Sea Level Rise Archives - San Francisco Public Press Independent, Nonprofit, In-Depth Local News Fri, 31 Mar 2023 03:28:33 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Mapping the Shoreline Building Boom as Seas Rise Sat, 22 Apr 2017 07:36:17 +0000

Full page view of interactive map

Cartography by Maia Wachtel, Marcea Ennamorato and Brittany Burson // UC Berkeley CAGE Lab. Map by Amanda Hickman, with research by Lulu Orozco // Public Press.

The Bay Area’s current boom times represent a good news/bad news story. » Read more

The post Mapping the Shoreline Building Boom as Seas Rise appeared first on San Francisco Public Press.


Full page view of interactive map

Cartography by Maia Wachtel, Marcea Ennamorato and Brittany Burson // UC Berkeley CAGE Lab. Map by Amanda Hickman, with research by Lulu Orozco // Public Press.

The Bay Area’s current boom times represent a good news/bad news story. From Dogpatch to San Mateo to Alameda, bayside property is especially desirable — but increasingly complicated. Although Bay Area planners have in recent years elevated the role that sea level rise projections play in the permitting and design process, cities are still under pressure to approve more development quickly on under-used land.

Perhaps, while sitting in traffic during that ever-congested commute, you’ve taken note of the skyline filled with cranes. Builders are in a frenzy as they attempt to meet the region’s demand for office space and housing.

The Bay Area has outpaced the rest of the state and country in economic growth for each year since 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. But only 94,000 new housing units were permitted in the region between 2011 and 2016, despite the addition of 530,000 jobs, the Building Industry Association of the Bay Area found. Over the past decade, as housing prices have escalated, residents have looked farther afield for affordable homes, contributing to a 27-minute increase in average daily commutes, according to the 2016 Silicon Valley Index.

A 2015 analysis by the Public Press found that Bay Area builders were investing more than $21 billion in 27 large waterfront projects at less than 8 feet above high tide. That elevation could see occasional flooding by the end of this century.

Since then, developers have crafted plans for another eight large-scale commercial and residential construction projects in that zone. Though not all amounts are yet known, we have tallied more than $1.8 billion in costs associated with buying land parcels and building these proposed projects.

Regionally, policies guiding sea level rise adaptation and design continue to be inconsistent. Of the new and in-progress waterfront developments, some failed to include any proposals to mitigate future flooding.

For other projects in the permitting and approval process, rising water is a principal design consideration.

But adaptation is not cheap. The firm planning to redevelop the Alameda Marina, for instance, will spend $44 million to make the 13-acre site resilient to sea level rise and storm surges by rebuilding degraded sections of the landing and erecting a seawall.

In part because long-term forecasting of future climate change is inherently imprecise, the exact amount of sea level rise that Bay Area communities are planning for varies greatly. Most agencies are using 2012 projections by the National Research Council, which predict a rise of anywhere between 3 and 4.6 feet by 2100 — enough to permanently flood the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street, for example — not counting the possibility of 3.4 feet of surging water during extreme storms.

The Bay Conservation and Development Commission has very limited jurisdiction over the Bay shoreline, from the water’s edge to just 100 feet inland. The regional agency requires developers to use climate change projections to assess the risk of structures being flooded by 2050.

“We advise people to be conservative,” said Brad McCrea, regulatory director for the commission. “It’s easier to build for high water now rather than respond to it later.”

But an uptick in the melting of the Antarctic ice fields means that earlier projections could be low. State law does not provide any hard numbers, and developers can pick conservative estimates as long as the science has been peer-reviewed. Bay Area planners are watching this closely.

Until recently, developers had to complete vulnerability checks as part of the California Environmental Quality Act review process. The assessment included future flooding from rising water levels.

But in 2015, a California Building Industry Association lawsuit challenged these standards and the state Supreme Court ruled that climate change was beyond the limited scope of these state environmental rules.

Our map shows planned construction projects. In many of these vulnerable areas, cities are encouraging new construction with special zoning and tax incentives.

To compare other sea level rise outcomes — including a 3-foot rise in sea level (considered by scientists the “most likely” scenario for 2100) — download a pdf of the map from our print edition, or order a copy of the newspaper.


These eight megadevelopment projects, with a known cost of more than $1.8 billion, are in areas vulnerable to rising floodwaters on the edge of San Francisco Bay, join 27 we assessed in 2015.


Redwood Landfill

Photo courtesy of Strada Investment

WHAT: 420 acres, landfill, recycling and compost facility | WHERE: Novato | STATUS: Legal challenge denied | DEVELOPERS: Waste Management | COST: $39.6 million | INCLUDES: Project cost estimate (for a new energy plant on the premises), land value

In 2006, a group of North Bay residents raised red flags over developer Waste Management’s interest in expanding its 420-acre landfill and recycling facility. After Marin County certified the project’s 2008 environmental impact report, the group sued the county in part because of what it called an inadequate plan for adapting to sea level rise. Under the plan, every five years the facility’s operators are to assess, using the latest scientific projections, whether levees surrounding the property are tall enough to prevent ocean waters from flowing in, carrying waste to San Pablo Bay. Per this plan, Waste Management raised a levee once, in 2008, said Rebecca Ng, the county’s deputy director of Environmental Health Services. Waste Management did not respond to a request for comment.

Richmond Terminal One

Artist rendering of Richmond Terminal One. Courtesy of Terminal One Development

WHAT: 13 acres, residential with public trail and park | WHERE: Richmond. | STATUSConstruction to begin late 2017 | DEVELOPERS: Terminal One Development and Laconia | COST: $14 million | INCLUDES: Land value, fees

This project will entail 21 single-family homes, as well as five condominium buildings containing a total of 295 flats, on a former oil- and gas-storage facility next to the Richmond Yacht Club. To adapt to a projected 3-foot increase in sea level and to mitigate storm damage, the buildings will be set inside the Bay Trail, to be built at nearly 11 feet above current sea level.

Pier 29, Embarcadero

WHAT: Approximately 20,000-square-foot commercial development, within 123,000- square-foot pier | WHERE: San Francisco | STATUS: In approval process | DEVELOPERS: Jamestown | COST: $5.8 million | INCLUDES: Project cost estimate

This pier, on San Francisco’s Embarcadero, was built in 1915 and was to be used as an event space for the 34th America’s Cup before a fire damaged the structure in 2012. It has been rebuilt and the Port of San Francisco is negotiating a lease with developer Jamestown to add commercial space to its bulkhead, which is one-fifth of the total building site. The Sierra Club and other groups have objected, saying the space should be for recreational purposes, but the city said it needs the tax revenue it would receive through the planned use. The Port of San Francisco, which owns the land, will work with the developer to make an adaptation plan for future sea level rise, said Port Commission spokesperson Renée Martin.

75 Howard St.

Artist rendering of the 75 Howard St. project from a pier. Courtesy of the Paramount Group

WHAT: 4-acre lot, residential tower | WHERE: San Francisco | STATUS: Permits granted, demolition of current structure to start soon | DEVELOPERS: Paramount Group | COST: $218.6 million | INCLUDES: Project cost estimate, land value, fees

When finished, this 21-story tower will contain 120 luxury condominiums as well as street-level commercial space. The project’s environmental impact report notes that, based on current projections, the bottom floor of the building will likely be inundated during a 100-year-flood event by 2050. But developer Paramount Group faces no legal mandate to adapt the design to future sea level rise because the property lies outside the jurisdiction of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which requires risks associated with sea level rise to be assessed. Paramount declined a request for comment.

Former Potrero Power Plant

WHAT: 1201 Illinois St. | 21 acres, mixed-use development | WHERE: San Francisco | STATUS: In approvals, land remediation phase | DEVELOPERS: Associate Capital | COST: $71.5 million | INCLUDES: Land value (partial amount)

This property is owned by Associate Capital, an investment group that includes eBay’s Meg Whitman. Real estate developer District Development is remediating toxic soil at the site of this former power plant, as a first step to converting it to 3 million square feet of housing and commercial space, plus public waterfront access. The developer has not yet submitted plans for the site, said spokesman P.J. Johnston, but it will “conform to existing and new planning requirements” around sea level rise.

Brisbane Baylands

Artist rendering of Brisbane Baylands development. Courtesy of Universal Paragon Corp.

WHAT: 684 acres, mixed-use development | WHERE: Brisbane | STATUS: City reviewing project through June 2017 | DEVELOPERS: Universal Paragon Corp. | COST: $1.37 billion | INCLUDES: Project cost estimate, associated infrastructure costs

Since 2006, developer Universal Paragon Corp. has been advancing this massive proposal to replace a defunct rail yard and landfill with 4,000 housing units, a large park, and 7 million square feet of commercial space. Some Brisbane residents oppose the plan due to concerns over congestion, but SPUR, a Bay Area urban planning think tank, and other smart-growth proponents endorse it because it would provide dense housing and access to nearby Caltrain, SamTrans, and Muni buses and trains. If approved, construction could start in 2019 and take up to 20 years.

Tidelands Condominiums

Artist rendering of Tidelands Condominiums development. Courtesy of the New Home Company Inc.

WHAT: 2.8 acres, 76 condominiums | WHERE: San Mateo | STATUS: Completed, October 2016 | DEVELOPERS: The New Home Company | COST: $42.6 million | INCLUDES: Project cost estimate (construction only), land value

This 76-condominium project resulted in the removal of one-third of an acre of seasonal wetlands, and the developer, which declined to comment for this story, made up for that by buying credits meant to finance wetland restoration elsewhere. The developer also added two landscape features, called bioswales, to remove pollutants from runoff into adjacent wetlands. The structures were not designed to accommodate rising sea levels.

Alameda Marina

WHAT: Redevelopment Proposal 44 acres, mixed-use redevelopment | WHERE: Alameda Master | STATUS: Plan submitted, in approval phase |DEVELOPERS: Bay West Development COST: $44 million | INCLUDES: Site improvements (to prep land for construction)

Almost 90 percent of the Alameda Marina is still undeveloped. This project would fill much of that open space by adding about 670 residential units and 200,000 square feet of commercial space, reconstructing the shoreline in the process. The developer has said it will build seawalls to shield the property from at least 24 inches of projected sea level rise, per the city of Alameda’s requirements. Its design accommodates future adaptive measures, such as increasing the seawall height above that level, according to the project plan.

The first San Francisco Public Press survey listed the following 27 major real estate developments proposed, planned or underway around San Francisco Bay that would be vulnerable to severe flooding due to climate change. Their known cost is more than $27 billion (as of 2015).

Mission Bay

Photo courtesy of Strada Investment

WHAT: 2.2-acre mixed-use development | WHERE: San Francisco | DEVELOPERS: CIM Group | STATUS: Scheduled to open Fall 2017 | COST: Undisclosed

The Mission Bay neighborhood continues to transform into a mixed-use development with One Mission Bay — a 350 luxury residential project, with 41,000 square feet of resort-style amenities, 16,000 square feet of retail space, and 348 parking spaces. The projects consist of two towers: one 198-unit, 16 story high-rise, and a 152-unit, seven-story building. CIM Group is the owner and developer of the project site, while Strada Investment remains CIM’s representative.

Central Waterfront

Photo courtesy of the City and County of San Francisco Planning Department

WHAT: Mixed-use development | WHERE: San Francisco | DEVELOPERS: Many | STATUS: Still in planning phases| COST: Not set

The Central Waterfront Neighborhood would stretch about 500 acres along the city’s eastern shoreline between Potrero Hill and the bay. Long-term plans include Pier 70’s 28-acre, mixed-use development. The environmental impact report states that city Public Works hydraulic engineers will review building permits to suggest improvements “on a project-by-project basis to ensure that properties are removed from risk of flooding.

Pier 70

Photo courtesy of Pier 70: A Forest City Project

WHAT: 28-acre mixed-use development | WHERE: San Francisco | DEVELOPERS: Forest City | STATUS: Seeking approvals Summer 2017 | COST: $2 billio

The historic district in the Dogpatch neighborhood will get between 1,100 to 2,150 housing units, 30 percent of them designated “affordable.” Includes between 1 million and 2 million square feet of office space, 500,000 square feet of retail, arts and light industrial space, in addition to 9 acres of open space. New building heights range from 50 to 90 feet. Historic buildings would be rehabilitated. DEVELOPERS to seek project approvals in 2017 from the San Francisco Port Commission, San Francisco Planning Commission and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors

According to Forest City, sea level rise projections are based on the high end of state guidelines for 2100 and there is a financing mechanism to fund future improvements for sea level rise. Protections involve raising the grade of the entire site to elevate buildings and ensure that utilities function properly. With improvements, Pier 70 can coexist with higher tides and storm surges. Many of these protections will be part of creative designs that maximize shoreline access for public use. The Pier 70 project includes a Community Facilities District financing mechanism that generates revenue long after the project is built to fund future sea level improvements, if needed

Executive Park

Photo courtesy of the City and County of San Francisco Planning Department

WHAT: 14 acres, mixed-use development | WHERE: San Francisco | DEVELOPERS: Yerby Co., Universal Paragon Corp., others | STATUS: In planning phases| COST: Undetermined

The Executive Park subarea plan, which would create a new residential neighborhood east of Highway 101, includes two projects: the Yerby Company and the Universal Paragon Corp. The Yerby Project, renamed the Thomas Mellon Waterfront Residences, was approved Dec. 1, 2016, and has been expanded from 500 to 583 residential units. The Universal Paragon Corp. project has not yet submitted an application for its portion but is expected to do so soon. The draft environmental impact report relies on a predicted sea level rise of 3 feet by 2100, which does not include storm surge and is at the low end of projections.

Golden State Warriors Arena

Photo courtesy of MANICA Architecture, images rendered by steelblue

WHAT: 12-acre sports complex | WHERE: San Francisco | DEVELOPERS: Golden State Warriors | STATUS: To open during the 2019-20 NBA season | COST: Estimated $1 billion

The team broke ground in January 2017 on the Chase Center, a state-of-the-art sports and entertainment complex in Mission Bay. The 135-foot-tall arena will feature 18,064 seats for basketball games, with a maximum concert capacity of 18,500. The development will include 100,000 square feet of retail, restaurants, cafes and public plazas, in addition to a new 5½-acre public waterfront park. The arena is reportedly the only privately financed facility of its kind in the United States. A final environmental impact report has not been released yet, but the draft environmental report states that the “planʹs effects related to flooding and sea level rise would be less than significant.

