Growing Pains: Thirty Years in the History of Davis

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Chapter 9 - The Downtown Area: Keeping Suburban Malls at Bay

Borders Books & Music may have expected Davis to roll out the red carpet when the company decided in 1997 to open a 20,000-square-foot store at the edge of the downtown area.

After all, Davis was doing everything it could to shed a long-standing anti-business reputation, hoping to lure businesses that could bolster the city's tax base, provide jobs and give consumers more choice. The city had hired an economic development coordinator, cut development impact fees in half, published an inventory of available properties and marketed itself throughout the area to let skeptics know Davis was indeed open for business. City officials especially coveted retail stores because Davis yearned for more sales-tax revenue. A 1996 study of 33 Northern California cities with between 30,000 and 70,000 residents found that Davis ranked next to last in per-capita sales-tax revenue. Its tally was slightly more than half as big as the per-capital revenue for the state as a whole. [1] Instead of getting the red-carpet treatment, though, Borders soon found itself in the middle of a political firestorm that exposed why Davis was having a hard time shedding its anti-business image despite a desire to put its best foot forward.

Long before Borders arrived on the scene, Davis decided it didn't want to follow the lead of most communities across the United States, opting instead to preserve its downtown area as a cultural, social and business hub oriented to bicyclists and pedestrians. Neighborhood shopping centers with supermarkets, drugstores and the like were fine, but Davis had no appetite for the regional shopping centers and power centers so popular in many communities. On the other hand, Davis wanted a department store, more clothing stores and other kinds of retail shops that weren't likely to go downtown because parcels were relatively small, parking was limited and land prices were high.

Borders was able to avoid getting caught up in that controversy, because it wanted to go into Davis Commons, a 3.3-acre shopping center being developed by Mark Friedman on First Street just west of Richards Boulevard at the edge of the downtown area. The 20,000-square-foot Borders bookstore, music shop and cafe was to anchor the center and Friedman planned to fill the rest of the space with as many as 12 smaller shops.

Borders, however, did learn quickly that Davis had an ambivalent attitude toward large corporations with outlets from coast to coast. The community had many fast-food restaurants and other stores that were part of nationwide chains, but many residents still longed for the good, old days when locally owned mom-and-pop businesses dominated the retail scene of Davis. The size of the proposed Borders raised eyebrows too, prompting that the store would be what's sometimes known as a category-killer, a business so big and powerful it can put smaller competitors out of business.

The city's downtown strategy had critics, but it worked. As the turn of the century neared, Davis still had the kind of old-fashioned downtown many cities could scarcely recall. Many buildings retained their historical charm. Families frequently headed downtown in the evening for dinner, a movie and ice cream afterward. They drove, or rode their bicycles if they wanted to.

A varied array of speciality shops beckoned to shoppers. The mix of restaurants was unusual for a small town. Pizza parlors and coffee houses were common. Mexican, French and Chinese food were available, of course, but so was cuisine from the Middle East, Vietnam, Japan and Czechoslovakia.

Parents often let their teenagers hang out downtown on summer evenings, and didn't have to worry much about their safety. Residents strolled along downtown streets late in the evening, Crime was a problem, but not like in the big cities. Public arts works added flavor to the scene: "The Joggers," a bronze sculpture, stood in front of the Davis Police Department. "Solar Intersections," a series of black steel poles coated with reflective material, was located near the Southern Pacific Depot. The downtown still had two murals painted in the 1970s: "Davis Arches" on the side of the Hotel Aggie Building at 208 G St. and "Columbus Cafe" at the intersection of F and Second streets.

Davis realized early that forces beyond its control would make preserving its downtown area a challenge.

"Like everything else, downtown must change to survive in a changing world, or it will follow the dinosaur to extinction," the 1961 Davis Core Area Plan mused, reacting to the threat posed by peripheral shopping centers. [2]

On the horizon loomed other problems. More parking was needed. Improving access to downtown was a priority. A lack of large parcels hampered efforts to attract new retail outlets. Sales tax revenue per person lagged far behind the revenue in neighboring communities such as Woodland and Dixon.

The inventory of problems would have sounded familiar to city officials worried about the community's weak retail base during the 1990s. Drafted by San Francisco consultants with help from a 64-member Core Area Citizens Advisory Committee, the 1961 plan looked 24 years into the future, anticipating the city's population would swell to 75,000 people by 1985.

