Is Davis turning red?

Well, maybe not. But land developments planned for this iconic city’s edges may reveal that the college town isn’t the left-leaning, Berkeley-to-the-East we all believe it to be.

Photo Illustration by Don Button and Larry Dalton

We all know that city, Davis. That wacky, liberal, lefty, enviro-conscious, frog-friendly, tree-hugging, bike-peddling, anti-nuclear, anti-sprawl, anti-hate Berkeley-to-the-East. That city known perhaps more for its affinity for organic farming and bicycle traffic signals than for its large university and its proximity to California’s capital city.

We all know Davis.

Or do we?

It’s easy to think of Yolo County’s largest city in its historic out-of-the-box box, remembering the under-freeway toad tunnels, lie-down-on the-tracks peace rallies, and preserved historic potholes that have made news here in decades past. But is the city that Davis once was the city that it still is? Does Davis remain the bastion of free-thinking its residents like to think it is? Or have sprawl, housing costs, and simply time skewed the city more conservative, causing it to look more like an Elk Grove than a Santa Cruz?

A vote of the city’s residents this coming Tuesday may tell us.

Because Davisites are grappling with the same issue most California cities have dealt with in recent years: suburban sprawl. It’s a hot-button topic that Davis periodically has revisited over the past two decades: how and where and when to grow its city borders.

And the answer Davis voters deliver on Tuesday could send a signal that the city is no longer the kind of college town its longtime residents remember from their first years there.

On November 8, the city will vote on Measure X—whether or not to approve a 383-acre, 1,864-home mixed-use development proposed for a piece of agricultural land north of Davis’ border. The project would be the biggest ever built in Davis and, depending upon whom you ask, is an example of slow growth or fast growth or smart growth, or a disaster plan.

Other land developments in the works around the city’s fringes—some of which the city has little to no control over—add to the mapping pickle that now tests Davis’ progressive mettle.

The university hopes to break ground in the spring, covering 225 acres of prime farmland to the west of Davis with enough housing for 5,000 Aggies and faculty. The city of Woodland two years ago greenlit a 4,000-home subdivision on its southern edge that pushes that city closer to Davis. Also, Yolo County is engaged in an eminent-domain fight over a huge piece of property north and east of Davis known as Conaway Ranch. Residents fear the fate of the land could include another housing subdivision or even a tribal casino.

Back inside Davis’ borders, big-box discount retailer Target has submitted plans for a freeway-side store on the city’s eastern edge. That project plan has ignited a debate over whether such a corporation jives with Davis’ persona.

Covell Village, if approved, and the university’s West Village could send the city’s population quickly soaring over 70,000, further threatening any control the city has over shaping its identity.

More than it is about housing design, solar panels, sewage capacity and traffic, the debate over how and whether to grow is about what it means to be Davisian.

Davis’ closet Republicans
When the Yolo County Elections Office tallied votes following last year’s presidential election, the city of Davis shone, predictably, bright Democratic blue.

But closer inspection showed some anomalies.

In addition to those in El Macero—the city’s one traditionally conservative-leaning neighborhood, where 60 percent of the 736 votes cast were for President George W. Bush—residents of other, newer subdivisions cast a higher percentage of their ballots for Bush than did the city as a whole.

First, consider this: Voter-registration statistics gathered prior to that election showed only 19.75 percent of the city’s nearly 37,000 voters registered as Republicans. And election results showed Senator John Kerry and other candidates receiving three times as many of the city’s votes as Bush. Bush received fewer than 25 percent of Davisites’ votes.

But in the city’s relatively new neighborhoods—Mace Ranch and Wildhorse—Bush won nearly 32 percent. In one precinct within Mace Ranch, Bush took half as many votes as Senator John Kerry, versus only a third throughout the rest of the city.

Illustration By Don Button and Larry Dalton

Also, the numbers showed Bush winning many more votes than there are registered Republicans in Davis. He won about an additional 10 percent, presumably from the city’s numerous “decline-to-state” voters—a greater percentage from that subgroup than from Davis voters as a whole.

