The bridge isn’t the only problem with Lennar’s plan

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I’m glad to see the New York Times circle back to the Candlestick-Shipyard development with an article that was a tad more critical than their previous piece.

But while I enjoyed NYT’s joke about how the proposed bridge over the Yosemite Slough “has become a 950-foot-long chicken bone that keeps getting stuck in San Francisco politicians’ throats,"  I’m afraid the Board is in greater danger of choking on the bones of red herrings that they have been fed about this project,  along with last week’s bombshell that the Board won't be able to amend Lennar’s plan, after all, when it votes July 27 on this massive proposal..

D. 10 candidate Tony Kelly says if that bombshell turns out to be true, it’ll be another example of what he calls, “The bait and switch and switch,” on the deal.

“I’m worried that the Board is getting advice that is less about a case of not being able to vote, and more a case of, if you vote, you could open up the city to liability,” Kelly said.

“Back in 2008, folks were told, just vote for Prop. G because it’s just a concept and we’ll have a robust conversation about the plan itself, but they’ve been running away from that promise ever since,” Kelly explained. “And during the EIR hearings, we were told that folks were simply approving the environmental impact report, not the plan itself.”

Kelly’s critiques of Lennar’s plan and the process by which it has been winning final approvals helped him win former Board President Matt Gonzalez’s endorsement last week in the pivotal race to replace termed-out D. 10 Sup. Sophie Maxwell.

But Kelly worries about the fallout that the next D. 10 supervisor will be left to mop up, if the Board goes ahead and approves Lennar’s plan, as is.
 
“What I’d dread to see happen is that this plan get bullied through on an up and down vote, and then a fifth, or even a tenth of people’s concerns prove to be true, and the next D. 10 supervisor spends the next 4-8 years apologizing to the people of the Bayview, because they won’t be able to do anything else for the area, and this plan keeps lumbering along and doesn’t even work,” Kelly explained.

He says he wants to know who can amend the plan, if it’s not the Board and when.

“ My concern is that after the July 27 vote, the city and Lennar will never have to come before the Board again,” Kelly said, pointing to the uncritical endorsement of the project EIR that the Planning and Redevelopment Commissions, the lead agencies on the plan, made June 3, and who would likely be tasked with any additional studies and findings.

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi confirmed today that the Board has been told that it has limited reach because of Redevelopment law, which supercedes municipal law.”
“But, nonetheless, I’m going to try to make some amendments,” Mirkarimi said.

He noted that the five amendments that Board President David Chiu introduced July 12 during a Land Use Committee hearing were “very benign.”

‘They mostly restated what was already in the project agreement or project EIR,” Mirkarimi said. “So, they don’t amend much, because they are statements of what has already been evaluated or pre-agreed to by Lennar and the city. And they are very benign because they do not require any changes to the plan.”

Mirkarimi observes that the current process by which the city is trying to push this deal through is designed to lock the Board out.

“There are larger questions in play here about our relationship with the Redevelopment Agency and redevelopment law,” Mirkarimi continued. He notes that San Francisco is one of only a few counties in California where the Board is not the same entity as the Redevelopment Agency.

“It’s long overdue that we return to the idea of having the Board have authority over the Redevelopment Agency, it's been a problem for 40 years," Mirkarimi said,  referring to Redevelopment’s disastrous handling of the Fillmore, which resulted in the massive and mostly permanent displacement of the Western Addition's African American community—a negative consequence that many fear will be repeated by the plan for Candlestick-Hunters Point.

“There is a real capitalization on a starving population which is desirous of and at times desperate for positive changes and for jobs and housing, which is understandable,” Mirkarimi continued. “But absent of any alternative, it’s logical that this plan would move forward.”

In an effort to improve the plan, Mirkarimi says he will try to introduce a range of amendments at the Board's July 27 meeting.

‘These include an attempt to make sure that whatever changes the Board makes are indeed enforceable,” he said. “And I am not satisfied with the discussion on the bridge, and how the gate has been left open on a bridge of any kind.”

Mirkarimi notes that there has been a lot of fanfare surrounding a community benefits agreement that various community-based organizations, labor and the project proponents entered into, in spring 2008.

“But I think they can do better, especially in reaching out to a community that has a high ex-offender population, and connecting to other disadvantaged communities throughout the city,” Mirkarimi said.

He also wants to ensure that if public power is not implemented, or fails, then Community Choice Aggregation program would automaticcally take over.

Mirkarimi is further concerned that there is nothing in the current plan that defines the percentages of housing units offered for rental and for home ownership.

