Town History


  1. Overview
  2. History of Current Davis Politics
    1. Davis Political Division on Growth Question
    2. Before the Progressives
    3. Emergence of the Progressives
    4. Attempting to tighten growth
    5. Change in 1990
    6. General Plan Revision
    7. 2000 Election
    8. Covell Village and Cannery Park
  3. Drinking in Davis
  4. Random Historical Bits & Davis Trivia
  5. Other Resources

The History of Davis
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(see also Davis Timeline)

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, a stretch of land along the Putah Creek (Patwin: Liwaito) was inhabited by the Puttoy, a tribe of the indigenous Patwin people. Although healthy and numerous in 1832, the tribe's population was all but decimated, due, at least in part, to an epidemic of 1833. Some historians have speculated that this illness may have been a form of malaria introduced to the area by Hudson's Bay Company trappers, who were among the first Europeans to thoroughly explore the area. By 1834, a small group of Puttoy survivors had abandoned their settlements, and some left for Mission Solano in what is now Sonoma County.

The site of "our town" lies north of the original streambed of Putah Creek (Rio de los Putas), which became the dividing line between Yolo and Solano counties in 1850. Formerly the home of a group of Patwin Indians, the immediate Davis area presented an abundance of plants and wildlife, sustaining both animal and human inhabitants before hunters, trappers, and the first pioneer agriculturalists brought drastic changes. During the early 1850s, livestock production and cultivation of the rich alluvial plains in the West Sacramento Valley were profitable enterprises, and a number of American and European immigrants sought title to portions of Rancho Laguna de Santo Calle, the unconfirmed Mexican land grant upon which most of the City of Davis and the University of California campus are located.

Prominent among the early settlers were Jerome C. and Mary A. Davis, the son-in-law and daughter of Joseph B. Chiles, one of California's trail-blazing pioneers, whose cattle interests in the area began in 1849. The Davises' holdings were expanded to include 12,000 acres by 1858; however, floods, drought, and disease, coupled with high interest rates, the Civil War and inadequate transportation facilities, caused financial hardship for California ranchers. By 1868, the Davises moved to Sacramento after selling some 7,000 acres of the Davis ranch for $80,000 to developers of the California Pacific Railroad.

Directors of this pioneer line surveyed a triangular railroad junction, which would play a major role in the future development of the town that was laid out around it. Residential and business construction was spurred when daily railroad service from Vallejo to Davis Junction was opened on August 24, 1868. The official town [wikipedia]plat, covering a 32-block area that fronted on Putah Creek, was recorded November 24, 1868. By 1870, Davisville citizens numbered 400. Land was donated for a schoolhouse and churches; street trees were planted; a boomtown prosperity existed until subsequent extension of the railroad reduced the local volume of trade. During the later 19th century, the town's economy was chiefly related to agricultural development in the surrounding area.

Only a few far-sighted citizens dared hope, in 1905, that the newly established University State Farm might be located near Davisville, but a determined seven-man committee of the first Chamber of Commerce succeeded where similar committees in some seventy communities elsewhere in California failed. Many local citizens subscribed funds for purchase of an option on the 779-acre Sparks-Hamel-Wright tract that was offered to the site selection committee, plus the option on water rights for irrigating purposes. When their offer was accepted on April 6, 1906, Davisites celebrated with flag flying and fireworks. The women's improvement club quickly organized Cleanup Days, so as to make the community more presentable for its new role as a university town.

One of the lasting acts of that month, partly in celebration of the site selection of the University Farm, was that on April 14, 1906, the Davisville Enterprise renamed itself the Davis Enterprise, and started referring to the town generally as Davis. The editor's stated reasons were (1) that mail was confused with Danville, (2) that the railroad schedules called it Davis at that time, and (3) that Davisville sounded provincial. The post office followed suit in January, 1907 (though the "ville" suffix adorns the [WWW]names of several businesses as a nod to history). Construction of the first University Farm buildings commenced in mid-1907, and the first instruction began in October, 1908, with fifteen non-degree students in attendance. Short courses for farmers were also an important function of the new teaching and research institution that would remain under the administrative control of the College of Agriculture at UC Berkeley until 1952.

The City of Davis was incorporated in 1917 under a commission form of government. Fire, protection, sewers, sidewalks, and street paving were high on the list of badly needed civic improvements. In 1928, the mayor-council form of government was adopted. In 1950, the first city administrator was appointed, and in 1965, the position of city manager was instituted. A planning commission was established in 1925, and the city's first General Plan was adopted in 1927.

