August 30, 2015

Don’t darken S.F.’s waterfront parks

Photo courtesy Thomas Hawk on Flickr Creative Commons.

Rincon Park with “Cupid’s Span” by Claes Oldenburg & Coosje van Bruggen. Photo courtesy Thomas Hawk on Flickr Creative Commons.

San Francisco’s unique and historic waterfront is an immensely valuable part of the city’s character, beauty, and economic vitality. Public parks such as Rincon Park on San Francisco’s waterfront — home to the giant bow and arrow sculpture — offer space for recreation and relaxation that is free and open to all residents and visitors.

However, two new proposed luxury towers would put users of waterfront parks in the dark if City officials approve the developers’ requests for increases to the legal building height limits later this year.

The Tishman-Speyer Corporation is seeking a 100 foot-increase to the existing height limits to build a 400-foot condo tower at 160 Folsom Street, a block from the waterfront. Nearby, the Paramount Group is seeking a 92-foot height-limit increase to build a 292-foot condo tower at 75 Howard Street facing the Embarcadero. Both developers have announced their intention to seek approval of their height-limit increases this year and have engaged powerful lobbying firms who have been busy meeting with Supervisors and city officials to work out deals.

Both of these height-increase proposals are significantly greater than either the 8 Washington condo project — which San Francisco voters rejected in November 2013 — or the abandoned Golden State Warriors stadium on Piers 30-32. Each would create the overwhelming effect of a wall on the waterfront that would overwhelm the Embarcadero and diminish the pedestrian experience — just as the old double-decker Embarcadero Freeway did for decades until it was finally removed.

The San Francisco Planning Department’s draft environmental review of the 75 Howard project found that a luxury tower in that location at the proposed height would have a significant detrimental impact on users of Rincon Park. It would dramatically increase the shadows cast on the park and significantly eliminate sunlight on most days throughout the year. The study concluded that the height-limit increase would “adversely affect the enjoyment and use of the park.” The proposal for 160 Folsom has not yet undergone official environmental review, but studies are expected to show similar harmful shadow impacts on park users.

In 1984, San Francisco voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition K, the “Sunlight Ordinance,” to protect the City’s public parks from degradation by new shadows cast by large developments. Prop. K blocks construction of any building over 40 feet that casts an adverse shadow on a San Francisco public park unless the new shadow is found to be “insignificant.” Clearly, the shadows cast by these new developments would not be insignificant. However, a loophole in the law exempts parks from Sunlight Ordinance protection if they do not fall under the jurisdiction of the Recreation and Park Department. Rincon Park — along with every other one of San Francisco’s waterfront parks — currently fall under the jurisdiction of the Port of San Francisco.

Concerned by this loophole, neighborhood organizations and citizen groups have begun working together to protect the waterfront in an effort called “Save Rincon Park.”

In April, the Bay Chapter’s San Francisco Group unanimously adopted a resolution opposing height-limit increases for the 75 Howard and 160 Folsom luxury tower projects and encouraging the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors to reject them. The Sierra Club further supports limiting parking at these developments to .5 parking spaces per unit and requiring the developers to mitigate for impacts on public transit by contributing meaningful funds to the City’s public transit system.

WhatYouCanDo

Sierra Club members in San Francisco are urged to contact Supervisor Jane Kim, who represents the District that includes these proposed development projects. Urge her to stand up for parks and our waterfront by rejecting these height-limit-increase proposals.

Supervisor Jane Kim
Jane.Kim@sfgov.org
1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place
City Hall, Room 244
San Francisco, CA 94102-4689
(415) 554-7970

— Dave Osgood, Rincon Point Neighbors Association

Proposed cemetery outside San Ramon a dead end for wildlife, water security

The cemetery would be about 2,300 feet away from existing homes and lie right next to future protected open space to the north and the Hidden Valley Open Space area and Tassajara Ridge Trail to the west.

The cemetery would be about 2,300 feet away from existing homes and lie right next to future protected open space to the north and the Hidden Valley Open Space area and Tassajara Ridge Trail to the west.