India Basin

Photo courtesy of Build Inc

WHAT: 15.5-acre mixed-use development | WHERE: San Francisco | DEVELOPERS: Build Inc. | STATUS: Seeking approval in 2017 | COST: $800 millio

The project, adjacent to the India Basin Shoreline and 900 Innes — a separate city-owned parcel that will become a park — could be developed with up to 1,240 apartments, 275,000 square feet of retail and commercial space, plus a 50,000-square-foot K-8 public school. Traversed by 13-mile Blue Greenway bay trail, the project and all major infrastructure would be situated at higher elevations, DEVELOPERS said, and would accommodate the current worst-case projections for sea level rise in 2100 — 69 inches, including 100-year storm conditions. DEVELOPERS added that the site would also be able to accommodate higher projections. The shoreline is specifically designed to adapt and allow for upland habitat migration and enhanced ecologies in future sea level rise conditions

S.F. State University

WHAT: Satellite campus | WHERE: San Francisco | DEVELOPERS: Lennar Urban | STATUS: Exploratory | COST: Undetermined

A university spokesperson said the school is still considering opportunities to establish an S.F. State presence in Bayview-Hunters Point.

Mission Rock

Photo courtesy of The Cordish Companies

WHAT: 28 acres, mixed-use development | WHERE: San Francisco | DEVELOPERS: Giants Development Services | STATUS: Construction starts 2017 | COST: $1.8 billion (estimated)

In November 2015, 74 percent of voters approved Proposition D, which raised the height limit for the residential-commercial buildings from 190 to 240 feet. According to DEVELOPERS, 40 percent of the proposed 1,500 apartments will be permanently affordable across a range of income levels including low income and workforce housing. DEVELOPERS plan to raise the land to protect against 66 inches of sea level rise, with other adaptive strategies if it accelerates

8 Washington

Photo courtesy of 8 Washington

WHAT: 3.2 acres, mixed-use development | WHERE: San Francisco | DEVELOPERS: Pacific Waterfront Partners | STATUS: Rejected by voters, project was canceled | COST: Estimated $200 million

S.F. Ferry Terminal Expansion

Photo courtesy of San Francisco Bay Ferry

WHAT: 3 acres of ferry gates | WHERE: San Francisco | DEVELOPERS: WETA | STATUS: Begins May 2017.Construction to be completed by 2019. | COST: $80 million (First of two phases

This project would demolish Pier 2 and build three new gates between Pier 1 to the north and Pier 14 to the south, while creating a new plaza south of the Ferry Building. DEVELOPERS plan to raise the plaza and deck structures to make them “resilient to expected sea level rise conditions over at least a 50-year time frame, the assumed design life of the project.” Additional strategies to keep the Ferry Terminal viable until 2100 will also be incorporated

Treasure Island & Yerba Buena Island

Photo courtesy of Treasure Island SF Bay

WHAT: 46- acre, mixed-use development | WHERE: San Francisco | DEVELOPERS: Treasure Island Community Development, Lennar Urban, Wilson Meany | STATUS: Demolition began in February 2016; first subphase wrapping up. Geotechnical work on Treasure Island will begin in summer 2017. | COST: $3.5 billion to $5 billion

Treasure Island (367 acres) will see 8,000 new homes, up to 550,000 square feet of commercial, office and retail space, and up to 500 hotel rooms, plus 300 acres of parks and open space. On Yerba Buena Island (94 acres), contractors are mobilizing to begin building water reservoirs and roadways/utilities. Development plans include raising the perimeter of Treasure Island to protect against an initial 3 feet of sea level rise, plus an adaptive management plan and a project-generated funding stream to provide for greater adaptations as necessary in the future

Hunters Point Shipyard & Candlestick Point

Photo courtesy of the City and County of San Francisco, Office of Community Investments and Infrastructures Hunters Point Shipyard

WHAT: 750 acres, mixed-use development | WHERE: San Francisco | DEVELOPERS: Five Point | STATUS: Second phase under development | COST: Undetermined

The first 88 townhomes and condos opened in 2014. Next up will be 12,100 affordable, workforce, and market-rate homes across the shipyard and Candlestick Point. The shipyard site will include 350 acres of parkland and a 300 slip-marina.

Burlingame Point

Photo courtesy of Burlingame Point

WHAT: 18-acre, mixed-use development | WHERE: Burlingame | DEVELOPERS: H&Q Asia Pacific, Genzon Property Group | STATUS: Broke ground in early 2017 | COST: Undetermined

The bayfront office project is to include 767,000 square feet of office and life-science space in five buildings ranging from two to eight stories. DEVELOPERS stated buildings in the floodplain would remain dry if the bay crests 7.1 feet above current levels

Lincoln Centre Campus

Photo courtesy of BioMed Realty Trust

WHAT: 20 acres, mixed-use development | WHERE: Foster City | DEVELOPERS: BioMed Realty Trust Inc. | STATUS: Pre-construction; ground not broken | COST: $149 million (estimated)

The Lincoln Centre campus will include three new buildings totaling 595,000 square feet of office, lab and manufacturing space.

Redwood City Saltworks

Photo courtesy of Google

WHAT: 1,433-acre, residential | WHERE: Redwood City | DEVELOPERS: DMB Pacific Ventures | STATUS: Withdrawn | COST: Unknown

While the original plan would have brought up to 12,000 new homes to Cargill industrial salt ponds, the developer’s attorney said the “50/50 Plan” is no longer being pursued. “Beyond that, salt-making operations continue and there is no further update.

Crossing 900

Photo courtesy of Hunter/Strom Properties

WHAT: Mixed-use development | WHERE: Redwood City | DEVELOPERS: Kilroy Realty Corp., Hunter/Storm Properties | STATUS: Completed in early 2017 | COST: Undetermined

The corporate headquarters for cloud-storage company Box Inc. consists of about 334,000 square feet, and up to 5,000 square feet of retail. The first phase of the two-building project — 226,000 square feet of office space — was occupied in 2015, and the second 108,000 square feet space was completed in the first quarter of 2017. The Redwood City Downtown Precise Plan says a “limited portion” of this development zone is vulnerable to 4.6 feet of sea rise, but stresses “uncertainty” in climate predictions.

Pete’s Harbor/ Blu Harbor

Photo courtesy of the Redwood City Planning Department

WHAT: 14 acres, residential | WHERE: Redwood City | DEVELOPERS: RWC Harbor Communities | STATUS: Under construction | COST: $76 million

First residential units available April 2017. The development plan would include at least 411 homes in addition to a 45- to 65-slip marina. The 2003 environmental statement predicted 1.3 feet of sea level rise by 2036 for the project and the surrounding area

Facebook West

Photo courtesy of Matt Harnack / Facebook

WHAT: 22-acre corporate headquarters | WHERE: Menlo Park | DEVELOPERS: Gehry Partners | STATUS: Completed in March 2015 | COST: Undetermined

The 430,000-square-foot structure, known as “Building 20,” was designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry.

North Bayshore Development Area

Photo courtesy of Google,  Big / Heatherwick Studio

WHAT: 650 acres, mixed-use development | WHERE: Mountain View | DEVELOPERS: Many | STATUS: Awaiting approval | COST: Undetermined

Since the City of Mountain View awarded LinkedIn 1.4 million square feet of its 2.2 million-square-foot location, Google has emerged with an 18.6-acre site, through a property swap, allowing both tech giants to move forward with development plans in Mountain View and Sunnyvale. Mountain View officials said they are working on a revision to the North Bayshore Precise Plan that will study up to 9,850 residential units, in addition to approximately 3.4 million square feet of office space. The city council will consider the revised Precise Plan in June 2017

Google Moffett Federal Airfield

Photo courtesy of NASA

WHAT: 1,000 acres, mixed-use development | WHERE: Mountain View | DEVELOPERS: Planetary Ventures | STATUS: Began testing on Hangar One in 2016 | COST: $1.16 billion (estimate)

In 2016, Google began testing methods to purge toxic contaminants from the Hangar One as part of its plan to restore the giant iconic dome. Google has a 60-year lease with NASA.

Google Moffett Place Campus

WHAT: 55-acre, mixed use development | WHERE: Sunnyvale | DEVELOPERS: Jay Paul Co. | STATUS: Under construction. Estimated completion April 2020 | COST: Undetermined

Google bought six, eight-story buildings totaling 1.9 million square feet located along Highway 237 near Highway 101 in Sunnyvale. The first phase started with the buildout of three buildings in 2013. Infrastructure work on the second half began in 2015. The draft environmental report states people or structures would not be exposed to injury or loss as a result of flooding.

Centennial Gateway

Photo courtesy of the Montana Property Group

WHAT: 8.4-acre, mixed-use development | WHERE: Santa Clara | DEVELOPERS: Montana Property Group., others | STATUS: Construction began 2016-Slated to open 2017 | COST: Undetermined

Montana’s project would include two hotels, up to 400,000 square feet of office, and 150,000 square feet of retail plus a Montana-operated restaurant. The environmental review is not yet public

Alameda Point Site A

WHAT: 68-acre, mixed-use development | WHERE: Former Naval Air Station Alameda | DEVELOPERS: Alameda Point Partners | STATUS: Construction 2016-2029: Moving through planning board review | COST: Undetermined

The project would bring up to 800 homes — 25 percent of them designated affordable; 600,000 square feet of commercial-retail space in new or rehabilitated buildings; a new ferry terminal; and 15 acres of parks and open space. The project is being built in three five-year phases.

Brooklyn Basin

Photo courtesy of Signature Development Group

WHAT: 65-acre, mixed-use development | WHERE: Oakland | DEVELOPERS: Signature Development Group, Zarsion Holdings Group, Reynolds & Brown | STATUS: Construction to begin in spring 2017 | COST: $1.5 billion (estimated)

Construction of first building of the 241-unit mixed-use residential project is to start April 2017, with completion scheduled for the first half of 2019. Construction of the 8-acre Shoreline Park is to begin April/May 2017, with the same timetable for completion

Oakland Army Base

Photo courtesy of California Capital & Investment Group

WHAT: 360-acre, mixed-use development | WHERE: West Oakland | DEVELOPERS: California Capital & Investment Group, Prologis, portion of the former OAB, Port of Oakland | STATUS: Phase I | COST: $1.2 billion (estimate) for the two-phase redevelopment project on parcels of the former base owned by the city and the Port of Oakland

DEVELOPERS said some of the land on the city’s portion of the Oakland Army Base sits on dredged bay sediment and is still settling, which would be expected any time there is development in this area. Engineers working on a portion of the City of Oakland OAB property in Phase I would “densify” the soil and raise it at least 1.3 feet. Completion of initial phase is slated for 2018-2019

Jack London Square

Photo courtesy of Ellis Partners LLC

WHAT: 12-acre, mixed-use development | WHERE: Oakland | DEVELOPERS: Jack London Square Ventures, CIM Group | STATUS: No response from DEVELOPERS | COST: Undetermined

CIM Group bought six buildings, and two development parcels that make the 12-acre Jack London Square mixed-use development site in downtown Oakland. The site consist of 243,000 square feet of office space, 191,000 square feet of retail, in addition to a 250-room hotel and a 665-unit residential tower. A recent update to the environmental statement claims no significant flooding risk but does not detail its methodology

San Leandro Shoreline

WHAT: 75-acre, mixed-use development | WHERE: San Leandro | DEVELOPERS: Cal-Coast Slated to break ground summer 2017 | COST: Undetermined

The site consist of 52 acres of land and 23 acres of water-surface land. The development has taken 10 years, and once completed would consist of a 200-room hotel, up to 400 homes, 150,000 square feet of offices, a conference center, restaurants, library, amphitheater and recreational space with an artificial beach.

A final environmental review acknowledges that “the project would place housing within the 100-year floodplain and within areas subject to sea level rise/coastal high hazard.” However, “the current FEMA firm panels are undergoing revisions and it is possible that no portions of the Project site will be within the 100-year floodplain when the project is scheduled to start construction.” In addition, the project would be designed to adapt to sea level rise projections and would include “appropriate design standards for building construction to protect structures from sea level rise, such as including elevated grades or floodable development, hard structures such as seawalls and bulkheads, and/or soft structures such as Low-Impact Development (LID), green infrastructure, detention basins, mini- floodplains, biofiltration, and stormwater parks.”

Data Sources

Sea level rise: Projections for San Francisco flooding are from U.S. Geological Survey LiDAR data from 2011, using sea rise scenarios projected by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

Total flood estimates are approximations; the estimate of 3.4 feet of storm surge is a baywide average. This map incorporates a dynamic computer model from Our Coast, Our Future, showing that floods can vary by location.

Outside San Francisco, these projections are based on metric elevations, which we converted to feet to provide the best match for San Francisco’s scenarios. (See the interactive version:

Different bay-wide flooding models using ocean dynamics have been produced by FEMA, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission and the nonprofit research group Climate Central.

Development: Information about projects in San Francisco comes from the Planning Commission, Department of Building Inspection and Port of San Francisco. Baywide maps derived from environmental impact reports, developer websites, and news articles and maps in the San Francisco Business Times, Silicon Valley Business Times and San Francisco Chronicle. Areas are approximate, calculated using the Spatial Analysis toolbox in ArcMap. Some elevations have changed due to construction since the last aerial elevation survey.

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Local Planners Brace for Faster Antarctic Ice Melt Thu, 20 Apr 2017 22:00:00 +0000 Reports warn of extreme sea levels, dangers of inaction

Across California, policymakers and urban planners at every level of government are struggling with how to respond to new computer models that show massive ice sheets in Antarctica on the brink of collapse. » Read more

The post Local Planners Brace for Faster Antarctic Ice Melt appeared first on San Francisco Public Press.

Reports warn of extreme sea levels, dangers of inaction

Across California, policymakers and urban planners at every level of government are struggling with how to respond to new computer models that show massive ice sheets in Antarctica on the brink of collapse.

The melting of fields of ice in West Antarctica could send sea levels to heights twice those estimated by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just a few years ago, according to new estimates published in Nature.

If the West Antarctic ice sheet melted, it would push water along North America and in San Francisco Bay far higher than the global average. The most extreme estimates suggest that sea levels could rise by more than 8 feet globally and as much as 10 feet in the Bay Area, even without a storm.

Compounding that, recently published research from the North Pole shows that melting glaciers and ice caps in Canada’s Arctic are contributing significantly to rising seas. Only Greenland holds more Arctic ice than Canada.

2050 — The Dividing Line

In January, Gov. Jerry Brown convened a scientific working group to review the latest studies. On April 12, the group issued a report that echoed those projections and warned of “the potential for extreme sea-level rise in the future, because the processes that could drive extreme Antarctic Ice Sheet retreat later in the century are different from the processes driving loss now.

