High-Tech Metts Pickleweed in Redwood City
"Your money or your life," says the hold-up man in an old Jack Benny joke. "Didn't you hear me, buddy?" the irate gunman says after Jack fails to answer. "I said, your money or your life!"
At last, Jack responds: "I'm thinking, I'm thinking!"
Jack Benny's difficulty in making up his mind mirrors my struggle with Pacific Shores Center, a 106-acre office park currently under construction in Redwood City. It is true that the project — a group of 10 office buildings containing a total of 1.5 million square feet of space, plus another 160,000 square feet of restaurant, fitness center, and the like — is undoubtedly an improvement over what was there before: a cement plant surrounded by debris next to an island covered with spoils from ocean dredging. It is also true that the new development is considered environmentally friendly because the developer, Jay Paul Co. of San Francisco, has agreed to restore 30 acres of tidal marsh on nearby Deepwater Island, part of the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. In exchange for this off-site mitigation, Jay Paul earned the right to fill 14 acres of wetlands on the project site, directly southeast of the lightly used Port of Redwood City.
The high demand for office space in the San Francisco and Silicon Valley area (Redwood City lies roughly halfway between The City and San Jose) helps explain why the developer was willing to spend more than five years obtaining entitlements from a host of environmental agencies. Nearly nine months before the project is scheduled to open, the project is already 90 percent leased to four tenants, including Excite@Home, which will relocate 2,500 jobs to Pacific Shores Center and occupy nearly half of the office space.
Understandably, the developer seems eager to use the enhanced natural beauty of the site as part of its marketing. The developer bills Pacific Shores Center as the place "where nature, technology and community converge." (As the Brits say, pass the sick-bag.)
The marketing seems to be working with some, such as the San Jose Mercury News. "Within a year, thousands of software engineers will fill cubicles in airy waterfront buildings, while mice and shorebirds nestle among fresh strands of pickleweed," a Mercury News story burbles. This kind of writing seems calculated to flatter the pretensions of Northern California techies who like to believe that their lives are in balance with nature.
While the site plan of Pacific Shores Center has its merits, it is not a nature preserve (although it overlooks one dimly, across the misty waters). The plan is not elegant, but it is a snapshot of Bay Area culture, circa 2000. Falling in line with the current taste for office park-as-country club, the development features regulation-size baseball and soccer fields, a near-Olympic-size swimming pool, and a jogging path that circles the site. At the center of the development are the restaurant, a "multi-media center," and an outdoor amphitheater. The developer has also made a commitment to use sustainable materials in the construction and to import nearly 5,000 trees.
So why am I short of breath when the time comes to cheer? Well, maybe I am asking for too much, but I do not think this project is a model of environmental sensitivity. The developer has taken a tried-and-true formula — the multi-building research "campus" — and imported it to this site, without showing any particular sensitivity to the site itself.
While it is exciting that an eyesore like Deepwater Island is getting new life, these mitigations do not excuse the developer from making more of an effort to respect the existing ecology of the site. Why, for example, must half of the development area be covered with asphalt for surface parking? To be sure, the site was not pristine. Still, the area had a number of existing wetlands. Could not the developer have incorporated them into the master plan as open space?
The developer's project manager, Peter Brandon, said that restoring wetlands on-site was unfeasible because the surviving sloughs and marshes were filled with chunks of concrete, twisted steel and old tires. Further, these were not sexy tidal marshes, but humdrum wetlands such as fields of pickleweed. Restoring them was too great an undertaking for a commercial project, so the developer opted to fill those wetlands, and perform its wetland-mitigations nearby. At some expense, the developer is removing dirt from Deepwater Island, transporting the soil across the water on barges, and redepositing it along the shore of the project site. The developer is also providing, at the request of public agencies, nearly 13 acres of parks on the shoreline and giving space to a nonprofit educational group, Marine Sciences Institute.
That is all very nice, but if I had my druthers, the project would be vertically oriented, not horizontal, to make a smaller footprint on the ground. Brandon said that the developers had the same concern, so they reduced the original number of buildings. The office buildings will be four- and five-stories, higher than the one- and two-story models typical of Silicon Valley.
I was also critical of the acres of surface parking; wasn't it possible to put the cars into a parking structure, and open up some more land? Brandon said that the developer is considering enclosing the parking in structures and building residential units above the parking. Now that's an interesting idea.
As it stands, however, Pacific Shores Center is a very conventional development on an unconventional site, and that is disappointing. The developer's claim of converging nature and technology still seems misleading.
The premise of Pacific Shores Center is not too different from that of the Playa Vista project in Los Angeles, where commercial development is the means — alas, the only means — to achieve some degree of wetlands repair. So why I am being such a pain about Pacific Shores?
Maybe I am offended by the exaggerated environmental claims. While I fully believe that the on-site wetlands would have been difficult to restore, it is still disappointing that all the mitigation occurs offsite. At gunpoint, I guess I would say that I support Pacific Shores Center. I just wish the developer had made the choice easier.