Save the moonscape by the Bay?

A smart-growth plan runs up against environmental activists in Silicon Valley.

The redevelopment of the Redwood City Saltworks is one of the biggest San Francisco Bay area land-use projects to be proposed in decades. At 8,000 to 12,000 housing units, plus a million square feet of offices, retail, and civic buildings on 1,433 acres, the industrial redevelopment would house more people than Mission Bay in San Francisco, a major endeavor currently under construction.

The Saltworks is also shaping up as a battle between the developers — DMB Associates and land-owner Cargill — and environmentalists who advocate restoring the site to a completely natural state.

The property as it now exists is far from being a neighborhood amenity. The site has been used for industrial salt production since 1901. Architect Peter Calthorpe, whose firm is teaming with ROMA Design Group on the plan, aptly describes the century-old Saltworks as a “moonscape” of salt ponds. The plan calls for 436 acres of restored wetlands, 368 acres of parks and trails, and 629 acres of new urban, transit-oriented development in the form of mixed-use buildings, townhouses, and apartments. Fifteen percent of the residential units would meet affordability standards.

One of the most vocal opponents, David Lewis of the environmental group Save the Bay, claims the site is not smart growth because it is not located near an existing rail station. But there are three transit-oriented aspects of the plan. A ferry terminal adjacent to the site, planned by public agencies, would offer connections to San Francisco and the East Bay. Also, the developers propose to help build a streetcar line that would connect the new community to a CalTrain commuter rail station a mile away and to downtown Redwood City. Finally, high-speed rail is planned to go through Redwood City, and Calthorpe believes the streetcar will be able to connect to that as well — linking residents to points in central and southern California. The streetcar would also connect an existing suburban-style office park, adjacent to the Saltworks site, to Caltrain.

A need for housing
One argument against restoring the site entirely to wetlands is that there is a need for housing in Silicon Valley that many expect will grow in coming decades. Smaller urban infill sites will likely not be able to accommodate all of the needed housing, says Calthorpe. “More than 40,000 out-of-town commuters drive into Redwood City to work every day,” Calthorpe wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle. “A major goal of the Saltworks plan is to get many of these distant suburban commuters off the roads and out of their cars by providing them with a local place to live and good transit alternates.”

It is not clear that the “return-to-nature” option is on the table, nor is it clear who would pay for it. “The reality is, the money is going to have to come from the corporate world, and you have to give the corporate world something to work with,” Lou Covey, president of Citizens for Sustainable Redwood City, told the San Francisco Business Times.

Covey, who lives near the site, told the newspaper his neighborhood needs the parks, recreational facilities, and additional affordable housing that the project would provide. A referendum last November that would have stopped the project was rejected.

Another criticism made by opponents is that the low-lying site should not be built upon because of anticipated sea level rises due to global warming. Cal-thorpe responds that Redwood City will need a levee and flood-control system “with or without the project” to protect existing low-lying development, and the Saltworks development could pay for a significant portion of that system. Developers propose a levee topped by a three-mile-long semicircular trail overlooking restored wetlands.

Based in Arizona, DMB is already developing some very large projects, including a 3,200-acre redevelopment of a former General Motors Proving Ground site in Mesa, which incorporates new urban design features.

The Redwood City Council decided in August to hire consultants to study the Saltworks proposal. Submitted last May, the project is facing an entitlement process — including a required amendment of the city plan — that could take two years, according to the Business Times.

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