Midcentury will be the dividing line: “After 2050, sea-level rise projections increasingly depend on the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions.”

The authors concluded their seven key findings with a warning about dithering or denial: “Waiting for scientific certainty is neither a safe nor prudent option.”

“High confidence in projections of sea-level rise over the next three decades can inform preparedness efforts, adaptation actions and hazard mitigation undertaken today, and prevent much greater losses than will occur if action is not taken,” they wrote. “Consideration of high and even extreme sea levels in decisions with implications past 2050 is needed to safeguard the people and resources of coastal California. 

That assessment will shift the target for Bay Area planners, who, after years of deliberation, had only just settled on a consensus estimate. 

“We all know that’s out the window,” said Larry Goldzband, executive director of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, the nation’s oldest coastal zone regulator.

In October, the agency began creating a baywide plan to adapt to sea level rise. In coming years, the commission plans to produce renderings, engineering designs and financing documents for a proposed fix, which is expected to cost billions of dollars. With polar ice melting faster than governmental decisionmaking generally happens, it is a race against science and time.

“We have 27 members of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, and 13 of them are locally elected officials,” Goldzband said. “They want to see us get this done.”

No Change to S.F. Policy

San Francisco leaders are also grappling with how to protect the city from rising waters. Their strategy has been informed by the work of David Behar, director of the climate program at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. He is following the research closely.

“When it comes to sea level rise, what happens in Greenland and the Antarctic are the biggest uncertainties,” he said.

But for now, despite new research, he is not recommending any changes to city policy.

“We cannot change our guidelines every time a new article comes out,” said Behar, who chairs the city’s Sea Level Rise Committee. “Otherwise we’d be changing our targets every few weeks.”

Behar does not believe the latest projections have reached a scientific consensus, and he is looking for other model-based studies that confirm the conclusions in the Nature paper.

“The question we are asking ourselves is, is this actionable science? The jury is still out on that,” he said.

In 2015, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee asked all city departments to prepare the waterfront and public facilities for the threats posed by climate change. What emerged was a sea level rise plan billed as a “call to action.” By next year, San Francisco is expected to produce a list of project investments “to best improve climate resilience” with potential funding sources.

The city based its plan on research on the effects of climate change on the West Coast conducted in 2012 by the National Research Council. The study predicted that the rise in ocean levels would accelerate later this century, inundating thousands of acres of shoreline. Under what Behar said is the “most likely” scenario, water could rise by some 3 feet by 2100. The model also included an upper range where the bay could rise by 4.6 feet, a worst-case scenario in which greenhouse-gas emissions continue unabated, raising the temperatures of the atmosphere and the seas. Add to that 3.4 feet of surging water and the total rise could hit 8 feet during a bad storm.

But the new research in Nature shows how rising greenhouse-gas emissions could melt the Antarctic ice sheet, contributing several feet of sea level rise independently. The models were based on studies of how high global sea level was during warm periods in the distant past, and simulations showing how rising temperatures can splinter ice sheets and force massive chunks to calve off.

Disrupting Earth’s Gravitational Field

This research, conducted by geoscientists Robert DeConto and David Pollard, was included in a new report released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which included runaway projections for the San Francisco Bay Area.

The ice sheets in the Antarctic are massive. If all the ice were to melt, the mass of water that enters the oceans could disrupt the Earth’s gravitational field and rotation, magnifying sea level rise off North America, according to Rutgers University’s Robert Kopp, an author of the NOAA report.

“The consequence of the gravitational changes is that you have a sea level fall near the ice sheet and a greater than global sea level rise far away from it,” he said.

Another scientist scrutinizing the latest research is Gary Griggs, director of the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a member of the governor’s working group. The potential for sea level rise is “enormous,” he said. The oceans are warming and that warm water is getting onto the ice shelves and melting them from above. At the same time, the water levels are rising and pushing the ice up.

“There are these massive ice sheets — glaciers that are coming down to the coast,” he said. “They’re being buttressed by these big ice shelves.”

The NOAA analysis was released on the last day of Barack Obama’s presidency at a moment when, fearful that the Trump administration would destroy key data or make it inaccessible, federal climate scientists were scrambling to store climate data on safe servers. Oceanographer William Sweet, a co-author of the NOAA report, told The Washington Post that the scenarios provide “communities a better sense of what the future might hold with continued sea level rise so they can plan accordingly and have better insights and make smart decisions about how they want to plan for the future.”

Jan. 26: Satellite captures a portion of the glacier starting to break off. Photo via NASA
Jan. 31: The iceberg — small compared with the 2015 giant — was estimated to be 1.2 square miles. Photo via NASA
King Baudouin Ice Shelf, East Antarctica: 985 feet. Photo courtesy of International Polar Foundation.

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Visionary Solutions to Bayfront Inundation Thu, 20 Apr 2017 22:00:00 +0000 The changing climate and shifting weather patterns are affecting each region of the globe differently, and not all coastal cities will experience sea level rise in the same manner.

Even within the Bay Area, encroachment of bay water is sure to require a bigger response in low-lying communities, such as Alviso, near San Jose, than in places that, based on models, are less vulnerable, such as parts of Richmond and Brisbane. » Read more

The post Visionary Solutions to Bayfront Inundation appeared first on San Francisco Public Press.

The changing climate and shifting weather patterns are affecting each region of the globe differently, and not all coastal cities will experience sea level rise in the same manner.

Even within the Bay Area, encroachment of bay water is sure to require a bigger response in low-lying communities, such as Alviso, near San Jose, than in places that, based on models, are less vulnerable, such as parts of Richmond and Brisbane.

Likewise, there will not be a single most effective adaptation strategy, but many. Broadly, responding to sea level rise requires actions that fall into three categories: fortify infrastructure, accommodate higher water and retreat from the shoreline. Given the economic and cultural ties Bay Area residents have to the water — and because the level of the bay will rise slowly, unpunctuated by the type of hurricanes or cataclysmic storms the East Coast experiences — retreat is a hard sell. 

Dikes, Levees and Wetlands

But relying solely on bigger, more numerous “hard” solutions, such as dikes and levees, not only would harm the region’s aesthetic value, but also could undercut the effectiveness of restoring San Francisco Bay’s once-thriving wetlands and marshes — including a massive network of former industrial salt ponds in the South Bay. Municipalities, ecologists and planners agree that robust wetlands are key to adapting to rising sea levels.

If done correctly, wetlands — natural fortifications against the encroaching water — will migrate upland to accommodate the level of the bay, which could rise a foot by 2050 and 5 feet by the 22nd century, according to some projections. For now, planners are using a more modest 3-foot estimate for 2100.

Bay Area residents want to take action on sea level rise. In June 2016, voters approved Measure AA, a parcel tax that will put $500 million toward improving wetlands over the next 20 years.

But unless it is done in combination with other innovative, potentially disruptive baywide adaptation measures, restoring wetlands will be like siphoning a few drops from a brimming bucket, said Nate Kauffman, a landscape architect and urban planning consultant.

Offshore Landforms

Kauffman’s vision, called the Live Edge Adaptation Project, combines large-scale engineering, such as the construction of offshore landforms that would act as barrier islands and absorb wave energy, with tidal marshes that would form behind them. Leading up to the shoreline would be another engineered landform, such as a wide, sloping levee made of constructed wetlands to absorb storm surges, similar to the horizontal levee project in Hayward.

How could such a plan be achieved? Kauffman said that implementing the plan would have “huge resource and enormous economic implications” but that the concept is also his “vision and argument for a different way of doing things.”

“Systems designed and built 100 years ago are not sustainable, and increasingly less so as we add more people to area,” he said.

Realistic, Affordable Designs

Beginning in April, an incentive program called Bay Area: Resilient by Design Challenge will bring together local governments, designers, planners and other stakeholders to generate 10 design solutions aimed at addressing sea level rise in specific Bay Area communities. The program, inspired by a similar challenge in New York and New Jersey in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, is being underwritten by a $5.8 million grant, led by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Past design challenges aimed at sea level rise have floated audacious ideas, such as building levees across the Golden Gate to separate the Pacific Ocean from the bay. What sets this challenge apart is that rather than starting with design concepts, which may or may not have realistic applicability, it seeks out cross-discipline teams willing to delve into vulnerabilities of localities and communities. The goal is to generate adaptations that are visionary but also realistic, replicable and affordable.

Allison Brooks, who as the executive director of the Bay Area Regional Collaborative coordinates adaptation-planning efforts of four regional agencies, is on the team implementing the Resilient by Design Challenge. She said that until this concerted effort, “local jurisdictions have been attempting, because no one else was doing it, to develop solutions to their sea level vulnerabilities. But we can’t think about issues related to climate and flooding from a jurisdictional standpoint, because climate does not pay attention to city lines.”

The design challenge seeks to tap into sea level rise adaptation and planning efforts already underway, said Brooks, and use strategic plans developed in San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland as guides. Although the 10 adaptation projects that resulted from the Resilient by Design Challenge on the East Coast are funded through $930 million in federal disaster relief, paying for adaptation in the Bay Area is likely to require capital project funding in the tens of billions of dollars.

Redefining ‘A New Urban Edge’

Gabriel Kaprielian, who directs the Design and Innovation for Sustainable Cities program at the University of California, Berkeley, said how we frame the expensive, complex tasks related to sea level rise adaptation is vital. “Can we think about these problems as opportunities to redefine a new urban edge?” he asked. When it comes to redefining that space, the hardest part might not be designing and engineering, but rather changing policy.

Take, for example, the Port of San Francisco’s 100-year-old, 3-mile-long seawall that runs under the Embarcadero, absorbing the brunt of tides, boat wakes and storm swells. It is far from an adequate defense against rising seas, but remaking it in its current design could mean separating the city from the bay with a large concrete wall. As Gil Kelley, then-director of citywide planning, told a panel on sea level rise last summer, no one wants that. Yet making the port more resilient might mean changing its mandate, Kaprielian said. He endorsed a redesign in which structures along the waterfront are raised, perhaps even floating so they can rise with the tide. Paying for such a change might entail creating public-private partnerships and adding commercial and residential spaces.

Floating Islands, Homes

The San Francisco nonprofit Seasteading Institute is designing futuristic floating islands off French Polynesia, featuring solar power, sustainable aquaculture and ocean-based wind farms.

The project’s pilot islands would cost a total of $10 million to $50 million and house a few dozen people, Randolph Hencken, the institute’s executive director, told The New York Times. And the initial residents would most likely be middle-income buyers from the developed world.

On a smaller scale are so-called amphibious developments. These structures are built on and anchored to land but have the ability to float during periods of high water. Unlike floating cities, these structures are already in use in New Orleans, the United Kingdom and Southeast Asia.

Hope Hui Rising, assistant professor of landscape architecture at Washington State University School of Design and Construction, described amphibious housing concepts to residents of the Dogpatch and Potrero Hill neighborhoods during public workshops in January. She said amphibious housing could be built inside of large levees and, along with open spaces and parks, could help alleviate the compounding effects of coastal, river and inland flooding.

Including Low-Income Areas

Most current Bay Area residents will not be alive at the end of the century and therefore will not know whether adaptations designed for 3 feet of sea level rise succeed or fail. What regulators can do, however, and what Bay Conservation and Development Commission executive director Larry Goldzband considers a priority, is to ensure that adaptations keep all communities safe and that changes made to one part of the shoreline do not harm adjacent areas. “Many of the neighborhoods that exist now along the bay are underserved neighborhoods, low-income,” Goldzband said.

He pointed specifically to East Palo Alto, Alviso, West Oakland, the Canals District in SanRafael, Richmond and Hunters Point. Making sure they are not underserved by sea level rise adaptation plans is a priority for the commission.

In considering environmental justice and the need for baywide solutions, Kauffman said people leading the region’s adaptation efforts should reflect the diversity and needs of the region, which is predicted to add 2 million people by 2040.

Groups that have long been in the vanguard of efforts to protect the bay should accept that they need to make compromises to adapt to rising seas, Kauffman said.

Adding fill to the bay has always been antithetical to groups such as Save the Bay, since the 20th-century extension of the urban shoreline disrupted the functioning of natural ecosystems. But under his concept, filling parts of the bay would be required.

“We’re all going to be way dead before the more dramatic parts of this start to manifest,” Kauffman said, “so it’s easier for those environmentalists to keep fighting as they’ve always been than it is to reinterpret their mission or method for saving the bay. The net effect of all these people trying to protect pieces of the bay will mean that nothing happens and all of the bay is in worse shape.”

RELATED: Q&A With Nate Kauffman

Nate Kauffman’s Live Edge Adaptation Project “categorically rejects postures of avoidance and resistance, and puts forth a bold new vision for a better Bay.” Images courtesy of Nate Kauffman // LEAP : Live Edge Adaptation Project //
Live Edge Adaptation Project

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By Weakening Law, Developers Shift Sea Rise Burden to Cities Wed, 19 Apr 2017 22:27:48 +0000 California politicians expressed outrage in March when details of a White House budget proposal suggested President Trump would slash a $1 billion environmental grant for restoring San Francisco Bay marshes. And they were apoplectic about the executive order revoking special status for wetlands considered until now to be “waters of the United States.” » Read more

The post By Weakening Law, Developers Shift Sea Rise Burden to Cities appeared first on San Francisco Public Press.

California politicians expressed outrage in March when details of a White House budget proposal suggested President Trump would slash a $1 billion environmental grant for restoring San Francisco Bay marshes. And they were apoplectic about the executive order revoking special status for wetlands considered until now to be “waters of the United States.”

But when it comes to weakening environmental protections, sometimes California’s wounds are self-inflicted. For nearly a decade, the real estate and construction industries have pursued a legal strategy that has undermined the landmark 1970 state law that some cities had used to help protect their waterfronts from sea level rise, a Public Press review of thousands of pages of legal and planning documents shows.

After lower courts chipped away at the long-held interpretation of the California Environmental Quality Act, the state Supreme Court in 2015 overturned decades of land-use law by upholding lower court rulings that cities could no longer require developers to take into account the effects of climate change on their projects. The decision has unsettled public officials and planners, and critics say it will allow real estate interests to saddle taxpayers with a gigantic bill to defend against rising seas.

At the same time, the state Legislature, controlled by the Democrats, and Gov. Jerry Brown have neither proposed amending the law nor drafted new statutes to encompass the effects of climate change on coastal development. In January, Brown tasked scientists with reviewing the latest research on sea level rise, and preliminary guidance and preliminary guidance was published in April.

Local and regional governments also have been slow to respond with new regulations or funding measures.

