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An Unfriendly Debate
Huge housing project and a proposed biolab rankle some Davis "townies"

By Robert A. Jones
Davis, California

Ask anyone in this college town why things went so wrong between their community and the sprawling University of California campus next door, and they will likely shake their heads. They only know that the situation turned bad and then got spectacularly worse.

Of course, bared-teeth relations between towns and colleges are hardly rare. The frequent pairings of local, working-class cultures with university academics often function like arranged marriages between unlike parties, with predictable results.

But the troubles in Davis do not fit the usual pattern. For one thing, the town of Davis is not blue collar but white collar, affluent and highly educated. Its population boasts one of the highest percentages of Ph.D.s of any like-sized town in the country. Nor are there simmering resentments here over income gaps or feudal-like relationships with townie workers.

No, the unpleasantness in Davis has a history all its own. The "town" and the "gown" in this case are struggling over the nature of the community itself and the power each side will have in determining its future. The townies want less exploding growth, the university wants, or needs, more.

Photo by Rod Searcy for CrossTalk

As such, Davis' troubles may be a harbinger of things to come as more college towns shed their blue collar backgrounds and attract new populations of retirees and others who love the attractions of university communities and, at the same time, want to protect their small-town atmospheres.

So, instead of squabbles over worker wages or slum clearance, the townies of Davis went to the mat this year over a proposed $200 million biolab that many regarded as politically unsavory and dangerous. And they've fought expansions of the campus student population that would lead to development of now-open spaces on the campus.

If those concerns suggest a genteel debate, think again. The depth of the fury over the residential development was revealed last summer when the university held a workshop on a planned housing complex. The organizers knew that the proposal was not warmly regarded by its nearby neighbors, who own some of Davis' very expensive real estate. Still, they expected a civilized discourse.

That didn't happen. Almost immediately the meeting grew into a tense confrontation between the neighbors and the university representatives. People were getting in each other's faces, shouting each other down. Some attendees broke into chants, hoping to disrupt the process.

Finally, one university official attempted to carry on the agenda and organize a workshop group at the side of the conference room. As he walked toward a table he was suddenly shoved from behind, nearly falling. Pandemonium erupted, the cops were called, and the university contingent walked out.

Photo by Rod Searcy for CrossTalk

No arrests were made, but Marj Dickinson, the assistant vice chancellor for governmental and community relations, who attended the meeting, characterized the scene as "shocking."

"I have done this job for 16 years and never have I seen anything like it," she said.

While Dickinson surely was shocked, she was not entirely surprised. The residential complex has attracted resentment for some time. Even though the university has shaved its size in half, the development remains huge, with an expected population of 4,300. As planned, it will gobble up a section of now-undeveloped campus and, the neighbors fear, flood nearby streets with auto traffic.

The complex, in short, has come to symbolize a primary source of the antipathy here: the galloping expansion of the university campus. It is a problem rooted in the continued, amazing growth of California itself and the commitment of the state to provide a University of California education to the top one-eighth of its high school students.

Only a generation ago, the UC Davis campus was comfortably ensconced as the aggie arm of the UC system. The campus won fame, and sometimes notoriety, by producing tomatoes tough enough to withstand the rigors of industrialized picking, high-yield cows, and ever-finer grapes for California's wine industry. The student population stood at 15,000.

By this year, the student population had grown to 30,600. Non-agricultural divisions of the university, such as the medical, engineering and law schools, have burgeoned. So much new construction has taken place that some buildings have never acquired names and are simply labeled "academic surge" structures. Finally, and perhaps most ominously for the community, advancements in biotechnology have infused the campus with laboratories and research centers that give it more the aspect of an M.I.T. than a cow college.

"We've had to grow," said Larry N. Vanderhoef, the university's chancellor. "The schools of medicine, law, the graduate school of business, all were added because of what the state needed." He added, "The real question is whether the university is beholden first to its own community in terms of its future growth, or whether it's beholden to the state, to the nation and even to the world."

The chancellor, by the nature of his question, makes it clear that he believes the university's obligation falls into the latter category. And the town of Davis, surely one of the more activist and eccentric communities in California, has demonstrated that many of its residents believe otherwise.