“There is a conventional perception that the ‘decline-to-states’ are more conservative,” said Mark Pruner, chair of the Yolo County Republican Central Committee. He added, though, that there’s no clear evidence that a large, masked group of conservative voters is living in Davis. “I don’t know if you can draw that conclusion. I wish I could. I wish I could say there’s a clandestine group of voters out there that I could mobilize.”

New voters in some Davis precincts—those who have registered to vote in the year since the presidential election—skew slightly more Republican, according to records requested by SN&R from the Yolo County Elections Office. In a handful of voter blocks away from the city’s center, roughly equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats have registered, while in others, the percentage of new Republican voters far outpaces the citywide number.

“I do not believe that progressives are the majority in Davis,” said Pruner, who is not a Davisite. “But they do have a louder voice.”

Also, according to the new voter data, an increasing number of Davis residents are registering to vote without stating a political affiliation. Prior to 2004’s presidential election, about 22 percent of the city’s registered voters had no party designation. In the 12 months since, 32 percent of new voters have declined to state. The trend is mirrored throughout the state, according to political watchers.

This is not to say that the city of Davis is being painted red. In California—what State Treasurer Phil Angelides calls the “bluest of blue states”—the city is still a liberal stronghold. But the changing voter data at least splashes a bit of gray into the discussion.

Also affecting the political make-up of Davis are skyrocketed housing costs in what is Yolo County’s priciest city. Being able to purchase a half-million dollar home is usually an indicator of wealth, and individual wealth historically has been viewed as an indicator of Republicanism. Take the El Macero neighborhood, for example, which includes many of the city’s largest homes and is its only historically Republican neighborhood.

The median cost of a home in Davis has almost tripled since 1999. The median price for homes purchased in Davis in September was $550,000, according to real-estate sales data. So, the question ought to be asked: Is Davis getting more conservative?

“There are people who buy a home in Davis because they can’t afford to buy in the Bay Area. It’s near the freeway. They don’t spend much time in town. They don’t take the local newspaper. They could just as easily live in West Sacramento or down by Clarksburg,” said Ken Wagstaff, a former Davis mayor who opposes the Covell Village project. “Growth doesn’t bother them unless it comes right to their doorstep.”

The question, then, is: What do these mystery voters—conservative or otherwise—think of new development? And how will they help shape Davis’ future?

The expanding de facto fence
Drive west on Interstate 80, exit at Mace Boulevard, turn right, and you’ll see it: the de facto fence around the city of Davis. It’s a line that manifests itself quite tangibly. On the left, there is a gas station, church, then apartment complexes and dense single-family homes. On the right, nothing but flat farmland.

Curve around where Mace Boulevard becomes Covell Boulevard, drive through several traffic signals, and you’ll come to Pole Line Road. This intersection, on the city’s northern urban-limit line, is, some Davis residents say, where the city’s fate lies.

On Tuesday, the city’s voters will be asked to approve or roadblock a mixed-use development planned for the 383-acre chunk of farmland north and west of that intersection. Known as Covell Village, the project would be the biggest ever built in Davis. It would boast 1,864 homes, a retail-oriented village center, donated sites for a school and a fire station, bike paths to connect the development to the rest of the city, parks, greenbelts, an organic learning farm, and an area of preserved agricultural land about twice the size of the developed project.

It also could bring traffic congestion, test the city’s finances and infrastructure, and hasten the growth of a city that already in the past decade inflated twice as quickly as it had planned.

A Davis city law puts these kinds of land decisions—wherein agricultural land will be designated for urban use and which are outside of the city’s general plan—in the hands of its residents for the first time. The Davis City Council approved the project in June, placing it on the November ballot.

Covell Village is proposed by a group of local builders and developers led chiefly by John Whitcombe, Bill Roe and Paul Makely, three longtime Davis residents and partners in Tandem Properties, a company that built and owns rental housing in Davis and Woodland.

Partly for his expertise and partly for his public-relations cache, the investors hired Mike Corbett, who is something of a modern-day Davis patriarch. His pioneering Village Homes neighborhood, built in the 1970s, brought nationwide recognition to Davis. The 240-home neighborhood is one of the country’s first modern developments to be deemed “green,” with passive solar technology, natural drainage, and a shared common-space design that forced cars out of sight and made walkways dominant.