A local land speculator has proposed a massive 100,000-grave commercial cemetery in Tassajara Valley. The Creekside Memorial Park Cemetery would lie outside the Urban Limit Line to the east of San Ramon. This is not some quaint churchside cemetery; the project would involve moving millions of cubic feet of earth, tearing down a significant ridgeline, and building a road that would bisect the property. This disruptive construction would take place adjacent to the Tassajara Ridge Trail, the Hidden Valley Open Space, and other land proposed for open-space designation. A 100,000-square-foot mausoleum would be built at the top of the property, ruining the visual and pastoral nature of the surrounding open space and marring ridgeline vistas.

Not a drop to drink

Because the project lies outside the Urban Limit Line, water cannot be piped to the site. In order to meet advertised claims of a “lush garden environment” — with many thousands of new plantings and acres of turf — the would-be developer intends to drill wells and pump groundwater. This despite the fact that local ranchers and residents have had to truck in water for a number of years because their own wells are running dry.

The applicant’s own hydrology studies have shown that there is less than half of the needed groundwater under the existing site. The project’s draft environmental impact report concluded that the high level of water draw by the proposed cemetery is likely to affect the quality and quantity of the water in the wells used by neighboring residents. The unsustainable water use would also cause “significant and unavoidable” environmental impacts, even after mitigation.

Threatened species

The proposed grading of 77 acres would destroy a wildlife habitat and migration corridor used by dozens of special-status species found at the site. These plant and animal species include the California red-legged frog, the California tiger salamander, the Golden eagle, the Western burrowing owl, Congdon’s tarplant, and San Joaquin spearscale.

Difficult traffic conditions

The proposed project would worsen already-difficult driving conditions on the narrow-shouldered, two-lane Camino Tassajara. Because funeral processions have the right-of-way, traffic would be blocked for ten or fifteen minutes at a time while vehicles perform a left turn into the property. Bicycling in the area would also become more problematic.

Official opposition

In a sign of the changing times in our area, the City of San Ramon — once the lead governmental body promoting the cemetery — is now on record as being opposed to it. Unfortunately, City opposition won’t be enough to stop the project, which is located in an unincorporated area and is thus under the jurisdiction of the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors.

San Ramon’s elected officials and residents alike want to preserve the rural nature of the Tassajara Valley. Thousands of local residents have shown up at public meetings, gone on hikes led by ranchers on horseback to view the project area, and met with County officials to oppose this project. The grassroots opposition cites the environmental and logistical reasons listed above, as well as concerns about cultural issues and property values.

Bad business

In order to comply with state law, the project must be financially viable. But based on expected population growth, death rates, and the increasing popularity of cremation, the existing cemeteries in the Tri-Valley area have more than enough space to handle anticipated need.

This type of project leads to development pressure and more land speculation. It is completely at odds with the agricultural and open-space nature of the rest of the Tassajara Valley.

WhatYouCanDo

To register your opposition, contact the State Cemetery Bureau at emailcfb@dca.ca.gov.

If you live in Contra Costa County, contact your Supervisor. The project is in Supervisor Mary Piepho’s district, so comments from her constituents will be particularly valuable.

If you live in one of the surrounding communities, ask your elected officials to follow San Ramon’s example and oppose the project.

— Philip G. O’Loane serves on the San Ramon City Council

Better data will support S.F.’s affordable housing goals

See more at http://www.sustainablecommunitiesindex.org/city_indicators/view/77.

See more at http://www.sustainablecommunitiesindex.org/city_indicators/view/77.

The Sierra Club supports San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim’s “City Housing Balance Monitoring and Reporting Ordinance,” which was signed into law this spring.

Loss of affordable housing in San Francisco forces people to move out of the city, commute longer to their jobs, and contribute to sprawl development. A 2014 study by TransForm showed that low-income households displaced to the suburbs more than double their vehicle miles traveled, and that the replacement of these households by high-income households in dense, transit-rich city neighborhoods results in a net increase in emissions.

