The Candlestick farce

No one was really surprised when commissioners for the Redevelopment Agency and Planning Department voted last week to only give the public a Scrooge-like 15 days to review a six-volume, 4,400-page draft environmental impact report for Lennar Corp.’s massive 700-acre Candlestick Point redevelopment project.

Everybody knew that Michael Cohen, Mayor Gavin Newsom’s top economic advisor, wanted to jam this proposal through the certification process by early June in a last-ditch effort to win back the 49ers, even though the team has said it wants to go to Oakland if the City of Santa Clara doesn’t vote to build a new stadium.

The decision gives the public until Jan. 12th to submit written comments on the DEIR. A broad coalition of community and environmental justice groups asked for a 45-day extension.

And the entire process — including condescending remarks by commissioners, a fight, the forcible removal of several members of the audience, and statements from developer allies that were, at best, highly misleading — can only be described as a farce.

The rush to approve the document is entirely political. Santa Clara voters go to the ballot June 8 to decide if they want to build the 49ers a fancy facility near Great America. But June 8 is the same day, according to a spreadsheet maintained by city Shipyard/Candlestick planners, that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is scheduled to approve the EIR for Lennar’s proposal.

The city’s DEIR envisions building a new 49ers stadium on the shipyard — a position that would allow thousands of luxury condos to be built on the site where the team currently plays, including a significant slice of Candlestick Point State Recreation Area.

To meet the increasingly artificial-looking June 8 EIR deadline, Cohen signaled he’d only be able to squeeze out 15 extra days for draft EIR review.

LENNAR’S PAID SUPPORTERS

With Cohen nowhere in sight at the DEIR hearings last week, his deputy, Tiffany Bohee, was left to kick off Redevelopment’s Dec. 15 and Planning’s Dec. 17 DEIR hearings.

“Time does matter for this project,” Bohee told commissioners, claiming that the project has been vetted exhaustively, including at least 177 public meetings — when the truth was that the public had never had an opportunity to review the complete draft EIR, a binding legal document, before its recent release.

“The consequence of delays is that it precludes the city’s ability to get ahead of the Santa Clara election in June,” Bohee said.

Bohee’s introduction was followed by a string of “no delay” and other off-point comments from representatives of the San Francisco Labor Council, the San Francisco Organizing Project, SF ACORN, and other groups that signed a community benefits agreement with Lennar in May 2008 that promised them millions of dollars in work and housing benefits — provided they show up at public meetings and support the development.

SF Labor Council vice president Connie Ford told commissioners that her organization “looks forward to the day when much-needed resources and support comes our way.”

A dozen residents of the Alice Griffith public housing project talked about their deplorable living conditions.

Asked by Redevelopment commissioner London Breed what the impact of a DEIR review extension would have on the planned rebuild of the Alice Griffith project, Bohee said, “It will jeopardize our ability to get any city decision on the project by June. As a result, delays to Alice Griffith could be indefinite.”

But that’s a stretch — at best. According to Lennar and the city’s own schedule, new Alice Griffith replacement units won’t be available before 2015 at the earliest. An additional 30 days of environmental review at this point will make no difference.

THE BOZO COMMISSIONERS

Compounding the city’s half-truths was the patronizing attitude of those commissioners who thought that their opinion of the DEIR should satisfy members of the public who hadn’t had enough time to review it.

“I think it’s an extremely well done document,” Planning commissioner Michael Antonini told a crowd that had sat through five hours of testimony and been warned by Planning Commission chair Ron Miguel that they’d been thrown out if they spoke during others’ testimony.

Bizarrely, planning commissioner Bill Lee tried to use the fact that the public wasn’t making many substantive comments on the DEIR as an argument against giving anyone more time to read it. Commissioner Gwyneth Borden made the equally odd argument that since people are almost certain to sue the city over the DEIR, there’s no reason to give an extension now.