Lawyers who specialize in compliance have circulated memos and held several meetings to share strategies for conforming to this interpretation of CEQA. Although many project plans do address sea level rise, public filings are now peppered with references to the 2015 case to inoculate developers from challenges by planning agencies or environmental groups.

State and local leaders are slow to address a ruling that shifts liability for climate adaptation from builders to taxpayers.

The development industry has a lot at stake. Scores of buildings are queued up for construction on prime waterfront land that scientists say could be intermittently or permanently underwater by the end of this century. These include big projects such as office parks, residential towers, hospitals and entertainment venues in which some of the largest development firms in the country have collectively invested tens of billions of dollars.

Local leaders have touted tax revenues and their own political legacies to advocate large-scale development along the water’s edge — even amid warnings from climate researchers that many low-lying areas will require major public investment to be protected adequately.

The state’s highest court has complicated governmental planning efforts.

The decisive case, California Building Industry Association v. Bay Area Air Quality Management District, did not turn specifically on sea level rise but ultimately limited the reach of the California Environmental Quality Act, known as CEQA. In their opinion, the justices accepted the argument from one of the state’s biggest developer lobbying groups that the act concerned only the “effects of a project on the environment,” and not changes in the environment that could affect a project. Those include risks from sea level rise flooding, wildfires, earthquakes, shifting wind patterns, air quality and carbon emissions that warm the atmosphere.

As a result, industry lawyers argue that under CEQA, waterfront developers no longer appear to be required to pay for expensive fixes to protect their properties from flooding by elevating building entrances, waterproofing ground floors, constructing levees or seawalls or using other engineering techniques.

RELATED: Timeline of Rulings, Actions That Blunted CEQA

The Public Press found that since 2011, developers of at least eight major Bay Area waterfront projects have included key language from court rulings in dozens of land-use filings and lawsuits, some in an effort to block requirements to build or pay for flood protection measures. Six of the projects used this tactic in environmental planning documents filed after the high court’s ruling in December 2015. Among our findings:

  • Statewide, developers, cities, environmentalists and others have argued about the scope of CEQA in at least 15 real estate lawsuits since 2009, when courts in Southern California began reviewing challenges to the law.
  • Two cities — San Francisco and Menlo Park — have used the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the CEQA reinterpretation to justify their own land-use plans.
  • Three companies seeking to build on the San Francisco Bay waterfront have used the industry association case to attack regulations or suits: the Golden State Warriors; Facebook, which expanded its Menlo Park campus; and the Redwood Landfill in Novato. Developers of five other major projects, including the mixed-use development at Pier 70 in San Francisco being built by Forest City, cited the language limiting CEQA in environmental review documents or in court when analyzing sea level rise, air quality, wind or other environmental effects.

In July 2015, the Public Press reported that scientists projected that sea level rise, combined with the severe storm surge, could push the bay 8 feet above today’s high tide by 2100. Leading agencies, such as the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, concurred with that finding. A citywide task force last year issued a wide-ranging report outlining the dangers to the city’s heavily urbanized eastern waterfront.

Since then, predictions for sea level rise have only worsened. Scientific papers have documented the accelerated melting of ice sheets in Antarctica and glaciers in Canada — both the result of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas pollution from industrial activity. These measurements, combined with new atmospheric models, have pushed the federal upper-limit prediction for occasional flooding above 8 feet along the California coast by 2100, even without a storm. (For more on the science see Local Planners Brace For Antarctic Ice Melt.)

Despite growing alarm, local land-use approvals on the waterfront seem to have speeded up. At least eight large-scale developments situated below 8 feet in elevation are proposed, including a residential tower on Howard Street in San Francisco and a marina in Alameda, the island city that could be more than half flooded by 2100, according to the most pessimistic sea rise scenario. (See Solutions to Bayfront Inundation)

Q&A: History Will Condemn Today’s Leaders for Inaction

The building industry’s main critique of CEQA is that it is abused by opponents of development. Industry lawyers tell stories of “not in my backyard” neighbors tying up or derailing what they call perfectly benign projects with what developers consider picayune complaints about auto traffic, wind patterns or shadows cast in parks.

Major local industry players, such as the Bay Area Council and Bay Planning Coalition, supported the effort to dismantle key portions of the law. “Requiring developers to account for external environmental impacts on projects was never the intent of CEQA and would mark a profound and fundamental change in the law, creating unreasonable and extremely costly barriers to infill development that is our best opportunity to address our housing crisis,” said Rufus Jeffris, vice president of communications at the Bay Area Council.

The push-back on the use of CEQA to address climate change, however, goes a step beyond the usual complaints by neighbors. In its Supreme Court case, the California Building Industry Association argued that the law “really is not the right tool” to address sea level rise. Andrew Sabey, an attorney with Cox, Castle & Nicholson, who represented the association, said cities do not need state law to do their jobs.

“There is a robust world of planning and zoning law, a robust world of federal or state laws that can be considered,” Sabey said.

Cities, he said, “should be doing planning and exercising their police powers. It goes back to the analogy that isn’t perfect: A lot of legislative muscles were allowed to atrophy. You have planning law. You should be using it.”

But Chris Kern, a city planner in San Francisco, said that for years his office relied on CEQA to regulate private development threatened by flooding, and that no existing local ordinances allow him to require changes to developments that may become unsafe as the bay rises and storm related flooding becomes more frequent.

Some environmental lawyers who use CEQA to challenge developments worry that real estate interests are passing off costs to the taxpayers. Government agencies could be on the hook for protecting poorly defended buildings that they are still permitting for construction.

“It’s so wrong,” said Doug Carstens, a managing partner of Chatten-Brown & Carstens, a law firm based in Southern California that represents environmental and community groups. He said developers are arguing that a problem exists — but it is no longer their problem.

“People have these concerns and want answers, and developers are saying, ‘We don’t have to give you an answer,’” Carstens said. “It’s putting blinders on.”

According to Richard Frank, director of the California Environmental Law and Policy Center at the University of California, Davis, developers are working hard to consolidate their state court victory. “They will continue to argue for a limited application of the California Environmental Quality Act whenever they can,” Frank said.

Basketball by the Bay

The waterfront’s latest marquee project — the future San Francisco home of the Golden State Warriors basketball team — broke ground in January.

The project, which includes the arena and a nearby office complex, sits directly across the street from San Francisco Bay and a few feet above the current level of the water. (The exact height has changed in successive drafts of the architectural renderings.) When it opens for the 2019-2020 season, the newly christened Chase Center will anchor the city’s 303-acre Mission Bay neighborhood, south of downtown, where new offices, medical campuses and residential buildings are rising every year.

In March, Uber Technologies announced that it had acquired a significant stake in two office towers within the arena project, and that thousands of employees would occupy half of the 580,000 square feet of office space.

The Warriors’ last environmental report, approved in 2015 by the Planning Commission, acknowledged that sea level rise could get bad enough to flood plazas and the arena’s basement during a storm in 2100.

Possible remedies include berms around the perimeter or, in a pinch, strategically placed sandbags. (For more on San Francisco’s sea-rise planning in Mission Bay, see Projects Sailed Through Despite Dire Flood Study.)

Despite these challenges, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee remains a champion of the arena, which he has called his “legacy project.” He stood alongside executives and basketball players to plunge a ceremonial golden shovel into a dirt pile at a groundbreaking ceremony on Jan. 17. The team defeated a bitter legal challenge in November by arguing, in part, that CEQA no longer required the team to protect against environmental impacts such as sea level rise and wind.

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera celebrated the rigorous legal defense in a press release: “A small group of opponents had threatened to litigate ‘until the cows come home,’ despite losing in court every step of the way,” he wrote. “Well, guess what? The cows have come home.”

This is a crucial moment for environmental planning in California. Last fall, Brown declared California would lead the battle to prepare for the effects of climate change. In a fiery speech in San Francisco’s Moscone Center before thousands of scientists, Brown said California would step in where Washington had failed to do the right thing.

Policies articulated by the Trump administration have focused on reducing funding for some of the programs most cherished by California environmentalists. One such grant is the S.F. Bay Water Quality Improvement Fund. It is a major contributor to a 50-year wetland restoration project that is expected to cost $1 billion, from a mix of federal, state and local sources. Last summer voters across the Bay Area passed Measure AA, which levies a $12-per-parcel tax to pay into the fund.

Responding to threats to defund NASA’s Earth Science division, Brown issued a headline-grabbing one-liner: “If Trump turns off the satellites, California will launch its own damn satellite.”

But land-use regulation is generally less high profile than energy policy or climate research. More than a year after the state court ruling, the state has not given much help to local governments. The Office of Planning and Research, which Brown oversees, has proposed new guidance for local governments on how to interpret CEQA in light of the court’s ruling. But an early draft suggests that it will not recommend that cities or courts continue to use CEQA as a regulatory tool to address climate change.

In November, the California Building Industry Association sent a letter to the planning agency requesting that any new rules include direct language from the court’s opinion. In January, the planning and research office posted the letter online after the Public Press filed a public records request.

Brown has criticized CEQA since at least 2012, and called for local land-use policy to be streamlined. The reform, he said, was “the Lord’s work.”

Last year, he pushed for the deregulation of new market-rate developments that included affordable housing. Brown’s proposal to award these projects approval without environmental review — the so-called as-of-right provision — faced fierce opposition from environmental and labor groups and failed to win support in the Legislature.

Local Response Muted

In summer 2015, the Public Press calculated that Bay Area builders had invested more than $21 billion in 27 major new shoreline developments in areas vulnerable to sea level rise. Records showed that in San Francisco alone, scores of smaller buildings in the Financial District, Mission Bay and South of Market could also end up under water. (For articles and interactive maps, visit While many cities touching the bay said they were studying the problem, few had set any limits on development, such as zoning and building codes.

San Francisco Planning Department officials said at the time that they required developers to raise the land or set buildings back. Using the reporting process outlined by CEQA, planners provided developers with a checklist that included a review of the effects of future flooding and references to the most up-to-date sea rise predictions. Kern, the senior planner, said CEQA was a nimble tool that could adapt with the changing science. But after the ruling, while the department could encourage developers to address rising seas, it could no longer force them to do so.

Kern said cities might need to adopt new regulations. “That is something that we have been discussing in the city for some time,” he said. A committee convened by the mayor last year said that any such proposal would come by 2018 at the earliest.

Sea level rise was not the focus of the state Supreme Court ruling. At issue were strict pollution standards for allowing development in areas with dirty air. The ruling criticized what lawyers called the “reverse application” of the state law: “Agencies generally subject to CEQA are not required to analyze the impact of existing environmental conditions on a project’s future users or residents.”

That wording left many planners, developers, lawyers and policymakers confused about the circumstances in which climate change might be relevant. Lower courts may bring more clarity by ruling in future cases in which developments “exacerbate existing environmental hazards.”

Ellison Folk, a partner in the environmental firm Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, represented the Bay Area Air Quality Management District in the case. She said the ruling created a “gap” in regulation. “I think agencies have the ability to do this kind of analysis and regulate to address sea level rise,” she said. “You can still use the CEQA process as your vehicle for doing that — because the Supreme Court said that if you want to do that, you can. There’s just nothing that requires you to.”

Without new state or local laws, many environmentalists place their hopes in regional planning. The Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which was formed 50 years ago to stop developers from filling in the bay, voted in October to create a region wide climate adaptation plan. But the agency’s own land-use jurisdiction is limited to 100 feet inland from the shoreline, so its challenge will be to cajole normally competitive cities to work together.

Larry Goldzband, the executive director, said that with water now creeping inland, cities on the shoreline will face hard choices.

“Everybody in the Bay Area who deals with planning, or is a planner, or has to work with planners recognizes the bay is going to get bigger, and we have to figure out how we’re going to prosper in spite of that,” he said.

One unfortunate possibility, he said, is abandonment of the lowest-lying ground: “Retreat may well become necessary.”

Developers Begin Legal Challenges

The “reverse application” of CEQA first came under scrutiny in a 1995 appellate court case, Baird v. County of Contra Costa, which centered on an addiction treatment organization that planned to add a 20-bed treatment center for teenage boys. Neighbors sued, saying nearby land was contaminated with petroleum in open ponds at a former Shell Oil plant. The court held that a developer did not need to consider how existing toxic hazards might affect new residents. “The purpose of CEQA is to protect the environment from proposed projects, not to protect proposed projects from the existing environment,” the judge wrote. But this case was considered an outlier and was not relied on as precedent. Lawyers and judges largely ignored its arguments for more than a decade.

Then in 2009, conservative appellate courts in Southern California began repeating language from Baird. In City of Long Beach v. Los Angeles Unified School District, another court held that CEQA did not require the district to mitigate the effects of toxic air pollution when constructing a school close to a freeway.

In South Orange County Wastewater Authority v. City of Dana Point in 2011, the Court of Appeal held that CEQA did not require residents of a proposed subdivision to mitigate odors from a wastewater treatment plant. “The Legislature did not enact CEQA to protect people from the environment,” according to the ruling.

Sea level rise first came under consideration in Ballona Wetlands Land Trust v. City of Los Angeles in 2011. Developer Playa Capital wanted to build condominium and commercial space on a wetland in Los Angeles. The land trust sued, saying the developer did not adequately “discuss impacts relating to sea level rise as a result of global climate change.”

Again borrowing language from Baird, the court argued that CEQA did not apply. The purpose of state-mandated environmental impact reports, it said, “is to identify the significant effects of a project on the environment, not the significant effects of the environment on the project.” After Ballona, some Bay Area developers similarly argued that they no longer had to offer engineering solutions to climate related flood risks.

In 2012, Facebook submitted designs for its new 430,000-square-foot headquarters in Menlo Park, parts of which were just a few dozen yards across from — and a few feet above — San Francisco Bay. The documents claimed that structures would be “raised above future flood risk.”

But officials from the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, the city of East Palo Alto and Save the Bay found the plan to be “inadequate” and asked for “possible options for providing adequate flood protection.”

Facebook followed the anti- CEQA lawyers’ script on how to challenge the law’s authority. Quoting Ballona, the company argued that the review process required developers to “evaluate the effects of the project on the environment, not the effect of the environment on the project.”

The answer satisfied the Menlo Park City Council, which approved the project. The facility opened for business in March 2015.

Late last year, Menlo Park changed its general plan, proposing new transportation and significant building in the neighborhoods of Belle Haven, Flood Triangle, Suburban Park and Lorelei Manor. During public comment, one resident challenged city planners to “detail the number of new residential units and the amount of nonresidential square footage that would be added in areas prone to sea level rise.”

The city responded that it required new development to be elevated 2 feet above the level that the Federal Emergency Management Agency now considers part of the flood zone — a standard that the agency has never updated to account for sea level rise predictions.

