Lennar's massive redevelopment plan gets the green light despite unaddressed concerns
Mayor Gavin Newsom was quick to frame the Board of Supervisors' 10-1 vote for Lennar Corp.'s massive redevelopment proposal for Candlestick Point-Hunters Point Shipyard on July 27 as a sign that plans to revitalize the Bayview are about to begin.
"Now we can truly begin the work of transforming an environmental blight into a new center of thousands of permanent and construction jobs, green technology investment, affordable housing, and parks for our city," Newsom claimed in a prepared statement after the board (with Sup. Chris Daly as the lone dissenter) approved Lennar's 700-acre project.
The proposal calls for 10,500 residential units; 320 acres of parks, retail and entertainment facilities, green-tech office space; and a San Francisco 49ers stadium if the team decides not to move to Santa Clara.
But Kofi Bonner, who worked for Mayor Willie Brown before becoming Lennar's top Bay Area executive in 2006, said the vote means he can start shopping the plan around. "Now we have to find some money to move forward with the project," Bonner told the San Francisco Chronicle.
Given the stubbornness of the recession, Bonner's revelation that Lennar has yet to find all the necessary investors means local workers and public housing residents could be waiting a long time for jobs and housing in Bayview. If and when the project finally breaks ground, it will involve building condos in the Bayview's only major park.
These realities undermine the claims of Lennar, which used the mantra of "jobs, housing, and parks" in 2008 to sell Proposition G but made no mention of a bridge over environmentally sensitive Yosemite Slough or selling state parkland for condos.
Also disturbing, says Sierra Club local representative Arthur Feinstein, is the lack of any economic analysis to support Lennar's claims that the bridge is needed.
Indeed, the only thing clear to longtime observers of the plan is that the much vaunted jobs won't happen soon, most of the housing will be unaffordable to current Bayview residents, and Candlestick Point State Recreation Area, the only major open space in the Bayview, will be carved up so Lennar can build luxury condos on waterfront land.
These concerns have led the Sierra Club to threaten a lawsuit over issues on which Board President David Chiu was the swing vote in favor of the Lennar and Redevelopment Agency plan. Yet Chiu told the Guardian that the process got him thinking that it might be time to reform the redevelopment process.
"Now might be a good time to address concerns about the potential for inconsistency between Redevelopment and the city when it comes to land use and planning visions," Chiu said. "And I have concerns about the tax increment financing process." Tax increment financing allows the Redevelopment Agency to keep all property tax increases from the project, up to $4 billion, to use in redevelopment projects rather than into city coffers.
Chiu says the amendment he offered July 12, which narrows Lennar's proposed bridge over Yosemite Slough by half, was based "on the belief that having a connection between jobs and housing is important. And I had understood that it would cost the developer an additional $100 million if the bridge was removed."
But Feinstein counters that it's hard to imagine that building a bridge over an environmentally sensitive slough will attract investors that support green technology. He is concerned that the development is expected to attract 24,465 new residents but that the Lennar plan fails to mitigate for transit-related impacts on air quality. "The Bayview already has the highest rates of asthma and cancer in the city," Feinstein said.
Chiu says the supervisors can introduce separate legislation to address this concern. "It's my understanding that an air quality analysis could be implemented by the board," he said.
Although the board's July 27 vote was a relief for termed-out Sup. Sophie Maxwell, its failure to support the no-bridge alternative, increased affordability standards, and an air quality analysis could result in expensive and time-consuming litigation, Feinstein warns.
And although Sups. Chris Daly, Ross Mirkarimi, David Campos, John Avalos, and Eric Mar supported all three of these amendments, they were ultimately thwarted by a redevelopment law that limits the city's control of such projects.
During the meeting, Daly acknowledged that it would be impossible for Lennar to meet his 50 percent affordability amendment. But he noted that if the project becomes too expensive "there's going to be a pretty new neighborhood with lots of white folks living in the Bayview."
But after Michael Cohen, Newsom's top economic advisor, said the project would not be financially viable with 50 percent affordability, Sups. Chiu, Maxwell, Bevan Dufty, Michela Alioto-Pier, Carmen Chu, and Sean Elsbernd voted against Daly's amendment.
These same six supervisors voted against Mirkarimi's proposal to eliminate plans for a bridge across Yosemite Slough, even though Cohen was unable to point to any economic analysis to support Lennar's claims that the bridge is necessary.
Arc Ecology owner Saul Bloom, whose nonprofit did studies indicating that an alternative route wrapping around the slough is feasible, says Lennar's plan illustrates the problem that San Francisco has with development. "Elected officials couldn't do anything," he said, except give the nod to a plan he describes as "developed by a mayoral administration and approved by that mayor's political appointees [on the Redevelopment Agency board]," Bloom said.
