Why are officials seeking to limit public review of the city's biggest development proposal?
Shortly before Thanksgiving, San Francisco city officials announced that the draft environmental impact report for Lennar Corp.'s massive Hunters Point Shipyard-Candlestick Point redevelopment proposal was finally available, and that the public has 45 days until Dec. 28 to read and comment on the 4,400-page document.
Envisioned to include more than 10,000 homes (most of them market-rate condos) spread over 708 acres in southeast San Francisco, the project whose vague outlines city voters affirmed by approving Prop. G in June 2008 is the centerpiece of the city's housing strategy for the next 25 years.
At a Nov. 5 presentation, Michael Cohen, Mayor Gavin Newsom's top economic advisor, told the city's Planning Commission that the DEIR was a "milestone." But critics warn that this milestone could become a millstone around the city's neck if it fails to extend the DEIR review period, as a coalition of environmental groups and a state agency are requesting. Cohen did not return repeated calls for this story.
These groups are concerned that the city of San Francisco, Lennar's partner in this billion-dollar deal, is trying to rush through a controversial project before anyone can review its details. Forty-five days is the minimum required under California Environmental Quality Act guidelines for a project that also needs to be reviewed by state agencies and the groups want the deadline extended to mid-February.
The southeast sector has historically been home to low-income communities of color, and fears are running high that this project will continue the destructive, gentrifying legacy of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, which shares lead agency responsibilities for this project with the Planning Department.
After Redevelopment Agency projects in Western Addition and Yerba Buena displaced much of San Francisco's African American population, there is concern that if this project isn't carefully considered, it could finish the job in the remaining parts of town with significant black populations: Bayview and Hunters Point, which are both in the plan area.
"People would have to read 130-plus pages per day since the DEIR's release to complete it by the first public hearing," said Kristine Enea, who sits on the board of the India Basin Neighborhood Association and is a candidate in the 2010 race to replace termed-out District 10 Sup. Sophie Maxwell.
Downloadable at the Planning Department's Web site, the Shipyard-Candlestick DEIR envisions an influx of 24,465 new residents and the possible building of a new 49ers stadium on a site that is radiologically contaminated, seismically vulnerable, and will undoubtedly be adversely affected by climate change-induced sea level rise.
As such, it requires significant chunks of time to digest and comment on something folks are urged to do at two public hearings in mid-December or in writing by Dec. 28.
"The timeline is incredibly short," Arc Ecology's executive director Saul Bloom told us. So a coalition that includes Bloom, Enea, Arc Ecology, the Urban Strategies Council, the Sierra Club, the California Native Plant Society, and the Potrero Hill Democratic Club is urging Mayor Gavin Newsom to extend the DEIR public review period to 90 days.
"We believe that a public review period totaling 90 days ending on Feb. 12, 2010 is necessary and of appropriate length for the public and our organizations to review, discuss, and comment on this complicated tome," the coalition wrote in a Dec. 7 letter.
Also seeking a time extension is the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), a state agency charged with reviewing large projects that may impact the bay, although the agency did sign onto the coalition's letter. BCDC studies project that much of the project area could be inundated with rising water levels caused by global warming.
Technically, the lead agencies have the authority to extend EIR comment periods, but because they are controlled by mayoral appointees, the coalition is appealing to Newsom. The coalition letter notes that the project will nearly double the population of Bayview-Hunters Point, and that the newly released DEIR was nearly two years in the making.
"The city's project staff reasonably took the time to provide what in their opinion is an adequate review of the project," the coalition wrote. "The public similarly deserves 12 weeks to examine and comment on your work."
City officials have been patient with Lennar, recently granting the company a six-month delay in construction of housing at Phase 1 of the development, which sits at Parcel A of the shipyard. As a result, construction for Phase 2 is not expected to start until 2015 and continue until about 2035.
So coalition members say at 45-day delay isn't asking much. The letter makes clear that the coalition isn't opposed to the project or Newsom's administration, but that its members expect "public engagement and transparency in government."
"It is our view that a 45-day public review period for a document as complex and lengthy as the DEIR is simply inadequate under any circumstances," the coalition wrote, adding that the document's release over the Thanksgiving, Christmas, Kwanza, and Hanukkah holidays is "particularly troubling." By contrast, Santa Clara Countyoffered an extended comment period for its DEIR on its proposed new 49ers stadium.
"By releasing a six volume, 4,400 page document a week and a half before Thanksgiving, you have demanded that the public and community based organizations choose between civic duty, prearranged vacation time, and obligations to family and faith," the coalition wrote, noting that the city effectively shortened even this prep time to 25 days by holding public hearings one month after the DEIR's release.
Unlike Prop. G or previous discussion about Phase 1 of the project, the coalition reminded Newsom that an EIR is an administrative decision document, and the DEIR is the part of the approval process where ideas become concrete plans to be approved in a lawful process. "Transparency in government is not just a matter of letting the public see information," the coalition observe in the letter. "The capacity to act on what one sees is critical to transparency and the length of the look has a direct effect on the quality of observation."
Or as Bloom warned the Guardian, the current 45-day review period will likely result in a polarized dialogue. "It will lead to the squeezing out of any of the middle-of-the road perspective from folks who are not opposed to development but think the proposed project could be better," Bloom warned. "And if that happens, no modifications will be possible."
The DEIR will be the subject of two public hearings: Dec. 15 at 4 p.m. in City Hall Room 416 by the Redevelopment Agency and Dec. 17 at 1:30 p.m. in City Hall Room 400 by the Planning Commission.