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California's Long-Running Land Use Stalemates

Josh Stephens on
Jul 13, 2021

Not unlike the fine vintages that come out of California’s wine-growing regions, real estate development in California takes time. There’s planting, watering, fermenting, and aging in oak barrels, of course. There are also endless discussions with stakeholders, haggling with elected officials, economic cycles that go up and down, CEQA lawsuits, policy changes, alien invasions, and an infinite number of other complications that get in the way of corkage. And, the larger the project, the longer it often takes to get a shovel in the ground.

We at CP&DR are used to these long timeframes. Sometimes our biggest editorial challenge is choosing whether to cover a project next month, a year from now, or three years from some. Sometimes, it literally makes no difference, since a story today would end up being the same as a story a year from now. And yet, there are projects that, no matter how important strain even our patience and that illustrate just how creaky California planning can be sometimes. In some cases, we have written about them, written about them again, and then pretty much written them off. In others, we’ve been gratified to see improvements and even completions while also marveling at how many more grey hairs we’ve gained in the interim. 

Herewith are California’s biggest, longest-running land use stalemates. 

Hollywood Community Plan (City of Los Angeles)
The Hollywood Community Plan has been more of a dud than a blockbuster. The planning process started in 2005, and a plan was approved in 2012, only to be sued into submission for reasons too arcane to recount. An organization leading the suit, the enterally piqued AIDS Healthcare Foundation, later sponsored a (failed) citywide slow-growth ballot measure. One of the driving complaints was — wait for it — delays in the city’s community plan update process. A revised plan is wending its way through city commissions now and, predictably, driving all the usual opponents nuts. No one in Hollywood is holding their breath. Keep the fainting couch ready. 

San Diego Airport
San Diego is, famously, the largest city in the country served by a single-runway airport. San Diego International’s inadequacy is nothing, though, compared to the intransigence of county stakeholders, who have rejected every feasible replacement, including Miramar Air Station, a partnership with Tijuana International Airport, and a floating airport in Coronado Bay called — not kidding — "Euphlotea.” 

Suffice it to say, if the airport isn’t going anywhere (in fact, there’s a new proposal for a major multimodal hub on its perimeter and a new terminal), the least the city can do is change its name. It wisely abandoned the name of aviation pioneer and, unfortunately, white supremacist Charles Lindbergh some years ago in favor of its current generic name. But there is a native San Diegan who is a pioneer and champion in his field, a frequent traveler, a (low-altitude) flier, and a generally nice guy. The finest airport name for America’s finest city is, obviously, Tony Hawk International. 

California High Speed Rail 
In the time since the idea of a statewide bullet train first appeared in the pages of CP&DR in 2001, China has built enough miles of high-speed rail to span the distance between Los Angeles and San Francisco 57 times. Meanwhile, California has built zero operable miles. Shortly after California approved bond funding in 2008, we were already thinking about its implications for cities in the Central Valley (especially high-density station-area plans), as if the line might actually get built. In 2013, we tempered our expectations. In 2019, we were cautiously optimistic that even a foreshortened HSR system could still benefit the state somehow. 

These days, no article could fully capture the mess that is California’s most ambitious project and biggest disappointment. Funding is billions of dollars short. Land has been hard to acquire. The construction schedule for the useless Merced-to-Bakersfield segment is shot. Nobody knows how it’s going to get over, through, or around the San Gabriel Mountains. But, it’s still probably better than a Hyperloop

Salton Sea Restoration (Riverside County)
In 1906, the Colorado River breached some levees to create one of the world’s most godforsaken bodies of water at 220 feet below sea level. After a brief turn as the site of some short-lived Rat Pack-era resorts in the 1950s, the sea has threatened to dry up and blow toxic dust all over Southern California. The trouble is, nobody has the money or the water to do anything about it, and environmental engineers can’t even agree on how to fix it. Not long ago, someone proposed a new development near the sea. That proposal turned out to be little more than a mirage. Today, the sea continues to shrink, leaving behind a hellscape of dead fish, foul odor, and unbearable heat that is nobody’s version of the California dream.

Tejon Ranch (Los Angeles & Kern Counties)
The property known as Tejon Ranch has existed nearly as long as the notion of private property in California. Dating to the 19th century, it is a nearly intact vestige of a Spanish rancho. Efforts to develop a portion of it into a mixed-use exurb and resort community seemingly date back just as far.

For the past 15 years, the Tejon Ranch Company has sought environmental approvals and monitored market conditions. Its development plan was finally approved in 2018. Even with that approval, the 19,000-unit master plan wouldn’t have been built for decades, if not centuries. To make matters worse for the developer, though, a judge recently ruled that the project poses an egregious fire danger, in violation of CEQA. So, it’s back to the drawing board and/or the courtroom. What’s a few more years for a project that’s already over 150 years old? 

Concord Naval Weapons Station (Contra Costa County)
On the one hand, the development of thousands of acres on the urban fringe has pretty intense implications for urban sprawl. On the other hand, the Bay Area needs housing, and the 2005 closure of the Concord Naval Air Station made it ripe for redevelopment. Lennar’s proposal for a 13,000-unit, roughly 2,000-acre smart growth redevelopment for the portion within Concord city limits seemed like a done deal. Then last year, the Concord City Council unexpectedly bailed out on a development deal with Lennar’s successor, FivePoint, over a technicality involving labor contracts. The project could yet be revived, but it’s hard to imagine how any developer will be willing to take the risk, no matter how great the Bay Area’s demand for housing is. 