The focal point of the new downtown would be the Third Street Parade, an ambitious scheme for connecting the university campus with the downtown business district. Lining Third Street would be department stores, speciality shops, restaurants and offices in buildings up to eight stories high. Third would be closed to automobile traffic except at cross streets, and an attractively landscaped pathway would be added for bicyclists and pedestrians. "The gently curving bicycle path will occupy the center of the present street," the core area plan explained. "Under arching shade trees, there will be benches and sidewalk cafes along the promenades on either side. Fountains, pools, sculpture, light standards, and planting will provide beauty; and commercial display stands, bulletin boards and booths where cigarettes, magazines, books and flowers are sold will enliven the scene." [3]

The proposal was alluring because it would beautify the area and improve links between the university area and downtown, while also bolstering the city's lagging sales tax base. "Davis is not a wealthy city, and low sales tax receipts are part of the reason," the 1961 Core Area Plan explained. "Commercial development in the core contributes only 5 percent of the property tax, a relatively low percentage." [4] The plan noted Davis trailed neighboring communities badly in sales tax revenue: for 1959-60, Davis had per-capita sales tax receipts of $6.18. That was less than half the $12.50 brought in by Woodland and little more than one-third the $17.90 enjoyed by Dixon. "Davis residents spend only 54 percent of their retail dollar in Davis. Obviously, this can be increased," the plan said, reporting that residents tended to stay in town when shopping for groceries, gasoline, hardware, and even automobiles, but headed for cities such as Sacramento for restaurants, linens, dishes and clothing. [5]

In 1965, the City Council conceptually endorsed the Third Street Parade, agreeing the city would pick up one-third of the total tab. The anticipated cost was $30,000 per block for the five-block project. By early 1968, the city had hired a South Pasadena architectural firm to clear up some of the confusion created by the project, and to identify the obstacles facing it. Traffic circulation would be alright, if the city widened the Richards Boulevard underpass and E and F streets were turned into one-way streets. Other lingering issues included how to handle off-street parking, access to mall stores, the accuracy of cost projections, and responsibility for maintenance of the mall. Eventually, though, the project fell by the wayside. Its failure demonstrated clearly the tangle of issues that confounded efforts to make major changes in the downtown area: competing interests, fear of new competition among some merchants, parking worries and cost concerns. Decades later, the downtown area's problems remained the same, a point that didn't escape the notice of critics quick to label the area a disappointment.

"Downtowns all over are changing," explained Mary Ellen Baldwin, the Chamber of Commerce's executive director during 1995, arguing that the downtown business district in Davis could prosper as a center for speciality shops, restaurants, the arts, banks and offices.

Baldwin wasn't alone in her appraisal. By the early 1970s, experts were already hedging their bets on the downtown's prospects for enticing large retail stores. In 1973, council members commissioned a comprehensive study of the city as part of their efforts to revise the Davis General Plan. The study looked at the downtown area, as well as four shopping centers built during the preceding seven years: the University Mall in 1966, G Street center north of Fifth Street in 1967, Davis Manor with its Albertson's Food Store in 1969 and Lucky's Center in 1971. Released in 1974, the report helped guide the community's commercial development for years, and hinted at many of the challenges the city would face in the years to come if it decided to resist the temptation to allow shopping malls along the outskirts of town.

In his report, John W. Cone of Los Altos-based Urban Economics & Planning Systems cautioned there was little likelihood of Davis attracting a large department store, because the community's urban area had only about 33,750 people in July 1972, and large stores usually looked for a population base of at least 150,000 people. "Discount stores are interested. They would prefer independent locations along the freeways, but would go into the core if a site could be found," Cone wrote. "A junior department store would be interested either in the Core Area or in a new community shopping center with satellite shops." [6]

Clouding the downtown area's chances of getting either a discount store or small department store were several issues: Either type of store would need at least eight acres of land, and finding a suitable site that large wouldn't be easy in the downtown area. Doubts lingered about the ability of the area to easily handle the traffic such a store would generate. And, lack of visibility from Interstate 80 would make some potential candidates nervous. Already, other possible sites were being talked about: Richards Boulevard at the freeway, Mace Boulevard where it meets the freeway and the intersection of Covell Boulevard and Highway 113. In its summary, the report concluded a new discount or junior department store could be brought into the downtown area, but would need major assistance from the city. The latter point would be important in later years, because high land and parking costs would force developers of major projects proposed for the area to seek city financial assistance.

