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Debate over developing Redwood City’s Saltworks continues, Peninsula seeks more housing

By Alexandra Wexler | 4 Mar 2011

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Today, the Saltworks site sits undeveloped. Some would like to return it to marshland, while others want to build housing. (Photo: Alexandra Wexler)

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It’s no small task to tease out the facts from the propaganda both sides have been slinging in the heated battle over the proposed Saltworks Project housing development in Redwood City.  For almost five years now, the developer, DMB Associates, and environmental groups such as Save the Bay, have been locking horns over a 1,430-acre industrial salt-producing site on the edge of the San Francisco Bay in Redwood City.

DMB wants to build 12,000 high-density homes, three schools, sports fields and parks on the site while also restoring approximately 400 acres of wetlands.  Save the Bay, on the other hand, is campaigning for the complete restoration of the site to wetlands, citing the importance of bay wetlands to the health of the San Francisco Bay.

“Our mission is to protect and restore the San Francisco Bay, and restore 100,000 acres of wetlands,” explained Josh Sonnenfeld, a campaign manager for Save the Bay.  “So these salt ponds in Redwood City are a key component of reaching those 100,000 acres.  It is absolutely integral to our work and to the health of the bay that we can restore these wetlands.”

However, the land is owned by Cargill, the largest privately held company in the United States, and Cargill doesn’t want to return the site to wetlands.

In fact, “Cargill offered the land for sale to the public,” said Will Travis, the executive director of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which has regulatory responsibility over development in the bay and along the bay’s nine-county shoreline.  “The public didn’t buy it.”

Travis is referring to Cargill’s sale of about 16,800 acres of salt ponds for restoration as bay wetlands in 2003.  Originally, the Saltworks site was also included in the lands Cargill was offering for sale to the public, Travis explained.

“Cargill asked $300 million for all the properties,” he said.  “They ended up taking the Saltworks site out of it, and reduced the price to $100 million.  So, the price tag of $200 million for Saltworks was based on Cargill’s expectation that they could develop the property.”

Travis added that the Commission plans to evaluate the project’s degree of infill and mixed use, its proximity to transportation and jobs, as well as its restoration potential when making its decision about whether to rezone the site.  “We’ll also look at whether there’s maximum public access and maximum open water area,” he said.

Wetlands are critical for cleaning the water to create a healthy environment for the life in the bay waters, explained Cynthia Denny, an active member of the Loma Prieta Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Although both sides admit that restoring the site to bay wetlands would be good for the environment, the developer maintains that the community would benefit more from the proposed housing because it will provide much needed homes for the Peninsula’s workforce.  It’s also no secret that both the landowner and developer stand to profit hugely if the development goes through.

“It could be a great project if it were not located where it’s located,” said Mike Ferreira, who is on the executive committee of the local Loma Prieta Chapter of the Sierra Club.  Ferreira’s opinion is one of the most commonly encountered when speaking with informed citizens in the area.

“Where it’s located is an area that could be restored, as many other similar areas are now being restored around the bay,” Ferreira added.  “It would be a shame to give that opportunity up.”

Another major point of contention over the proposed development has to do with the extreme housing deficit on the Peninsula.  The Saltworks project, though approximately 20 years from completion (due to the multi-year approval process for plans and permits as well as the sheer size of the development), could help rectify the housing imbalance by putting homes where the jobs are.

“I can certainly understand that perspective that the bay was once much, much larger, and if we have the chance to return land to the bay, we should take all the opportunities,” said Marc Manuel, the chair of the Housing and Human Concerns Committee in Redwood City, which consists of  seven voting members appointed by the City Council.  “But, the benefits of putting stuff in half of the area of the salt flats would far outweigh the benefits of returning it to marshland.”

Manuel’s opinion is the other view that has saturated the local community.

“Hopefully the benefit of the development would be to the employers and people with jobs in Redwood City,” said Craig Robinson, also a member of the Housing and Human Concerns Committee.  “I hope the benefits will be access to parks and recreational facilities and access to the waterfront.”

DMB is calling the development “urbanized infill,” which means that the Saltworks Project will be built in an area that’s already surrounded by urbanization and has public services, according to David Smith, a DMB vice president.

State Assemblyman Roger Dickinson referred to these types of developments as the “new urbanist movement.“

“I think it is an effort to create neighborhoods and communities where its easy to walk, where transit can operate effectively, where you have things such as schools and parks in easy reach of people, where you take advantage of good design in development to increase density, but create a livable and desirable environment,” he said.

Potential benefits Redwood City residents could have include public access to new sports fields and public parks, public access to the waterfront, and more than 400 acres of restored bay wetlands funded by DMB.

Smith added that the project and plans were designed by several of the world’s most renowned planners.  “As designed I don’t think you could credibly say its not smart growth,” he asserted.

In fact, smart growth, and how it is interpreted, does seem to be the crux of the issue surrounding the development.

“Smart growth would be development that enables communities to meet their current needs for housing and municipal services, and doesn’t endanger future environmental sustainability and the ability of future generations to live healthy productive lives,” explained Michael Kahan, associate director of the Program on Urban Studies at Stanford University.

Kahan added that if developments like the Saltworks Project are planned and carried out well, they can actually pay for themselves, rather than be a burden or strain on public services or the finances of the rest of the community.

And on the flipside, “If we don’t succeed in promoting smart growth, the public cost of serving neighborhoods, of building and sustaining schools, all those costs are going to continue to rise,” Dickinson said.

Manuel, chair of the Housing and Human Concerns Committee, added that he thinks the Saltworks is in fact a smart growth development, saying, “It is smart because of where it’s located — near jobs.”

Save the Bay has said that if it comes down to developing the site and gaining about 400 acres of bay wetlands, or leaving it as an industrial producing salt facility, they’d prefer the latter.

“If Cargill says they want to keep making salt, that’d be great,” Sonnenfeld said.  “The salt ponds currently are a really important habitat for migrating birds.  They’re a critical place for bird life in the San Francisco Bay.”  In addition, Sonnenfeld noted that the possibility for future restoration of the full site would remain.

“I feel like it’s really important for us regionally to understand that there are places to build and places not to build,” he said.  “We don’t need to build on the San Francisco Bay in order to meet our housing goals.”

However, as Travis put it, “We as a region have not been providing nearly enough housing near jobs.”

This leads to an essential but contentious question — In an increasingly populated and developed area like the Peninsula, where should the smart growth go?

Correction: Cynthia Denny was incorrectly identified as a member of Redwood City’s Housing and Human Concerns Committee in an earlier version of this article.  In addition, the Housing and Human Concerns Committee is made up of seven members appointed by the City Council, not nine, as was also noted in an earlier version.

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