Environmentalists will soon be fighting housing advocates over what to do with the SF Bay locally | An Alternative View | Diana Diamond | Almanac Online |


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By Diana Diamond

Environmentalists will soon be fighting housing advocates over what to do with the SF Bay locally

Uploaded: Mar 18, 2019

A recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decision has produced a challenge for liberal residents in the area – do you want to turn a whopping 1,400 acres of San Francisco Bay’s shoreline in Redwood City into more housing – or into an environmental estuary for birds and fish in the San Francisco Bay? These two good causes for many Democrats are now pitted against each other.

A bit of background: The land has been owned by Cargill Salt for ages, and it’s been used for salt ponds -- clearly visible by the array of green and brown-colored waters seen when flying over the area. The Trump Administration through the EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler declared earlier this month, according to the San Jose Mercury, that all those acres are no longer bound by the federal Clean Water Act, and are not subject to a 1972 law that limited the bay’s filling and draining. Therefore there are no restrictions on development. In other words, anything goes now for what to do with those 1,400 acres that Cargill wants to sell.

That’s a big reversal and a huge decision, since this marshy mass is now worth millions more. Environmentalists want the land, which sits at sea level and is prone to flooding, to be preserved and used as tidal wetlands for wildlife, a position that has garnered public support for several decades. But housing advocates are excitedly aware that these swampy acres are suitable for housing, particularly the affordable kind. Indeed, in 2009, Cargill and DMB Associates, a developer from Arizona, proposed building some 12,000 homes on the site.

Whatever happened politically, we now have a new problem – and lots to consider. And this is not just a local problem – areas in Brooklyn are fighting over preserving wonderful city gardens and parks vs. building high rises. In a Sunday NYT article that implied some people were thinking of turning parts of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden into housing, Scot Medbury, president of the garden, said, “The (small) gardens (in town) are not just some generic green space. We shouldn’t pit open space vs. housing.”

And yet that’s what may soon happen here

The housing shortage is a fact-based area-wide need, and 12,000 (plus or minus) new units could help solve some of the critical housing needs in the area for 25,000-plus people. But the land would have to be redeveloped, a costly undertaking, akin to what happened to Foster City in the 1960’s, amid opposition from some of the environmentalists. At that time, some feared that reclaimed and refilled area would be subject to earthquakes.

I empathize with the need for more housing, but there are related problems -- it will add more people on more traffic on the Redwood City roadways, as well as roads north and south. A further problem is that due to climate changes, cities, particularly Palo Alto, are now anticipating that waters, including those in SF Bay, will rise, and by the 2050s, may usurp a lot of the shoreline. So if we all build housing there now, will it be flooded by mid-century?

On the other hand, it’s very important to preserve the Bay and prevent it from reckless filling, because it’s an important microclimate, and it could easily be restored to marshlands.

This shouldn’t be an either (housing) - or - (save the Bay) decision. I, for one, don’t have enough of the facts or the costs. But I do remember back in the early 1980s in Palo Alto, there was a move to turn the Elizabeth Gamble House on the corner of Waverley and Embarcadero into an affordable housing project for lower-income people, rather than turn it into a lovely public garden. I wanted then and now to preserve Gamble Gardens, because it has become such a lovely community treasure.

And if we had built more affordable housing there, we still would have a just-as-intense lack of below-market-rate housing problem here today.

So I guess I come down right now on tilting toward the side of preserving the Bay and forgetting about filling it in. Do you?