Tech project to transform med center area
By Gary Delsohn
Despite legitimate concerns about gentrification, traffic and other potential downsides of big development projects, the plan to create Aggie Square at the UC Davis Medical Center campus is fantastic news.
Full disclosure: I worked for former UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi when she first advanced a new innovation and research campus in Sacramento about five years ago. At that point the project seemed headed for the Downtown railyards.
Mayor Kevin Johnson offered the university free land behind the city’s historic train station. Johnson saw the campus as a compelling development anchor. But the idea never went anywhere.
Now, under Chancellor Gary May and Mayor Darrell Steinberg, the project has shifted to Stockton Boulevard around Second Avenue. Traffic at the medical center is already an issue, but it makes sense to build on existing investment and infrastructure. It’s wise to strengthen one of the region’s great assets.
Despite being approved in November by the UC Regents, the $1.1 billion project on 12 acres is kicking up controversy and opposition, even as the coronavirus makes new investments and jobs scarce.
Some opposition can be attributed to the mindset one urban planner associated with the project explains with a classic quote: “I’m against anything I’m not in on.”
Neighborhoods such as Oak Park on the edge of the med center are wary of being shortchanged. There is history about disadvantaged neighborhoods getting stuck with traffic, pollution, higher rents and gentrification.
But in this case, there are many benefits to go around—if planning and buildout go as expected.
The university’s development partners at Aggie Square have impressive records. Baltimore-based Wexford Science & Technology has worked with universities around the country to advance a collaborative, multidisciplinary approach to research and tech start-ups.
GMH Capital Partners of Pennsylvania specializes in student housing. That’s a key component of Aggie Square, with 285-student apartments and a finance plan projected to generate about $37 million for affordable housing raised from tax revenues after development.
That’s not a huge windfall. But Aggie Square is also projected to create about 3,600 new jobs (plus 5,000 construction jobs), as three new labs, classrooms and research spaces open under phase one.
The city of Sacramento has pledged $30 million in tax breaks to help fund roads and other improvements. City officials envision a vibrant new urban destination that will include a market building, space for a farmers market and the Alice Waters Institute for Edible Education.
UC Davis has strong academic programs that cover a wide range of disciplines—food, wine, engineering and education. Aggie Square will create exciting new opportunities for students to study such topical issues as transformative justice, health equity, biomedical engineering and more.
Aggie Square fits with current trends. Research universities are rushing to develop collaborative innovation centers to encourage partnerships between academic researchers and industry start-ups that can lead to new jobs and technological breakthroughs.
With state funding for public universities drying up, schools are looking to grow and generate revenue that allows them to remain competitive without being dependent on taxpayer-funded budgets.
In Chancellor May, UC Davis has the right advocate to make Aggie Square a success, even with concerns raised by adjacent neighborhoods. Before coming to Davis, May was engineering dean at Georgia Tech, where its Technology Square is seen as a model for other communities and universities. Tech Square generates innovation and economic development throughout the Atlanta area.
“Aggie Square will serve as a collaborative technology and innovation campus that leverages the university’s strengths to become a catalyst for economic change, creates jobs for our graduates, and helps spur the economic vitality of the broader Sacramento region,” May has written. “It will serve as a model public-private partnership, increasing technology transfer and creating equitable opportunities for residents in the community and region.”
That sounds lofty, but it’s what the best innovation hubs accomplish. With city and neighborhood activists watching, and despite inevitable bumps in the road, Aggie Square is welcome news. It offers an opportunity for Sacramento, UC Davis, students, faculty and even local community skeptics to come out ahead.
Gary Delsohn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.