Showdown on the Salt Flats
The inside story of Cargill’s unstoppable Redwood City development
REDWOOD CITY – East of Highway 101 is an old 1,436-acre salt-harvesting operation owned by Cargill, the giant agribusiness. It’s desolate and peaceful out here. A dirt road intersects huge salt-crusted squares of bay water. Some of the ponds give off a putrid smell, what Redwood City kids used to call “bay farts.” In places, there are thick layers of salt that look like snowbanks. Rusting machinery and a few dilapidated buildings are offset by birds, gulls, Canada geese and even, during a recent visit, a red-tailed hawk carrying off a dead rabbit.
When Cargill and its developer DMB Associates announced intentions to build 8,000 to 12,000 townhouses and apartments on the site, their plans were trounced by Bay Area environmentalists. Conservation groups led by Save the Bay wanted the salt ponds restored to wetlands. Neighboring towns Menlo Park and Atherton voted to condemn the project. And 125 Bay Area politicians signed an indignant letter of protest, writing, “The era of filling in San Francisco Bay is over – we stopped that destruction forty years ago.”
But plans for the Redwood City Saltworks development have marched inexorably forward. The city is considering rezoning the space for development, just so DMB can build. The City Council – which some residents describe as “Stepford-like” for its politeness and lack of public disagreement amongst members – voted last year to begin a lengthy environmental review of the project. On May 24, after a rowdy public comment session, the City Council gave the green light to hire consultants to begin the review.
How the project arrived at this point is a story of developer DMB’s sophisticated, if decidedly down-home, campaign to win over locals, an emerging split in the environmental movement and the idiosyncrasies of Redwood City, a Democratic town whose City Council is run by business-friendly Republicans.
“I think they have a very different viewpoint than the rest of the Bay Area has,” said Sally Lieber, a former Mountain View mayor who’s opposed to the project.
The sheer size of DMB and Cargill are hard to ignore. Standing in the empty council chambers after last month’s meeting, dressed in a suit and tie with slicked-back hair, Mayor Jeff Ira said the Saltworks application is just like any other. But soon he explained that he was afraid that DMB and Cargill, with their unlimited supplies of lawyers, would sue the city into oblivion if the council rejected the plans without its ducks in a row. “Why would I risk it?” said Ira, who is an accountant.
DMB’s name is everywhere. Advertising on TV and in newspapers, outreach by eight full-time employees in Redwood City and unrelenting charity made sure of that.
The fourth annual all-you-can-eat crab cioppino fundraiser for the Kiwanis Club? Sponsored by DMB in February. The seventh annual “Goodwill Hunting” fashion show, luncheon and boutique to benefit low-income senior housing community Casa de Redwood? Brought to you by DMB in April. Scholarships for local students? Yes. The Redwood American Instructional Sandgnats baseball team? Also. Two years ago, DMB spokesman Jay Reed made the winning $100 bid for a young 4-H farmer’s turkey at the San Mateo County fair.
This is campaigning at its most effective in Redwood City, said Cherlene Wright, a lifelong resident who ran and lost a city council bid last year. Neither outraged nor enthralled by the development plans, Wright is a friendly, unguarded sort.
“Do I think it’s manipulative? Maybe,” said Wright. “But that’s how you get things done in Redwood City.”
The plans include enough housing for 25,000 people, which would expand Redwood City, with a population of 79,000, by more than a third. One million square feet of commercial space would be built, and 436 acres of wetlands would be restored. There would be a two-acre farm for the 4-H Club and sports fields for kids’ leagues – suggestions DMB received from residents who have reciprocated by showing their support for the developer at city council meetings.
This interactive map shows how the site looks today. Click on the three shaded areas – Saltworks Site, Greco Island, and Downtown Redwood City – for a closer look at the salt ponds, the wetlands and Redwood City politics.
Jay Reed, the DMB spokesman, said the plan was shaped by Redwood City residents. “We’ve been in the community going on since ’06,” said Reed, who wears a soul patch and keeps his head clean shaven. “We’ve listened and we’ve conducted our outreach; the people of Redwood City have weighed in, and this is their plan.”
DMB has lined up a group of environmentally-friendly consultants for the project. Former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos and Tim Frank of the Sierra Club are working for the developer. Agnos has been speaking to the media and Frank recently sparred with Save the Bay at a public debate.
