Yolo County News

Davis ‘innovation district’ could face voters

A bicyclist rides on a bike trail at a site where the city of Davis, UC Davis and private developers propose to build an “innovation district” called Nishi Gateway in a 45-acre field next to the university.
A bicyclist rides on a bike trail at a site where the city of Davis, UC Davis and private developers propose to build an “innovation district” called Nishi Gateway in a 45-acre field next to the university. hamezcua@sacbee.com

The city of Davis is well known for its long-standing slow-growth philosophy. But some city leaders say the town, at this point, really could use the economic boost that new business and housing development would bring, even if that means some judicious taking of agricultural land.

This month, the City Council will consider an ambitious proposal to build an “innovation district” for research and development companies, along with multistory housing, on a 45-acre swath of farmland squeezed between Interstate 80 and downtown. Called Nishi Gateway, the roughly $300 million project would be privately developed in coordination with the city and UC Davis.

The City Council is scheduled to review the proposal Jan. 13. It will decide whether to launch a formal environmental analysis, the first step toward developing the site.

Mayor Dan Wolk said he sees it as a way to partner with the university to produce more homegrown companies.

“We have reached the tipping point in Davis, where folks realize we need to do more to further economic innovation and development, and do a better job of harnessing the (research) coming out of UC Davis, and having that stay in the community,” Wolk said. “Nishi is about getting those companies incubating and growing here.”

The gateway project presents physical challenges. The site, formerly owned by the Nishi farming family, is walled off from both the campus and downtown by Union Pacific railroad tracks, and doesn’t have access for vehicles.

The city and developers say they hope to solve that problem by extending Olive Drive through the property and onto campus via a new tunnel for pedestrians, bikes, cars and Unitrans buses near the Mondavi Center. The project site already is traversed by a bike and pedestrian path that curls under the freeway from south Davis and provides access to downtown through a second tunnel under the tracks near the Whole Foods Market in downtown and two blocks from the Amtrak train depot.

UC Davis economics graduate Tim Ruff serves as managing partner of the development group. He said the goal is to create an urban project with a Davis-style bike and pedestrian-first mentality.

“I feel that this site is one of the best infill opportunities in Northern California within walking distance to a world-class research university and thriving downtown,” Ruff said. “People living and working here can leave their cars at home or skip the car altogether.”

His group, Nishi Gateway LLC, is proposing 300,000 square feet of research and development business space, and an estimated 600 apartment units and condominiums in five-story buildings, which would be among the tallest in Davis.

University officials say they are collaborating with the city and the developers. The site, they say, could provide student housing if the university population increases, as expected, in the coming years.

“It’s great to see a drive towards economic development in Davis that leverages the activity at UC Davis,” said Bob Segar, assistant vice chancellor for campus planning.

The project has a long way to go, however. Under Davis rules, the public must vote on proposals to rezone and build on agricultural land.

“We know it has got to be good,” said Katherine Hess, the city’s manager for the project.

The city recently solicited public opinions about the project via a website, nishigateway.org. The responses included concerns that the project would cause traffic congestion as well as on Richards Boulevard, Olive Drive and the freeway ramps, and could put new residents at risk for freeway- and train-related air pollution.

“Who would choose to live between a railway with two long oil cars a day plus the freight and passenger traffic and a freeway that never stops?” one commenter wrote.

Many commenters focused on the car issue, some proposing banning cars from the area. “People good, cars bad,” one wrote. Another told the city to drop the entire idea and keep the land unused, saying, “It is beautiful just the way it is.”

Other comments focused on the project’s potential, including the opportunity to stimulate entrepreneurial growth, and advance Davis as an agriculture and food research epicenter. “This could be the farm-to-fork district that steals the hype from Sacramento and drafts on the work being done at UCD,” one commenter wrote.

Another expressed a more modest hope. “It would be wonderful to have restaurants within walking distance of the Mondavi Center and new (under construction) art museum.”

Some residents said they fear the project might compete with downtown. The developers and city officials respond that they plan to include minimal retail space to avoid harming downtown businesses.

“We already have a wonderful downtown,” Hess said. “That is where we want people to go for goods and services.”

The Nishi Gateway LLC development group bought the land in 2005 from the Nishi family, which still farms in the Davis area. The wedge-shaped site, once part of a much larger Nishi farm, was cut off from the rest of the farm decades ago by the expansion of Interstate 80 into a full freeway. The land had been considered in the 1990s for a business park. The site is outside city limits, and is not actively farmed, but is planted with unirrigated winter wheat.

If the City Council gives its approval, an environmental review will be conducted, Hess said. A public vote could happen in 2016, and work could begin in 2017, city officials said.

Wolk, the Davis mayor, said city officials consider Nishi Gateway part of a broader city effort to improve the Richards Boulevard area off Interstate 80, which is the main entrance into the city for many visitors. That likely will include a new hotel and conference center.

The city also is working on a redesign of the Richards Boulevard interchange to improve traffic flows for cars, bikes and pedestrians. The work would make additional room at Olive Drive for vehicles that would be heading into the Nishi Gateway project site. The redesign involves adding a signalized intersection at the off- and onramps.

Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.