Split Decision

Split Decision

Plans were unveiled last month for the largest bayside development along the San Francisco Peninsula in the last fifty years. If Scottsdale-based developer DMB is successful in satisfying local, state, and federal regulatory agencies, a site currently covered by glittering salt ponds in Redwood City could become a residential community of as many as 12,000 units.

But the 1,400-acre parcel of open land, a rarity in the narrow belt between San Francisco and San Jose, is also coveted by environmentalists, who dream of restoring it as tidal wetlands. The next couple of years will show how this struggle between the two interests—contributing to a healthy Bay or adding much-needed housing stock— plays out.

These two square miles of ponds next to the historic port of Redwood City have been used for salt evaporation since the turn of the last century. The surreal landscape is sandwiched between a gleaming office park at its bayside edge and one of the Peninsula’s two major freeways. DMB, whose luxury projects include Tejon Mountain Village, a huge development north of Los Angeles, is proposing to transform them in a joint venture with Cargill, the agricultural and industrial conglomerate that owns the land.

The current DMB Redwood City Saltworks proposal calls for half of the property to be devoted to development, about a third to restoration, and the remaining twenty percent to sports fields and open space. The plan calls for 8,000 to 12,000 townhouses and apartments (15 percent devoted to affordable housing), 1 million square feet of office space, retail shops and community services including five schools, and a fire station. It would connect to public transportation via a ferry terminal, linking it with San Francisco and the East Bay, and a streetcar line to a CalTrain station about a mile away.

“The problem here, as in many places, is that the waterfront was turned over to industrial use. This will reconnect the city to the bay in a positive, ecological way,” said Peter Calthorpe, a major proponent of New Urbanism known for designing a mixed-use community on the brownfield at Denver’s Stapleton Airport. The Oakland-based architect and urban planner is leading the master plan for the Redwood City project, together with San Francisco–based ROMA design. He cites San Francisco’s Marina District as an example of the “walkable” community he envisions. The other firm on the project is Baltimore-based Biohabitats, wetlands restoration specialists.

The C-shaped development will connect with 440 acres of restored wetlands using an approach that gradually transitions from the built to the natural environment. A levee running along the curve is designed to act as a shoal, with a tidal-fed lagoon between it and the mainland. On top of the levee, a three-mile trail will overlook the wetlands.

With the closest two counties gaining an estimated 680,000 jobs by 2035, proponents say that the area’s notorious housing shortage will only worsen without this type of major development. But environmentalists criticize the site’s lack of infrastructure and its distance from downtown as well as the wisdom of building on a low-lying tidal plain when sea levels are expected to rise dramatically.

“It’s not a transit-oriented site,” said Melissa Hippard, director of the local chapter of the Sierra Club. “And this is a huge opportunity to return the Bay to maximum health—we’re at the end of a trajectory that was started in the 1960s to reclaim as much of the bayfront as possible.” In fact, the state considered purchasing the land from Cargill in 2003 when it bought 16,500 acres of salt ponds for the largest wetlands restoration project on the West Coast, but its price tag was too high.

Hoping to break ground in 2013, the developers kicked off the formal process by presenting the plan to the city council on May 12. They will have to get rezoning approval, along with permits from state and federal agencies including the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) and the Army Corps of Engineers. Local residents, who have stopped other city-approved bayside developments at the ballot box, may also weigh in: In the 1980s, voters scuttled plans for Bair Island, now a national wildlife refuge; and in 2004, they sent the Marina Shores project back to the drawing board.

The last major bayfront communities, Foster City and Redwood Shores, date back to the 1950s and 60s. They were not only massive landfill projects, but extensions of the low-density, car-centric suburbia on the Peninsula. If the Redwood City proposal moves forward, it could give the area a new model to contemplate.

“We’re as conservative here as any small town in Kansas, when it comes to anything near the shoreline,” said Will Travis, executive director of the BCDC. “But the lack of housing is our Achilles heel—we need to consider all our options."