The development team has made Corbett its public face, pushing him in news interviews and in promotional literature, insinuating that he will do for Covell Village and for Davis what he did for Village Homes three decades earlier.

“This ain’t no Village Homes,” Wagstaff said of the Covell project.

Eileen Samitz, part of the No-on-X campaign, was part of a citizen-planning commission that in the mid-'90s removed the Covell Village property from the city’s general plan. Now, Davis voters are being asked to put it back in.

Photo By Larry Dalton

He’s right. Covell Village is much larger—almost nine times as many homes—and saliently features other types of space: offices, stores, restaurants, parks.

Corbett admits as much. The larger scale, he says, is needed to achieve the eco-friendly, largely self-contained community he envisions. He calls Covell Village a “new-urbanist” development.

“We had to go to the bigger format to get people out of their cars,” he said, explaining that the office space, grocery store and restaurant proposed for Covell Village preclude residents from having to drive for basic services.

But because Corbett has become a focus of the development, the debate over Covell Village, too, has become somewhat centered on his reputation and resume. Corbett’s Davis stripes are being questioned. Though he has lived here for four decades, served as mayor, and in at least one of his development projects expressed a commitment to the environment, opponents of Measure X are not-so-subtly grouping him with all other developers and questioning whether he is motivated, today, by money.

Covell Village is far from the only land project threatening to reshape not only Davis’ borders, but its cultural fabric.

The University of California campus plans to break ground in the spring on a piece of prime farmland to the west of Davis, across Highway 113 from the university. The 225-acre development is part of the university’s long-term plan to house almost all of the 5,500 additional students and faculty it foresees in coming years. An increasing number of students are living in, and commuting to school from, Dixon, Woodland and Sacramento’s Midtown, said Karl Mohr, UC Davis’ associate director of campus planning, who is also a former City of Davis finance director. Mohr said that the university has had some difficulty hiring faculty because of prohibitively high housing costs in Davis. The university’s West Village development would attempt to remedy those problems by controlling housing costs in what would, in effect, be a small company town on Davis’ fringes.

But a group of residents who live nearby has sued the university over the project. The legal issues pertain to the project’s environmental-impact statement and a failure, the residents say, to consider alternatives. But the plaintiffs’ concerns are great in number, ranging from the traffic the projected 4,300 new residents will generate to the eminent domain process by which the university seized the farmland in the 1950s.

“We don’t trust the university one bit,” said Ruben Arevalo, a party to the suit who rents a home nearby and is also a UC Davis employee.

That case is set to be heard before the state’s First District Court of Appeal later this month.

Some homes at Spring Lake—the new 4,000-home Woodland subdivision—are scheduled for occupancy this fall. And construction on the neighborhood is scheduled to continue throughout the decade. The project, which stretches along County Road 102 (the artery becomes Pole Line Road), south of Interstate 5, pushes Woodland’s urban limit closer to Davis. A number of Davisites fear Spring Lake will spill automobile traffic south and through Davis.

A much smaller, but equally polarizing land proposal is for a Target big-box store just off Interstate 80, at Davis’ eastern border. A number of Davis residents express the desire for such a discount retailer and lament the fact that they must drive to Woodland or Sacramento to reach the nearest Target locations.

“But you also see Davis residents up at Cache Creek, but that doesn’t mean we want a casino in our city,” said Arevalo, who has mixed feelings about the Target proposal.

Those who would oppose a Target store fear it would threaten the successful and largely non-corporate downtown business district. And there’s a sense that such a store simply doesn’t belong in a city like Davis.

“We’re very conscious of what makes Davis special,” wrote several residents of a neighborhood adjacent to the proposed Target, in an op-ed article published in the Davis Enterprise in May, “and how this proposal undermines those very qualities.”

The proper Davis thing to do
The arguments over Davis land developments—the Covell Village question, in particular—have confused what it means to be a good Davis resident.

“There are people who call themselves ‘progressive’ on both sides of this issue,” Corbett said.

