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

Environmentalists on one side of the Saltworks development debate want to restore the site to bay wetlands. Others insists the community and environment would benefit more from smart-growth housing.
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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8 Comments

  1. says: Mike Nelson

    Smart growth puts housing within walking distance of well-connected transit. The best this development could hope for would be a feeder bus line to bring transit users to downtown Redwood City, adding to and contending with extreme congestion around US101.

    Smart growth does not exceed locally available resources. Water for this project comes through a convoluted deal involving exchange of water rights with Kern County farmers halfway across California. It worsens the already critical water conservation issues facing Redwood City, which depends entirely on an allotment from the City of San Francisco’s Hetch Hetchy Aquaduct. Redwood City recently spent $72 million to recycle out wastewater for industrial users, and will need to spend more on conservation in the near future.

    Smart growth does not build in a flood zone. As sea level rises, expensive dikes will be required to defend any development built at current sea level. Dikes are already being raised around Redwood Shores, and flooding is endemic in many low lying areas around Redwood City. This will only get worse.

    There is still much low-rise and underutilized property along El Camino Real in Redwood City that could be redeveloped for housing that would be walking distance from existing bus routes and Caltrain, and avoids congested US101 crossings. Some projects have already been completed along “The Grand Boulevard” in Redwood City. More of the same need be built.

    Sincerely,

    Mike Nelson, 25 year resident homeowner in Redwood City

  2. says: August West

    Why anyone would believe Mike Ferreira’s comments about anything is beyond me.

    The guy basically tried to destroy Half Moon Bay during his time spent on the Planning Commission and City Council. He is persona non grata there, as are most of his cronies.

    His only recourse was to spend more time spreading misinformation for the Sierra Club. Seems a perfect fit.

  3. says: Stephen Knight

    Expert urban planners dispute the claim that these former salt ponds offer a potential infill site. “The retired Redwood City salt ponds are not an infill site,” said Peter Bosselmann, an internationally-recognized urban design expert and Professor of Urban Design in Architecture, City & Regional Planning, and Landscape Architecture at the UC Berkeley Institute of Urban and Regional Development. “Restoring the site as a tidal marsh would be to the greatest benefit of the region’s air quality.”

  4. says: Bay Area Developer

    As a long time developer, I am in full support of smart growth to meet the area’s housing needs. But not at the expense of this national jewel called the San Francisco Bay.

    Redwood City is on the right track with their Downtown Plan; it not only accomodates RWC’s Housing Needs Allocation, but also that of some of the surrounding communities as well. A denser downtown around the train station (and potential high speed rail) is where the City should be putting its resources.

    But alas, if only a deep pocketed corporation owned all of downtown. Wouldn’t it be easy then? But should we expect our elected officials to take the easy route? RWC politicians should lead the charge on the downtown plan, not roll over and put it off because of the “ease” of having a single owner on the Saltworks project and all the goodies Cargill offers. RWC certainly doesn’t need to shoulder the burden of both. Which is it going to be?

    And let’s be clear, this is all about CARGILL, not DMB. Cargill, our great corporate citizen from Minnesota, is obviously the one in the driver’s seat on this one. Does the largest private company in the US, that reports $883 million in net income on $27.8 billion in revenue for Q1 2010 really NEED another $100 million after all of the wealth they have mined from the Bay? Quite frankly, they should be required to restore the site after they have concluded their salt mining operation, just as coal strip miners and others are required to restore their mines and quarries. Thank goodness they at least have the sense to use world class help on this travesty of theirs.

    This is a regional matter, not a local matter. Here is an opportunity for RWC to stand up and be a regional leader. If we want waterfront living and Bay access, let’s focus on the uplands areas around Bair Island Road, Blomquist and the inner harbor. Cargill lands should be re-zoned open space and the key should be thrown away. As painful as it is for this developer to say it, I am with Save The Bay and the Sierra Club on this one. BCDC and the Honorable Diane Feinstein need to help reign this one in before it goes any farther, and further resources are flushed down the waterway.

  5. says: August West

    Fine, Bay Area Developer.

    Save the Bay and Sierra Club can pony up lots of cash and buy the development rights. POST maybe? Lots of California and Federal dollars waiting to be spent, right?

    Not.

    You are presumably a capitalist, if you are really a developer. Come up with a better plan than re-zoning and throwing away the key. That kind of infringes on, I don’t know, maybe their private property rights.

    Let’s be clear – you have offered a useless resolution.

  6. says: local architect

    What most people – August West included above- do not realize is that the Saltponds have always been zoned Open Space – Tidal Plain. Cargill bought this open space tract from Leslie Salt for salt making – a permitted use on Open Space zoning.

    Cargill never can build anything on these ponds – unless Redwood City Council changes Redwood City’s General Plan. The US Army Corps of Engineers also has to agree to change their designation of these ponds from “Waters of the United States” to allow anything other than opeb space uses.

    In fact, Cargill has been taking tax breaks under the “Williamson Act”. See description below from the CA State Department of Conservation.

    “The California Land Conservation Act of 1965–commonly referred to as the Williamson Act–enables local governments to enter into contracts with private landowners for the purpose of restricting specific parcels of land to agricultural or related open space use. In return, landowners receive property tax assessments which are much lower than normal because they are based upon farming and open space uses as opposed to full market value. Local governments receive an annual subvention of forgone property tax revenues from the state via the Open Space Subvention Act of 1971”

    Cargill’s “property rights” have always been very clear — agricultural salt-making or any other Open Space uses.

  7. says: Sierra Club Member

    August, your comment about Mike Ferriera is interesting. We have been experiencing his special kind of leadership for the past few years. Why do you think he is responsible for the problems in HMB?

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