"The message that the environmental community takes away from all this is that it doesn't pay to play well," Bloom continued. "No matter how much you spend to try and ensure that litigation is not the only way to obtain the desired outcome, ultimately the message that comes back from the city and the developer is 'sue us!' That brings out the worst political conduct, not the most appropriate."
Feinstein wouldn't confirm that a Sierra Club lawsuit is imminent, but predicted that if the coalition — which includes Golden Gate Audubon, the California Native Plant Society, and SF Tomorrow — goes to court, it's likely to win. "If we do litigate, we'll probably do it on a wide range of issues," Feinstein said. "They approved a fatally flawed document, and they could provide no documented evidence of the need for a bridge — and admitted that publicly."
Feinstein contends that Lennar's plan has been a runaway project from the get-go. "The idea was to march it through before the mayor is gone with little regard for process. And despite all the much vaunted public meetings, little in the plan has changed," he said.
Feinstein added that he was disappointed in Chiu's stance on the bridge. "There were five supervisors in the Newsom camp, but as board President, Chiu had a responsibility to be more vigilant," he said. "We told him what's wrong with the bridge plan, but he didn't share our view."
"This is a rare opportunity," Maxwell said before the board's final vote. "It focuses public and private investment into an area that has lacked it in the past. It's unmatched by any development project in San Francisco. This project is large and complicated, no doubt. But let us not be fearful of this project because of its scale, because how else can we transform a neglected landscape?"
But project opponents say everyone should fear a deal that required the board to ask Lennar's approval to amend a plan that was pitched by the Newsom administration and approved by a bunch of mayoral appointees on the Redevelopment Commission with little chance for elected officials to make changes.
Mirkarimi said the problem with a process in which redevelopment law trumps municipal law is that it creates a shadow government in those few municipalities in California where the Board of Supervisors or City Council is not the same entity as the Redevelopment Commission.
"This is not the first time Redevelopment's plans have trumped the concerns of local residents," Mirkarimi said, referring to the agency's botched handling of the Fillmore District in the 1960s, which led to massive displacement of African and Japanese Americans.
"I've been told, 'Don't worry, Ross, this is not going to happen, we're not going to use eminent domain.' Well, jeez, that's a consolation, because even when we've exercised our legislative influence and given our blessing, [Redevelopment] unilaterally changed the plan after it left the board," Mirkarimi said, referring to Lennar's decision to replace rental units with for-sale condos when it first began work on the shipyard in 2006. "That suggests a condescending role in which the developer is able to go to the Redevelopment Commission and make a unilateral change."
Mirkarimi's concerns seemed justified after Cohen, Bonner, and Redevelopment Director Fred Blackwell huddled in a corner of City Hall during the board's July 27 meeting to decide which of the supervisors' slew of amendments they would accept. When Cohen returned with the amendments organized into three categories (acceptable as written, to be modified, and completely unacceptable), Mirkarimi's no-bridge amendment had been sorted into the "unacceptable" pile.
"With regard to your insistence on the economic reasons [for the bridge], please point to which document says that," Mirkarimi said, leafing in vain through the project materials.
Cohen mentioned "a lessening of attractiveness," "a lower-density product," and a reduction of revenue available through tax increment financing to pay for the bridge.
"Yes, but I'm still trying to look for the information and all I'm hearing is this pitch," Mirkarimi said. "The economic study is absent. There are no supporting documents here. This is why I feel it's justified for us to have a review of this."
Cohen rambled on about "rigorous public discussion over a number of years" and claimed that a "huge amount of studies had been done."
"But there is no economic study," Mirkarimi repeated.
The board then voted 6-5 against Mirkarimi's amendment after deputy City Attorney Charles Sullivan said that the only way to remove the bridge — since the project's environmental impact report had rejected that option — would be to reject the entire plan. "I wish we had been able to eliminate the bridge," Campos told the Guardian after the vote. "Part of the challenge we have is to reexamine how Redevelopment works and explore the potential for taking it over."
Daly believes the bridge has nothing to do with connecting the neighborhood to the city. "The idea is to allow white people to get the fuck out of the neighborhood," he said. "And it connects a different class of people to a new job without having to go through a low-income community of color. That's why the bridge is needed."
Mirkarimi said he was satisfied that he had dissected the arguments against the no-bridge alternative but fears that institutional memory is lacking on the current board. "A lot of my colleagues have not been involved in the debacle," he said, referring to decades of problems with redevelopment in San Francisco. But Maxwell was all smiles. "I did my homework a long time ago — that's why they couldn't touch the core of the project," she said. "They just added to and augmented it."