Institution of a four-year degree program at the University Farm in 1933 resulted in unprecedented growth for both the campus and the community, and the first long-range development plans were initiated. The additions of the School of Veterinary Medicine in 1949, and the College of Letters and Science in 1951, were impetus for further growth and development, which was augmented after 1959, when the UC Regents determined that Davis was to become a general campus of the University of California, embracing all major academic disciplines. Subsequently established were the College of Engineering in 1962, the School of Law in 1964, the School of Medicine in 1968, and the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento in 1973. Davis is now the largest of UC's ten campuses, at 5,300 acres.

Davis has always been a popular place to bicycle, but in the early 1960s Chancellor Emil Mrak and local residents took it upon themselves to make Davis a fabulous place for bicycling. Not only the best city in the country, but the best city possible. This led to a series of innovations, including wide, separate bike paths on campus (early 1960s) and bike lanes in the city (1967). The bikeway system quickly became fully institutionalized, and all new subdivisions since the late 1960s have been required to add to the existing system. This has given Davis one of its greatest claims to fame, often being referred to as "The Bicycle Capital of the U.S" and the only city to receive the [WWW]League of American Bicyclists' "Platinum" award. For over 50 years, bicycling has been a major means of local transportation. A slide presentation on the history of bicycle policy in Davis can be seen on the Bicycle History Presentation page.

In the late 1970s, Davis gained national recognition for community efforts in energy conservation. Several Davis builders have pioneered energy-efficient building and subdivision design. In addition, the city building code has since 1975 included mandatory energy conservation standards which cover all new construction.

Over the years, Davis has been in the national media, sometimes for good reasons, see Outside Magazine Article, and sometimes as the butt of jokes, see People's Republic of Davis. But many say any press is good press.

You can also check out the semi-complete timeline.

History of Current Davis Politics

Davis Political Division on Growth Question

Davis politics is dominated by a faction that is anti-growth who call themselves “Progressive”. They have one litmus test: being anti-growth; if a candidate for city council doesn’t pass the test, they are demonized as pro-growth, or moderate/liberal.

Before the Progressives

Prior to 1959, UC Davis was the agricultural extension of UC Berkeley, and Davis was a sleepy little college town. Students attended UCD for some ag classes, and then went to Berkeley to complete their undergraduate degree. The politics of the community was as conservative as any farm town in the California Central Valley, and voted Republican in most state and national elections.

Even today, UCD’s academic orientation is relatively conservative: most universities have 25% science students where UCD has 60% biological science students, with an additional College of Engineering, as well as strong Letters and Sciences majors in mathematics, chemistry, physics and geology, all of which attract students with a political orientation that is more conservative or indifferent.

In 1959, UCD became a general campus, and drew a more liberal faculty, as well as a more urban student body from the San Francisco bay area and Southern California. During the 1960s, the local politics was dominated by the downtown business community, and the campus pretty much ignored the city government. Then in 1966, a small group of university faculty promoted the idea of bike lanes on the city’s streets, and succeeded electing two new city council members who supported the bicycle ideas, overturning the campaigning incumbents who rejected the bicycle advocacy.

Emergence of the Progressives

The most famous election in Davis was in 1972. The 1958 Davis General Plan had forecast that Davis would triple in population every decade: 8,000 in 1960, 24,000 in 1970, and grow to 72,000 by 1980. Three community/campus oriented candidates challenged these ideas and were swept into office, in no small part due to the new voting influence of college students with the new 18-year-old voting right. The winners were attorney Joan Poulos, UCD health and safety officer Dick Holdstock (who had a rich British labor tradition and a love for traditional British/Irish/Scot music) and former ASUCD President Bob Black.

In the closing days of the previous council term of Mayor Vigfus Asmundson, the council appointed a committee of 110 citizens to develop a new General Plan. The 1972-4 process was influenced by the 1973 OPEC Arab Oil embargo, and focused on energy conservation, things like solar energy in land use and housing design. The plan was characterized by “slow growth” because it looked out to housing growth based on a population goal of 50,000 rather than the previous goal of about 70,000.