Pessimism over the downtown area's future set in from time to time during the 1980s, as some of its mainstays closed their doors. Winger's Department Store shut down, leaving the downtown business district without a department store. State Market closed its downtown supermarket, leaving the heart of the area without a market, though the Davis Food Co-op was nearby at 620 G St. Others that left the downtown scene included J. Tingus Men's Wear, a veteran of 17 years in business, and two popular bars: the Antique Bizarre and The Club. Other businesses, though, always were ready to take their places.

Anxious over the downtown area's future, city officials tried a series of experiments aimed at strengthening its business district. In the fall of 1983, for example, the council approved the Davis Core Area Improvement Plan, a comprehensive effort to provide more parking and improve traffic circulation in the area. Perhaps the most controversial move was to make D Street a one-way southbound street between First and Fourth streets and to change E Street to a one-way northbound roadway between First and Fourth. The following year, many E Street merchants petitioned the city to end the experiment. In October 1984, council members agreed to return both streets to two-way traffic.

Hopeful news arrived in 1994, with the release of a marketing study on the downtown area prepared for the city by an Auburn-based firm, Palmer Koert. It concluded the future looked bright for efforts to lure small, independently owned businesses. "There are numerous operators in the valley and foothills that could be candidates for recruitment. This strategy would rely on refurbishing existing store locations and filling existing vacancies," the report said, advising the city, Chamber of Commerce and Davis Downtown Business Association to work together on a recruitment program. [7]

Issues are seldom simple in the downtown area, because competing interests pull at city officials from opposite directions, arguing passionately that opportunities will be lost forever if mistakes are made. A case in point is the 1986 debate over the fate of the Arden-Mayfair Lot, a city-owned block located just south of Central Park. At the time, the park covered only the block located just south of Fifth Street, and Fourth Street ran between B and C streets. South of Fourth was the long vacant lot. In simple terms, the debate offered city voters a clearcut choice: more retail shops or more open space.

Development proposals surfaced from time to time, but the lot remained undeveloped for two decades. Most of the time, it was used as an unpaved parking lot. Once it was used for a giant Monopoly game sponsored by Derrick Bang, owner of a local game store. Bigger, grander plans were in the works. The lot had long intrigued many city officials and downtown business leaders, because it offered an easy, practical way to significantly increase the area's retail base.

The 1986 debate was triggered by the city's December 1985 decision to lease the lot to Terranomics, a San Francisco firm that proposed building a shopping center with room for two dozen retail stores. In all, it would feature about 75,000 square feet of retail space and an underground parking garage with more than 300 parking spaces. Included in the plans were a central plaza, indoor-outdoor restaurants, movie theaters and space for non-profit facilities such as the Davis Science Center. The Davis City Council favored the project. So did the Davis Area Chamber of Commerce. Naturally, the Science Center's Building Committee was enthused.

Soon, though, opponents banded together in a group known as Save Open Space to campaign against the shopping center, hoping to convince the city to extend the park across the vacant lot. Leading the charge was Maynard Skinner, a former mayor who lived in the neighborhood located west of the park. Save Open Space sponsored an initiative drive that allowed city voters to settle the issue on June 3, 1986. By voting for Measure S, voters would mandate the lot be developed as an extension of the park. Up to one-third of the site could be used for parking, public facilities, and facilities for use by non-profit groups such as the Science Center. That proviso bettered the measure's chances of success, because otherwise the Science Center would have been left out in the cold. Also, allowing some parking would help ease the apprehensions of the Davis Farmers Market, which set up shop along the eastern edge of the existing park and was used to having many of its customers park on the unpaved lot. Measure S also said extending the park would protect nearby neighborhoods from adverse environmental impacts, avoid traffic congestion and bolster the vitality of the downtown area.

"Vote yes on S to prevent an oversized, massive shopping center as Central Park's neighbor. Vote yes on S to prevent outside developers from exploiting this city-owned block," said the ballot argument for the measure. It denied claims the shopping center would strengthen the downtown area, saying, "It will devastate existing businesses and destroy the small-town character of the area." The argument was signed by five people, including Councilman Tom Tomasi, former Mayor Kent Gill, UCD Chancellor Emeritus Emil Mrak and Skinner.

"The question now before you is whether this property should be developed with a blend of retail commercial and non-profit public facilities which will include open space, or stand vacant for a further undetermined period of time," said the ballot argument against the measure. It was signed by the City Council, because the majority of its member opposed the measure.

Most voters sided with the open-space advocates: the final tally showed 7,375 votes, 57.9 percent of the total, for Measure S, and 5,370, or 42.1 percent, opposing it. In February 1988, council members approved a final master plan for the new, improved park. One of the first steps was to close Fourth Street between B and C streets, then rip out the pavement so the Arden-Mayfair lot could be integrated with the existing park. The city also widened C Street between Third and Fifth to make room for diagonal parking on both sides.

