Blocking the bridge

Pub date September 7, 2010
WriterSarah Phelan

The Sierra Club and Golden Gate Audubon Society have sued to block the final environmental impact report on the Lennar Corp. redevelopment project, a move that could force reconsideration of a bridge over Yosemite Slough.

The suit against the city, Board of Supervisors, and Redevelopment Agency charges that the final EIR for Lennar’s Candlestick Point-Hunters Point Shipyard project was inadequate, in part because it didn’t consider all the impacts of the bridge or look properly at alternatives.

The move comes as no big surprise: these environmental groups vowed to file a suit within 30 days of the city’s August certification of the project EIR. But advocates hope it will lead to a change in the proposal.

Arthur Feinstein, a member of the Sierra Club’s San Francisco Bay Chapter, said the EIR didn’t comply with the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.

The introduction to the Sierra Club suit notes that “the FEIR failed to identify or underestimated the significance of environmental impacts associated with the project; failed to address the alternative proposed by Arc Ecology, which provides for a bus rapid transit route around Yosemite Slough; and failed to provide adequate responses to comments on the draft EIR.”

Or as Feinstein puts it: “There’s a bridge, and it’s going through a nature area where they say the sound level from the buses will be the equivalent to standing 50 feet from a freeway.

“They say there is no impact and that you can’t have an undisturbed nature experience in an urban area, but you can,” Feinstein continued, pointing to the Presidio, Golden Gate Park, and Crissy Field as examples of places where you can have undisturbed experiences.

Feinstein noted that Candlestick Point State Recreation Area is the only large park on the city’s eastern shoreline, and the only park that people in the Bayview can access easily.

“The city boasts about how much it was improving the Bayview, but this park is the only major open space where you can get away from urban stress — and folks have a lot of stress in the Bayview,” Feinstein said. He added that building the bridge will involve sinking pilings in Yosemite Slough that will disturb wildlife and stir up PCBs and other known contaminants.

“Noise, light and glare all have impacts on wildlife, but the city’s EIR said these are insignificant because these critters are insignificant,” Feinstein said.

Feinstein noted that the city’s final environmental impact report did make a finding of overriding concern that the project will cause air pollution at levels that exceed Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) health standards.

“But [the city] decided that this was a regional problem, so they did not attempt any mitigations for the 25,000 new residents that this 700-acre redevelopment plan is supposed to bring into the Bayview — which already has the city’s highest asthma and cancer rate and the largest number of polluting sources,” Feinstein said. “But they could say that all buses going into the development need to be electrified, or they could limit the number of parking spaces the way they did at Octavia-Market and South of Market.”

Feinstein said the next step in this CEQA lawsuit in a pretrial negotiation session to see if a settlement can be reached. “We’re not looking for a long drawn out fight. We’re ready for one, but we’re also ready to negotiate because that’s how you achieve things.”

Feinstein also noted that the Sierra Club had to go to Los Angeles to hire a traffic consultant to work on its suit because Lennar has contracts with just about every shop in the Bay Area, thanks to its various projects at Hunters Point, Treasure Island, and Mare Island.

“The related problem is that the city is no longer looking at the project with a steely eye,” Feinstein said. “Instead, they have become the developer — except that they are working with Lennar and not reviewing Lennar’s plans with objectivity. By filing this lawsuit, we’re keeping the conversation about this project alive and reminding folks that you don’t have to take everything this mayor and his administration gives you.”

The Sierra Club/Audubon Society suit came four days after the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the California State Parks Foundation entered into an agreement with Lennar to help prepare conceptual designs that reportedly will be used as the basis for the actual bridge over the Yosemite Slough.

Some critics interpreted the timing of CSPF’s announcement, which the Chronicle reported under a confusing “Environmentalists to help design span” headline, as an attempt by Lennar’s well-oiled PR machine to undermine the Sierra Club/Audubon Society suit.

They also questioned CSPF’s independence from Lennar, and from the Mayor’s Office, because Guillermo Rodriguez Jr. from the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development sits on CSPF’s board. So does Peter Weiner, a partner at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, which has contracts with Lennar. Representatives from Southern California Edison, Toyota, the Walt Disney Company, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., and several other companies that either have contracts with Lennar or have given to Mayor Gavin Newsom’s campaign for lieutenant governor campaign also sit on the park foundation board.

CPSF’s President Elizabeth Goldstein told us that “as park supporters and defenders, we consider ourselves environmentalists.” CSPF originally planned to fight approval of the project’s final EIR when it came before the board in July. But unlike the Sierra Club, CSPF pulled its appeal at the last minute.

Goldstein told the Guardian that the foundation reversed its decision because it had initiated what she characterized as “a fruitful discussion with Lennar.”

“We wanted to play that out,” Goldstein said. “And now we’re glad we did, because the design criteria look quite good and hopefully will be compatible with the project.”

“What we’ve agreed with Lennar about is a set of design criteria to be applied to the bridge, she continued. “These criteria are intended to make sure the bridge fits aesthetically into the park as much as is possible. Lennar asked us, and we agreed, to develop the first set of conceptual plans — obviously in cooperation with them — to make sure that they are, from their first iteration, as sympathetic as possible to the park.”

Goldstein said that some of these design criteria are “quite global.”

“Some are big arcs of things that are very important to us, such as impact from light, glare and noise,” she said, noting that they don’t want to see the proposed bridge lighted at night, à la the Golden Gate Bridge.

“We want the environment at dusk to be as unimpacted as possible,” she said.

Other CSPF concerns are more situation specific.

“We want safe, attractive, easy-to-use signage,” Goldstein said, referring to need to help users and neighbors find their way around and across the bridge. “We also talk about minimizing piers in the water at the slough, and if possible, eliminating them altogether since they impact vehicles and kayaks.”

Goldstein agreed that the foundation’s roots are not in political advocacy. “We were founded as a philanthropic land acquisition partner to the Department of State Parks.” But she noted that the group was involved in blocking a proposed toll road through Orange County and is a leading supporter of Proposition 21, which seeks to raise nearly $500 million a year for state parks by tacking on an $18 vehicle registration fee that would give all vehicles registered in California free access to the majority of state parks.

As Feinstein observed, “The CSPF does great work, but they are not usually advocates for conservation and biodiversity. That is what the club and Audubon Society does.”

Stuart Flashman, attorney for the Sierra Club and the Golden Gate Audubon Society, said that in the long run the lawsuit won’t stop the project from going forward. “But in the short term, if the court finds that the EIR wasn’t adequate and that there are significant impacts from the bridge that could have been avoided, then the city has to go back and redo that part of the EIR, a process that could take two to four months. And if they conclude, yeah, the impacts from the bridge are unavoidable, then they’d have to redo it to go around the slough.”

Flashman says he hasn’t seen the proposal CPSF and Lennar are working on. “But as part of this suit, we are required to sit down with the city and see if we can settle — and we are hopeful we can do that.”