And Miguel asked the public to put their faith in some vague meeting in the future rather than agreeing to what were asking for at the meeting. “I do believe that when all the comments are considered and answered and the final EIR comes before us and the Redevelopment Agency, that everything will come together,” Miguel said.

By that time, Arc Ecology’s director Saul Bloom, Jaron Browne of People Organized to Win Employment Rights, and POWER’s attorney Sue Hestor told the commissioners that they believe the project’s impacts on transportation, state park habitat, and the foraging requirements of the peregrine falcon had not been adequately analyzed. Eric Brooks of the Green Party expressed concern that sea level rise will be more pronounced than the DEIR projections.

Bloom also explained that a lack of adequate review time hindered his staff’s ability to prepare comments in time for a hearing that came only a month after the DEIR’s release.

Planning Commission vice president Christina Olague and commissioners Kathrin Moore and Hisashi Sugaya tried to extend the review period to February. As Olague pointed out, the commission recently granted a public DEIR review extension to a 15,959-square-foot parcel in Russian Hill, which is tiny compared to Lennar’s 708-acre proposal in the Bayview, where residents have the city’s lowest educational levels

But the Planning Commission’s 4-3 vote against a February extension revealed how mayoral appointees ignore common sense once they have their political marching orders.

COHEN’S FANTASY

“This appears to be all about Cohen’s fantasy of out-maneuvering Santa Clara to get the 49ers to move into a new Hunters Point stadium,” Hestor told the Guardian.

Hestor also pointed to a Dec. 18 San Francisco Business Times guest editorial titled “Business Leaders Can Save the Niners” that Planning Commissioner Michael Antonini had clearly written before Planning’s marathon Dec. 17 hearing.

“The editorial illuminates why, at the Planning Commission on Dec. 17, Antonini argued against any extension for public comment on the DEIR beyond Dec. 28,” Hestor said, noting that Dec. 28 was the absolute minimum DEIR review period required under the California Environmental Quality Act — a review period that straddled Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Kwanza and Christmas (see Holiday Snowjob, 12/09/09).

Earlier this month, a coalition of environmental and community development groups, including Arc Ecology, the Sierra Club, the Potrero Hill Democratic Club, San Francisco Tomorrow, Literacy for Environmental Justice, Young Community Developers, the Neighborhood Parks Council, the South East Jobs Coalition, Walden House, Urban Strategies Council, India Basin Neighborhood Association, California Native Plants Society, Golden Gate Audubon Society, and the Bayview Resource Center, wrote to Mayor Gavin Newsom, requesting a 45-day DEIR review extension.

The request seemed further vindicated when it became apparent that most of the people who showed up at the DEIR hearings, including those opposed to extending the review period, admitted that they had not actually read the documents in question. And the commissioners’ failure to honor the extension request represents a new low in a process that threatens to become a classic lesson in the dangers of public-private partnerships.

Opponents of giving the public a decent chance to read the DEIR argue that there have already been hundreds of meetings on the proposed project. But as Bloom pointed out, the character and focus of EIR is different from any other document that has been produced for discussion. “If an issue is not raised during the EIR process, it cannot be raised subsequently,” Bloom said. “Releasing an EIR during the holiday season and providing the minimum amount of time allowable under the law for public review undermines the public’s ability to evaluate an EIR and disenfranchises people at one of the most critical points of the project approval process.”

Bloom also noted that a standard strategy for drastically limiting public input while appearing to be transparent is to spend time evaluating nonbinding documents while providing the minimum time required to evaluate the legally binding stuff.

“The Phase 2 Urban Design Plan released in October 2008 was in public discussion until it was approved in February 2009 — five months,” Bloom observed, noting that nothing in that document was legally binding. Neither was Lennar required to disclose negative effects of its plan. But an EIR is a legally binding document. “It’s a fiction that a 45-day DEIR public review extension would have cause a domino effect of indefinitely delaying the approval of the project,” Bloom added.