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CP&DR News Briefs May 28, 2019: High Speed Rail Sues Feds; BLM Expands Drilling; Horton Plaza Repurposing; and More

Brett Simpson on
May 27, 2019
High Speed Rail Authority Sues Trump Administration over Withheld Funds
In the latest escalation of the state's face-off with the Trump Administration over bullet train funding, the California High Speed Rail Authority is suing the U.S. Department of Transportation over its decision to pull a $929 million grant. Since its 2010 inception, California’s ambitious project has experienced significant delays and increasing costs, and Governor Gavin Newsom’s February State of the State address reduced its short-term scope. Recently, following a series of tweeted threats by President Donald Trump, the Federal Rail Authority officially terminated $929 million in remaining funding for the project, and threatened to reclaim $2.5 billion in funds already spent by the state. Now, in a 20-page complaint, the state claims that the administration’s decision contradicts federal regulations and makes false allegations about the project’s progress. Newsom’s office is also seeking a temporary restraining order arguing that “the real motive underlying FRA’s action was political: to punish California for opposing President Trump’s proposed border wall."

BLM to Allow Expanded Drilling in Central Valley, Central Coast 
The Trump Administration will open up federal land in the Central Valley and Central Coast to oil and gas drilling, according to new documents released by the Bureau of Land Management. This plan directly contradicts many statewide efforts to curtail drilling and fracking, and thousands of Californians submitted comments to the agency protesting the plan. According to the BLM’s proposal, the agency’s plan could result in up to 37 new oil and gas wells drilling on new land leases over the next 20 years. This could effect land within the field office’s boundaries across 11 California counties: Alameda, Contra Costa, Fresno, Merced, Monterey, San Benito, San Joaquin, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, and Stanislaus. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that opposes the plan, the proposal could open up 725,000 acres of federally managed land and subsurface mineral area to oil and gas leasing. While many industry lobbying groups support the move, local officials have expressed concerns about increased air pollution and potential groundwater contamination from fracking. In a recent statement, Representative Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara, commented that the decision is “a step backward given the increasingly urgent warnings from our scientific community on the unchecked effects of climate change,” according to the Sacramento Bee. 

San Diego’s Horton Plaza Mall to be Redeveloped as Tech Hub
Downtown San Diego’s iconic postmodern Horton Plaza mall, considered one of the most innovative outdoor malls in the country upon its opening in 1985, will become a mixed-use tech hub. The San Diego City Council voted unanimously to approve developer Stockdale Capital Partner’s proposal to convert the mall into the “Campus at Horton.” Plans will cut current retail space in half, and convert the rest of the space into 772,000 square feet of office space catered to tech companies. The developer expects the facility to create 4,000 jobs and generate more than $1.8 billion annually. As part of the agreement, the city will amend land use restrictions to allow for the downsizing of retail space. In return, Stockdale will be required to provide $6.7 million in public benefits to the city to recoup lost retail revenue. Stockdale representatives affirmed that current Horton Plaza tenants will not be evicted in favor of new retail outlets. Stockton hopes to begin the project later this year and complete the first phase by 2020. City Councilwoman Barbara Bry hopes that this project will create jobs that will keep college graduates in the city. “UCSD has said that within five years, we lose about half of the engineering graduates to other cities,” she told KPBS.

Audit Finds Fault with S.F. Bay Conservation Commission 
The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission has failed in its key duties and allowed ongoing harm to the bay, according to a recently published state audit. The commission was formed in 1967 to “protect the Bay’s health and ensure public access,” and is responsible for approving permits for material dumping and removal. The audit found, however, that the commission has accumulated a backlog of over 230 enforcement cases, some of which are over a decade old. This number is projected to grow, since the audit found that the commission opens an average of 14 more cases annually than it closes. The audit also asserts that the commissioners are wrongfully considering amnesty for cases of clear harm done, don’t provide sufficient guidance for their enforcement process, and inconsistently impose fines. Furthermore, the commission hasn’t implemented plans to safeguard the Suisun Marsh, as state law requires, increasing the possibility of harm to the marsh. The audit recommends that the commission should simplify its enforcement process, and create and implement regulations by January 2021 to identify harm done and set a timeline for enforcement cases.

Report Finds Shortfall of over 700,000 Affordable Units
Major California cities are falling far short of affordable housing demand, according to a new report by nonprofit California Housing Partnership. The report found that fewer than a third of low-income families in Southern California have access to affordable housing that costs no more than 30 percent of a household’s gross income – amounting to a shortfall of nearly 759,000 low-income units. These findings point to twin issues statewide: limited housing drives up livings costs, and wage gaps drive down residents’ ability to afford housing. For example, Sacramento County has a shortfall of 63,000 affordable units, which has caused the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment to jump from $950 a month to $1445 a month over just two years. Similarly, according to the report, in L.A. County, the minimum income needed is over $8,200 a month to afford the mid-priced asking rent of $2,471. For this reason, the biggest impact of these shortages fall on the state's poorest renters. The report urged the state to replace the redevelopment funding slashed in 2012, and called for expanding the affordable housing tax credit program by $500 million a year. It also urged cities and counties to adopt rent caps and tenant protections while also granting developers density bonuses to incentivize new housing construction.