Hunters Point (San Francisco)
Apparently every imaginable type of pollutant has been detected at San Francisco’s moribund shipyard at Hunters Point: chemicals, petroleum, radiation, bacon grease, the remains of Jimmy Hoffa — you name it. A master plan for 10,000 units of housing and 5 million square feet of commercial space was approved in 2016. Since then, after lawsuits and rulings and dissembling and promises, the toxins are expected to be remediated, and the project will move forward because it’s the largest housing development in the most housing-starved city in the country. 

Brightline West (San Bernardino County)
A strong contender for the title of most expedient high-speed rail project to be built in California, Brightline West (formerly known as DesertXPress), which would link Victorville with Las Vegas, has seemingly gone bust more times than a convention-goer at a Caesars Palace blackjack table. As a result, it bears the distinction of one of the most frequent guest stars in CP&DR’s news briefs for all the times it has received regulatory approvals, announced new rounds of funding, and threatened to shut down. And yet, the train appears to still have life in it; developers have announced a ground-breaking scheduled for in 2022. No matter how many fits and starts lie ahead, the smart money in Vegas is to bet on Brightline and anxiously wait for California HSR to go bust.

Oakland Coliseum / New A’s Stadium (Bay Area)
The Oakland A’s have been caught in a squeeze play of their own making, scampering back and forth between the decrepit Oakland Coliseum, several sites in San Jose, Jack London Square, and a community college campus. Now, they’re looking at a waterfront site at Howard Terminal in Oakland representing a total development budget of up to $12 billion. In the process, they’ve jilted San Jose and kicked dirt in the face of the City of Oakland, which is eagerly awaiting the redevelopment of the Coliseum. Ultimately, the A’s might end up in Las Vegas, Portland, or Montreal, thanks to a recent announcement by a clearly fed-up Major League Baseball that the team is now allowed to explore alternative markets. 

Orange County Great Park 
Shortly after the Wright Brothers took flight, Orange County voters rejected a ballot measure to establish an international airport at the site of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in part because of the promise of turning the base into a massive park, funded by a housing development. Seventeen years later, the park has a few baseball and soccer fields — which are not exactly in short supply in Orange County — and thousands of feet of runway that have yet to be demolished much less redeveloped. 

Klamath Dam Removals
Disputes over the Klamath River date back over 150 years, when white settlers first displaced and subjugated the Indigenous Klamath peoples and claimed dominion over the river that sustained the tribe. Among the gravest insults is a series of dams that have alternated the river’s flow, disrupted the salmon population, and otherwise adulterated the landscape. In 2020, utility PacifiCorp reached an agreement with the tribe and nearby farmers to remove two dams in order to return the river to some semblance of its natural state. Recently, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission threatened to undo the deal by refusing to indemnify the dams’ previous owner. That appears to have been resolved and the dams may yet come down, brick by brick.

Honorable Mentions 
Sometimes patience pays off. Any of the following projects could have made the list had we published it in years past, except that each has — praise to the CEQA gods — actually broken ground or, in one case, been put out of its misery.

Grand Ave. Project (Los Angeles) 
Back in the early 2000s, a multi-tower complex designed by quintessential starchitect Frank Gehry was supposed to revitalize downtown Los Angeles. Over 15 years and one massive recession later, downtown Los Angeles is pretty much revitalized. And the Grand Avenue Project is, finally, a steel skeleton rising over Bunker Hill. 

Sacramento Railyards 
It’s hard to call the Sacramento Railyards redevelopment a stalemate when the project is, finally, proceeding. Any project covering 244 prime urban acres with mixed use development is bound to take a while. But the rail yards redevelopment, dating back to the early 2000s, has been particularly vexing for the flirtations of professional sports. Initially, the Sacramento Kings planned to build a new arena at the rail yards, but they pulled out in favor of a downtown site. Then an expansion Major League Soccer team was set to build a stadium. Just weeks ago, MLS announced that the Sacramento franchise was in jeopardy. The rail yards will get built, little by little, but it’s a slow train. 

Los Angeles Football Stadium 
The drama surrounding the development of a new stadium for a mythical NFL team was, generally, much more exciting than an actual football game. Proposals cropped up for stadiums in Irwindale, Carson, the City of Industry, and downtown Los Angeles, practically on top of the Los Angeles Convention Center. Then there were fleeting murmurs about renovating the Los Angeles Coliseum or maybe trying to convince Pasadena to let a team play in the Rose Bowl. Through it all, CP&DR was both amused and skeptical — surely LA has better things to do than get drunk and watch helmets clash on a beautiful, sunny Sunday? Ultimately, the City of Inglewood told everyone to holds its beer. It rammed through approvals for a massive stadium complex, partly thanks to the infamous “Tuolumne Tactic.” Lo and behold, the Rams and Chargers played full seasons at SoFi Stadium this year… in front of zero fans. 

Cargill Salt Flats (Redwood City, San Mateo County)
Developing an enormous parcel of ecologically sensitive wetlands in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world should be a piece of cake, right? Only for the delusional. In the early 2010s, the Cargill Salt company and developer DMB advanced a plan to build 12,000 homes on 1,400 acres in Redwood City. Facing opposition, the plan was withdrawn in 2012 only to resurface years later. Adding to the complexity have been rulings and regulatory changes surrounding the Clean Water Act and the definition of "Waters of the United States.” While the Trump administration was friendly to the project, the Biden administration’s more expansive definition, designed to protect more wetlands, may finally mean that the project is dead in the (salt) water. 

Tell Us About Your Favorite Endless Stalemates!
Catharsis is a group endeavor. CP&DR wants to hear from you. Tell us your favorite/least-favorite land use stalemates from your city or county. We’ll post them in a future blog. 



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