At that point, the label “progressive” implied a constellation of ideas: slow growth, energy conservation, public transportation and bicycles. An example was that in 1978 the city led a campaign called “Operation Prime Time”: don’t use your stove/oven until after 6 p.m., and instead of using your air conditioner 24 hours a day from April to October, open your windows in the evenings, and close them in the mornings, letting the delta breeze cool the inside of your apartment or home. Davis saved so much electricity during the peak load period in the weekday afternoons that PG&E gave the city a check for $100,000 three years in a row. (The energy company probably saved over a million dollars a year by not firing up those power plants during peak demand by businesses that were forced to use their air conditioners during the hot summer afternoons.)

Attempting to tighten growth

In 1982, while Ann Evans was being elected to the city council, she sponsored an initiative to limit growth to 50,000 people until the year 2000, which passed 2 to 1. It seemed realistic, since the CalTrans signs at the city limits said 38,000. (But the 1974 General Plan had forecast 50,000 by 1990, and in actuality the city council in 1989 would pay $50,000 for a survey to prove that the population exceeded 50,000 so that the city would be eligible for millions of dollars in additional federal funds.)

In 1986, as part of Mike Corbett’s city council campaign, his campaign created Measure L, to have the city grow as slow as legally possible, which received 58% of the vote, a majority but not a mandate.

For land use planning purposes, a city has two boundaries: its city limits line, and something called its “sphere of influence.” In 1986, most of Davis’ sphere of influence line was its city limits line. Frank Ramos of West Sacramento wanted to develop to the east (what is now known as Mace Ranch). A tiny sliver of the land was inside the sphere of influence and within the city’s jurisdiction; in May, 1986, Ramos’ request to develop was unanimously rejected by both the city planning commission and the city council.

But because of the city’s narrowly defined sphere of influence, most of the Ramos land was in the planning jurisdiction of the county. In October, with both Davis county supervisors Bob Black and Betsey Marchand voting no, the Yolo County Board of Supervisors approved Ramos’ Mace Ranch development.

This severely strained relations between the city and the county to the point where a written agreement had to be developed and approved by both the board of supervisors and the city council. The conditions of the agreement are that the county will not unilaterally approve any development on the city’s border, the city’s sphere of influence extends well over a mile beyond the city limits in every direction, and in exchange the city “passes through” millions of dollars each year from the taxes for development improvements in the city’s redevelopment area. (It is referred to as the "pass through agreement".)

The county gave the city 15 months (to December, 1987) to complete a new general plan. The city council majority of Ann Evans, David Rosenberg and Mike Corbett decided in private, on the phone, with staff, between each council meeting, what they wanted – and they announced their decisions at the council meetings. (This was in complete violation of the Brown public meeting act.) They justified it by stating that they were under pressure from the county. They decided to put the overcrossing at Pole Line Road instead of further east at County Road 103, where it could have had a cloverleaf with freeway access. It was subsequently proven that traffic consultants Omni-Means dummied their numbers to support the Pole Line decision at the council majority’s behest, and Omni-Means was forced in court to pay back what the city had paid them.

The 1987 General Plan had enormous infrastructure needs, which at first penciled out at $150 million, and then started growing. A park, a freeway interchange, Mace overcrossing expansion, two parking structures. It adds up, and when the city actually gets close to putting the project out to bid, the prices never are less, and they are often much more than expected.

Who is going to pay for it?

Why should the 50,000 people who were then living in Davis? They didn’t have anything to do with the new plan, it was written by the council majority and staff. So the city council and staff came up with this rationale: the plan goes from 50,000 people to roughly 75,000, so the existing residents have a nexus of responsibility for 2/3rds of the burden of cost, and the new residents 1/3rd. But since the city council has the discretion to control the distribution of the construction tax, the council decided to use the new resident’s construction tax for the existing residents’ burden, and then create a new nexus tax for the new residents to pay the other third as well.

So Davis has a donut of post-1987 homes that may be paying ten times as much in property tax as someone who lives in one of the older homes. The donut includes: Northstar, Wildhorse, Mace Ranch, much of South Davis, Aspen, and Evergreen.

Change in 1990

Rosenberg, Evans and Corbett had the three votes to control who was mayor, and they traded it around between themselves. Evans did not run for re-election, and Corbett was defeated. The council had no true progressives, and was the most conservative council since the early 1960s. By ordinance, the council established having whomever came in first be the Mayor Pro Tem for two years, and then Mayor the final two years of their term.

By 1986, there were very few lots available for building, and there was a five year period with tremendous unmet demand for more houses: starters and mover-uppers. The council started focusing on implementing the developments approved in the 1987 General Plan. Davis made the next step in every direction, north, east, south and west, and shifted from being a small town where people were familiar with most of it, to a small city where there were a lot of unfamiliar places that had grown since the previous drive through that area. For too many, it was no longer convenient to ride a bicycle, and a car seemed like a necessity.