Like private development lawyers, the city echoed the recent court cases: “The environment’s effects on a proposed project, which includes sea level rise, are not considered impacts under CEQA.”

A similar fight emerged around a shoreline garbage dump in Marin County. A San Anselmo-based environmental group, No Wetlands Landfill Expansion, filed suit in mid-2012 challenging the state-approved enlargement of the Redwood Landfill in Novato, the largest such facility in the county.

The landfill is near San Francisco Bay and the Petaluma River, and levees would need to be fortified and expanded in five to 10 years. “There is no indication how Redwood must design and construct the levees,” environmentalists wrote. Officials said levees were last expanded in 2008. Landfill representatives said in court filings that Redwood did not want to commit to levee expansion, given the “unknowns associated with sea level rise,” but promised to review and update flood-protection plans every few years. Again, landfill lawyers employed the same CEQA-limiting language as in other cases.

Initially, the appeals court judges were skeptical and agreed to review the climate change analysis. They said that if water breached a levee, thousands of pounds of solid waste would pour into the river and ultimately the bay. This would clearly be “an impact on the environment.”

But after reviewing the company’s planning documents, the judges ruled in favor of the landfill, saying they trusted the company to review levee improvements every five years for “the entire remaining operating life of the landfill.”

Redwood Landfill staff did not respond to requests for comment. Rebecca Ng, deputy director of Marin County’s environmental health department, said the expansion had not begun.

Lawyers Strategize Next Moves

The court rulings have strengthened the hand of lawyers working for the building industry, who gathered several times in the last year to plan their next moves on behalf of developers.

On Oct. 5, 2016, the Bay Planning Coalition, whose mission is to convene industry and municipal groups around development and watershed issues, held a meeting billed as an “expert briefing” at the law office of Wendell Rosen Black & Dean in downtown Oakland. CEQA experts distributed case summaries with key conclusions and language that could be worked directly into environmental impact reports. The main agenda item addressed the nuances of the 2015 California Building Industry Association ruling from the state Supreme Court. Planners and policymakers from local governments were invited.

Sabey, the building industry association lawyer, works at 50 California St. in San Francisco, which attorneys jokingly call “CEQA headquarters,” where the political sausage of Bay Area real estate development is made.

While lawyers on other floors of the building — which has sweeping views of the bay, including hundreds of acres of land that could someday be below sea level — may disagree, Sabey said cities have relied too much on the California Environmental Quality Act.

“There will be that case where sea level rise is a CEQA issue,” he said, “but it should be a rare bird, where you are causing an impact because of your project.”

Attorney Ellison Folk defended the regional air district in state Supreme Court. She said the 2015 environmental ruling was shortsighted and ambiguous. Photo by Anna Vignet // San Francisco Public Press
Attorney Andrew Sabey represented the building industry in a case limiting state environmental rules. “Cities have planning law,” he said. “You should be using it.” Photo by Anna Vignet // San Francisco Public Press

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Timeline: Lawyers for Developers Share Tactics to Blunt CEQA Wed, 19 Apr 2017 22:26:38 +0000 RELATED: Weakened Law Shifts Sea Rise Cost to Cities

In 1995, the Diablo Valley Ranch, a drug rehab facility in Contra Costa County, planned to expand. The problem? According to neighbors, the land it wanted to build on was contaminated with oil and toxic chemicals. » Read more

The post Timeline: Lawyers for Developers Share Tactics to Blunt CEQA appeared first on San Francisco Public Press.

RELATED: Weakened Law Shifts Sea Rise Cost to Cities

In 1995, the Diablo Valley Ranch, a drug rehab facility in Contra Costa County, planned to expand. The problem? According to neighbors, the land it wanted to build on was contaminated with oil and toxic chemicals.

The company made what was then an obscure argument: The California Environmental Quality Act, known as CEQA, the state’s premiere environmental law, did not require developers to consider how the environment might influence its project, only how the project would affect the environment.

Today, developers are using the same reasoning to push back on the ability of Bay Area cities to regulate waterfront development and protect residents from rising sea levels, a product of human-caused climate change. Over the last two decades, as developers won over judges in more and more state courts, lawyers began peppering these phrases in environmental impact reports, lawsuits and responses to public comment.

January 1995: RULING

Baird v. County of Contra Costa; Bi-Bett Corporation — The Court of Appeal rules that Contra Costa County does not have to address existing soil pollution in a land-use decision. The case contradicts previous rulings and is largely ignored for more than a decade.

Costa County does not have to
address existing soil pollution in a landuse
decision. The case contradicts
previous rulings and is largely ignored
for more than a decade.

The purpose of CEQA is to protect the environment from proposed projects, not to protect proposed projects from the existing environment. CEQA is implicated only by adverse changes in the environment”

November 2008: ACTION

Call for Sea Rise Plan Coordination Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issues an executive order directing state agencies to plan for sea level rise.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issues an executive order directing state agencies to plan for sea level rise.

July 2009: RULING

City of Long Beach v. Los Angeles Unified School District — The Court of Appeal rules that school officials are not obligated to account for existing air pollution from a nearby highway when deciding where to put a new facility.

“We digress first to make the point that generally, the purpose of an environmental impact report is to identify the significant effects on the environment of a project not the impact of the environment on the project, such as the school’s students and staff.”

June 2011: RULING

South Orange County Wastewater Authority v. City of Dana Point; Makar Properties LLC — The Court of Appeal rules that a proposed mixed-use development cannot be blocked on account of pollution emanating from a nearby sewage treatment plant.

“The argument is that the environment needs to be cleaned up to make it suitable for the project, rather than vice versa … The Legislature did not enact CEQA to protect people from the environment…

October 2011: ACTION

San Francisco Bay Plan — The Bay Conservation and Development Commission updates sea level rise findings and policies. Shoreline developers will now be asked to base their climate change analysis on consensus science

November 2011: RULING

Ballona Wetlands Land Trust v. City of Los Angeles; Playa Capital Company LLC — The Court of Appeal rules that a developer seeking to build condominium and commercial space on a wetland does not have to address “impacts relating to sea level rise as a result of global climate change.”

But identifying the effects on the project and its users of locating the project in a particular environmental setting is neither consistent with CEQA’s legislative purpose nor required by the CEQA statutes…”

January 2012: ACTION

Facebook Campus Project — In applying for permits for a new 22-acre campus in Menlo Park, the social media giant faces criticism from environmental groups, regional agencies and the neighboring city of East Palo Alto, centered on inadequate planning for sea level rise. The company responds to most of the comments with boilerplate language from recent court cases saying it is not responsible for protecting the property from climate-induced flooding.

CEQA requires an analysis of the effects of a proposed project on the environment…the purpose of an EIR is to identify the significant effects of a project on the environment, not the significant effects of the environment on the project…”

March 2012: RULING

No Wetlands Landfill Expansion v. County of Marin et al., Redwood Landfill Inc. — The Court of Appeal green-lights the expansion of Marin County’s largest garbage dump. The court says it trusts the company to review levee improvements every five years for the remaining life of the landfill.

“… EIR had no duty to analyze or mitigate the environment’s effect on the project (as opposed to the project’s effect on the environment). But Ballona Wetlands is distinguishable because, although the EIR may not specifically say so, future sea rise here presumably would not only impact the project but would also impact the environment by contaminating waterways]…”

June 2012: ACTION

West Coast Sea Rise Study — The National Research Council publishes a comprehensive study of how sea level rise will affect California, Oregon and Washington. The intention is for city planners to use the information as a tool for long-range planning.

July 2015: ACTION

Report on Waterfront Building Boom — Comparing scientists’ predictions with land-use permits from around the Bay Area, the Public Press finds that builders are investing more than $21 billion in new shoreline development.

December 2015: RULING

California Building Industry Association v. Bay Area Air Quality Management District — The California Supreme Court rules that the intention of the California Environmental Quality Act is to protect the environment, and does not apply to the effects on people or property from future climate change. California and local officials acknowledge that it will be hard to require developers to anticipate climate change effects such as sea level rise.

In light of CEQA’s text and structure, we conclude that CEQA generally does not require an analysis of how existing environmental conditions will impact a project’s future users or residents.”

March 2016: ACTION

San Francisco Sea Level Rise Action Plan — San Francisco adopts guidance documents for addressing the threat of sea level rise for all public facilities and outlines objectives for coastal flood planning and mitigation.

October 2016: ACTION

General Plan, City of Menlo Park — Menlo Park releases a general plan covering a wide variety of goals including land use, transportation, utilities and public investment. One commenter recommends the city “detail the number of residential unites and amount of nonresidential square footage that would be added in areas prone to sea level rise,” but the city responds that it is no longer obligated to do so.

“…Per the recent California Supreme Court decision in the California Building Industry Association [CBIA] v Bay Area Air Quality Management District [BAAQMD], issued December 17, 2015, the environment’s effect on a proposed project, which includes sea level rise, are not considered impacts under CEQA unless the proposed project would exacerbate an environmental hazard…”

November 2016: RULING

Mission Bay Alliance v. Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure; Golden State Warriors Arena LLC — The Court of Appeal rules in favor of the Golden State Warriors basketball team in its application for a $1 billion development including a sports arena and office complex. The legal challenge had focused on the effects on traffic and wind patterns, mentioning sea level rise only parenthetically.

Defendants argue correctly that CEQA does not require analysis of the wind impacts on the project. “[T]he purpose of an FSEIR is to identify the significant effects of a project on the environment, not the significant effects of the environment on the project.”

December 2016: ACTION

San Francisco’s Natural Resources Management Plan — The City of San Francisco, which owns a golf course and natural area in coastal San Mateo County, issues a wide-ranging parks management plan calling for keeping the level of wetlands artificially stable. In comments, the Sierra Club objects that the proposal “will lack any resiliency in the face of increased climate stress and inevitable sea-level rise.”

“The purpose of an EIR is to provide public agencies and the public in general with detailed information about the effect which a proposed project is likely to have on the environment.”

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Projects Sailed Through Despite Dire Flood Study Wed, 19 Apr 2017 22:23:23 +0000 A city-commissioned environmental study that detailed how the Mission Bay neighborhood would be inundated by rising seas in coming decades went unpublished for more than a year while two showcase waterfront developments won key approvals from city officials and voters, a Public Press review of records shows. » Read more

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A city-commissioned environmental study that detailed how the Mission Bay neighborhood would be inundated by rising seas in coming decades went unpublished for more than a year while two showcase waterfront developments won key approvals from city officials and voters, a Public Press review of records shows.

Before the Golden State Warriors scored a win at the Planning Commission for a new bayfront arena and the San Francisco Giants got the go-ahead from voters for plans to develop housing and offices next to AT&T Park in late 2015, city agencies and the Port of San Francisco sought input from major “stakeholders,” which included the two sports franchises.

But they did not involve the district’s supervisor or the public, and did not widely distribute the June 2015 draft marked “final” before the official publication in September 2016 — two weeks after an official records request by the Public Press.

Ten months earlier, voters had approved Proposition D, the Giants’ Mission Rock development, without being given a chance to compare the developers’ ballot-box claims about resilience to sea level rise with the independently researched report laying out the need to radically re-engineer the burgeoning neighborhood.

The report describes the immediate need for public agencies to plan for massive physical barriers to protect against powerful storms and coastal flooding that are expected to increasingly threaten the city’s southeast and downtown over the next few decades. Costs will likely run into the billions, with taxpayers bearing most of the burden.

“We don’t have 5–10 years before this process can begin,” wrote the authors of the report, prepared by SPUR, a San Francisco-based planning and urban research think tank. “The catastrophic events of Katrina and Sandy show that disasters with unimaginable impacts can happen tomorrow.”

Much of Mission Bay and South of Market could flood by 2100 if sea rise and storm surge exceed 8 feet above current high tide, as some models predict. Red points indicate new development projects, including the Golden State Warriors Arena and Mission Rock mixed-use development. Illustration by Marcea Ennamorato & HyunJu Chappell // Public Press. Sources: sea rise data from U.S. Geological Survey; rendered building images from Google Earth

Though the report’s authors shared several drafts with the Planning Department staff, there is no record of members of the San Francisco Planning Commission having seen it before approving the Warriors arena in November 2015, not long after voters passed Proposition D. There is also no indication that drafts were shared officially with the Board of Supervisors before it approved both projects.

RELATED: Emails Show How Flood Study Became Public

Mayor Ed Lee advocated forcefully for both megadevelopments, which together would cost about $2.6 billion. His office and the port jointly requested the sea level rise study in early 2014, but missed several opportunities to bring the report into public discussions about major waterfront developments.

Three members of the city Planning Commission, which approved the Warriors basketball palace in November 2015, said they were kept in the dark about the dangers from rising seas in the city’s fastestgrowing neighborhood. Mission Bay is home to residential towers, offices, medical and research facilities, and the city’s new emergency services center.

District 10 Supervisor Malia Cohen, who represents the city’s southeastern shore, said she was not aware of the draft report’s findings before the board signed off on the Warriors’ and Giants’ plans.

“I was not consulted in the drafting of the documents,” Cohen said. “Of course, I am interested and concerned by the looming impact of sea level rise.”

Public Works Projects Foreseen

The Mission Creek Sea Level Rise Adaptation Study presented strategies for massive public works projects that might be needed to fortify the shoreline against sea level rise. Ideas included reinforcing seawalls, building a tidal gate, creating offshore structures to lessen waves’ impact and elevating Third Street as a kind of levee. In one scenario, a large section of the neighborhood closest to the bay could be retrofitted to flood occasionally. That area would include the Warriors arena.

The report cites a 2012 study by the National Research Council which found that global warming could raise bay waters above the current street level at Mission Bay in just a few decades. In an extreme scenario, builders engineering new structures could expect San Francisco Bay to rise 4.6 feet above current high tide, plus 3.4 feet of storm surge, scientists found. Much of Mission Bay lies below the 8-foot level.

The Mission Creek report warned forcefully against complacency: “The slow pace of sea level rise does not communicate a sense of impending threat; however, that danger could materialize in this community. It is urgent that work on solutions begins now because major developments in the inundation zone are currently being planned or built. It can take years or decades to conceptualize, design, earn public support, fund, permit and construct major capital shoreline projects.”

Fuad Sweiss, the mayor’s adviser on sea level rise, said the study is part of the city’s broader resiliency planning process. Its recommendations include public-works projects that would extend beyond any individual development or even the borders of the recently established 303-acre Mission Bay neighborhood.

He said the original six-month timeline for the report was overly ambitious for a project of this magnitude because it required fact-checking, consultation with many departments and new imaging data that reflected recent landscape changes made by developers.

