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Town v. Gown in Davis

Becky O’Malley
Friday July 25, 2003

We think we have problems in Berkeley with the University of California. The Planet has been deluged with irate letters from citizens who oppose UC’s newest expansion projects in Strawberry Canyon: a six-story nanotechnology laboratory plus a new office tower, with the excavation debris dumped into a creekbed to form a parking lot. Local residents are fed up with arrogant UC expansion, no question about it, but it’s even worse in Davis. The Sacramento Bee carried an article about a raucous recent meeting between UC Davis administrators, city officials and citizen opponents of UC’s latest project in that formerly sleepy agricultural town. 

There was already controversy about UC’s plan to build a high-security infectious diseases laboratory, as there has been in Berkeley over the planned nanotechnology facility. Davis City Councilman Mike Harrington, as quoted in the Bee, called the project “a big federal secretly controlled facility that would be part of the federal government’s bioterrorism arms race.” In February, the Davis City Council voted unanimously to oppose the lab, familiarly referred to in the dispute as “the germ lab.” 

The latest Davis uproar concerns UC’s plans to build a 4,300-resident subdivision and hook it into Davis’ already overburdened road system. As in Berkeley, the University of California can do whatever it wants on its own land, with no local control, but it needs local approval to connect to local roads. 

The Bee recorded some choice comments from Davis activists. “UC Davis has shown absolute disrespect for the citizens of Davis. ... People feel totally betrayed,” said Mary-Alice Coleman. At a July 10 meeting called by UC and the city of Davis, planners tried to get residents to break into small groups to map out possible street links to the development. “It was like they said—‘Okay, kids, come get your Magic Markers and start coloring on the map,’” the Bee quotes Coleman as saying. Town-gown relations went from bad to worse at that point, according to the Bee: “Residents, many waving signs against the project, shouted angry barbs at university officials. Others chanted slogans. After one angry resident shoved a consultant, who fell to the ground, the university contingent walked out.” 

Here in Berkeley, we saw a bit of citizen insubordination at the meeting on the nanotechnology lab, but it wasn’t that bad—yet. At least, no consultants have been knocked down here. But Davis citizens who spoke to the Bee reporter are predicting more trouble there: “I don’t think we’ve hit the low. I think it’s going to get worse,” said Samantha McCarthy of the grass-roots group Stop UCD Biolab Now. Many Berkeley activists might agree with her judgment that “we have a City Council majority that’s working in cahoots with the university ... and they are dismissive of community input.” 

Fancy footwork by Berkeley’s city planning commissioners averted a confrontation over UC’s ham-handed attempt to control the city’s Southside plan, which had been pushed by Mayor Bates’ appointee to the Planning Commission, former UC development administrator David Stoloff. It’s possible that the council’s decision to designate a city staffer to monitor UC’s expansion plans will have some positive effect, but don’t count on it. A previous council voted to establish a city commission to monitor UC, but the commission was never set up or even funded. 

Towns like ours are close to powerless in the face of the UC juggernaut. In Santa Cruz, UC leased a big hotel, formerly the source of half a million dollars in annual tax revenue to that city, and took it off the tax rolls, though continuing to rent rooms to visitors. As compensation, the university magnanimously offered an in-lieu payment of $100,000. 

Davis community activist Ruben Arevalo compared the University of California to a “sovereign nation that is expanding and trying to push that expansion on the community.” Another comparison might be to the proverbial 2,000-pound elephant, which pretty much sleeps anywhere it wants. 


Becky O’Malley is executive editor of the Planet.