For example: Kevin Wolf, a well-known environmentalist in Davis, a business-owner and river activist, who loudly opposed Davis’ other recent large residential developments, has come out in “wholehearted” support of the Covell Village proposal. In part, he said, the project will set a bar for other new developments throughout Northern California to reach for.

“As an environmentalist, you’re supposed to think regionally,” Wolf said, explaining why he can accept the project’s impacts and looks, instead, at the greater good he says it will do. “It’s not just my backyard. It’s not just its effects on Davis.”

Wolf is, perhaps, a barometer watched by other Davis residents who seek guidance on these sorts of decisions.

Mike Corbett brought national attention to Davis in the 1970s when he and his wife designed and built Village Homes, a walkable and environmentally friendly residential community. He aims to do it again with Covell Village—only 10 times bigger.

Photo By Larry Dalton

But other traditional barometers for this kind of decision, the local chapters of the Sierra Club and the Green Party, oppose Covell Village.

Arevalo, who is treasurer for the Green Party of Yolo County, complained that many of the homes in Covell Village are to be built within the city’s hundred-year flood plain. He says the proposed mitigation—raising the pads of the home a few feet—is not sufficient. He also criticizes the impacts on traffic and air quality he predicts the subdivision will have.

So, voters are left with opposing viewpoints, both of which quote from John Muir. And they must decide which version of “progressive” to subscribe to.

Davis voters will also have to fumble with the definitions of slow growth and smart growth they are being handed.

“The, quote, progressive community have become too much of the, quote, slow-growth community,” Wolf said.

Corbett added that, in some Davis circles, “slow growth” has become almost synonymous with “no growth.”

“I don’t think it’s progressive to say ‘We’re not going to grow at all.’ I don’t think that’s progressive,” Corbett said. “Doing nothing is not progressive.”

The current growth rate in Davis—a somewhat arbitrary number reached through a questionable “internal-needs” study conducted by the city and which tries to account for the number of children born in Davis who may want to remain here when grown—is 1 percent. That means the city plans to increase its number of housing units by 1 percent each year, a number slightly higher than the 0.9 percent growth rate assigned to Davis by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, though it is significantly lower than the 2.4 percent annual growth the city experienced through the 1990s.

“They’re trying to redefine what ‘slow growth’ is,” said Eileen Samitz, a longtime Davisite who is part of a volunteer group, Citizens for Responsible Planning, leading the No-on-X charge. She called the 1 percent a “fast-growth” policy. “They’re jiving the public because that’s a really small number … That’s like another Mace Ranch every five years.”

Mace Ranch is a large, walled-off residential community that was foisted upon the eastern part of the city in the late 1980s, in what is widely described as the city council being caught off-guard by a developer. The city initially denied the Mace Ranch plan, preferring for the farmland just outside the city limits to remain agricultural. But developer Frank Ramos then took his proposal to the Yolo County Board of Supervisors. Instead of allowing the county to have say over the development at its city borders, Davis was forced to negotiate with Ramos and accept a version of his proposed project.

The development arm-wrestling match led to an agreement between Davis and the county by which the county keeps its hands off land adjacent to the city, and receives a portion of tax revenues collected on projects approved for that land.

Covell Village supporters fear that if a project with its merits cannot appease Davis voters, no project will, and that developers, recognizing this, will simply skip the city process and take their proposals to the county. They fear the county will back out of that revenue-sharing agreement with the city and cause another Mace Ranch—or a number of them—to be foisted upon Davis.

Davis City Council members Don Saylor and Stephen Souza, in an e-mailed letter to Davis residents, threatened that voting down Covell Village could mean less controlled growth at the city’s borders. They used a large piece of nearby property owned by Steve Gidaro as an example.

“If you vote no on X, you are encouraging Sacramento developers like Steve Gidaro to build sprawl in every direction around Davis,” the councilmen wrote.

However, it is unlikely that the board of supervisors, currently engaged in a legal battle with Gidaro in an attempt to protect the Conaway Ranch property from development, would approve the kind of project Souza and Saylor write about.

On the other hand, any project put to the county, rather than to a vote of Davis residents, would not then be forced to give back to the community to appease critics.