The somewhat-unlikely designer of the Saltworks plan is Peter Calthorpe. He’s a founder of New Urbanism, a movement that promotes walkable, transit-oriented cities. Now 60, Calthorpe has spent much of his life in idealogical battles with big home builders and their sprawling suburbs.
During an interview over lunch near his office in Berkeley, Calthorpe grew exasperated with what he called “quote unquote environmentalists” who oppose high-density projects. The Saltworks, he argued, will cut commutes and greenhouse gas emissions by putting homes near jobs in Silicon Valley.
“The need for housing that’s transit-oriented and near jobs is an environmental good that’s quite large,” he said. “If you can do both [housing and wetlands], why wouldn’t you do both?”
An internal report by Calthorpe’s team estimates that a family living in the Saltworks would drive 8,000 miles a year and create 4.3 tons of carbon emissions. In contrast, the report says, a family in the Central Valley drives 32,000 miles a year, creating 17.6 tons of emissions. According to Calthorpe, if housing isn’t built on the Redwood City salt flats, it will end up further inland.
“It’s whether or not that house is in Livermore or here,” said Calthorpe. “If it’s in Livermore, they’re statistically driving three or four times more.”
Some environmentalists aren’t seeing it. “To be polite, this is like green sprawl,” said Cynthia Denny, a Sierra Club member in Redwood City. “That’s like creating a healthier form of cancer.”
Restoring the site to tidal salt marshes with all their vegetation would also cut carbon emissions, research shows. Wetlands eat up more carbon dioxide than most forests, according to Stephen Crooks, a scientist at Philip Williams & Associates in San Francisco who has studied the effects of wetlands on climate change. An acre of tidal salt marsh consumes between three and four tons of carbon dioxide per year, according to Crooks’ research. In addition, wetlands are like the “kidneys” of the bay, he said.
Lynne Trulio, chair of the environmental studies department at San Jose State University and a Redwood City resident, thinks there’s a better solution: building infill housing in downtown Redwood City.
“It doesn’t have to be a Faustian bargain where you have to sell off anything you can to get the restoration that people want without having to sacrifice it through development,” she said.
But for some environmentalists, the choice of wetlands versus development, conservation versus housing, isn’t as clear.
Take the venerable Greenbelt Alliance, which initially threw itself in opposition to the project, writing in its spring 2008 newsletter, “If the Bay’s wildlife is to survive, it’s time to stop developing wetlands and start restoring them.” But months later, as details of the Saltworks plan emerged, the Greenbelt board reconsidered and decided to remain neutral on the project.
“Urban environmental issues are so much more complicated than a Redwood tree that’s a hundred miles from anyone’s house,” said Melissa Hippard, campaigns director at Greenbelt and Redwood City resident. “We’re looking closely at the role the site plays in the region, ranging from wetland restoration to [vehicle miles traveled] reduction.”
Greenbelt issued a lengthy report on housing needs for the Bay Area. It said cities could handle the estimated two million new people expected to live here by 2035, by building infill projects – not like the Saltworks. The Cargill site wasn’t on Greenbelt’s map for smart growth spots. But it’s difficult to get infill projects built, Hippard said, and “in the context of the peninsula and its proximity, it’s important to consider.”
Whether or not the project gets approved, however, will have little to do with environmental politics and everything to do with local politics. The City Council won’t vote on the project for a few years, and everyone is confident that it will be on the ballot eventually.
The last time Redwood City voters went to the polls over a big bayfront development in 2004, they killed it over concerns about water and traffic. Still, Cargill and DMB have already won at the ballot box once, in 2008. After spending $1.5 million on its campaign, the developer defeated a Save the Bay ballot measure to require a two-thirds vote to approve developments on sites like Cargill’s.
There is an active group of residents who oppose the project. Kaia Eakin said at a recent city council meeting that the city should listen with greater attention to the pleas from around the Bay Area. “The public perception is that Redwood City doesn’t care what anyone outside of Redwood City thinks,” said Eakin who works at Notre Dame de Namur University. “I feel this council’s inattention to regional public perception is turning Redwood City into a pariah.”
And then there are also those like Paula Uccelli, who support it. Uccelli is the owner of Pete’s Harbor, a marina not coincidentally located on Uccelli Boulevard. A big political donor, Uccelli’s various charitable efforts have been aided by DMB. Uccelli said Redwood City – whose downtown has only recently been built up to be as charming as those of neighboring towns – deserves a development like Saltworks. “Redwood City is treated like a stepchild in San Mateo County,” she said.