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In The News

Saltworks plan divides community

Katie Worth, S.F. Examiner, 7/30/09

REDWOOD CITY — There is little doubt in anyone’s mind that this will be one doozy of a brawl.

A developer has proposed building a new city-sized community at the site of the Cargill salt ponds in Redwood City; the 1,436-acre parcel represents the largest undeveloped property in the city.

The project includes up to 12,000 new homes, at least 15 percent of which will be sold below market rate; more than a dozen playing fields; five new schools; new commercial and office buildings; hundreds of acres of parks and restored wetlands; and perhaps even a streetcar line to take an estimated 25,000 new residents closer to downtown.

It’s enough amenities to make the average city hall official salivate — particularly in an era of ever-deepening fiscal crises and savage budget cuts.

John Bruno, spokesman for the developer, Arizona-based DMB Associates, pointed to the multiple office parks adjacent to the site that employ thousands of people and said the Saltworks development is a perfect solution to reduce commutes and cut down on auto emissions.

“It’s a great piece of dirt,” Bruno said. “Just a great piece of dirt.”

But, say opponents of the project, there’s the rub: it’s not a piece of dirt — it’s Bay.

The proposed site, adjacent to Redwood City Harbor, currently hosts white and ­copper-­colored evaporation ponds that still produce industrial-grade salts — used to salt roads or to dye paper. The land was historically marshlands but was diked and drained for salt production in the first half of the twentieth century.

Groups, including Save the Bay, the Sierra Club and Friends of Redwood City, have marched in lockstep behind the theme that dumping millions of tons of fill on Bay land might have been chic a century ago, but in 2009, it is not acceptable.

“Our bottom line is don’t put it in the Bay,” Save the Bay political director Stephen Knight said.

The two sides have already sparred through a handful of rounds in the ring. Last November, two separate measures that would have required voter approval on the project were put on the Redwood City ballot. Measures W and V, in the wake of contentious and well-funded campaigns, both lost.

Six months later, developers filed their official proposal, laying out the details of the Cargill project — and setting the stage for the battle ahead.
The first arena will be City Hall, where on Aug. 10, the City Council will officially accept the proposal for consideration.

Redwood City Mayor Roseanne Foust said it’s too early in the process to know whether the proposal will gain approval or not.

The last time a developer undertook a project of this magnitude on the Bay was in the late 1950s, when hundreds of millions of tons of fill were piled around Brewer’s Island to create Foster City. At that time, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was still encouraging fill of the Bay, said Mark Foster, whose father developed the city. He said the state Legislature had to approve the new district, and the permits were granted through the county.

City Councilman Rick Wyckoff, a longtime Foster City resident and former city manager, said times have changed.

“There was less attention environmentally to a lot of things. I think we’re all a little more sophisticated nowadays,” Wyckoff said.

Property owner Cargill and DMB Associated, its hired developer, will face a radically different picture this time around, Redwood City Senior Planner Blake Lyon said.

Even if the project gains approval from Redwood City officials, it must also receive the blessings of an alphabet soup of state and federal agencies to move forward, he said.

The list that will have to sign off on the plan, according to Lyon, includes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state and federal fish and wildlife agencies, the state and federal environmental protection agencies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, the regional Water Quality Control Board, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

Despite such bureaucratic hoops, Bruno said DMB is “cautiously optimistic” it will take only two or three years to get all the necessary approvals to break ground on the development.

The “50/50 Balanced Plan,” as the developer has dubbed it, sets aside 56 percent for parks and other open space uses. The other 44 percent is slated for homes, commercial space and offices, schools, roads and other public amenities, built out over 25 years. One-third of the lot’s 1,436 acres would be restored to wetlands.

Knight said sticking points of the project include how high the levees need to be, the required water and wastewater systems, and traffic impact.

Save the Bay backed one of the November ballot measures opposing development of the Cargill property; the organization is currently working to tell the public why the project is a bad idea and is closely monitoring the approval process, Knight said. He predicted the project would come up before voters again.

The project has widespread support from residents, countered Bruno, adding that the public doesn’t buy the argument that it is a bayfill project, he added.

“This is not the Bay,” he said. “This is an industrial salt facility that we pay property taxes on.”

City Councilman Jeff Ira, who’s tentatively in favor of the project, said he’s glad to finally have a proposal to begin studying.

“There’s a lot of issues to ferret out, but the bottom line is I’m excited we have something down in black-and-white to look at,” he said. “At least we’ve got a starting point now.”

Conservation group says levees inadequate

A map recently released by a state agency envisions what the San Francisco Bay would look like were sea levels to rise, as some scientists predict, by 55 inches — 4½ feet — in the next 90 years.

In the scenario mapped out by the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, thousands of Redwood City homes would be underwater. According to the details of the Cargill Saltworks development proposal, the homes that the project’s developers plan to build would appear to be included among those at risk.

At issue is whether the levee Cargill proposes in order to protect its development from Bay waters would be high enough to beat the drastic rise in ocean waters that many scientists conclude will be a result of climate change.

John Bruno, spokesman for DMB Associates, the developer hired by Cargill to oversee the project, said the levee will be engineered to accommodate a 4½-foot rise. But project opponents are already questioning whether that’s true.

The fine point of the levee height is discussed in an appendix to the development proposal’s infrastructure report, written by engineer David Skelly, which questions whether sea levels will rise. It cites a 2004 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manual that says that “with some regional exceptions, sea level is not rising at a rate to cause undue concern.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007 reported that sea levels are an inevitable consequence of global warming but said it could not predict upper limits because of the variability of contributing factors involved, for example, how quickly polar ice sheets melt in the future.

The Saltworks infrastructure report acknowledges that some scientific models indicate sea levels could rise as much as 55 inches by 2100, but says such predictions from computer climate models also “make an enormous range of assumptions” that are “open to conjecture and speculation.”

Building a levee high enough to accommodate the 55-inch rise scenario would require importing more construction material and would affect the aesthetics of the development, the report states.

Therefore, Skelly concludes, the best option is to construct the levee at current design standards, but construct it wide enough so that down the road, if necessary, it can be built up to 4 feet higher.

Bruno said the questions around how sea levels may rise in the future are “a rapidly changing school of thought that we’re all trying to wrestle with. That’s why you have the environmental review process to dictate what’s appropriate.”

Stephen Knight, of the environmental advocacy organization Save the Bay, said to postpone building a levee high enough to accommodate a worst-case scenario is irresponsible and may leave Redwood City holding the bag for future improvements.

A new neighborhood
A look at the number and type of developments proposed for the Cargill Saltworks site:

1,436 acres Largest undeveloped property in city
8,000 to 12,000 New homes
15% Priced below market rate
15,000 to 25,000 New residents
20 to 25 Years to build out the project
Source: DMB Associates

Dividing the land
How the parcel would be portioned in acres:

Use Acres Percentage of property
Restored wetlands 436 30.4
Parks, open space 368 25.6
Residential 355 24.7
Roads 223 15.5
Commercial 17 1.2
Schools 37 2.6 
Total 1,436 100

Source: DMB Associates


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