Cargill, Inc., a +$100-billion -dollar company, has operated a salt-pond facility in Redwood City since around 1901. The company is now working with DMB, a development firm, on a proposal for a mixed-use development project at the site of the Cargill salt ponds. The project was recently described by John Bruno, a representative from DMB who discussed the proposal on KQED’s Forum radio program on Tuesday, as a new paradigm in development, with a project for the public good funded by private dollars.
The Cargill site in Redwood City is 1,433 acres, or 2.2 square miles, about the size of the Presidio in San Francisco. The Saltworks project, according to the DMB website, is built on a 50/50 plan, developed with feedback from 10,000 Redwood City residents. 50% of the site would be preserved for permanent open space, public recreation, and tidal marsh restoration. The remaining 50% is slated for housing, schools, parks, neighborhood retail, transit, and “Bay Access”, which includes “interpretive exhibits and water recreation amenities”. Bruno asserts that new housing is desperately needed in Redwood City to serve the many commuters who work at Peninsula tech companies. Adequate housing stock does not exist in Redwood City, and the Saltworks project strives to meet that need. According to Bruno, the project will also have affordable housing units, 15% of the total.
All in all, the development proposal sounds pretty good, right? Stephen Knight of Save the Bay, who represented the opposing viewpoint on Tuesday’s Forum program, doesn’t think so. Save the Bay opposes any and all new development on San Francisco Bay. Thus, the organization is opposing the Saltworks project, without qualification and even before the project has gone up for the mandatory environment impact review.
DMB, an Arizona-based developer with existing and future projects in California, Hawaii, and Utah, takes great issue with Save the Bay’s stance. According to its website, DMB prides itself in sustainable development and is even called an “advocate for conservation” by Arizona city planners. Photos of DMB’s projects reveal tasteful, pleasing architecture and designs that are harmonious with their natural surroundings. A closer look, however, reveals that DMB’s proclaimed commitment to environmental sensitivity has some flaws. Many of their projects are built around golf courses, perhaps the single most egregious demonstration of poor land use and environmental degradation imaginable (think about all of the water and pesticides needed to keep those courses green to serve a costly and exclusive sport). Most of their existing and future project descriptions include terms such as “amenity-rich” and “luxury”, which also throws doubt on their stated commitment to provide affordable housing in Redwood City. And all projects, without exception, appear to be focused on developing extensive real estate projects in previously undeveloped natural areas, from unspoiled coastal land to pristine mountainous areas.
DMB claims they are trying to provide what Redwood City residents want, but their much-hyped community involvement process includes feedback from only 13.3% of the population. They say that because Cargill has been producing salt on the site since 1901, the Saltworks land is an industrial site and cannot be considered wetlands, and therefore is not subject to federal regulations. Yet their own literature says that they will restore tidal marsh as part of the project, which strongly implies that, pre-1901, the area was, in fact, tidal marsh.
A casual observation of the area on Google Earth reveals that there are a number of sloughs running through or around the property (a slough is defined by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as “a creek in a marsh or tide flat”). Shown on the area map are Westpoint Slough, First Slough, Ravenswood Slough, Smith Slough. Sure does look and sound like wetlands to me.
Furthermore, what corporations like DMB don’t want people to even contemplate is that there is an alternative to development, even so-called sustainable, eco-minded development. On their website, DMB states, with an almost desperate tone, that the “ONLY alternative” to their development plan is continued operation of the Cargill salt ponds. That puts residents between rock salt and a hard place. However, what Save the Bay would like residents to envision is a different scenario altogether: restoring 100% of the Cargill land to natural habitat (tidal wetlands), for wildlife habitat and the benefit of the public.
Last month, I visited Coyote Hills park in the East Bay Regional Park district. Coyote Hills is very close to the eastern shore of the Dumbarton Bridge. Parts of the park were formerly used as a NIKE missile site and a rock quarry, the rusted remnants of which you can still see on the marvelously scenic Bayview Trail. The park encompasses 978 acres of restored marsh and grasslands for recreational and educational use and wildlife habitat. And it is simply spectacular. On my recent visit, the hills were verdant with winter rains, the grasslands blooming with golden mustard plants. My walking companion and I spotted no less than four red-tailed hawks soaring and swooping in circles over our heads. It was a cool but sunny winter’s day. The park was full of children riding bicycles along the gentle paved trails and cyclists, walkers, and joggers enjoying a break from the rain. It was one of those experiences that make me so grateful to live in the Bay Area, where a day spent walking in the sunshine in a local park is treasured and valued by so many fellow citizens, where “luxury” is defined as the ability to enjoy nature while living in a populated metropolitan area, and one of the most valued “amenities” in life is access to well-maintained parks and natural areas around the Bay, many with visitor’s centers stocked with useful exhibits and helpful docents. No monetary value can be placed on what natural areas like Coyote Hills offer to the public.
One can only imagine what would have happened if development had been allowed on this land instead of allowing it to be preserved as a natural habitat and park. Compare the green area around the eastern shore north of the Dumbarton Bridge, where Coyote Hills and the Eden Ecological Reserve are located—land formerly owned by Cargill, by the way—to the western shore. Which would you rather have encircling your San Francisco Bay?
In this clever and provocative video from the Golden Gate National Parks conservancy, we get a view of the rolling Marin Headlands in all the emerald splendor of springtime. Then, a time-lapse simulation shows what the area would look like if those bucolic hills had been developed. The effect is shocking. My response to it was to shed tears of utter gratitude and relief that the imagined travesty never occurred.
DMB asks the people of Redwood City to accept a project whose total acreage includes 50% of restored wetlands. I ask you to envision a project where 100% of the total acreage is restored wetland. I ask you to envision a park like Coyote Hills, an area with biking and hiking trails, wetlands with pedestrian access for educational programs, and open land, air, and space to breathe and remember what the Bay is and represents: not merely an opportunity for shoreline development, but a haven for wild and human life. DMB does appear to be a more conscientious developer than many out there. However, the San Francisco Bay Area, already overdeveloped, needs to be protected as fervently as possible at this point in its history. So I ask you not to believe in the false premise that the Saltworks project represents housing and jobs and commercial development existing hand-in-hand with environmental protection. The real choice is this: allow development on the Bay, or protect the Bay.
For thousands of years, the San Francisco Bay watershed, the largest watershed on the west coast of the Americas, provided a natural habitat for wildlife and humans. The Bay was the meeting place for rivers and countless streams and creeks that once flowed in the open air down the hills of the Bay Area and beyond. For the past 150 years, marvelous feats of engineering have advanced human progress, industry, and commerce. The dams, bridges, mining, and residential and commercial development also have practically destroyed the Bay, its rivers and estuaries, and the delta.
Fifty years ago, we humans recognized that we had done enough. We acknowledged that enough destruction around this Bay had occurred, and that the cost of all this fabulous, unfettered development was too high. We halted all development in the San Francisco Bay, in order to protect what little of the Bay remains. John Bruno accused Save the Bay of being hard-headed, of not being willing to discuss the matter, of saying only no, no, no. Mr. Bruno, for over 100 years, we have said yes to everything: to strip mining whose runoff of mercury and other toxins continues to pollute the Bay today, so that even eating fish from the Bay is dangerous to our health; to filling in wetlands to provide additional land for housing and industry; to containing streams and creeks in culverts to make land more buildable. What Save the Bay, the Sierra Club, and other organizations are trying so hard to make you understand is that we have almost nothing left. That is why they, and we, must work so fiercely and resolutely to protect the San Francisco Bay. We’ve said yes to destroying the Bay for hundreds of years. It’s time, finally, to say no.