Selling the park

Pub date June 24, 2009
WriterSarah Phelan
SectionGreen CitySectionNews & Opinion

GREEN CITY Considering that it exists just a short hop from the industrial grind of Third Street, Candlestick Point State Recreation Area is a surprisingly wild and peaceful 150-acre bayshore park.

On a recent afternoon, a man practiced his golf swings, a group fished off a pier, and a lizard darted across a trail and into a clump of wildflowers, all apparently unaware of the storm gathering around the future of this waterfront habitat.

State Sen. Mark Leno’s Senate Bill 792 would give the State Lands Commission and State Parks Department the authority to negotiate an exchange of 42 acres in the park for patches of land on the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, allowing Lennar Corp. to build condos in the state park and reducing Bayview’s only major open space by 25 percent.

Leno claims that SB 792 "will help realize one of the few remaining opportunities for large-scale affordable housing, parks, open space, and economic development in San Francisco by authorizing a key public-private land exchange necessary for the development of Hunters Point/Candlestick Park."

"A lot of this property is dirt, and much of it is used by the 49ers for parking. It’s not high quality park land," Leno told the Guardian.

In addition to adding some amendments suggested by the Sierra Club, Leno said state and federal agencies must approve the deal, which would also require a full environmental impact report. "There will be no environmental shortcutting," Leno said.

But environmental advocates are outraged that Mayor Gavin Newsom and his chief economic advisor, Michael Cohen, are trying to get state legislators to facilitate an unpopular land swap that allows an out-of-state developer to build thousands of condos on state tidelands in exchange for strips and pockets of the toxic shipyard (see "Eliminating dissent," 6/17).

"When Michael Cohen asked us to endorse what they were calling a conceptual framework, he called it a rush to the starting line and promised us a full and robust discussion of the actual proposal," Kristine Enea, who works for the India Basin Neighborhood Association, said of last year’s Proposition G. "We’re not trying to stop the development, but we want a discussion. And we’re raising questions that otherwise won’t be raised until after the environmental impact report is completed."

In April, Newsom wrote to Sen. Fran Pavley, who chairs the state’s Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water, claiming that plans for the shipyard and Candlestick Point had already been endorsed by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and overwhelmingly approved by voters in June 2008.

"By utilizing a true public-private partnership, this [SB 792] will cause tens of millions of dollars of public open space investment to state park lands and public trust lands, at no cost to the state or the city’s general fund, providing a significant benefit to the state as well as to the citizens of San Francisco," Newsom wrote.

As part of the land swap, Lennar would pay fair market value for much of the parkland, with estimates of about $40 million that would go to the state for managing the remaining acreage. Lennar proposes to build 7,850 housing units on Candlestick Point, and it’s unclear how many of those will go into what is now a state park.

Critics say Newsom is trying to use Prop. G like a hammer to force through legislation that wouldn’t pass locally and would destroy the park’s current functions and wildlife habitat, forever changing life in Bayview Hunters Point, due to the scale and socioeconomic and environmental impacts of Lennar’s proposed redevelopment.

Created by the legislature in 1977, CPSRA is the state’s first urban park. It offers panoramic views of the wind-whipped bay, San Bruno Mountain, and Yosemite Slough, the only unbridged waterway in the city’s southeast sector. And while it’s not typically crowded, the park is well-used by residents, who like to hike and jog, walk their dogs, and windsurf adjacent to Monster Park stadium.

Saul Bloom — whose nonprofit group, Arc Ecology, angered Cohen and Newsom in February when it published "Alternatives for Study," a draft report that identified deficiencies in Lennar’s current proposal — admits that a section of the park is a weed-filled lot that 49ers fans use for parking on game days.

"But the leasing for parking contributes $800,000 toward park maintenance annually," Bloom told the Guardian, noting that this is a vital source of funding in tough times.

He also noted that the California State Parks Foundation recently raised $12 million to restore Yosemite Slough and the California Solid Waste Management Board (whose members include former Sen. Carole Migden, whom Leno defeated last year) recently completed a $1 million rehabilitation of a former construction debris field on the state park property.

But neither this nor the state Budget Conference Committee’s recent decision to institute a $15 surcharge on vehicle license fees of noncommercial vehicles as a dedicated funding source to keep California’s state parks open will save CPSRA from being hobbled if SB 792 is approved in its current state.

"Surely other land can be used for building condos. Affordable housing and condo residents need open space too," said Peter Barstow, founding director of Nature in the City, noting that the 42-acre parcel of contested land represents 25 percent of the park, but only 5 percent of the 770 acres the developer has at its disposal to build 10,500 units of proposed housing.

"Any loss in acreage would seriously diminish the ability of the park to serve the city’s needs, especially with 10,500 new units proposed for the Lennar development," Barstow said.

He said some "logical swapping" is possible. "But they are doing some numbers game, in which they are counting a huge amount of parkland that is already there."

"We should be thinking how to connect these ecologically isolated islands," Barstow said, who sees this debate as an opportunity to link CPSRA to wildlife corridors in McClaren Park and Bayview Hill. "The development should be in the interest of the people, critters, wildlife and plants in the Bayview, not in those of someone in an office thousands of miles away."

He also scoffed at proponents’ arguments that the density of the development means that it is smart urban growth. "Just because a development is dense is not an argument to build it on a park."

Cohen recently told the Guardian that the 77 acres of the 49ers stadium and all the paid parking inside its facility will be filled with "mainly retail and entertainment," while the 42 acres of state park would be used to build condos.

Meredith Thomas of the Neighborhood Parks Council noted that her group "fully supports the revitalization and redevelopment of the Candlestick Point/Shipyard area … But when folks voted for Prop. G in June 2008, nowhere did the measure say that by voting for it, you are agreeing to sell parkland."

"We are always concerned when municipal land that is being used as a park is put up for sale," Thomas said. "While it’s a state park, it really functions as a neighborhood park for those who use it. I think what happens when we plan for large developments is that we don’t do enough to plan for parks with the density increase that’s coming."

The Sierra Club has been leading the charge against the bill. "We lose 40 acres but gain a bathroom," Arthur Feinstein, the Sierra Club’s local representative jokingly told the Guardian. "Now that’s a good deal!"

Observing that the organization’s position is "no net loss of acreage, no loss of biodiversity, no loss of wildlife corridors," Feinstein said, "There are a ton of alternatives to this plan and no reason to destroy 25 percent of the park or build a bridge and a road over Yosemite Slough."

With Arc’s studies showing that the bridge, which will cost $100 million to construct, only shaves two minutes off travel time, Feinstein added: "This is a road to nowhere. It’ll cost $50 million a minute."

He also said that allowing a company to buy state parkland "sets a terrible precedent… Then every state park is at risk from developers as the state’s budget woes grow. I hope Sen. Mark Leno sees this."

"No one would ever think put housing on Crissy Field," Feinstein continued. "But in the Bayview, the attitude is, why not? That whole mentality has made the area into an environmental justice community. Even when it’s given something, it comes in a costly way to the community, but a cheap way for the developers."