” Quick said this week. “It’s not exactly near any freeways, it’s kind of buried in town … so it’s difficult to find a bigger (company) to come in that would have employees, vendors, coming not from Davis but from all over. It would create traffic issues.
“The access is just not conducive when you’ve got better located properties in Solano County or West Sac or other places where it’s a quicker on and off (the interstate).”
Perhaps most disturbing, however, was that after targeting commercial developers and technology based companies throughout Northern California, Colliers found that, aside from lacking market depth and the access issues, one of the main concerns with the site was Davis politics.
Quick recalls that developers were put off by the lengthy entitlement process they’d surely have to maneuver through in Davis, especially considering the turbulent community discourse that clouded the Target decision, which passed by a mere 674 votes back in 2006.
“The biggest concerns addressed by every candidate has been regarding uncertain zoning and the entitlement process,” the report said. “A ‘public vote’ perception was prevalent among these developers further adding to the skepticism of an efficient entitlement process (Target example).”
Even given those concerns, however, there are some in the community who still feel that a business park could work on The Cannery site.
Mike Hart, president of Sierra Energy Corp., says the site would better serve Davis in the long-run if the council reversed course and dedicated the site for industrial use only.
Hart says the studies ConAgra has referenced about the slow, 40-year absorption rate — or the time it would take for a full business park to be built out — are outdated.
If the property were put on the market as a business or industrial park and separated into smaller parcels for purchase, they would be snatched up in an instant, Hart said.
“I believe you would have more (companies) than you know what to do with,” said Hart, who moved his research and development operations to West Sacramento in 2003 because there was not sufficient space in Davis.
Hart also points to the low-cost of the land, which compared to sites in the Bay Area, would be quite attractive for businesses to move.
Further, even if the property took 40 years to build out, Hart added, the wait would be irrelevant considering the permanence of the housing development. For the benefit of Davis in the long-term, even waiting for the park to flourish would be more beneficial than building a residential neighborhood.
“I feel that turning this property into housing is a tragedy with very long-term effects for the city, job-creation and retaining new industry,” Hart wrote in an email to the City Council to urge them to reconsider approving this project.
But ConAgra has never shown an interest in developing the project as a business park.
Last month, George Phillips, spokesperson for the food corporation told The Enterprise that the site’s industrial zoning may have been appropriate several decades ago, but the city has developed residential neighborhoods around it, which has drastically reduced the viability of a business park there.
“Today,” Phillips said, “if the city was looking at logical business park locations, this would not be one.”
Rob White, the city’s freshly hired chief innovation officer, who was brought in to fire up the local economy — with perhaps his principal task being to bring new, high-tech businesses to Davis — says that, considering the location of the site, a business park would not be the best use of the land.
“For Davis, all evidence seems to indicate (100 percent business park) would not be viable,” White said in an email. “My evidence for this is that we have yet to find a single user that would be willing to pay for any significant acreage on The Cannery site at market price.”
As the project is proposed now, of the 15 acres that are cropped out for commercial/mixed-use space, a little less than half would be open for traditional business park uses.
Phillips says that he would expect businesses like normal offices, start-up companies, tech-related companies, mid-size and small businesses to move into the space.
“Absorption will be market driven, but we anticipate a three- to five-year build out from the start of on-site construction,” Phillips said in an email, adding that ConAgra has been contacted by a number of businesses inquiring about the property with an interest in possibly locating there.
Apparently unidentified members of the local seed industry have been interested in the project as well.
White says that the site provides enough space for labs ranging from 20,000 to 30,000 square feet, which he hopes businesses would see as an appropriate size to move their operations.
“City leadership has been told in casual conversation by some of the seed researchers that the housing is a needed piece to the puzzle for them to locate in Davis and grow their businesses,” White said. “I speculate it would be a significant attraction to have several companies in that business park be able to live nearby, so they could have the live/work balance many people describe as a desirable outcome.”
Hart has said that he would be willing to cobble together a referendum campaign to collect signatures and put the project up for a public vote if the council decides to approve the project. This week he said that he’s also been approached by several members of the community who are poised to spearhead that effort as well.
But if the vote doesn’t happen and the council elects to approve the project, Hart’s only request is to make sure the final product benefits Davis.
“At least make a good deal,” Hart said. “What’s currently begin proposed is a complete disaster. (Davis) gets nothing except a bunch more houses and no additional revenue to the city … no net benefit for the community.”
— Reach Tom Sakash at email@example.com or 530-747-8057. Follow him on Twitter at @TomSakash