To some, the housing construction was an orgy. Artist Julie Partansky ran for the city council in 1992 with a message to stop growth, and the “Progressives” were reborn.

Moderates would say that progressives feel that Davis is nice the way it is and shouldn’t change. They are usually environmentalists who want to preserve prime agricultural land and endangered species. Many receive income from the university or the state government, and seem indifferent to the needs of the local business community or even the free enterprise system.

General Plan Revision

After 5 years of the 1987 General Plan, the city was required by state law to update the housing element of the general plan (for most cities in California, housing is the single element that deserves serious reconsideration every 5 years). In 1994, the council initiated a citizens planning process. It initially had 14 committees with over 200 people, who met for two years and completed their work. Committee issues ranged from housing, transportation, land use and open space (which are state mandated elements), to economics, health and social services, and computers (areas which are not state-required elements of the city’s General Plan). Unfortunately, one committee, the Growth Management/Neighborhood Preservation committee, which was "stacked" with members of the local extreme "progressive" movement, prolonged the process an additional 4 years, costing the city over $1 million in consultant fees and more than that in staff time. Since a majority of the city council at that time was “progressive,” they usually accommodated the demands of the vociferous growth management committee, at the expense of earlier input by other committees. The resulting 2001 plan is a thick testament to wordy governmental restrictions. 13 committees recommended preserving much of the 1987 General Plan, including the Covell Village and Nishi properties as the focus of future planned growth. However, the Growth Management Committee recommend removing virtually all land from the General Plan. The City Council, ignoring the other 13 Committes, adopted the Growth Management Committee's extremist recommendation.

2000 Election

In 2000, as the General Plan process was winding down, Julie Partansky was finishing her two year term as mayor. Her supporters did a survey, and found that she would not be re-elected to a third term. Sue Greenwald and Mike Harrington (a personal injury lawyer) successfully claimed the progressive label in being elected. City Manager John Meyer left to become the UCD Vice Chancellor for Resource Management and Planning.

The anti-growth activists placed Measure J on the ballot, which required a citizens vote on any development approved by the city council that would add land to the city. It prevailed by 6%.

In 2002, Ruth Asmundson and Ted Puntillo both announced for the city council campaign the summer before the March election. Both were well organized and raised almost $20,000 each by the end of the summer, and were the front runners throughout the campaign.

The new council divided the Finance and Economics Commission into a Public Finance and Budget Commission and a Business and Economic Development Commission and a Bicycle Advisory Commission.

In 2004, Sue Greenwald, Don Saylor and Stephen Souza were elected to the council. Two significant points about this election: 1) the Covell Village Partners were trying to gain city approval, and could count on Asmundson’s and Puntillo’s support, and they actively worked to get Saylor and Souza elected, which did happen, 2) Developer Steve Gidaro tried to influence the outcome of the city council race; he was sloppy, wasteful and perhaps illegal. An example is that he ran a robo-poll survey a few weeks before the election, but it only listed six of the eight candidates on the ballot. An election campaign increases in intensity as election day approaches, and with one week to go before the vote, Gidaro’s antics in the local community was the most controversial thing about the election. The day before the election, a dozen local elected officials were pictured on the front page of the Davis Enterprise standing in front of the city council chambers holding a large banner with Gidaro’s office phone number, asking people to call his office to complain about his dirty campaign tactics. (A different slant on this particular story is presented in the Davis wiki analysis of progressives vs. moderates.) The significance for historical purposes is that when Gidaro was finally confronted about his inappropriate campaign behavior by the Enterprise reporter, Gidaro actually believed he was benefiting the people he was working with, so he said half Stan Forbes and half Mike Harrington, which was true, and 5% Don Saylor, which was not true. During the final week before the election, the fecal matter from Gidaro was flying everywhere, and enough of it discouraged voters about Don Saylor that he came in second to Sue Greenwald, and so he lost on the question of who would be mayor 2006 to 2008.

During the 2004-6 period, Ruth Asmundson was mayor. She did a lot behind the scenes to clear up administrative details and tie together loose ends. Commissioner terms had been haphazard, inconsistent, and some times stretched out indefinitely. It took a lot of coordination and communication to work things out. For the first time, the city council met with each commission.