The Housing Balance ordinance sets up a system to monitor the progress toward affordable housing goals set forth in the General Plan for San Francisco, as well as toward the shorter-term affordable housing goals found in November 2014’s Proposition K, which the Sierra Club also endorsed. It achieves this by amending the Planning Code to:

  • Require the Planning Department to monitor the balance between new market-rate housing and new affordable housing (defined as being affordable to households making 0 to 120% of area median income).
  • Require the Planning Department to provide a bi-annual Housing Balance Report to the Board of Supervisors, including the proportion of new affordable housing compared to all housing built in San Francisco. The loss of existing rent-controlled housing units must also be taken into account in calculating the net housing balance.
  • Require an annual hearing at the Board of Supervisors on strategies and funding for achieving and maintaining affordable-housing balance goals.

Supervisor Kim and housing advocates stressed that current housing production data is not particularly easy to access or use. The monitoring and reporting requirements in the ordinance will provide needed data for planners, decision-makers, advocates, and the general public to make informed, environmentally sustainable decisions regarding housing and other development.

The first Housing Balance Report is due June 1, 2015.

Karen Babbitt

Warm Springs community development: an opportunity for true sustainability

Warm Springs BART station under construction in background; development with 2,200+ houses planned for area in foreground.

Warm Springs BART station under construction in background; development with 2,200+ houses planned for area in foreground.

At 879 acres, the site of the Warm Springs Priority Development Area (PDA) is one of Fremont’s last large undeveloped areas. PDAs are areas targeted for high-density infill development alongside public transit. The Warm Springs PDA is being built from the ground up, providing a unique opportunity to create a model of sustainable development and transportation, if done right.

Three of the Sierra Club’s concerns with the Warm Springs PDA are its lack of truly sustainable housing and businesses, improper and inadequate BART parking, and lack of a networked citywide trail system for bikes and pedestrians.

City leaders need to make the Warm Springs PDA a model of sustainable development, like Malmo, Sweden. Malmo turned an industrial wasteland into a thriving eco-district, setting a world-class example for sustainable living. In Malmo, energy needs are met solely with renewable resources like wind and geothermal; paths for pedestrians and bicyclers have priority; buildings are constructed to be highly energy efficient; and food waste is converted to biogas, which in turn fuels local buses.Why not in Fremont?

At the center of the PDA is the new Warm Springs BART station, scheduled to open later this year. Adjacent to this transit hub will be more than 4,000 housing units. The first development up for approval would include 2,200+ homes on 111 acres including an urban TK-5 school on five acres with a joint-use four-acre urban park (download the master plan for this development). The proposal for this development does not include any alternative-energy infrastructure, just “solar ready” housing. Nor does it provide Class I trails linked to a city-wide system, which would encourage walking and biking and reduce car dependence.

The Warm Springs BART station’s 2,000 parking spaces are planned as a flat parking lot rather than a multi-level structure. Flat parking is counter to the basic concept of a PDA, which provides for increased density and upward development. Acres of potential parkland are being paved for parking. And will 2,000 spaces even be adequate to meet rider demand? The Fremont BART station’s 2,030 flat spaces are woefully inadequate, with cars overflowing into adjacent business districts and neighborhoods on a daily basis.

To achieve the goals of a successful PDA, Fremont must prioritize accessible, integrated public transit, affordable and sustainable housing for families, and benefits for the community like local jobs and job-training programs. We must urge all Bay Area leaders to demand development that promotes truly sustainable communities. Fremont’s Warm Springs PDA should follow Malmo’s example and be the model for other Bay Area PDAs.

Read more about the Warm Springs/South Fremont Community Plan here.

— Jannet Benz

Flammable eucalyptus may stay under FEMA plans for East Bay Hills

Eucalyptus in the Berkeley hills; photo by "jariceiii" on Flickr Creative Commons

Eucalyptus in the Berkeley hills; photo by “jariceiii” on Flickr Creative Commons

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has finally completed its long-awaited environmental review of grant applications for over $5.5 million from the City of Oakland, UC Berkeley, and the East Bay Regional Park District to fund vegetation management in the East Bay Hills. While the Sierra Club supports the vegetation-management approach proposed by Oakland and UC Berkeley, in the case of the Park District, we do not support thinning eucalyptus groves rather than removing the flammable trees altogether—an approach FEMA seems ready to fund in the case of the Park District. The Sierra Club believes that that approach could lead to another 1991 firestorm.

