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In The News

Redwood City should be allowed to build new housing

By Ken Garcia

S.F. Examiner, 3/16/10

SAN FRANCISCO — In a perfect world, we’d be able to restore every natural habitat, put housing next to industry so people wouldn’t have to drive and have enough money to address every project and need, sprinkling it around like fairy dust.

But I live in the Bay Area, which is pretty nice, but still far from perfect, a place where reality is not black and white — or in the case of one of its Peninsula cities, more salt than pepper.

That would be Redwood City, which is contemplating a major development plan on a century-old salt production factory along the Bay, a plan that has drawn the attention of environmentalists and housing activists, and as such, is eminently controversial.

At issue is a proposed housing development on the shores of San Francisco Bay that would include up to 12,000 new homes, a number of schools, 63 acres of sports fields,  and 759 acres of restored habitat and neighborhood parks. It’s an ambitious project for a relatively small city like Redwood City — maybe too ambitious, judging by the backlash to the plan — but the Peninsula desperately needs housing, and city officials seem determined to pursue that goal.

And studying the merits of the project is what the city wants to do, a plan that would require scores of state and federal agencies to ultimately approve. Yet somewhat remarkably, a local environmental group is trying to stop the city from pursuing an environmental review of the proposal and has gotten more than 90 former or current elected officials to sign a petition saying the whole process should be halted before it begins.

I can’t say if the project by DMB Associates is a good one, though the developer has a strong track record of working with restoration groups, having won a state award for conservation efforts in Lake Tahoe’s Martis Valley. But as a general rule, I like to see experts study plans and come up with measured conclusions, just the kinds of things contained in an environmental review.

So I find it odd that so many public officials would agree with a move to circumvent a normal government process — especially since many of them probably couldn’t find the salt pond site on a map of San Francisco Bay.

A few years back, Save the Bay — the group spearheading the effort to oppose the housing project — managed to stop San Francisco from expanding the runways at The City’s airport. That campaign was more soundly based, since the airport expansion would have required thousands of acres of landfill.

But that environmental embrace does not extend to the Cargill salt ponds, which are not landfill and are not even considered by the state to be part of San Francisco Bay. That’s one element being obscured by opponents, as is the fact that the state has not approved any large developments in salt ponds, and could still block the proposal.

But some other factors are undeniable. The Peninsula needs housing, and it’s not exactly environmentally friendly that thousands of workers commute to jobs in Silicon Valley from parts well beyond Redwood City. And while we could agree that every inch of the Bay and its shores should be protected, there is no federal money available to restore the 1,400-acre Cargill site.

Redwood City officials seemed justifiably irked that so many people outside its shores are telling them what to do with their planning process. Two years ago, Save the Bay’s director, David Lewis, pushed an initiative that would have required a two-thirds vote of city residents for any development on open space, directly targeting the Cargill site. And the voters rejected it, effectively telling those outside interests to go pound salt.

As it is, so many groups and agencies will still have to weigh in on the proposed housing project that it could still be buried under its own hefty aspirations. An environmental review is just one of dozens of steps.

It’s somewhat reminiscent of San Francisco’s fight about allowing a Home Depot in town, a 10-year debate over the perceived “evils” of big-box retailing.

The permits were approved and Home Depot jettisoned its plans when the economy tanked, leaving another big empty space, an unsightly gray area between black and white.

Ken Garcia appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Examiner. Check out his blog at sfexaminer.com/opinion or e-mail him at kgarcia@sfexaminer.com.

 

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