When Target’s doors open in a few weeks, one of the most contentious chapters in Davis history will finally come to a close.
In any other town, the arrival of a Target store would either go unnoticed or be met with tepid approval. But Davis isn’t like any other town, and the story of Target’s arrival here almost perfectly captures the essence of what makes Davis unique.
Davis residents’ propensity for public debate, passion for environmentalism, and protectiveness of the city’s “small-town” charm and character all played key roles in the controversy over Target.
“Davis is a very politically active community,” said Gary Sandy, director of local government relations for UC Davis. “It’s a community with a high percentage of informed voters who like to practice direct democracy.”
So the Target project was placed on the ballot in Davis in 2006, right alongside California’s senate, congressional and governor’s races.
Target proposed building a roughly 170,000 square foot store. Because the city’s general plan limited retail stores within the city limits to 30,000 square feet, the developer could only build if the city made an exception. In the spring of 2006, the Davis City Council decided to put the question to voters in the form of a referendum known as Measure K.
One would be hard-pressed to find any debate in Davis in which sustainability isn’t an issue. In the Measure K debate, one of the biggest arguments was whether it was more environmentally friendly to oppose Target or to support it. Opponents said building a large retail store would take up resources and attract thousands of smog-producing vehicles.
Target’s response was to tailor the Davis store to meet the high environmental standards of Davis residents. The project would include a 110-foot buffer zone and a nearly 3-acre greenbelt planted with hundreds of trees to separate nearby residents from the retail development.
Davis resident Tracy Beckwith said this is all part of business as usual in Davis.
“Housing and retail are built only after careful consideration of how they tie in with the rest of the community and how they serve to reduce our carbon footprint vis-a-vis the services provided,” said Beckwith, who volunteered with the Yes on K campaign. “We demand more from our retailers.”
Target agreed to build its store to meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards, better known as LEED. This meant making the project bicycle-accessible and including covered bike parking, using more sustainable building materials, planting more trees in the parking lot and better managing water use.
Some residents, such as Theresa A. Francis, publicly ridiculed the LEED certification. Francis wrote a letter to the editor of the Davis Enterprise proposing a “giant LEED building” to house a Hummer dealership.
“Better yet, maybe I will use my giant LEED building to help save the environment by selling lots of cheap, disposable, petroleum-based products manufactured by grossly underpaid, ill-treated workers with marginal or no political representation an ocean away, shipped to my store on diesel barges and trucks, then take the money I make saving the environment and build another giant store 10 miles down the road,” Francis wrote.
Another question central to the debate over Measure K was whether downtown businesses would be able to survive if they had to compete with a “big box” retailer within the city limits.
“On one dimension, it was the question between the need to maintain and protect downtown and other local businesses that provide critical revenue and also help form the basis of the character of downtown,” said David Greenwald, executive director of The People’s Vanguard of Davis, a local alternative news blog.
“This was debated against the need to provide people with cheap and accessible in-town shopping options while [keeping] critical sales tax revenues from leaking to neighboring communities like Woodland and Dixon.”
Indeed, a Wal-Mart Supercenter already exists a few miles down the road in Dixon, and Woodland is now home to Costco and another Target store.
Student voters obviously played a role in the outcome as well.
“Tipping the balance somewhat were students who were looking for cheap and more accessible consumer goods and less concerned about the long term character and nature of the town,” Greenwald said.
The availability of socks in Davis is often jokingly used as a metric for the accessibility of consumer goods. Target supporters said they didn’t like having to drive to Woodland whenever they needed a new pair of socks. Opponents pointed out that socks were sold at The Gap downtown, Big 5 Sporting Goods in North Davis, and the now-closed Gottschalks in the University Mall.
Enterprise columnist Bob Dunning explained in 2006 why the Target measure would ultimately pass in spite of an energetic group of opponents.
“It’s simple really. Do a soul-check. You want a Target. You need a Target. Even the vocal and expectorating minority want a Target deep down inside. Unless the anti-Target crowd is also the anti-wearing underwear and socks crowd, they need it just as much as the rest of us unenlightened consumers,” Dunning said in an October 2006 column.
Of the nearly 23,000 votes cast in November 2006, Measure K passed with a 674-vote margin of victory. Construction began in 2008, and the store will open in October.
JEREMY OGUL can be reached at email@example.com