Board accepts EIR, but vows to amend Candlestick-Shipyard plan

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Text by Sarah Phelan, images by Luke Thomas

At the end of a ten-hour hearing to appeal the final environmental impact report  for the city and Lennar’s massive Candlestick-Shipyard redevelopment project, the Board voted 8-3 to accept the FEIR, with only Sups. John Avalos, Chris Daly and Eric Mar voting to reverse certification of what they said was a flawed document.

But the vote does not mean the Board has voted to accept the city and the developer’s final redevelopment plan. That plan will come before the Board on July 27, and the supervisors are expected to introduce a slew of amendments, in addition to  five amendments that Board President David Chiu introduced earlier this week.

These amendments are intended to address longstanding concerns about toxins at the shipyard, limited liability on the part of the developer, the questionable need for a bridge over Yosemite Slough, the reality that Bayview residents may be cut out of any upcoming jobs, and the desire to nail down efforts to use public power at the site

“We can’t do the amendments here, we are frozen out, all we can do is an up and down vote on the EIR for now,” Sup. Ross Mirkarimi told the Guardian last night. 
Mirkarimi anticipates that the Board will seek additional mitigations, such as requiring liquidated damages to shore up a community benefits agreement that Labor entered into with Lennar in May 2008.

Mirkarimi said the Board would also seek to increase workforce development benefits.
“Thirty percent of the target workforce population are ex-offenders, so while they might get training, currently they won’t get jobs other than construction,” Mirkarimi observed.

Mirkarimi was proud of the Public Power amendment that Chiu has already lintroduced, pointing to an ordinance that he and then Sup. Gerardo Sandoval introduced and Mayor Gavin Newsom signed into law, in March 2006. This public power ordinance established that “where feasible, the City shall be the electricity provider for new City developments, including military bases and development projects.”

“PG& E was ripped when we pushed that through,” Mirkarimi said.

During yesterday’s marathon hearing, the supervisors grilled city staff on issues that have proved to be key sticking points, as the city seeks to win final project approvals, even though they cannot address these issues with amendments until the July 27 meeting.

The Board questioned the wisdom of moving forward with development on the Shipyard, as the Navy continues to clean up radiological contamination and other toxins at the site, including Parcel E-2, which contains some of the nastiest pollution at the yard.

“Why not just wait until the CERCLA process is completed?” Sup. Campos asked, referring to the fact that the Navy is responsible for shipyard clean up, under CERCLA, which is also known as the Superfund Act.

Campos question came after acclaimed environmental scientist Wilma Subra and national environmental human rights lawyer Monique Harden, challenged the sanity of having the Navy digging out toxins while a developer simultaneously installs infrastructure at the same site.

Subra, who works in Superfund sites throughout the U.S, warned the Board that it’s very common to find contamination at these sites after they have been declared clean.

“So, the number of samples isn’t the magic answer,” Subra said, referring to the city’s constant refrain that the Navy has taken thousands of samples at the site. Subra also warned that it is not uncommon for a contractor to dig into an area that has been capped, thereby potentially exposing workers and the community to contamination and resulting in legal stand-offs, as various parties argue as to who has responsibility to fix the resulting mess.

Harden, who is based in New Orleans but also has an office in D.C., expressed concern over the plan to begin construction on some shipyard parcels, even as the Navy continues to remove radiologically contaminated sewers and other deep infrastructure at the site.
“That’s like a person jumping up and down on a bed that another person is trying to make up,” Harden said

But Michael Cohen, Mayor Gavin Newsom’s chief economic advisor countered that there was no scientific evidence to support Subra or Harden’s concerns.

“It’s a very common situation, especially on brownfields,” Cohen said, (though the Shipyard is a Superfund site that’s been contaminated with radiological waste that was sandblasted off ships returning from a Bikini Atoll atomic testing experiment gone awry.)

“It’s the basis for shipyard artists and the police being on the site for many years,” Cohen continued. “It’s safe based on an extraordinary amount of data.”

But Cohen did agree that language in Chiu’s Parcel E-2 amendment should be changed from “should” to “shall” to indicate that city oversight is a requirement, not a request, when it comes to final decisions over the transfer of this particular parcel.

Mark Ripperda of U.S. EPA assured the Board that his agency is not going to permit transfer of parcels for development until cleanup is completed.
“We are not going to allow any transfer until we are convinced it’s safe,” Ripperda said.

Sup. Eric Mar chastised the EIR for its apparent failure to adequately discuss the impacts of the proposed development on schools in the surrounding area.

“There is less discussion of the impacts on schools than there is of the A-Bomb, which was held at the Shipyard for 1 to 2 days,” Mar said. “The analysis seems very weak.”

And Daly expressed frustration that the Board was being asked to take a decision when it lacked sufficient information about and understanding of the project.

“How do we know it’s safe? ” Daly asked, noting that, “Money talks, bullshit walks.”
(His point resonated as City staff scrambled to find key information within the 7,000 pages of comments and responses in the massive FEIR documents, and Amy Brownell of the city’s Public Health Department rattled off a series of measurements and schedules that few on the Board seemed to understand.)

“The risks are acceptable,” Brownell said. “And the only people allowed on the property [during the development] will be the ones doing the work.”

The Board also challenged the need for a bridge over the environmentally sensitive Yosemite Slough, especially in the wake of the June 2010 election in which Santa Clara voters approved building a new stadium for the 49ers near Great America.

“One reason I’ve been given for [the need for the bridge] is the financial viability of this project,” Campos said.

Cohen replied that if the city does not to build the bridge, “it elevates the financial risk.”

“Parcel C [on the shipyard] has been zoned for green tech, and for major employers, having that direct connectedness to BART and the T-Third is very important.”

Cohen also indicated that, thanks to the project’s huge reliance on tax increment financing, the loss of the bridge would translate into lost property tax revenues.

“Some of the repayment comes from generation of tax increment financing, so the failure to have a bridge here, degrades the potential of property tax revenues, and so you get much less tax increment,” Cohen stated.

The Board also expressed concerned that under the current terms of the deal they are now set to consider July 27, the developer has limited liability—an arrangement that has got supervisors worried that the city, and Bayview residents whose increased property taxes will help pay for the development, could end up on the wrong end of the financial hook.

Campos pointed to the disposition and development agreement (DDA) that the city drew up with Lennar.
“I’m specifically worried about a provision that on the face of it limits the developer’s liability,” Campos said, pointing to language that seems to say that “monetary damages are inappropriate”—conditions that Campos deemed, “Very unusual.

Cohen responded that the deal reflects the reality that, “the Navy, not Lennar is responsible for the cleanup.”
He added that the city retains the legal ability to sue, various remedies and, ultimately, “the right of reverter” (which folks call the “nuclear option” since it involves kicking out the developer, but losing everything in the process.)

“This is an incredibly frontloaded project,  in which we have the ability to terminate the developer at the cost of millions of dollars,” Cohen said.

But while the city and the developer ultimately affirm EIR certification, the decision left the Bayview community deeply divided, with many concerned that the FEIR failed to address their concerns, while others rejoiced, believing that they will benefit from jobs that will be created during the development’s 10-15 year build out and beyond. Only time will tell how it all plays out, but stay tuned as the Board prepares to try and make the plan the best it can in face of all these competing concerns.