The Sierra Club, Claremont Conservancy, the Golden Gate Audubon Society, SPRAWLDEF, and the California Native Plant Society have all advocated for a land-management approach that over time removes all of the flammable eucalyptus and pine trees so that less-flammable native habitat can reclaim those areas. The approach has other benefits as well: management of native habitat is more cost effective, and restoration of native habitat would provide an opportunity for the return of endangered species like the Alameda whipsnake.

Both the University of California and the City of Oakland proposed fire-management plans that received the support of the environmental community because they met the goals noted above. The East Bay Regional Park District plan, on the other hand, would prevent the restoration of native vegetation like oaks, bay, and laurel, and would be so high-maintenance as to be financially unsustainable. The end result of the Park District’s plan would be thousands of acres of flammable eucalyptus that would pose a significant fire risk.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion calls for the restoration of whipsnake habitat through the removal of the eucalyptus and restoration of native habitat. FEMA, however, appears to be endorsing work that would not be consistent with that opinion. Opponents of the vegetation-management approach endorsed by UC Berkeley, the City of Oakland, the Sierra Club, and many other local environmental groups try to scare people with false claims that this constitutes “clear cutting” and would involve large-scale “spraying” of herbicides. This is just not true.

The Sierra Club and other groups will be monitoring FEMA’s final decision on the grant requests and will make recommendations as to what further actions we should take on this issue. We believe we can have vegetation that is fire safe, promotes restoration of native habitat, and encourages the return of endangered species.

— Norman La Force

Affordable housing policies in San Francisco could reduce sprawl

Low-income housing advocates in San Francisco; photo by  Steve Rhodes via Flickr Creative Commons

Low-income housing advocates in San Francisco; photo by Steve Rhodes via Flickr Creative Commons

The Sierra Club has long opposed habitat-destroying, greenhouse gas-generating sprawl. To fight sprawl, the Club supports policies to raise the minimum wage and make housing more affordable; when people can afford to live near where they work—particularly in transit-rich, walkable, urban areas like San Francisco—there is an aggregate reduction of sprawl and greenhouse-gas emissions. In the past year and a half, the Bay Chapter’s San Francisco Group has embraced legislation to preserve affordable, rent-controlled housing in San Francisco and to slow evictions that force average- to low-income people out of the city and into auto-centric suburbs.

There is good news: Mayor Ed Lee chose not to veto the latest piece of legislation to protect tenants and fight sprawl. The legislation, which was sponsored by Supervisor David Campos, passed by the Board of Supervisors this fall.

That legislation will regulate tenant buyout agreements — transactions in which property owners offer money to tenants in order to induce them to leave. Many buyout offers are preceded by threats to evict tenants using the Ellis Act, a state law that permits landlords to empty buildings and get out of the rental business. Once those buildings are emptied, they are often sold quickly and converted into tenancies-in-common, agreements in which the occupants of the units share the entire mortgage for the building. Property owners prefer not to use the Ellis Act because future conversion of the units into lucrative condominiums is restricted, and because of the public disclosure requirements.

Buyouts have usually involved paying tenants more to leave, but until now there have been no restrictions on their future conversion of property into condominiums; nor have landlords and tenants been required to publicly disclose the transactions. The recently-passed legislation will restrict the condominium conversion of units that have been emptied through buyout agreements and require public disclosure of buyout transactions.

In 2013, the Bay Chapter’s San Francisco Group supported legislation that suspends the condominium conversion lottery for tenancies-in-common for ten years and places further restrictions on those conversions. That legislation passed and is now law. The buyout legislation is yet one more measure to put a damper on speculation in residential real estate that leads to tenant evictions and ultimately sprawl.