This is a town, after all, where activists fought bitterly against the arrival of a Borders bookstore because, as a chain operation, it threatened local bookstores. It's a town that boasts the highest number of bicycle paths per citizen in the country and that once paid $14,000 for the construction of a tiny tunnel underneath a freeway so that a species of local toads would have safe passage.

So Davis takes its concerns seriously. And the town activists, many of them lawyers and professionals, bring to their conflicts the same legalistic, calculating tactics practiced by the hyper-educated officials of the university. In other words, it's a good match.

Nowhere was that so well demonstrated as with the ill-fated proposal to build a biolab dedicated to research on deadly disease agents such as anthrax, and the ebola and dengue viruses. The idea of building such a research center had been brewing for years in California academic circles but received a huge boost when the National Institute of Health offered expansive funding for two such projects in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Early this year UC Davis sent off a 700-page application for NIH funding, and the war was on. Originally titled "Western National Center for Biodefense and Emerging Diseases," the proposal touched a number of raw nerves in the community: It evoked "Hot Zone" images of escaped diseases gone rampant; it had nebulous connections to the war on terror and government secrecy; and, not insignificantly, it raised the threat of reduced property values in Davis.

Photo by Rod Searcy for CrossTalk

"The very idea of this high-security facility with guards and bright lights scared people. It didn't fit with the way they think about Davis," said Julie Partansky, a former mayor of Davis and a biolab opponent. "And the university plowed forward with this project without telling the community what it needs to know. We were forced to go into the documents to find the truth. That offends me because I am a believer in an educated public."

By midsummer lawsuits had been filed; the city council had voted unanimously to oppose the lab; and some activist groups were promising civil disobedience if it were approved.

"I talked to people who said they would leave Davis if this thing went through," said Samantha McCarthy, a founder of the group, Stop UCD Biolab Now. "They would say things like, 'I have a three-year-old daughter and I can't live with that kind of threat.' The university only made it worse by denying some of the obvious problems and then having to admit them."

Indeed, the summer struggle was punctuated with disclosures that hurt the university's case. The NIH made it clear that the agency, and not the university, would control research at the facility. And later in the summer the university reversed its previous statements and conceded that some aspects of the research would be conducted in secret. In addition, the university revealed that any release of "disease agents" would be reported first to the NIH and not to the local community. The NIH would then decide when, or if, the community would be informed.

In fairness, most of the disclosures were the result of federal agencies imposing their will on the university as the process moved forward. The reassessment of secrecy rules, for example, grew out of an analysis of the federal Bioterrorism Act of 2002.

But university officials concede they got a late start in selling the idea of the biolab. Even though various proposals for an infectious disease lab had been kicked around for years, the university did not approach the community until its proposal to the NIH was submitted last spring.

"We waited because, initially, we did not have a formal proposal for the lab," said Lynne U. Chronister, associate vice chancellor for research administration. "We did not want to make public presentations before we knew, ourselves, exactly what was being proposed."

Even so, a certain amount of spin consistently crept into the university's presentations about the lab. The very name of the lab, for example, was eventually changed to exclude the scary word "biodefense." The new moniker became the "National Biocontainment Laboratory."

And the disclosures themselves-such as the revelation that some parts of the research would be conducted in secret-were occasionally buried at the bottom of university statements underneath mounds of reassuring verbiage.

Photo by Rod Searcy for CrossTalk

"It made you paranoid because you wondered what was really going on," said McCarthy of Stop UCD Biolab Now. "If they were going to all that trouble to twist the truth around, how bad was it, really?"

By September, both sides were drawing up contingency plans in case the lab was approved. Opponents were promising major demonstrations and civil disobedience. The university was working on crowd control.

But the final confrontations were cancelled when, on September 30, the NIH announced that the university had not been chosen as a biolab site. University officials were philosophical in defeat. "This has been a valuable learning experience," said Virginia Hinshaw, the university provost, in a statement. She thanked the biolab supporters and then, in a bow to the community, she continued, "I also thank the people who provided critical input that challenged us to address important concerns and generate needed information for the broader community."

In the aftermath, tensions have dissipated, but the bigger question remains: Will the university's continued growth create a permanent state of war with the town of Davis, or will the two sides reach some sort of peace?

