Davis voters will be asked this June to say yes or no to a downtown project that some say will launch a new economic era in this rural college town, and others fear will launch traffic jams around the city’s congested main entrance.
The mayor says the proposed Nishi Gateway project, eight years in the planning, is a game-changing research and development “innovation district” that could keep UC Davis talent in town after graduation and create a higher-tech economy that feeds off the university.
The City Council announced its unanimous support for the $300 million project two weeks ago. But that isn’t the final say. The council vote merely places Nishi Gateway on the June ballot. Under city rules in place since 2000, any urban development on agricultural land must be approved by Davis voters.
The 47-acre Nishi business proposal would create 325,000 square feet of space to incubate local startup companies and to house larger, cutting-edge companies from outside Davis. The proposal, by UC Davis economics graduate Tim Ruff of Nishi Gateway LLC, includes 650 higher-density, multistory residential units. Two-thirds of them would be for rent, the rest for sale.
It’s one of two innovation centers being planned for Davis. The second, called the Mace Ranch Innovation Park, would be even larger at 200-plus acres. It is proposed for the northeast corner of Interstate 80 and Mace Boulevard.
Ramco Enterprises and The Buzz Oates Group are the developers behind the Mace Ranch park. They teamed up in response to a request from the city several years ago for incubator and innovation center proposals. The project is undergoing environmental review and could be placed on the ballot in November.
Davis Mayor Dan Wolk said the two projects would help stop the intellectual and economic leakage Davis has been experiencing for years.
“We have these great students graduating, and there aren’t the jobs for them, so they end up leaving,” Wolk said. “Our 25-44 age cohort is shrinking. My hope is (to) have them stay and raise their families here.”
A June voter approval of the Nishi Gateway project will not, however, mean construction anytime soon.
The property, formerly owned by the Nishi farming family, sits next to the freeway and is walled off from campus and downtown by Union Pacific railroad tracks. Under an agreement between the developer and the city, Nishi Gateway cannot be built until two major traffic projects are finished to create access to the site and lessen traffic jams.
The city and state are in discussion to realign the freeway ramps at Richards Boulevard and Interstate 80 and add a signalized intersection closer to the freeway, away from Olive Drive, to ease congestion at the Richards/Olive intersection as more vehicles use the area.
The project, which is expected to be financed by development impact fees and transportation grants, likely won’t get built until 2020.
The second major prerequisite is a new road to campus from the Nishi site to allow some drivers to avoid the Richards/Olive intersection. That road, an extension of Olive Drive, would drop under the Union Pacific rail line and connect with Old Davis Road near the Hyatt Place hotel. It would be for cars, pedestrians, bikes and buses. The city and developer would seek grants to pay for it.
That road cannot be built until university officials give their endorsement. The university has expressed interest, but first must analyze the road extension as part of its long-range development plan process, which could take several years.
The Nishi project site already has a bike and pedestrian access path that curls under the freeway from south Davis and provides access to downtown through a tunnel under the tracks near the Whole Foods Market in downtown.
The Nishi developer also must build a bridge to extend Olive Drive over Putah Creek to accommodate cars, bikes and pedestrians.
Developer Ruff said he plans to campaign for his project, mainly to make sure people understand what it is about. “We need to get that information out to the voters for the June election,” Ruff said. “They might not be familiar with the project. It is a campaign.”
Davis is known for being shy about growth. Two previous projects, Covell Village and Wildhorse Ranch, both mainly residential, were rejected by voters in 2005 and 2009.
There has been recent uncertainty about whether the Nishi project would be a net positive or negative to the city budget. An initial analysis determined the project would require the city to spend more on services. A subsequent recalculation concluded that Nishi is far more likely to generate net revenue gains for the city budget.
UC Davis professor emeritus Thomas Cahill is among several people who say they are concerned about the health impacts of pollution from the adjacent freeway for future residents in the Nishi area. Cahill cited 2010 University of California research into connections between freeway proximity and autism. That report was not definitive, though. Its authors concluded: “Little is known about potential environmental contributions to autism. The observed associations with traffic proximity merit further research ...”
Saying that “living near freeways can be toxic,” Cahill called on the council this month to take the project off the ballot and eliminate the project’s housing component, or at least move housing to the northeast side of the Nishi site, away from the freeway overpass near the southwest corner.
A city consultant rebutted Cahill in a memo, saying the circumstances in the research data cited by Cahill are not specific to the Nishi property circumstances. At the same time, the consultant, Ascent Environmental, acknowledged that the environmental report for Nishi Gateway found “that the project would result in significant elevated health risks.”
Under state law, local authorities, such as the City Council, are allowed to approve projects that may cause health risks or environmental degradation if the council concludes the project meets community goals and provides significant community benefits.
Several residents also have expressed disappointment that the city has not formally required the developer to put money into a greenhouse gas mitigation fund. City officials say they are working on setting up a procedure to mitigate for greenhouse gas emissions stemming from the project, and that some Nishi development fees likely will be used as seed money for such a fund.
Others have urged the city to push the project forward quickly. Attorney Elaine Roberts Musser said Davis “is in dire need of economic development and diversity in its revenue base ... If there is dithering on the part to the city, (tech businesses) will go elsewhere.”