Quick Hits & Updates 

One day after Senate Bill 50 housing bill failed in senate proceedings, survey results were published showing that two-thirds of Californians support the bill. California YIMBY, a housing development advocacy group, released the results of poll of 1,200 voters – 66 parent of whom said they would support the proposal. These findings suggest that the bill, which would encourage taller and denser housing development near transit lines, has greater public support than it found in the legislature. (See prior CP&DR coverage.) 

In response to the stalled Senate Bill 50, a group of activists filed a petition to amend to the state constitution that affirms local powers over planning and land use. The Workforce Housing and Neighborhood Protection Act proposes repealing state goals to improve affordability and replacing it with a series of amendments that place land-use planning and zoning rights in the hands of local governments. The amendment allows the state to enforce state housing laws only if it has provided sufficient funding to enact such laws, and only if it does not prescribe the minimum square footage of any dwelling unit, among other provisions.

Plans for a baseball stadium for the Angels in Long Beach could cost the city over $1 billion, according to newly-released documents. The documents, made public by city officials, detail several bond options to finance a $900 million stadium on the 13-acre proposed site downtown – each amounting to over $1.1 billion after interest. The city is also exploring other funding options, including as new taxes, boosting parking fees, or selling the team’s naming rights and sponsorships. Plans also require funding and citywide approval for several new parking lots downtown.

Several Bay Area cities topped CDP’s Global Cities A List for environmental action. Top-ranked areas from the 43-city list include Benicia, Emeryville, Fremont, Hayward, Oakland, Palo Alto, Piedmont, San Francisco, and San Leandro. The list recognizes cities “acting to reduce emissions, adapt to climate risks, and manage water resources.” Notably, the list recognizes San Francisco for its target to be carbon neutral by 2050.

San Francisco officials announced spending plan details for a $500 million affordable housing bond which could hit the ballot in November. The bond will allocate $210 million to construct new low-income housing, and the rest to build more affordable senior units and restore public housing facilities. The bill, proposed by Mayor London Breed and cosponsored by five supervisors still needs three more city board member votes to make it on the ballot. From there, it will require a two-thirds majority vote.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and a coalition of fishing groups sued Fresno's Wetlands Water District for cooperating with the Trump administration on a project to increase Shasta Dam capacity. Wetlands, which owns over 3,000 acres along the McCloud River, is cost-sharing the $1.3 billion project with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to raise the height of the dam by 18.5 feet and thus increase storage capacity by 14 percent. The Attorney General and coalition claim that Wetlands’ plans circumvent the state’s Wild and Scenic River Act, and that their environmental impact report underestimates impacts to a local wild trout fishery. The Bureau of Reclamation hopes to begin construction by 2020.

Flood risk at Southern California’s Prado Dam has escalated from “moderate” to “high urgency”, according to a recent assessment from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The assessment found that a “significant flood event” would compromise the dam, and affect 1.4 million people who live in Orange County communities from Disneyland to Newport Beach. This comes on the heels of a series of major issues and lax safety cultures identified by the Corps at California dams – in one case leading to the 2017 disintegration of a concrete spillway at Oroville Dam. The agency is working to develop risk-reduction measures as well as public outreach strategies in the event of a spill.

The San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) approved a feasibility study of plans for a ferry terminal in the Berkeley Marina. Berkeley city officials have expressed hope that the ferry, which currently serves Vallejo, Oakland, Alameda, Richmond, Harbor Bay and Mare Island, will link local commuters to Berkeley and provide a potential emergency evacuation route for the city. WETA will contribute $250,000 to the feasibility study, and the city of Berkeley will add $110,000 toward the study, as well as contribute $330,000 to the terminal project.

Anticipating potential earthquakes and flooding, San Francisco city officials are preparing a $628.5 million disaster preparedness bond. The bill, set for the March 2020 ballot, would finance citywide seismic improvements, strengthen public infrastructure for fire and police stations, and upgrade recreational centers for potential shelter use, among other measures. These improvements are designed to address emergency preparedness, response, and recovery.

A local advocacy group sued the city of Santa Clara for proposing new homes between the city’s historic housing developments by the noted modernist architect Joseph Eichler. Citing an “irreparable harm to the historic fabric” of the developments, the Pomeroy Eichler Neighborhood Preservation Society filed a lawsuit to stop construction of four new, standalone single family homes until the city completes an environmental impact report. Notably, the definition of “environment" in the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) includes historical significance. 