The S.F. Group also took a position this year against the demolition of rent-controlled housing in San Francisco for the same environmental reasons it supported the buyout and tenancy-in-common condo conversion legislation. Days before Thanksgiving, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors heard an appeal of conditional use permit to demolish a small, Richmond District house with two rent-controlled units. The supervisors unanimously upheld that appeal and saved the two units. A San Francisco city planner later said that their decision was precedent setting. The S.F. Group did not take a position on the particular appeal in question, but we are very pleased with the supervisors for protecting two sound units of rent-controlled housing.

Because of state law, no residences built after 1978 can be subjected to rent control.  According to official San Francisco performance measure reports, between the 2007-2008 and 2012-2013 fiscal years, San Francisco lost 4,032 rent-controlled units to condominium conversion or demolition — dropping from 175,337 to 171,305 rent-controlled units. Only 2,507 units of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income San Franciscans were constructed during those years. These troubling figures demonstrate why the Club’s support for affordable housing and tenant rights is critical.

—Sue Vaughan

East Bay wins major open-space victories in the 2014 elections

10295384_760409887357464_664081245092806404_oEnemies of suburban sprawl scored major victories for open space on Election Day, defeating two developer-backed initiatives in Southern Alameda County in what the Contra Costa Times called “a defining moment for slow growth advocates.” Here’s more on the two open-space victories:

Dublin voters reject Measure T by 4:1; protect Doolan Canyon from development

In a stunning endorsement of open space protection, 84% of voters in Dublin (in eastern Alameda County) rejected a developer-sponsored initiative to break their new urban growth boundary and authorize urban sprawl in rural Doolan Canyon without further voter approval (see “Fate of Doolan Canyon hangs on competing ballot initiatives” in the Aug-Sept 2014 Yodeler, http://theyodeler.org/?s=doolan). Developer Pacific Union Land Company had spent over $160,000 to place Measure T on the ballot but failed miserably to find public support.

Earlier in the year, a coalition of local residents and environmental organizations including the Sierra Club wrote and qualified an open-space initiative to enact an urban-growth boundary on Dublin’s east side. In June, the City Council unanimously adopted the initiative, thereby thwarting Pacific Union’s strategy of running a confusion campaign with two similar-sounding land-use measures on the November ballot.

Measure T, formally titled the Let Dublin Decide Initiative, was billed as a way for Dublin to exert local control over unincorporated Doolan Canyon and prevent nearby Livermore from annexing and developing the area. But voters saw through that ploy. Measure T would have expanded Dublin’s new growth boundary by 2 ½ square miles, over the exact same area where Pacific Union had previously proposed a 1,990-unit housing development.

Doolan Canyon is a rural valley of rolling hills and grasslands now used for ranching, a dozen rural homesteads, and an equestrian center. It is habitat for numerous rare and special status species including the California red-legged frog, California tiger salamander, Golden eagle, Western burrowing owl, Congdon’s tarplant, and more.

With the overwhelming margin by which Dublin voters defended their urban-growth boundary, and with voter-approved urban-growth boundaries in place around Livermore, Pleasanton, and Alameda County, developers will think long and hard before proposing new sprawl developments in Alameda County’s Tri-Valley area.

Measure KK defeated in Union City

With the endorsement of the Sierra Club and other state and local environmental organizations, the Save Our Hills Committee in Union City earned a smashing victory on November 4 with the defeat of Measure KK, the Flatlands Development Initiative. The measure was soundly defeated, with voters casting 5,296 (65.14%) “no” votes to a meager 2,834 (34.68%) “yes” votes. This victory ensures that the 63 acres of flatlands to the northeast of Mission Blvd. and the undeveloped hills to the east of the flatlands will remain as open space.

In 1996, the Sierra Club-endorsed Measure II—which codified the Union City Hillside Area Plan and protected 6,100 acres of open space—passed with approximately 65% of the vote. That measure required that any changes to the Plan would have to go before the voters; Measure KK was the first attack on the 53 policies in Measure II.

The proponents of the Flatlands Development Initiative (the Masonic Homes of California) spent about $610,000 in their failed campaign. A major theme of their misleading messaging was a ruse to “Protect the Hills.” This disingenuous slogan was designed to get voters to cast a “yes” vote. The Save Our Hills Committee’s message was to “Save Our Hills.” Given the likelihood that many voters may in fact have been confused as to what a “yes” vote meant, the percentage of voters who do not want new development on the Union City hills and flatlands is probably even higher than the 65% who correctly cast a vote for open space.

