Locals Debate Best Use for Cargill Land - Save the Bay leads charge not to develop

By Julia Scott, STAFF WRITER

Tuesday, January 14, 2008

REDWOOD CITY — Environmentalists painted a doomsday scenario of what would happen if development were to occur at the site of the former Cargill salt ponds Sunday afternoon during a panel discussion attended by a large group of locals, many of whom seemed to share their concerns.

More than 150 Redwood City residents filled the floor and balcony of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship to hear panelists from a range of groups reflect on the virtues and vices of turning a portion of the

1,433 acre site into housing, retail and recreational open space — one of the last large, developable pieces of Bayfront property in the region.

The fact that the site, which is still owned by Cargill, is only zoned for recreational uses did not phase the panel, convinced as they are of the possibility that Arizona-based developer DMB Associates Inc. will find a way to convince the City Council to change the zoning in the city's General Plan when it comes up for review later this winter.

Save the Bay Executive Director David Lewis led the charge against any form of development on the site, arguing that it is illogical to build housing or anything else on land that the Bay Conservation and Development Commission has shown is at risk of inundation from the rise in sea level in as little as 90 years' time.

Lewis noted that wetlands at sites like neighboring Bair Island act as a natural flood-control measure and also absorb more carbon dioxide, acre for acre, than a typical forest.

Like other Cargill properties throughout the South Bay, the site was converted into salt evaporation ponds in the 1940s.

The loss of tidal marsh was compounded during a frenzy of Bay infill and construction in the 1950s and'60s.

"The Bay needs at least

100,000 acres of tidal marsh, and right now we only have 40,000," said Lewis. "We don't fill the Bay anymore. ... It's time for local residents to stand up and protect out shoreline from irreversible destruction."

The forum was one of the first non-developer-sponsored events organized to educate the community about the pros and cons of developing the saltworks site, and the sometimes-combative tone of the discussion reflected the extent to which the issue, even without a concrete proposal to comment on, has divided the community.

DMB Associates has held several community planning meetings and conducted a survey to gauge what kinds of uses locals want to see for the site.

DMB spokesman John Bruno, who attended the event, said his company was invited to sit on Sunday's panel but decided it would not be appropriate to do so.

Panelist Andrea Papanastassiou of Eden Housing Inc., a nonprofit affordable housing developer, saw potential benefits in adding housing to the saltworks site if DMB Associates would commit to building much-needed affordable housing.

"As it is now, the site is not a particular asset to the community of Redwood City... People say we have to build more housing, but we can't find any space," she said.

The sentiment was echoed by several audience members.

"We have to be somewhere — especially when 70 percent (of the county) or more is open space. Where's the room for people?" asked one woman.

Others said environmental concerns trumped all else.

"If the restoration is not done, who will pay? We will all be paying. If the area is restored, we will all benefit," said Redwood City resident Van Thein, to loud applause.

Friends of Redwood City, a powerful local nonprofit with a track record of blocking development of other Bayfront properties, hopes residents can convince the City Council not to revise the zoning in its General Plan process and to vote against the project proposal when it comes up for a vote later this spring.

The group plans to organize a referendum on the issue to defeat the project if necessary.

Ultimately, they hope Cargill will give up on developing the site and sell it to a public agency like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service so it joins neighboring parts of the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge.

Lynne Trulio, lead scientist with the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, said the site could be restored "very easily" by breaching some levees that have kept the briny, lifeless salt ponds from mixing with the Bay.

"Nature is incredibly resilient. This site was part of the Bay until recently, and would go back to the Bay," she said.

It was not clear how much the restoration would cost or who would pay for it, however.

John Bruno, of DMB Associates, took six pages of notes on Sunday.

"This is an educational process for us as well. We haven't shown up with a plan and pitched the merits of it."

When they do, the company intends to argue that their plan reflects the preferences expressed by the community over the course of the outreach process — a plan Redwood City residents see as serving their own best interests.

"The vast majority of residents we've heard from are looking for a balance of uses," said Bruno, who predicted the process would result in "a much better plan that will stand up to the rigors of scrutiny that the city's public process will put forth."

Bruno said the plan would call for the erection of levees as well as "hundreds of acres" of habitat restoration. Concerning the question of affordable housing, Bruno said his company's proposal would reflect "a spectrum of housing types."

He would not comment on what proportion of land would be devoted to development versus other uses, saying that was yet to be determined.

Staff writer Julia Scott can be reached at 650-348-4340 or at


© 2008 San Mateo County Times


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