At the southwest corner of the expanded park, the city built the Davis teen center, known simply as Third and B after the two streets that intersect near its front door. Still on the drawing boards was an outdoor cafe to be built at the southeast end of the park. North of that site the covered plaza used for the Farmers Market was added. A garden area graced the western edge of the park, next to B Street. Nearby, the expanded park featured a fountain that sent forth streams of water much like a geyser, much to the delight of small kids looking to cool off on hot summer days. Adding to the ambiance were several pieces of public art: a stone wall by David Middlebrook; "Source and Resource," a water basin created by Kathleen Casper-Noonan and Jeff Reed; and "Bronze and Basalt," a piece by Sandra Shannonhouse located in the garden area.

During 1995, the Davis Education Foundation added the park's crowning touch: a whimsical, pedal-powered carousel in the northern half of the park. Hundreds of Davis kids turned out to help decorate the carousel's 10 seats with its creator, William Dentzel of Port Townsend, Wash., a fifth-generation carousel-builder. To pay for the project, the foundation solicited funds from local businesses, organizations and individuals.

On the northeast corner of the park stood the Hattie Weber Museum of Davis, a building that many years earlier had served as the first permanent home of the Davis library. The Davis Bachelor Girls, a group later known as the Davis Library Club, raised money to construct the building by sponsoring dances, luncheons, spinning bees and parties. Completed in 1911, the original one-room building cost $550. The room was enlarged in 1924 and a 30-foot extension was added to the rear of the building in 1959. The building continued to house the library until 1968, when the Davis branch of the Yolo County Library moved to its current home on Fourteenth Street at the southern edge of Community Park. In 1988, the city moved the first building from its original home at 117 F St. to the edge of Central Park and began renovating it for use as a local museum, naming it for the first paid librarian in Davisville. Weber began as a volunteer librarian in 1906, at a time when the Davis Free Library was housed in the Buena Vista Hotel. She began earning a salary in 1910, when the library became the first branch of the Yolo County Library. When she began, the library had a circulation of 200 books. When she retired in 1953, it had more than 23,000.

The new, improved Central Park filled one of the holes in a puzzle city officials were piecing together in their drive to strengthen the downtown area. A key goal was to anchor each corner with projects to draw people downtown. At the opposite end of the park, the southeast corner was anchored by the theater complex at the intersection of First and F streets and the Southern Pacific Depot, a historic building at 401 I St. The railroad first came to Davis in 1868 and played an important rolein the state's decision to choose Davis as the site for the University Farm, as UCD was known in its early years. Faculty and students used the railroad for easy access between Davis and UC Berkeley, the University Farm's parent campus. Built in 1913, the depot was listed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks. It underwent a major facelift in the 1980s with about $500,000 in state and local funds, so it would look much like it did in its glory years, but also serve as a modern community transportation center.

In 1988, city officials thought they had found the kind of commercial project they wanted to anchor the northeast corner of the downtown area. At the southeast corner of Fifth and G, Jerry Schoenfelder proposed Davis Place, a shopping mall that would cover an entire downtown block. The project would add about 165,000 square feet of retail and office space to the downtown area, including at least 15,000 square feet for a department store. Retail outlets were to occupy three floors, one or two floors would be set aside for offices and a parking garage would be built at the eastern edge of the site. About a year earlier, the city had purchased the northern half of the lot, hoping to find a developer willing to build the type of large retail project it had in mind.

Before long, though, Davis Place ran into trouble. Some observers doubted it would ever be built, arguing Schoenfelder was just trying to win the city's goodwill, so it would look more favorably on Crossroads Place, a residential subdivision he wanted to build on 386 acres located at the northwest corner of Covell Boulevard and Pole Line Road. Skeptics argued the developer would walk away from the shopping center project as soon as he had the city's blessing for the housing. A feasibility study on the potential for building a shopping center there raised several doubts. Soil contamination left by a service station that once occupied the site complicated matters. And, some downtown merchants weren't enthusiastic about the project, saying it was designed to be a one-stop center, not one that would complement other businesses in the area. In the end, Schoenfelder walked away from the project, but in 1994 city officials entered into an exclusive negotiating agreement with Downtown Station Partners, a development team that includes developers Lynne and Randy Yackzan. In August, 1997, they broke ground on their project, which was to include a 64,000-square-foot, three-story office building for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a multi-screen theater complex, up to 15,000 square feet of retail space and a multi-story parking garage.