“We were busy with so many things that were related to sea level rise,” he said. “We had so many issues. We tried to unify the work by all city agencies under one umbrella.”

Yet for all that work, the final report in September 2016 looked remarkably similar to a draft distributed to stakeholders in the summer of 2015, and contained the same core message: Mission Bay is in danger of flooding within the lifetime of buildings already in place or under construction, so the neighborhood needs to be redesigned as it is being built out.

While several Planning Department staff were involved in reviewing drafts of the report for more than two years, one member of the Planning Commission, which oversees the department and grants city approval on major developments, said he had not read the report until its publication last fall — nearly a year too late to make a difference.

Dennis Richards, the commission’s vice president, said he might have viewed the Warriors arena and other Mission Bay developments in a new light if the study had been available to the seven-member panel in 2015.

“Given that this was not available, would we have done something differently?” Richards said. “That’s the question, I think.”

By the time the report was released, the Planning Commission no longer had a chance to weigh in, and a lawsuit against the proposed arena, which the developers beat back in November 2016, was near resolution.

“What’s really funny is that all of the appeals have been exhausted — and this piece of information comes out after the appeals have been exhausted,” Richards said.

Developers Eye Early Drafts

The Port of San Francisco, the Planning Department, the Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure, and the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, among others, cofunded the $200,000 study, which was started in 2014 by a team of consultants led by SPUR, with help from the Dutch engineering firm Arcadis.

The Public Press first inquired about the publication schedule in December 2014. In an email, Laura Tam, SPUR’s sustainable development policy director, said her government counterparts told her it would be published likely in “late January or early February.” In late February 2015, she said completion was delayed further because of “technical issues.”

Reached for a comment recently, Tam said she could not recall any occasions when drafts of the report were presented to policymaking bodies.

“As the SPUR project manager of this report I can share that it did not occur to me, and would not be typical for us, to share drafts of our study with the Planning Commission or the Board of Supervisors,” she said.

AnMarie Rodgers, senior policy adviser with the Planning Department, was involved in the project until 2015. “As a SPUR report, it does not require city adoption,” she told the Public Press.

The city-funded Mission Creek study by SPUR, the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, describes the immediate need for public agencies to plan for massive physical barriers to protect against powerful storms and coastal flooding that are expected to increasingly threaten the city’s southeast and downtown over the next few decades. Costs will likely run into the billions, with taxpayers bearing most of the burden.

Emails from the port show that in June 2014, Brad Benson, a project manager who oversaw the Mission Creek report, asked Lee’s office in an email if he could reach out to the Warriors’ developer, Strada Investment Group. “I want to make sure they don’t have any concerns about the study,” Benson wrote.

Three months later, the Giants hosted a meeting at AT&T Park at which an early draft of the study and slides were shared with an array of stakeholders, including staff from Mission Bay Development Group and representatives from city agencies. At that time, the Giants were seeking voter approval to raise the height limit for Mission Rock, a $1.6 billion, mixed-use development with 1,500 homes along the south side of Mission Creek. That narrow channel separates Mission Bay from South of Market, and meets the bay at McCovey Cove, where home run balls make a splash.

The slides indicated that the final report would be drafted by November 2014 and published by March 2015.

On Sept. 19, Tam followed up with the group by sending the draft presentation and requesting responses to design details within a week.

“It seems important to share within your departments and teams at your judgment so that the final product is the best it can be, and our key stakeholders are not surprised by it,” she wrote.

Three days later, Tam outlined to the capital planning committee the city’s need for spending on major public works to protect Mission Bay from sea level rise.

“We cannot just protect individual buildings,” Tam told participants at the Sept. 22 session. “We need something that protects the whole area in the long term.”

The presentation made headlines — “Study: SF may need to build levee to protect Mission Bay from rising sea levels,” the San Francisco Examiner reported. But the draft report was not released.

Later that fall, the project team began to further involve department heads and developers to “take more time to get people bought in to what we are doing,” Arcadis consultant Peter Wijsman wrote in an October 2014 email to Tam and Benson.

Eight months later, in June 2015, a version of the study stamped as a “final draft” was circulated to the stakeholders group and the University of California, San Francisco.

Fran Weld, the Giants’ vice president of development, said the team was “able to learn from the process.” She said the 28-acre Mission Rock site would be re-engineered and could function as a levee. The Giants’ plan to raise the buildings to 5.5 feet above today’s mean high tide, surrounded with graded parks that drain to the streets and the bay. She said a Mello-Roos tax — a special neighborhood-based real estate surcharge — would help pay for future sea rise protections.

“We know we don’t know everything that will happen with climate change today,” she said, “so we are doing the best we can today and structuring the financing for what we don’t know in the future.”

Luring Basketball Back to S.F.

For the Warriors’ dreams of returning to San Francisco, the second time was a charm.

In April 2014, the team’s brass abandoned its initial plan for an arena on Piers 30-32 near the Bay Bridge after it generated fierce political opposition from neighbors concerned that it would create congestion and block views. Instead, the team purchased its current 12-acre site in Mission Bay from cloud-computing giant Salesforce. Developing on a private plot instead of port property directly on top of the water eliminated the need for voter approval as well as reviews by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“We just have to deal with the city agencies, and that’s a lot simpler, quite frankly,” Warriors co-owner Joe Lacob told the San Jose Mercury News.

In December 2014 — a few months after the study began — Strada Investment Group received a draft to review.

On Dec. 12, Benson emailed Strada executives about the adaptation study and design concepts. “We would very much like to share these with you to get your feedback, as the study area includes the arena site at its southern boundary,” Benson wrote.

In a recent interview, Benson qualified that communiqué, saying he merely wanted to alert Strada to the existence of the study.

“We didn’t get any feedback from the Warriors,” Benson said.

Strada representatives did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The team has said it would raise buildings and waterproof below-ground features. Environmental documents acknowledged that during a storm the main court, practice courts and parking garage could be flooded as soon as 2100, if the more pessimistic scientific predictions hold true.

Benson said that he shared drafts with Planning Department staff, and that it would have been their responsibility to bring it to the commission. He described the Mission Creek study as a “thought exercise” to develop a range of concepts. “I think it will serve the public education function as it was intended,” he said.

“The purpose of the report was never to inform development proposals,” Benson said. “It was not to inform development in Mission Bay. It was to look at the shoreline — what will happen to the shoreline over the next 50 or 100 years? It is a concept document.”

But the study itself warned that large sections of the neighborhood, including the areas where the teams are building, would need expensive retrofits.

Catherine Reilly, with the city’s Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure, suggested in one email “that we set the tone” with “solution graphics” that are “attractive for reprint in a news article so that we do not only end up with the ‘sky is falling’ flooding map and the story of solutions is lost.”

The mayor did seem concerned about the dangers of sea level rise to the megadevelopments he was pushing hard for in Mission Bay. In fact, his staff was working on multiple, parallel tracks to study the problem.

In March 2015, Lee convened a citywide committee to coordinate sea level rise planning across departments. About year after that, the panel published an “action plan” for assessing flood risk for public buildings. That document received only a half-sentence mention in the Mission Creek study.

But it did make a promise: A follow-up report would be completed by summer 2018 that would detail funding strategies and possibly new regulations on land use.

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Emails Show How Flood Study Finally Became Public Wed, 19 Apr 2017 22:21:54 +0000 RELATED: Projects Sailed Through Despite Dire Study

The Public Press initially inquired about the Mission Creek study in late 2014 and was told that it was in draft form and delayed for more technical information, feedback or bureaucratic review.

On Sept. » Read more

The post Emails Show How Flood Study Finally Became Public appeared first on San Francisco Public Press.

RELATED: Projects Sailed Through Despite Dire Study

The Public Press initially inquired about the Mission Creek study in late 2014 and was told that it was in draft form and delayed for more technical information, feedback or bureaucratic review.

On Sept. 15, 2016, the Public Press emailed the Port of San Francisco’s head of communications, Renee Martin, officially requesting the Mission Creek study, which was prepared by SPUR, the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association. The port co-funded the study with the Planning Department and other agencies.

On Sept. 20, port project manager Brad Benson emailed Martin, Eileen Malley, the port’s general counsel, and Fuad Sweiss, Mayor Ed Lee’s adviser on sea level rise.

“The study in question is in final draft form, with planned release on Monday or Tuesday,” Benson wrote, indicating Sept. 26 or 27. “This does not appear to be a public records request in my view. Is that a correct reading?”

Malley responded that day: “Why don’t you think this is a public records request? It looks to me like a request for the latest draft copy of the Mission Creek Study: Adapting to Rising Tides. I had a conversation with Renee this morning regarding the Sunshine Act disclosure requirements for this type of document. Give me a call or stop by and I can review them with you.”

The next day, Benson sent an email to city stakeholders notifying them that SPUR, with whom Benson had worked closely, would be releasing the report on behalf of the city and the Bay Conservation and Development Commission.

“Reporters/news outlets who have expressed interest include John King, PublicPress, and the NY Times,” Benson wrote.

“Report publication was delayed by a number of factors: a need to make sure that the SLR maps in the report include accurate data about street elevations in Mission Bay; a need to re-up the contract to revise the report to incorporate comments from City departments; and, for a significant period, collective focus on the recently released City SLR Action Plan.”

By the end of the week, days before the scheduled release, the report had been leaked to King, the urban design critic at the San Francisco Chronicle.

In an email, Laura Tam, director of sustainable development policy at SPUR, sent low-resolution copies of the report to a broader group of officials and developers, including the San Francisco Giants and the University of California, San Francisco.

“Please note this report is embargoed until Monday afternoon. Do not send it to the media, share it, or put anything up on social media before Monday afternoon around 2 pm. We gave John King an exclusive and he is planning to have a story ready around then, and it will be in the Chronicle on Tuesday. After that it is fair game for you to share, and please do.”

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Major S.F. Bayfront Developments Advance Despite Sea Rise Warnings Wed, 29 Jul 2015 21:39:49 +0000 Builders plan to invest more than $21 billion in offices and homes in flood-prone areas, where waters could climb 8 feet above today’s high tide by the end of this century

Like every body of water that opens onto a global ocean, San Francisco Bay is virtually guaranteed to rise several feet in coming decades, climate scientists say. » Read more

The post Major S.F. Bayfront Developments Advance Despite Sea Rise Warnings appeared first on San Francisco Public Press.

Builders plan to invest more than $21 billion in offices and homes in flood-prone areas, where waters could climb 8 feet above today’s high tide by the end of this century

Like every body of water that opens onto a global ocean, San Francisco Bay is virtually guaranteed to rise several feet in coming decades, climate scientists say. But that has not deterred real estate developers from proposing and building billions of dollars worth of new homes and offices in bayfront areas that current climate change predictions show could flood by century’s end.

Land-use records and environmental applications reveal that the building boom, fueled by a white-hot tech economy, is moving too fast for regulators to keep pace. Most cities and regional agencies have not yet adopted tools to address flooding in areas where thousands of acres are threatened by sea level rise.

Developers say they have engineering and financial solutions to deal with any reasonable future flooding risk. But critics, including climate scientists, urban planners and environmental activists, say the current wave of construction might leave taxpayers on the hook for enormously expensive emergency protections and repairs.

Researchers studying climate change predict that the rise in ocean levels will accelerate later this century as the atmosphere heats the ocean and melts glaciers. Many of their models show that by 2100, occasional flooding could reach as high as 8 feet above current high tide, in the event of a severe coastal storm.

Even the scenario widely considered “most likely” — 3 feet of permanent rise — would put thousands of acres of the current shoreline underwater.

Developers are planning or currently building at least 27 major commercial and residential complexes around the bay on land lower than 8 feet above high tide, as estimated by recent aerial surveys. And more than a dozen Bay Area cities continue to issue permits for plans that address future flood risks vaguely, if at all.

Google, Microsoft, LinkedIn and Facebook are among the marquee corporate names driving the bayfront explosion. Some cities are even courting companies to build near sea level, often on landfill created in the mid-20th century in former salt marshes. Much of that land could return to the sea, unless cities erect seawalls, levees and other monumental edifices.

In many areas new development includes desperately needed housing. Projects now in the pipeline in San Francisco would add 25,000 new apartments. On Treasure Island alone, developers are ready to break ground on a forest of residential towers that could house 12,000 people, and at Mission Rock and Pier 70, developers have pledged to build more affordable apartments than the city requires.

Public Costs

Corporate and government data show that the highest-profile building projects on the shorelines of San Francisco, Silicon Valley and the East Bay will cost more than $21 billion to build, excluding the value of the land underneath them.

That does not account for the likely public cost, coming within decades, of protecting these settlements with dikes, levees and artificial wetlands — or for the economic toll of abandoning development in designated buffer zones as waves rise.

A few local governments, including Mountain View, are beginning to spend money on sea level rise infrastructure projects that can protect waterfront business districts.

And San Francisco is in its second year of interdepartmental planning to address sea rise. But the city has yet to update its flood plain ordinance or planning and building codes to address increasing flood risk on the waterfront.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has updated its flood maps, which guide public works investments, but other agencies do not impose those guidelines on private property.

Mayor Ed Lee and the Board of Supervisors last year resisted a call from the chair of the city’s civil grand jury to stop approving new shoreline development until stricter building rules are passed. Officials said that changes to city codes might be necessary, though until now state environmental laws and reviews have been sufficient.

Official maps upon which the city’s 2008 flood ordinance is based do not account for future sea rise. Developers say this means the city lacks the legal grounds to prevent building there.

In the past five years, San Francisco land-use agencies have approved residential, entertainment, retail, medical and office projects on nearly 50 waterfront parcels that are less than 8 feet above sea level. Major projects are somewhere in the approval process for Treasure Island and in parts of South of Market, Pier 70, Candlestick Point and Hunters Point.

The most contentious is the Golden State Warriors’ $1 billion plan for a mixed-use facility in the Mission Bay neighborhood south of downtown. Opponents of the project, centered around an arena for the 2015 NBA champions, have focused on how it would affect traffic and bay views. But the basketball team’s engineers admit in an application for environmental review that the site could under some scenarios temporarily flood “to depths between 2 and 4 feet” by the year 2100.

Team engineers express confidence that they can design the buildings to resist storm surges by raising entrances, waterproofing basements, installing floodgates in the garage and judiciously deploying sandbags. The Warriors are expected to present the proposal to the Planning Commission this year before the scheduled release of a city-sponsored report showing Mission Bay’s vulnerability to sea rise.