“We are proposing to build 10,500 units but we have no idea what percentage is rental,” he said, noting that he also has concerns about air quality, air monitoring and parcels of land that have not yet been cleaned up to residential standards.

“Parcel E-2 is the most famous, but it’s not the only one,” he said. “The bridge and Parcel  E-2 have become major distractions in that they have sucked the oxygen out of other areas of these gargantuan project.”

So, is it true that elected officials on the Board can’t amend a plan sent to them by the Redevelopment Agency, whose commissioners are all political appointees of the mayor?

“It’s a yes or no vote, if you will,” a deputy City Attorney told the Guardian, on background, noting that the Board could tell Redevelopment that it doesn’t like the plan and wants the Agency to make some changes and bring it some amendments.

“Ultimately, the Board has the final say, but it has to have gone through the Redevelopment process and its PAC (project area committee) and have seen a plan that has been referred to it by the Planning Commission,” the deputy city attorney continued.“So, they could communicate their dissatisfaction and the agency would have to take their view into account. It’s not that the Board has no authority, but it can’t decide unilaterally.”

The City Attorney’s Office also confirmed that under Redevelopment Law, local jurisdictions can decide how to implement redevelopment plans.

“In a number of jurisdictions, the city council has made itself a Redevelopment entity, just as our Board is also the Transportation Authority in San Francisco,” the deputy said.“And if the same body proposes the plan, it probably will be satisfied.”

The City Attorney’s office noted that if agencies that regulate permits to fill the Bay, as is  required to build a bridge over Yosemite Slough, deny the city those permits, then the city would require amendments to its planning documents, but no further environmental impact review would be required, if the bridge was gone.

With the Board’s July 27 vote around the corner, D. 10 candidate Tony Kelly says he has a bunch of concerns that include, but are not limited to the bridge, starting with the projects financing mechanisms.

Kelly points to the fact that city staff recommended and the Board approved July 13 that “significant blight in the project area cannot be eliminated without the increase in the amount of bonded indebtedness from $221 million to $900 million and the increase in the limitation on the number of dollars to be allocated to the Agency from $881 million to $4.2 billion.”
 

Kelly wants the city to explain to the Board how much tax increment financing money will be left for the Bayview, now that the area’s debt ceiling has been tripled.

“Does this mean that all BVHP property tax revenues for the next 30 years will go towards paying down this debt and nothing else?” Kelly asked. “And what will that mean for the rest of BVHP in terms of service and programs it won’t be able to afford?

Kelly would also like to see the Board request an audit of Lennar’s record on Parcel A. As Kelly points out, the Navy conveyed Parcel to the city in 2004, and the city gave Lennar the green light to develop 1,600 mostly luxury condos on that parcel, in 2006.

“But no one has ever done an audit of Parcel A,” Kelly said. “Given the scrutiny that the Board usually brings to five figure numbers, the supervisors should be demanding this information, since we are dealing with a ten-figure number ($4,220,000,000) in future.”

It would be helpful if the City would also brief the Board as to who it believes will be investing in the project,  including the investment companies’ names,  their board of directors, and whether these companies are based in the US. Rumors are swirling that some project proponents have entered into side-deals that involve limited liability companies that are selling Lennar’s proposed condos to folks in China, and that a $1 million investment in a condo could translate into a work permit for the condo owner or occupant.

Kelly worries that the city and Lennar’s joint redevelopment plan is being allowed to squeak past the Board’s financial review simply on the basis of vague estimates.
“They rely once again on promises that won’t show up,” Kelly said, pointing to a recent report that emerged from the Controller’s Office.

Arc Ecology’s Saul Bloom notes that the Controller used averaged figures in that report, an approach that neatly obscures the fact that many of the project’s alleged and benefits-- will not be created or felt for years. Bloom for his part is hoping the Board can introduce a maritime uses amendment. This would allow relatively unskilled jobs to be created at the shipyard in short order, compared to vague promises of  building a green tech office park there, some day.

Last week, Mayor Gavin Newsom’s top economic advisor Michael Cohen suggested that plan amendments would delay project construction.

But Cohen was quick to add that, “702 acres of waterfront land in San Francisco is an irreplaceable asset. It’s not a question of if—but when—it gets developed.”

Others are less sure that Cohen’s much promoted vision will ever translate into reality.

So, here’s hoping the Board will grill Cohen and city staff over the financial details, including the internal rate of return (IRR) that Lennar is demanding, and what will happen to promised community benefits, if the IRR doesn’t pencil out. D. 10 candidates DeWitt Lacy, Chris Jackson and Tony Kelly have suggested that some form of liquidated damages  are needed, but if the City believes these are unnecessary, it should explain why.