——Dick Schneider and Bob Garfinkle

Sierra Club files suit to protect California coast

marin

Marin coastline; Photo by Louis Nuyens.

In 1976, the California Legislature enacted the Coastal Act, which created a mandate for coastal counties to manage the conservation and development of coastal resources through a comprehensive planning and regulatory program called the Local Coastal Program. New action in Marin County threatens to weaken these coastal protections, but the Sierra Club is fighting back.

Last month the Club filed legal action to challenge a dangerous amendment to Marin’s Local Coastal Plan. The amendment was submitted by Marin County and approved by the Coastal Commission in May. If allowed to stand, Marin’s amended Coastal Plan would substantially weaken environmental protections and set a precedent for poor process and lack of environmental review along the entire California coast. The result would be to open up our coastline to increased development and allowed uses without public process.

The Coastal Commission’s approval of the Local Coastal Plan Amendment ignored five years of repeated warnings from the Sierra Club, other environmental groups, and even its own staff, that the document was in violation of the California Coastal Act. The Coastal Commission’s action could result in less environmental review and protection for coastal areas than in similar areas outside of coastal zones. This would create a confusing and unequal application of land use planning laws.

Marin’s Local Coastal Plan update needs to be more protective of the environment than the original 1981 Plan—not less. The Sierra Club believes that if allowed to stand, the Marin County amendment will set a statewide precedent and result in more inappropriate development and less environmental protection for California’s sensitive coastal areas.

The Bay Chapter’s Marin Group has set up a Marin Coastal Defense Fund to help protect and preserve our spectacular California coastline. For more information or to make a donation, visit the Group website.

—Elena Belsky, Sierra Club Marin Group

Dublin Council votes to protect Doolan Canyon!

Looking south-southeast down Doolan Canyon at the area that Pacific Union Homes wants to develop. Doolan Road is in the middle of the picture. The ridge in the distance is the East Bay Regional Park District's Ohlone Regional Wilderness containing Rose Peak, the highest peak in Alameda County, just 32 feet lower than Mount Diablo. Photo by Dick Schneider.

Looking south-southeast down Doolan Canyon at the area that Pacific Union Homes wants to develop. Doolan Road is in the middle of the picture. The ridge in the distance is the East Bay Regional Park District’s Ohlone Regional Wilderness containing Rose Peak, the highest peak in Alameda County, just 32 feet lower than Mount Diablo. Photo by Dick Schneider.

The Dublin City Council did an extraordinary thing Tuesday night. It unanimously adopted the Dublin Open Space Initiative of 2014, immediately enacting an Urban Limit Line along the eastern city limits to protect Doolan Canyon from urban sprawl (see “Doolan Open Space Initiative submits signatures”.

As icing on the cake, the Council also voted unanimously to oppose the developer’s counter-initiative and agreed to write the ballot argument against that initiative.

We’re talking Dublin here, the third fastest-growing city in the state!

We can bask in the satisfaction of having won an extraordinary victory, oh, for about two days, but we will have to regroup shortly because the developers will certainly run an expensive, distortion-filled campaign in the fall to pass their initiative. If we can’t defeat it, their measure would trump our Open Space Initiative.

Dick Schneider

Don’t sign Union City hills initiative

The Masonic Home in Union City is circulating an initiative petition to remove protection from 63 acres of flatlands in front of its assisted-living facility on Mission Boulevard. The land is currently protected from development by the Union City Hillside Area Plan.

The Plan was approved as Measure II in 1996, with strong Sierra Club support, by 65% of Union City voters. Voters have said loud and clear that we want no visible development in our hillside area. Masonic’s attempt to circumvent the Hillside Plan is an attack on our hillsides and a waste of our time.

The Masons claim that this whole effort is to build a memory-care facility, but the site is laced with Hayward Fault traces that would preclude such a use.

Don’t sign the Masonic petition.