Also at potential risk are hundreds of millions of dollars worth of facilities that opened this year in other parts of Mission Bay, where many streets and sidewalks are less than 10 feet above the bay’s current level. That includes University of California, San Francisco, Benioff Children’s Hospital and the San Francisco Emergency Services Center, where the city’s Police and Fire departments have set up new headquarters.

Some nearby projects do include plans to address sea rise. At the San Francisco Giants’ $1.6 billion Mission Rock development, which includes 1,500 apartments with views of AT&T Park, the plan is to elevate the land to accommodate 4.6 feet of sea rise, plus storm surge.

Development projects are springing up all around the southern half of the bay, from San Francisco to San Jose, and north to the Port of Oakland and the island of Alameda.

Maps created for the San Francisco Public Press by graduates of the Geography Department at the University of California, Berkeley, using published development plans and oceanographic data, show that current or proposed building projects that are at least partly in low-lying areas add up to more than 5,100 acres.

Around the Bay

Regional planning is hard, and the Bay Area is struggling to coordinate. There are efforts underway. Individual cities are planning to build expensive protections, and new organizations are aligning the responses of cities and public agencies. Some state-level responses are in the works. The challenge is that local development is governed by a patchwork of inconsistent zoning and differing interpretations of state law.

In a survey of 13 communities around the bay with the most intense waterfront development, the Public Press found that six had progressed beyond studying the threat of sea rise but none had an action plan. And only two — San Francisco and San Jose — had changed rules for any departments that oversee land use.

When asking for details about flood protection, cities typically rely heavily on developers to summarize which predictions for sea rise are as relevant. These predictions are sometimes based on shorter time frames than the period it will take to finish paying for the construction. Developers’ long-range engineering suggestions are often based on just 3 feet of permanent inundation by 2100, and do not account for storm surge.

Climate change science is still evolving, but the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission found that government and academic experts, including the National Research Council, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the National Climate Assessment, state and regional climate agencies and independent research groups, largely agree on a matrix of predictions that endorse the 3-foot “moderate” benchmark.

None of the 13 cities surveyed requires developers to prepare for the less likely 4.6-foot scenario. The debate in local planning circles is whether to plan for the moderate outcome, or a less likely high-end one.

Several public and private science groups have posted interactive maps online in the past three years that show which areas would flood under various scenarios. But their creators say it has been hard to persuade city planners to use them to assess flood hazards.

In a 2009 report for the California Energy Commission, the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based research group advocating for corporate environmental stewardship and social equity, estimated that property lost in the event of 4.6 feet of sea rise by 2099 would cost the Bay Area $62 billion (nearly two-thirds the cost for all of California). This inundation would require rebuilding the airports serving San Francisco and Oakland, and moving parts of interstates 101 on the Peninsula and 80 in the East Bay. It could also put 270,000 people in danger during severe floods, the report warned, and “continued development in vulnerable areas will put additional areas at risk and raise protection costs.”

Follow the Money

“Now is the time to look seriously at what will happen 50 or 100 years down the road,” said Gary Griggs, who directs the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and contributed to the National Research Council’s most recent report on sea level rise on the West Coast. “What is the value of making a development, housing project or mall if we know it will have to be removed later, except for some short-term temporary gains?”

Developers stand to profit handsomely from the waterfront land rush, but governments also benefit in the short run. The proposed megaprojects promise tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue. Some cities are offering developers tax credits, low-cost land and flood-control infrastructure to encourage building on their shorelines.

But there are signs of change. The Port of San Francisco in 2012 sketched a $2.7 billion concept to wrap a 10-mile-long, elevated supplemental pier around the existing Embarcadero piers, and is considering adding pumping stations and dikes.

Acting alone, cities risk pushing floodwaters into neighboring areas. In the short term, to avoid ringing the whole bay with barriers, communities could surround themselves with small levees and extend them inland up creeks. This would keep water from neighboring communities out, until it got too high.

The Bay Conservation and Development Commission, formed 50 years ago to stop developers from filling in the bay, is urging caution and trying to play a regional coordinating role. But its jurisdiction stops just 100 feet inland from the current shoreline. The commission was chartered to ensure public access to the land, not to tell developers how to build.

To address the commission’s concerns, many development plans propose a strip of grass — heralded as “parkland” or “open space” — separating buildings from the bay. This does little to protect property if seas rise even a few feet vertically, sending floodwaters thousands of feet inland.

The common roadblocks that environmentalists face nationwide in raising concern over adaptation to climate change, such as distrust of science or lobbying by the fossil fuel industry, play only a small role in Bay Area politics. Here, the obstacles involve pressure from the real estate, construction and tech businesses emphasizing short-term economic opportunity over more precautionary environmental perspectives.

Capitalizing on Uncertainty

San Francisco planning staffers say they evaluate each application for its response to the threat of sea level rise and suggest a range of adaptation strategies. According to public records, in the last five years the city has approved more than 50 projects, each worth at least $1 million, in low-lying waterfront areas. The estimated development costs of these projects exceed $4.5 billion.

A report in June 2014 from the city’s civil grand jury — a volunteer committee that examines local government — concluded that San Francisco was not moving nearly fast enough to protect public safety in the event of sea rise. David Behar, climate program director for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission who last year headed the city’s interagency Sea Level Rise Technical Committee, said scientists’ increasing confidence in their projections and the degree of agreement among them support taking action.

This year, Mayor Ed Lee convened a new panel, the Sea Level Rise Coordinating Committee, chaired by Gil Kelley, the director of citywide planning, and Fuad Sweiss, the city engineer. He said the group would produce a “high-level assessment” of risks and vulnerabilities, and consider recommending stricter rules for private development.

Maryta Piazza, corresponding secretary of the civil grand jury, told a Board of Supervisors committee in September 2014 that the city should impose a moratorium on private developments until its codes are updated.

“If we don’t stay ahead of the trend,” Piazza said, “as we are now we’ll be forever catching up, fixing up, and ending up spending much more money in the long run.”

Kristina Hill, an associate professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning at UC Berkeley, said long-range planning is essential because sea level rise will be exponential.

“We are living in the last two stable decades of sea level rise,” Hill said. “Around 2045, 2050 or 2060, it’s going to get faster.”

Roger Kim, a representative of Lee’s office, said more research was needed. Lee said in a memo to the civil grand jury that requiring new buildings to withstand sea levels projected for 2050 or 2100 was unnecessary because many developments are not designed to last that long. He echoed developers, who often argue that if sea level rise becomes a problem, future generations can find engineering and financial solutions.

He added that any future regulation should be written with more nuance than determining whether a new building will flood. Rather, each development faces a different threat from storms, depending on its unique geography and the consequence if it is flooded. For example, a park is resilient to flooding in a way that an electrical substation is not. Regulations need to let planners adapt approvals to the circumstances, he said.

“It may be unwise — and expensive — to require immediate measures to adapt to wide-ranging, highly uncertain SLR projections further out in time,” Lee wrote.

Rethinking Mission Bay

On April Fools’ Day 2009, the cover story of Synapse, the student-run weekly paper at UCSF, was headlined “Mission Bay: The Underwater Campus.” With sea waters likely to threaten the health science school’s new campus within decades, the paper joked, adaptations could include a “campus housing fishing hole,” “surgical scuba gear,” and a 10-block “Third Street Ridge” cutting through Mission Bay to act as a seawall. Little did the editors know that at least one of these farcical suggestions could become reality.

In September 2014, consultants drafting a report to the city’s Public Utilities Commission and the Capital Planning Committee said sea level rise should not be addressed in a piecemeal fashion. The 303-acre neighborhood, which was an inlet of the bay before it was filled and used for a sprawling rail yard, must be rethought comprehensively. One suggestion from the consultants is to put Third Street on top of a levee that would reduce flooding risk in most of Mission Bay.

“The entire shoreline is too low to be protected, so what can we do about that?” Laura Tam, environmental director at SPUR, a Bay Area urban planning and advocacy group, asked at a City Hall hearing. “We cannot just protect individual buildings. We need something that protects the whole area in the long term.”

Tam co-authored the forthcoming report with Peter Wijsman, a consultant with the Dutch engineering firm ARCADIS, which has engineered solutions to sea rise in the Netherlands. Wijsman said options for Mission Bay ranged from “learning to live with water” to “armament” for the shoreline. Officials also discussed a “Venice-style” system allowing water to flow around flood-proof ground-level shops and building entrances. (See video.)

When UCSF began planning its new medical center in the 1980s, it stabilized the land in Mission Bay by adding more fill on top of the sand brought in from SoMa during the 19th century and debris added after the 1906 earthquake and fire.

Paul Franke, a senior planner for the medical center, said the grade was raised by 2 to 5 feet to ensure that hospital and research buildings could withstand 3 feet of sea level rise. He said that was meant to make the project last “in perpetuity.”

When the city reviewed Mission Bay’s original sitewide permits in 1998, officials generally planned for 100-year floods, those with a 1 percent chance of happening each year. They used older predictions of sea rise and less precise topographic mapping, focusing on relatively short time horizons (8 inches by 2025). But Franke said UCSF will monitor the science over the next 50 years to ensure “we were not tragically off in our predictions.”

Meanwhile, the hospital is planning more facilities even closer to the bay and recently bought a parcel east of Third Street near 16th. As an arm of the state, UCSF gets its permits from the Division of the State Architect, not the city. But San Francisco planners do have regulatory power over the Warriors arena. Developer Strada said it plans to explain in reports mandated by state law how it will safeguard the facility, whether by raising the land, permitting some flooding or building barriers.

With the Warriors’ environmental review scheduled months before the Mission Bay sea level rise report is due, and given the mayor’s unwavering support for the sports facility, it is hard to see the Planning Commission derailing the plan because of the threat of sea level rise.

Representatives of Prologis, the developer overseeing* all Mission Bay planning, did not respond to repeated calls for comment on long-term plans.

Costly Fixes

At Treasure Island, the towers approved by city officials will include 8,000 homes and 235,000 square feet of retail space. Kheay Loke, a manager with development firm Wilson Meany, says the project makes sense because the area already has roads and electricity, so developing there is more environmentally sustainable than building in the suburbs. For the company, it means not having to install new infrastructure.

For years, the property’s developers have emphasized their plans to conserve energy, maintain open spaces and build walkable neighborhoods, linked to the rest of the city by public transit, including ferries. In an interview in a downtown conference room with a view of the island, Loke said there was an easy — if “sacrilegious” — solution to sea level rise.

“Fill in the bay,” he said. “You go 50 feet out, and you build yourself a levee.”

Wilson Meany and co-developer Lennar Urban already plan to fortify existing berms around the 400-acre island to make them broad enough to build higher in the future. And they plan to raise the land, at a cost of $1.2 billion. Construction will continue through 2035.

“We can adapt and protect,” Loke said. “Sea level rise and flood protection are problems that money can solve.”

In this case, the money probably will come from the island’s future taxpayers. Treasure Island property owners will pay a special fee, called a Mello-Roos tax, to fund any future adaptation measures needed after the developers leave.

Brad McCrea, regulatory program director at the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, said Treasure Island’s developers brought “eyes-wide-open expertise” to their planning. But he said he was skeptical of applying this kind of technology-centered approach everywhere around the bay, given that sea level rise could continue for centuries. “At the end of the day, this will be a levee-protected community,” McCrea said. “There’s no getting around that.”

McCrea said Bay Area communities should be talking about retreating from the riskiest shoreline areas. “This is not about Treasure Island, but there are some basic questions here about where is the right place to build.”

Will Travis, who headed the commission for 16 years until 2011, said the region needed a more “thoughtful, reasoned, rational and financially sound solution.

“It will buy you 50 years of time to get our heads around this notion of ‘permanent temporary’ development,” he said. “Getting developers and local governments to think half a century ahead is very hard.”

Developers are spending millions of dollars on public relations to persuade voters that they are building safe and environmentally benign projects. In November, San Francisco voters approved Proposition F — which technically exempted Pier 70, a development south of Mission Bay, from height limits, but in effect endorsed the construction of commercial space and 2,000 homes (600 affordable) on 28 waterfront acres. Our maps suggest that large portions of the former industrial area could be submerged under several feet of water by 2100 in the event of 6.4 feet of flooding (the intermediate prediction for sea rise and extreme storm surge).

After three years of public outreach, developer Forest City spent almost $3 million on the campaign, including paying $15,000 to the San Francisco Democratic Party, $10,000 to the Republican Central Committee and $25,000 the Sierra Club for mailing campaign fliers. The project won endorsements from the city’s last three mayors, all 11 current members of the Board of Supervisors and more than 50 community groups. Activists with the Sierra Club’s local chapter told a reporter last fall they never pressed the developer about sea rise.

Forest City has not yet sought environmental permits, so its specific plans are not public.

Other proposed waterfront projects that still need some approvals include the sprawling Hunters Point development that includes 1,600 homes now under construction at the old Naval Shipyard, and a commercial and residential complex rising at Candlestick Point to replace the eponymous stadium. Developers are raising the land there to keep buildings, streets and key infrastructure above the moderate estimate of the 100-year flood level — a few feet of storm surge on top of 3 feet of sea level rise.

Planners Value Flexibility

Chris Kern, a senior environmental planner for the city, said the lack of firm city codes allows easier adjustment to new scientific projections. It is sufficient that state law requires the city to assess whether new projects “expose people or structures to a significant risk of loss, injury or death involving flooding,” he said. The city interprets that to include future flooding from sea rise.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s Behar said it was common for government to test regulations by applying them to public property before forcing compliance in the private sector. Perhaps surprisingly, the real estate and development industries are not uniformly opposed to regulation. Developers say working under clear rules makes it easier and less expensive to plan. “Sea level rise adaptation should be government mandated,” said Loke, of the Wilson Meany development firm.

Piazza, the civil grand jury member, said San Francisco should halt the rapid pace of development until it adopts comprehensive policies that protect both public safety and private property. If the city takes too long, all the gaps in the waterfront skyline will have been filled in by the time the rules go into effect.

Tam, a longtime advocate for regional climate adaptation planning at SPUR, sees hope in the city’s new approach.

“Five years ago, this topic was virtually unknown,” she told John Upton, a reporter for Climate Central, a nonprofit that researches and reports on climate change. “Today, many city departments have not only participated and worked together to produce this guidance, but they are working collaboratively to develop solutions.”

Kelley, the director of citywide planning, said it was too soon to recommend new planning codes. “We need to know what the problem is before we come up with an answer,” he said. “This will lead to some discussion of what we might do.”

Silicon Valley Growth

When Google first proposed in February to build a massive new headquarters in Mountain View, it issued promotional videos and renderings showing 3.4 million square feet of office space under undulating canopies of glass and plastic.

Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, blasted the tech giant’s choice of location.

“Their property at the south end of San Francisco Bay is extremely vulnerable to projected sea-level rise,” Gleick blogged. “Google is a forward-looking company. But are they looking forward to, and planning for, the now-unavoidable impacts of climate change as they design new multibillion dollar infrastructure investments?”

Mountain View’s North Bayshore neighborhood hosts Google’s current headquarters, as well as offices for Microsoft, Intuit and other companies. The city’s plan envisions a walkable community of corporate campuses, stores, hotels, services and entertainment. Flood maps show that much of the zone could be underwater with 8 feet of combined sea rise and severe storm surge. But the plan looks only to predictions for the year 2064, when, it asserts, seas are expected to rise a maximum of 3 feet.

Mountain View has set aside more than $43 million for proposals to bolster existing levees, pump stations and tide gates, the Bay Area News Group reported in June.

In May, the City Council voted to award the majority of the developable office space to LinkedIn’s Shoreline Commons mixed-use concept, based largely on its claims that it would “preserve business diversity” — a reference to Google’s already dominant footprint in the city.

But Google has designs on several additional waterfront properties. In neighboring Sunnyvale, it took over a 60-year lease from NASA for part of the land at Moffett Federal Airfield, where the space agency had concluded it needed a buffer zone to keep rising waters out.

In Menlo Park, Facebook recently finished a new campus with a 430,000-square-foot building, featuring 9 acres of rooftop foliage, designed by Canadian architect Frank Gehry. According to recent U.S. Geological Survey data, parts of the site were below 8 feet in elevation before it was developed.

In its environmental impact report, Facebook said that although the average height of the land was 9 feet, the buildings themselves would be “raised above future flood risk.”

The environmental report also argued that Facebook was not technically obligated, under state rules, to judge environmental risk to the facilities, even though the company had taken various protective measures.

As the report put it, the purpose of state-mandated review “is to evaluate the effects of the project on the environment, not the effect of the environment on the project.”

Facebook representatives declined to speak on the record about the company’s flood plain adaptation strategies.

Charlie Knox, a principal at PlaceWorks, a firm in Berkeley that helps cities plan for sea level rise, said the main Facebook building would probably be safe from flooding through the 22nd century. “They are pretty hip and they have over-anticipated sea-level rise,” he said.

In an extreme event such a building, elevated on concrete pillars, would probably survive, though the land around it would be submerged. “People would be sitting in their offices looking at the water,” he said. “It is a model for adaptation.”

Knox said technology firms know the risks they are taking by proposing and building tens of millions of square feet of new research and development facilities.

“There is a ton of good jobs, meaningful stuff that will help medicine and human life, and it is all going up like crazy,” he said. “And it is all in a place that sea level is going to rise.”

East Bay Renewal

Large swaths of underused East Bay waterfront have been under construction for years, with some projects originally financed by redevelopment funds that the state pulled back after falling into deficit. At Oakland’s Jack London Square, the newest project includes a 1,700-seat movie theater, restaurants, supermarkets and a 250-room hotel with a marina and small beach. Developers said it faced no flood risk, though they did not address sea level rise in their 2004 environmental impact report.

But an addendum to the report released this May asserted that the company was not “required to analyze or mitigate impacts pertaining to the impact of the environment on the project.” The construction, the company explained, “is not causing sea level rise, sea level rise will occur regardless of the proposed project.”

Construction also is underway on 1 million square feet of warehouse space at the former Army base in West Oakland. Local officials laud this project as a restoration of the “working waterfront” because it will bolster a growing freight industry by connecting cargo ships with trains.

In Alameda, development is continuing on the site of a Naval Air Station that shut down in the 1990s. Currently in the works are 800 apartments and 600,000 square feet of retail space in a $500 million project by Alameda Point Partners, which proposes to raise the land and build levees in the future to keep land below sea level from flooding.

In addition to 26 current major development plans the Public Press found to be at least partly below the projected 8-foot elevation, we found a 27th that for now seems to be off the table. Starting in 2009, Arizona-based DMB Pacific Ventures sought permission from Redwood City to build 12,000 homes on 1,478 acres of bayside salt evaporation ponds owned by agricultural giant Cargill. It was withdrawn in May 2012 after a firestorm of protest from neighbors, some of whom were concerned about the environmental effects of building farther into the bay. Project attorney David Smith said there was “currently no development proposal whatsoever pending for the site,” though the project’s website said a “scaled back” plan was in the works.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers concluded in 2014 that the federal government had no jurisdiction over most of the Redwood City site. But the federal Environmental Protection Agency — which has spent more than $40 million to restore San Francisco Bay wetlands — announced in March that it was investigating whether the land falls under the Clean Water Act. This could be a test case for whether the EPA can include sea level rise in assessing future flood risk or limiting shoreline development.

Search for Solutions

Several regional initiatives aim to coordinate how bayfront cities cope with sea level rise. Most notable are the Resilient Shoreline Program, the San Francisco Bay Regional Coastal Hazards Resiliency Group and Our Coast, Our Future.

The state has created a $2.5 million California Climate Resilience Account to pay for planning. Legislation is also pending on a statewide database of preparedness work.

In the South Bay, a coalition of federal and state agencies including the Army Corps of Engineers, the Coastal Conservancy and the Santa Clara Water District are proposing the federal government spend $162 million for wetlands restoration and levee construction. Also in the South Bay, a regional authority is widening old levees and building new horizontal ones around San Francisquito Creek.

But creating consistent rules governing private property could be a challenge. “Regulations around climate change are in their infancy, or nonexistent,” said Behar of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

Jasper Rubin, a professor of urban planning at San Francisco State University, said the common solution of raising land to raise the height of buildings fails to address the “larger systemic issues.” If one property is raised, he said, it “doesn’t mean the rest of the waterfront’s not going to get inundated.”

Kristina Hill, the UC Berkeley planning professor, said more experimentation is needed in waterfront construction techniques. But few businesses are invested in fortifying the properties they build beyond midcentury. It is hard to fund resilient architecture, Hill said, when developers “do not have a shared interest with the public about what will happen with those properties in the future.”

Some environmental and planning experts are appealing directly to the public to change sea level rise policies. The King Tides Project publishes reports on coastal erosion and flooding that occur when sun and moon align, known as king tides. These events offer a preview of sea level rise.

Project co-founder Marina Psaros started working with the Bay Conservation and Development Commission to urge cities to pass new flood zone regulations. “Our theory was we need to get heads of planning and public works directors aware, concerned, activated on climate change,” Psaros said.

Discouraged by institutional inertia, she shifted her focus to public outreach, publishing dramatic photos of high tide events on social media.

Knox, the consultant who works on adaptation planning around the bay, said that the time horizons of developers and governments are too short to deal with the effects of climate change. The waterfront will change noticeably even in a single lifetime, but sea level rise will plague coastal communities for generations.

“One of the problems we face is that we do not live very long,” Knox said. “We think, ‘I’m going to move into this house and have kids here.’ People do not care what the house will be in 200 years. But now we have to think differently.”

The 18,000-seat Golden State Warriors arena would host the NBA champions in Mission Bay. It includes 10,000 square feet of retail space, 500,000 square feet of commercial space and 3.2 acres of plazas. Opponents cite high traffic and a lack of parking. An environmental report downplays the sea level rise threat, citing lack of regulatory clarity. Image courtesy of MANICA Architecture, rendered by Steelbue.
During king tides, which occur when the gravity of the sun and the moon align “We can get an idea of what a permanent rise in sea level might look like in our communities,” says the California King Tides Project. In these stills from a time-lapse video, the tide at Heron’s Head Park near Hunters Point rose 5.75 feet over 5.5 hours. Photo by Eric Lawson / San Francisco Public Press
On a really bad day in 2100, water could be 8 feet higher than a normal high tide today — 4.6 feet of sea level rise plus 3.4 feet of storm surge. Scientists caution that with climate change expected to accelerate, what is now considered a “100-year flood” — with and expected 1 percent change of happening in any year — is a moving target. San Francisco Bay can also swell during king tides, when the sun and moon align to magnify normal variation. Another factor: San Francisco is losing elevation, in part due to earthquakes.
Sources: Projections from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, based on a 2012 National Research Council report on West Coast sea level rise. San Francisco also studies projections by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the California Ocean Protection Council and the California Coastal Commission.
Illustration by Emily Underwood / San Francisco Public Press

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Mission Bay Pioneers: Working and Living in a New Waterfront Neighborhood Wed, 29 Jul 2015 21:31:26 +0000 Working and living in a new waterfront neighborhood

Just a few years ago, Mission Bay was sparsely populated, home to abandoned rail yards and parking lots serving AT&T Park. But now the area is coming alive with a wave of development, with new housing complexes and office buildings popping up along the waterfront. » Read more

The post Mission Bay Pioneers: Working and Living in a New Waterfront Neighborhood appeared first on San Francisco Public Press.

Working and living in a new waterfront neighborhood

Just a few years ago, Mission Bay was sparsely populated, home to abandoned rail yards and parking lots serving AT&T Park. But now the area is coming alive with a wave of development, with new housing complexes and office buildings popping up along the waterfront.

This year the University of California, San Francisco, opened a hospital complex in the neighborhood, and the San Francisco police and fire departments relocated their headquarters a block from the bay. If approved, the $1 billion Golden State Warriors arena and mixed­use development would break ground on the neighborhood’s southern end.

But the Warriors project and other proposals may face difficulty, depending in part on the results of a study due in the fall on Mission Bay’s sea level rise vulnerability. For now, cranes and bulldozers continue their work, and residents and workers say they love the neighborhood. Few say they have any knowledge of, nor are they much concerned about, the long­ term flooding risk.


Nicole Van Malder, 27, junior architect and student Van Malder is about to start studying at the California College of the Arts Mission Bay campus. She expressed concern about the shortage of public transit options and parking. “Where are all these cars going to go when the neighborhood is built?”


Julian Enoch, 24, inventory management analyst at Old Navy Enoch grew up in San Francisco, but has worked in Mission Bay for less than a year. “All the stuff past AT&T Park used to be warehouses. It’s crazy,” he said. Though Enoch said he is not all that worried by sea level rise, “I probably would be concerned about flooding if I was more educated about it, to be honest.”


Jack Wickert, 78, playwright and retired music teacher Wickert pays $400 a month to live in a houseboat on Mission Creek. A Mission Bay resident for 16 years (a San Franciscan for 72 years), he likes the new development, and is especially excited about the prospect of the Golden State Warriors moving in. 


Kyle Fowler, 30, UCSF graduate student Fowler has been living in Mission Bay for 10 months in UCSF’s student housing. “It’s different, but there’s not much culture like in the Mission,” he said. He is aware of the potential of sea level rise, but plans to move long before it could affect him. “My fingers are crossed that I get to higher ground before anything happens.”


Diego Garrido Ruiz, 28, Ph.D. student Garrido Ruiz, who hails from Mexico City, moved to San Francisco four years ago. He conducts research on the UCSF campus. He dislikes how expensive the neighborhood has become. He was more bothered by the idea of earthquakes than sea level rise. “Even last year when there was that storm of the century,” he said, “I wasn’t very concerned.”


Grace Wang, 26, student at UCSF Wang moved to Mission Bay from Orange County in late spring. “This part of the neighborhood is pretty cool,” she said, adding that the campus gets quiet on weekends. “I can tell it’s developing a lot.” She is not worried about sea level rise right now, but sees it as a concern in the long term.


Mikael Palner, 45, postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford Palner has been living in Mission Bay for two years and is now on parental leave from Stanford. The neighborhood, Palner said, is “going to be much better when all the development is done.” He has not heard anything about potential flooding from sea level rise but wants to know more.


Jamie Butler, 51 Butler lives with her 21-­year-­old son in affordable housing at Fourth and King streets. She likes the neighborhood, but wishes it had more economic diversity. “If you don’t live in affordable housing, it’s very, very expensive. I feel like they’re building a lot of apartments and stuff, but there are no jobs over here, and not a lot for kids to do.”

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Four Ways to Guard Against Sea Level Rise Wed, 29 Jul 2015 21:30:31 +0000 Water brings both life and risk to the shoreline, so seaside residents have long built barriers, canals and other protections to guard against storms and floods. Now sea level rise is adding an extra challenge: Flood risk will grow dramatically in coming decades, and some land that is dry today will be underwater in our lifetimes. » Read more

The post Four Ways to Guard Against Sea Level Rise appeared first on San Francisco Public Press.

Water brings both life and risk to the shoreline, so seaside residents have long built barriers, canals and other protections to guard against storms and floods. Now sea level rise is adding an extra challenge: Flood risk will grow dramatically in coming decades, and some land that is dry today will be underwater in our lifetimes. That leaves cities, including those around San Francisco Bay, with four main options.

Illustration by Emily Underwood / San Francisco Public Press

1. Retreat from Shoreline

The simplest response, abandoning land that is at risk, is also the rarest. Communities encourage and protect coastal properties “so they can get tax revenue to pay for services and even adaptation strategies,” said Jessica Grannis, a sea level policy expert at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington. The best and cheapest time to adopt this strategy is after a disaster — not rebuilding after floods in some areas. But planning for these decisions should be made prior to such disasters.

2. Flood-proof structures

Engineers typically do this by raising occupied floors above flood level or trucking in dirt to raise the land before starting to build. A 2014 study of the Gulf Coast by researchers at The Nature Conservancy and academic researchers concluded that elevating structures was among the least cost-effective solutions, ranking behind seawalls, natural barriers and simple sandbags. But it is the most popular solution around San Francisco Bay.

3. Build levees

Dirt, rock and concrete can be effective barriers. Most of the urban parts of the bay and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta are already protected by a patchwork of levees. San Mateo and Santa Clara counties are both studying what it will cost to make their levees stronger. But levees — and their more compact cousins, seawalls — are expensive and can fail. Officials at the Port of San Francisco say $5 billion in retrofits is needed along the 4-mile Embarcadero to keep some 700 acres of high-value property above the water line through 2100.

4. Restore nature

Natural habitats such as marshes, sandbars and creek beds absorb the energy of storms, mitigating risk from sea level rise. Past development has tended to erase or bury these features, but recent restoration projects are changing that. A 2013 study by the Bay Institute, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group, showed that restoring a 200-foot-wide strip of marsh around the bay would cut the cost of protection in half — mainly by allowing engineers to build smaller, less expensive levees. A rising bay will eventually put many marshes at risk of inundation, though some shoreline ecosystems are designed to grow vertically as seas rise.

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