And then there are questions about the impact on air quality of the traffic related to an additional 24,500 residents and 10,000 workers into the city’s southeast.

Personally, I was fascinated by an April 2010 report from the Redevelopment Agency in which the agency discussed the challenges of driving piles through contaminated soil, which is what could happen if a bridge is built over the Yosemite Slough. In the past, the city made the argument that the NFL and the 49ers were requiring this bridge.

But last week, in the wake of Santa Clara’s vote in favor of a new stadium for the 49ers near Great America, the city began arguing that the bridge would make the project more attractive to financers, because employers want to get their employees quickly in and out.

This was the first time I ever heard city staff make that particular argument and they made it when it’s still not clear who these employers even are.

 So, let’s flesh out the list of potential employers, so the Board can determine if design decisions are being made in the interest of the local community or out-of-state businesses.

And then there’s the fact that it appears that this proposed $100 million bridge would only save commuters a few minutes, while permanently filling the San Francisco Bay.

Today, the Sierra Club, the Golden Gate Audobon Society, the California Native Plant Society and San Francisco Tomorrow released a report that asserts that the Candlestick Point-Hunters Point Shipyard EIR “misrepresents the need for a bridge.”

“A statistical review demonstrates that a route around Yosemite Slough could be as efficient as a bridge route while being better for the environment,” stated a letter that the Sierra Club-led environmental coalition released today. “It’s time for the Board of Supervisors to reject the bridge alternative and insist that the feasible upland route around Yosemite Slough be seriously considered.”

The letter argues that a regression model result found in the Transportation Study Appendix F of the Candlestick Point-Hunters Point Phase 11 EIR provides “no statistically significant evidence to support the claim that a 5 minute increase in transit travel time would lead to a 15 percent decrease in transit ridership, or, indeed, to any decrease in ridership.”

“Therefore, routing the BRT around Yosemite Slough is as consistent with a transit-first redevelopment goal as a bridge alternative, but without the environmental damage wrought by the bridge,” the Sierra Club-led report states in summary. “The results of the regression analysis used in the EIR and relied upon to support the bridge alternative have been misinterpreted in such a way that even if they were statistically significant they are off by a factor of ten: the decrease in transit ridership associated with 5 extra minutes of transit time would be predicted to be approximately 1.5 percent, not 15 percent,” it concludes.

“When the analysis [presented in the Sierra Club’s letter] is combined with previous analyses by LSA Associates (which estimate the increase in travel time would be approximately 2 minutes, rather than the 5 minutes in the final EIR) and other available information, one must reach the conclusion that the FEIR misrepresents the effect on travel time and ridership that would result from a route around Yosemite Slough. Overall, it poses further questions about the need for a bridge over San Francisco’s largest wetland restoration project.”

The Sierra Club-led report lands two weeks after Board President David Chiu introduced his July 12 package of amendments which seeks to narrow the bridge, not eliminate it, and require the Board to hold hearings before the Navy transfers Parcel E-2 to the city.

It’s a good idea for the Board to require hearings before E-2 is transferred to the city. But does this mean the Board will be able to direct the Navy, when it’s time to decide whether to cap or excavate the contamination in that parcel? The answer appears to be no. All the Board can do is to reject the Navy’s proposed solution.

But how would this work? What would happen then? And Parcel E-2 isn’t the only parcel on the shipyard where seriously nasty stuff has been found and is still be cleaned up.

The good news is that at this point, the project still doesn’t belong to the Board.

The bad news is that, as of tomorrow, it could belong to them, if the supervisors opt to approve Lennar’s plan with a simple up-down vote. And given the rush and the political pressure that the process has been subjected to since 2006, it’s almost certain that some scandal will engulf the project, some time in the future. And this Board of Supervisors’ names will be on it. Even if nothing ever gets built at the shipyard.

“How can the city say nothing will be built for years, because we have promised so much, when they say out of the other side of their mouth, that the only way that we can make these promises to the community, is if the community supports the plan?” Kelly asks. “On what planet do we think this makes sense? I think we are moving out of the solar system with every passing week.”

There’s no crime in members of the Board admitting tomorrow that they have not read the entire plan and don’t understand all the details. As the folks in Alameda humbly admitted last week, when they kicked out developer SunCal, it took them years to understand what was being proposed—including the fact that the project might leave their city in the hole, financially.

But it would be a crime for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to vote yes on this massive proposal without first having done that homework. Yes, I’ve heard supervisors say in the past they are deferring to Sup. Maxwell, since the project lies in her district. But Maxwell is termed out, and the project will impact all of the city, especially in terms of its ethnic and economic diversity, in future. So, as we've said, buyer beware!