Covell Village and Cannery Park

Covell Village approval measure on the ballot (Measure X) was defeated at the polls. Potential reasons include:

* Disengenuous election tactics by the opposition. The opposition was led by Sue Greenwald, Mike Harrington, Dick Livingston, and Ken Wagstaff. The opposition's three "bullet point" political messages were are all misleading at best. First, the opposition argued that Covell Village would worsen traffic along Covell Blvd., although reports by professional traffic engineers hired by the City stated that the required circulation imporvements would improve traffic. Second, they argued that the housing would be "unaffordable," in spite of the fact that fully 50% of the housing in Covell Village was below-market housing (a benchmark which has since been repealed). Finally, they argued that the project would be fically negative for the City, although the fiscals analysis prepared by professional fincancial consultants hired by the City indicated that the project would be substantially fiscally positive for the City under almost any circumstances. The general thrust of the opposition campign was to paint the developers as con-men trying to promote urban sprawl. Unfortunately, the reasoned debate on future growth in Davis envisioned under Measure J was short-circuited by the opposition campaign's tactics.

* Homeowner opposition. Homeowners represent approximately 75% of the voters in Davis. Homeowners, possibily hoping to protect their then-overinflated home values, voted against Covell Village 75% to 25%. Renters voted in favor of Covell Village by about the same margin.

It is interesting to note that of the City Council members who strongly supported Covell Village and then sought reelection (Ruth Asmondson, Don Saylor, and Stephen Souza), all were reelected by large margins, while Sue Greenwald, the only member to oppose it, fared worse in her reelection campaign, although she retained her seat by a narrow margin.

Drinking in Davis

Like many other early California towns, Davisville was full of hard drinkers. In 1867, when the population was only about 500, there were already nine saloons, outnumbering every other type of public establishment in town, including churches and restaurants. Prior to prohibition, the Davisville branch of the Women's Christian Temperance Union tried three times to ban the sale of alcohol in town. They lost two town votes in 1874 and 1907, but finally prevailed in 1911 by getting the state legislature to enact a ban within a one-mile radius of campus, which was soon expanded to three miles. This ban sought to prevent the corruption of young farming students at the then-fledgling university, and it stood all the way up until 1979, when it was finally lifted by the legislature almost fifty years after the repeal of prohibition. Davis' temperance statute meant if you wanted to buy wine for a party, or booze for any other occasion (including destroying your liver), you had to go beyond this three-mile circle. For many years the closest liquor store was woodlandFrenchy's located on the northwest corner of the lot where the woodlandCounty Fair Mall is located. Frenchy's was owned by long time Woodland resident George Carrere. In more recent times Davisites could drive to Chiles Road, east of Mace and shop at either Jakes or L and M liquor stores. The first legal drink was served at Mr. B's Brandin' Iron in 1965. Sacramento TV stations were there to film the event for their six o'clock news shows. Incidentally, fireworks sales were also not allowed in Davis, and every July, a fireworks stand was set up next to the aforementioned liquor store in Woodland, and this was where Davisites joined Woodland folks in getting a bang for their buck.

Through the 80's and 90's, however, Davis stood as one of the few municipalities within California that allowed the public consumption of alcohol. This freedom finally came to an end in June of 2002 when the city council passed an Open Container Ordinance, prohibiting the possession or consumption of alcohol in public right-of-way areas. Originally set to sunset after two years, the ordinance was permanently renewed in 2004, relegating games of Sloshball in Chestnut Park to the history books for good.

The southwest corner of 2nd & G housed Weber's Yolo Saloon for much of Davis history. At present, it is the site of Froggy's, which was formerly known as The Paragon. Other bars/saloons on G Street have included The Club (located in the portion of the building that was recently added to Woodstock's Pizza), and the Antique Bizarre (a popular watering hole located on the first floor of the Hotel Aggie/Terminal Hotel, in the spot last occupied by La Esperanza). Other places to wet your whistle include and included Mr. B's (popular bar owned by the Belenis family, longtime restaurateurs on the Davis scene), Soga's (which replaced Mr. B's, when it was in its final location), A.J. Bump's, G Street Pub (which replaced A.J. Bump's), Sudwerk, and Cantina del Cabo. Since the liquor ban was lifted, most groceries, many sit-down restaurants, and the like now offer at minimum beer and wine, and sometimes stronger spirits.

Random Historical Bits & Davis Trivia

(see also Departed Businesses)

Other Resources

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