Looking southwest, city officials hoped to expand the downtown area across Aggie Villa, a vacant tract of land owned by the university long coveted by the city. Purchased by the university in 1906, the lot had a long and varied history. It originally was used for viticulture courses at the University Farm, provided Davis residents with space for a victory garden during World War II, and 13 pre-fabricated wood-frame buildings once used for military housing were moved to the site after the war. The buildings served as student housing until 1965 and afterward for office and laboratory space. The lot has been largely vacant since the university demolished the buildings around 1970.

The university's 1994 Long-Range Development Plan set aside Aggie Villa for faculty housing and a commercial center. Afterward, the university unveiled its plans: 54 residences, including single-family houses, duplexes and cottages, as well as up to 50,000 square feet of retail and office space designed to complement the character of the downtown area. At the same time, city officials were working with an advisory committee to draft a comprehensive plan for Gateway, a project that would be built around the main entrance to central Davis from Interstate 80. Included in the project were several areas located south of downtown, including Aggie Villa, Olive Drive and the Nishi Property, a long strip of undeveloped land located just north of Interstate 80. In 1994, a consensus plan emerged that included the university's proposal for Aggie Villa and a mixture of uses for the Nishi Property: at least 300,000 square feet for offices and similar uses, several restaurants, a hotel, retail nursery and scholar housing modeled after the International House at UC Berkeley.

The commercial land at the east end of Aggie Villa was the site Friedman chose for his center. The Borders brouhaha started out quietly in January 1997 with rumors that Borders was interested in being part of Friedman's project. [8] By March, the rumors appeared to be true, and owners of local independent bookstores and other opponents of big retail chains were gearing up to fight Borders.

The battle over Borders stimulated a lively political battle, with local newspaper columnists joining the fray. Among them was Gerald Heffernon, a Sunday columnist at The Enterprise, who said Borders would be as big, if not bigger than all of the community's other bookstores combined. "The issue is not fear of competition from Borders. That argument is as phony as imitation crab meet," he wrote. "What an engulfing Borders store would do is just the opposite: it would eliminate healthy competition by putting the other bookstores out of business." [9] He also emphasized that Davis residents often had to shop in other towns for many types of merchandise, but Davis already had plenty of bookstores. Bob Dunning, another Enterprise columnist, joined the battle as well, questioning the notion that Borders would run independent bookstores out of business. "As one bookstore owner noted, the locals can't match Borders clout," he wrote, "yet I haven't seen this person come out against McDonald's or Wendy's or In-N-Out or Burger King or any of the other national hamburger chains that presumable would drive good old Murder Burger out of town." [10]

The battle also was fought in letters to the editor. "I say we bring on Borders and just forget about Davis," said Sean Clark of Davis in a 1997 letter to the editor. "Let's make this Anywhere, U.S.A., as common as it can be!." [11] Ilene Goldstein Block of Davis didn't see Borders as a big threat. "If the majority of people in Davis really do not want Borders here, then it will go the way of Cost-U-Less--the store will not have enough sales to sustain and it will close," she wrote, referring to a general merchandise store that set up shop briefly in Oak Tree Plaza. "I believe that the bookstore owners who are heading the Friends of Davis group are worried about just the opposite--Borders will be a huge success and it will cut into their profits." [12]

Opponents suggested the city could thwart Borders by changing the shopping center's zoning, an idea that was troubling to city officials because it raised serious legal questions. Alan Brownstein, a UCD law professor, cautioned the city such action would raise several freedom-of-speech and other constitutional questions. "Whether the First Amendment is actually violated by a proposed zoning ordinance or not, getting the government into the business of deciding which bookstores should be located in a community is a troubling idea," he wrote in a letter to the city. "Whatever legitimate policy objectives are furthered by preventing a Borders bookstore from locating in Davis, establishing the precedent of permitting the government to play a decisive role in deciding who will be allowed to sell books in our community should be viewed as a substantial cost on the other side of the ledger." [13]

Borders appeared to end the controversy by announcing in May 1997 that it had signed a 15-year lease, but opponents filed suit against the city in August 1997, charging it with failing to adequately analyzed the center's economic and traffic impacts. The following year, the city prevailed in the lawsuit and Friedman proceeded with construction of his center. "I hope this is the final chapter of the Davis book wars," he said. "This story has a happy ending." [14]

Continue to Chapter 10...