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Redwood City salt ponds not the right place for massive development

The Redwood City Council will likely approve a contract Monday for an environmental impact report on a proposal to build a small city on 1,400 acres of salt ponds bordering San Francisco Bay. The project is so controversial that more than 100 elected officials and several environmental groups, led by Save the Bay, are demanding it be killed now.

That’s unlikely. Developer DMB Associates is determined to forge on — the project would be extremely lucrative — and council members have said they want a full analysis. DMB is footing the bill, so it’s not outrageous for Redwood City to proceed. But our question is: Why bother?

The opposition from environmentalists is not just aesthetic. Concerns include the sea-level rising, liquefaction in the case of an earthquake and the viability of a controversial deal for a future water supply. We need housing, but this isn’t the place for it.

This region has long been committed to restoring the fragile bay ecosystem. Despite DMB’s pledge to restore about 400 acres to wetlands as part of the project, putting up to 12,000 houses and 25,000 people on this site would represent a stark reversal of that commitment. Redwood City’s own General Plan puts it best: “Due to the sensitive nature of these open-space areas, it should be assumed that they will remain as open space forever.”

Whether the ponds, owned by Cargill Salt, are legally part of the bay is subject to debate. To us, the technical dispute is beside the point. More than a century ago, before being converted to salt production, this area was marshlands teeming with life. It should be restored to that state, and if it has to sit idle for some years before that’s feasible, fine.

The sea level location is a real worry, given that global warming could lift the bay’s water level 55 inches by the end of the century. California’s 2009 Climate Adaptation Strategy advises against this kind of development, which would require an extensive levee system: “State agencies should generally not plan, develop, or build any new or significant structure in a place where that structure will require significant protection from sea-level rise, storm surges, or coastal erosion,” it says. “The state should pursue activities that can increase natural resiliency, such as restoring tidal wetlands.”

DMB calls the project environmentally progressive because of its dense, walkable design and its proximity to transit and jobs. That would be a decent argument if it weren’t on former baylands.

A 2009 Greenbelt Alliance report identified some 40,000 sites known as infill — like old strip malls and vacant lots along transit corridors — throughout the Bay Area that are ripe for development as “smart-growth” neighborhoods like this. But building on salt ponds brings to mind “fill” of a different kind.

It’s hard to see how DMB can overcome all the hurdles ahead. It needs approval from 19 regulatory agencies with jurisdiction over the site. After the report is complete, the Redwood City Council and, most likely, residents will vote. If the project is approved despite all these concerns, it will face lawsuits.

The report is on DMB’s dime, but controversies like this take a public toll in dollars, including staff time at public agencies, and in civic energy. The region would be better off if Redwood City just dropped it.



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