If Davis residents are hoping for a slowdown in growth to reduce the conflicts, they are probably hoping in vain. The sleepy cow college founded in 1906 along Putah Creek in the Sacramento River delta is gone and won't be coming back. Barns are hard to find, and the agricultural operation, although still thriving, now tends toward research into genetics and bioengineering.

The biggest changes have come in Davis' non-agricultural divisions. Students in the Letters and Science school, for example, now outnumber the aggies by two to one. The School of Education is about to triple its faculty and double its enrollment. Many of the former barns and open fields are now filled with academic buildings that have little to do with crops or cows.

And the growth issue will continue because, in a phrase, the University of California is busting at the seams. State budget crisis or no, UC anticipates nothing but expanding enrollments as far as the eye can see.

The California Master Plan for Higher Education places the UC system in a particular bind because it commits the state to providing space for the top 12.5 percent of California's high school graduates no matter how large that number might be. Current estimates predict the figure will grow by 40 percent over the next seven years. And since some of the older UC campuses, such as UCLA and Berkeley, have no room for expansion, the entire burden will fall on the remaining campuses and a new site planned for the San Joaquin valley.

UC Davis, at 5,300 acres, has the largest campus in the system, and thus will be expected to absorb a larger share of incoming freshmen. The UC Regents established a cap of 32,000 students for any single campus, but there have been hints that the caps may be broken and campuses allowed to grow still larger.

"The enrollment increases will keep coming, at least for a few years," said Chancellor Vanderhoef. "And that means more faculty, as well as students, who will need housing. For a new faculty member, Davis is an expensive place to buy a house. If we are going to continue to get the best faculty and students, we have to think about where they are going to live."

Photo by Rod Searcy for CrossTalk

As for the town's resistance to this growth, Vanderhoef says it leaves him perplexed. "College towns like Davis are very attractive places for many people. They have great public schools, cultural events sponsored by the university, an interesting community. But the same people who are attracted to these things sometimes are not tolerant of the university's need to grow. Some seem to consider the university the enemy, even though the university is why they are here."

Other university officials express equal frustration over Davis' political climate, which they contend is dominated by a doctrinaire minority willing to fight the university over any and all issues. It is this poisoned climate, they charge, that has created the polarization.

"The nature of the debate has deteriorated," said Assistant Vice Chancellor Dickinson. "The political approach now is to attack the motives and integrity of the other side rather than have a discussion on the merits of an issue. There's a level of meanness here that does not exist in other places.

"This has taken place over a number of years, and I think it has led to a death spiral in terms of the public debate. Many Davis citizens discover the unpleasantness and they check out of the process. That leaves the stage to those who enjoy making personal attacks."

Fred Murphy, the designated director of the biolab, had it been approved, noted that he was asked to be the grand marshal of a July 4 parade in Davis precisely because of his role at the lab. "In other words, the community was expressing its support for the lab," he said. "But if you listen to what comes out of the city council, you'd think everyone in town opposes it. The fact is, there's a sub-community that dominates public debate, and their voice is the only voice heard."

No one would argue that the political debate in Davis can be volatile and so peculiar as to make the town the butt of jokes. The city council once debated a policy to preserve potholes on the grounds that fixing them was expensive and un-ecological. But the present mayor, Susie Boyd, argues that the Davis town-gown issue is both serious and important.

"For years we had no-growth city councils that made it very difficult for developers to build housing for students," said Boyd. "They were pursuing a worthwhile goal, which was to keep the small-town feel of Davis. But in the meantime the university expanded its enrollment every year and continues to do so. Something has to give."

The present city council, said Boyd, understands the dilemma and wants to find a solution. "Look, Davis is a company town," she said. "My late husband taught at the campus, and many others have a connection to the university. By and large, this town has strong support for the university that goes way back, and people want to return to a friendlier atmosphere."

UC's Dickinson said she also senses a weariness with the fighting, and a recognition that it served neither side well.

"The real question is whether this past year was a kind of perfect storm that will blow over, once the specific issues are resolved, or whether something fundamental has changed," she said. "I hope it's the former, and I hope that, once the storm has passed, we can return to a civil conversation about the future.

"If we can do that, I'm optimistic that Davis and the university can be friends again."

Robert A. Jones is a former reporter and columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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