A majority of likely voters in San Francisco, Santa Clara, and San Mateo counties would support a sales tax to pay for new Caltrain projects, according to poll released by EMC Research of Oakland. This shows promising support for Caltrains’ plans for a one-quarter or one-eighth percent sales tax to fund an electric commuter line and increased train frequency and capacity. However, the poll put this majority at 63% – still short of the two-thirds majority it would need to pass.

The San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI) and SPUR published the “San Francisco Bay Shoreline Adaptation Atlas,” the first installment of a comprehensive initiative to plan the Bay Area for climate change by 2070. The Atlas builds a cross-jurisdictional response to sea level rise by dividing the 400-mile Bay shoreline into 30 distinct “operational landscape units,” or OLUs. OLUs share common characteristics, and therefore common adaptation strategies – from nature-based options to policy tools. The complete SPUR Regional Strategy will be published in 2020.

A controversial $126 million UC Berkeley classroom-and-housing development will move forward, following a budget approval from a regents’ finance committee. The Upper Hearst project, which seeks to provide housing for new faculty and additional classroom space, faces lawsuits from Save Berkeley Neighborhoods and the city of Berkeley. Both groups claim that the university is avoiding addressing the costs of rising enrollment on the surrounding area. The UC Berkeley Faculty Senate also objects to the project: it vote 174-69 to ask to “immediately suspend” development plans. The project would repack a 350-car parking garage with 150 faculty apartments over 170 parking spots. 

In the latest expansion in one of the largest office campuses in the Bay Area, Google purchased three additional office buildings in north San Jose. Now Google owns a total of 1.27 million square feet within eight office and industrial buildings in the northern section of the city, and six of these buildings have never been occupied. Google has also recently invested in the city’s downtown : in partnership with developer Trammell Crow, Google purchased properties near the Diridon train station where they’re planning a transit-oriented neighborhood with office buildings, homes, restaurants, and shops for 25,000 people to work. (See prior CP&DR coverage.) 

Homeless populations have grown significantly since 2017 in Alameda, Santa Clara, and San Francisco counties, according to January’s initial point-in-time counts. Alameda reported a staggering 43 percent increase since 2017, with a total of 8,022 sheltered and unsheltered homeless people counted on a single day. Santa Clara County reported a 31 percent increase, with the largest unhoused population in the Bay Area: 9,700 homeless people. San Francisco County reported a 17 percent increase, with a population just over 8,000 – the county’s highest number since 2004.

In effort to increase city understanding of ridesharing on local traffic, safety, pollution, and parking, a San Francisco appeals court ruled that Uber must share its ridership data with the city. The California First District Court of Appeals rejected Uber’s objections to the city subpoena, saying that the subpoena was within the city attorney’s investigative powers. Ridesharing competitor Lyft has been sharing similar data with the city since February 2018.

A Santa Clara County assessor sued the county assessment board for giving the San Francisco 49ers NFL team a multimillion dollar tax break. Assessor Larry Stone claims that the board’s decision to award a $6 million property tax break and $36 million refund to the team was unlawful, and unnecessarily hurt local governments and school districts. After the assessment board’s decision to slash property taxes on Levi Stadium, owned by the team, the Santa Clara Unified School District refunded the team $13 million in tax revenue, the county refunded $5 million, and the city of Santa Clara and the West Valley Community College each refunded $3 million.

Housing production in Los Angeles has slowed since Measure JJJ took effect, according to a recent study by UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design. The measure, approved by city voters in 2016, requires all Los Angeles developments that seek zone changes or general plan amendments employ prevailing wage labor and set aside low-income housing units. But the study finds that in the two years since, developments needing zone changes or other legislative actions have decreased from nearly 19,000 to almost none at all. Authors of the study expressed concerns that this measure only marginally encouraged developing affordable units, and significantly discourages housing production overall.

In response to an influx of RV dwellers on public streets, the Mountain View City Council declared a shelter crisis and passed ordinances banning RV parking and ticketing vehicles that “discharge domestic sewage on the public right of way." At the March city council vote, opponents of the ban blamed Google and other Silicon Valley tech centers for the area's affordable housing crisis. The median rent in Mountain View has almost doubled since late 2010 to $4,151 a month – which is nearly triple the national average. 

The San Francisco Flower Market Tenants Association may withdraw participation a controversial project to redevelop the market. The project, which proposes 2.1 million square feet of tech office space above the city’s famous SoMa flower market, faces approval from city officials this spring. However, the association’s 53 vendors have claimed that the mixed-use project’s goals do not fit their needs – and would prefer relocating to another site elsewhere in the city. 

In response to heated objections from Emeryville and Oakland officials and residents, Caltrans announced it is pausing its plans to rebuild portions of the MacArthur Maze freeway interchange. In January, Caltrans issued an initial study and environmental assessment of plans to increase vertical clearance on several points of the webbed overpasses. However, city officials, including Mayor Libby Schaaf, claimed that Caltrans failed to notify them of the project, and raised concerns about its impacts on both the environment and the community.
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