Wolf said Covell Village is unprecedented in what it offers to the community. Each home would be equipped with at least a small solar panel, agricultural land would be protected, land would be donated for a school and a fire department, and a portion of the revenues from home sales would be earmarked for subsidization of the city’s bus system.

“Is it better than what’s being done in the rest of California? Yeah, of course it is,” Arevalo concedes. “It’s got to play in Davis. It’s got to be better.”

The project still doesn’t satisfy Arevalo and its other opponents.

Ken Wagstaff moved to Davis in 1966, when the population was just 12,000, he remembers. The former Davis mayor is now campaigning against a development proposal that will put the city’s population over 70,000, saying the growth is too fast.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Samitz criticizes the traffic-congestion problems the new neighborhood could have on arterial roads throughout Davis. And she said that despite claims, the project will not offer affordably priced homes.

The housing-cost dilemma is one of the urban-planning snags that the Covell Village development seeks to mend: Children who grew up in Davis and others who work here can no longer afford to buy a home in their city.

Corbett said that although the homes in Covell Village will not be cheap, many will be priced significantly lower than anything currently available in the city. For example, the current plan on the project’s Web site calls for 144 townhomes priced between $198,000 and $310,000.

“Now, that’s a lot of money … but try to find a place in Davis for that,” he said. “This is the most aggressive inclusionary housing policy in the state, if not the country.”

Those trying to defeat Covell Village and the UC’s West Village insist they are not trying to stop growth in Davis altogether. They just want to stop the city’s footprint from growing too rapidly. Longtime residents have seen that de facto fence around the city pushed further and further out over the years.

“You fill in and grow up before you grow out,” Wagstaff said.

And Covell Village is simply too big, too fast, they say.

For many Davisites, the decision on Measure X will not hinge on housing costs or flood-plain mitigation or how much money will go toward the construction of a fourth city fire station. Instead, they will vote based on how they perceive the project will affect their quality of life.

Wagstaff talks about a group of Davis residents who are not part of the historically progressive Davis community, but moved here because of the city’s look and feel.

“They don’t quite know what it is—they knew Davis was different, they knew it was better,” Wagstaff said. “They want to be part of it. They want to raise their kids here.”

So, how are those residents supposed to vote? What is the right thing to do for Davis?

“There are a lot of people who have moved in from out of town who I wouldn’t describe as ‘progressive,’” Corbett said of Davis newcomers. “I think they’re the ones who are undecided … They’re not sure if they want more people here.”

What could that mean for Davis?
Richard Harris, a Sacramento lobbyist who has lived in Davis for 23 years, said he perceives there to be more politically conservative residents in this college town today. But that doesn’t translate into more support for development, he said. He guesses that the decision over Covell Village and other future development projects may have more to do with property values than progressivism.

“It’s the new-to-town Republicans that are the biggest NIMBY conservatives,” said Harris, who writes a biweekly column—“View From South Davis”—for the local evening newspaper, the Davis Enterprise. “They’re the last ones in and they want to close the gates behind them because they want to protect the values of their homes.”

Add to that NIMBY group the voters who may vote “no” because they’ve been convinced it is the proper progressive thing to do, and the future looks bleak for Covell Village.

Corbett said late last month that the project was ahead in the polling that had been done on behalf of the Yes on Measure X campaign. Still, he described himself as “concerned,” both for the vote outcome and for what it may mean for his city.

Thumbs up or thumbs down, the Covell Village verdict could speak volumes about the kinds of people who can call themselves Davis citizens today.

Of course, what the vote means may also be ambiguous. Will a “yes” vote on Measure X mean the city is content to hand over to developers the destiny of a large piece of its real estate? Or will it mean that voters embraced a project they viewed as smart planning, hoping to stave off less fettered and less complimentary development? Will a “no” vote mean Davisites eschewed development altogether and wish to grow at a snail’s pace in the name of environmentalism and smart urban planning? Or will it mean that new-to-towners and the more conservative faction of the city voted to protect their property values?

“This is a turning point for Davis,” Samitz said.

If approved and built, Covell Village will have at least one concrete tie to Davis’ history and identity. Corbett says he will build himself a home there and live in the new neighborhood throughout its planned 10-year build-out.