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Bay Area's Saltworks Project Provides A Planning Casebook

The proposed Saltworks project in Redwood City is, as one of its designers says, a potential "game changer" for the Bay Area. Proposed by landowner Cargill and developer DMB, the project would provide 8,000 to 12,000 high-density, mixed-income housing units in a decidedly suburban town halfway between San Francisco and San Jose, and within close proximity to hundreds of thousands of jobs.

The Bay Area has seen similar projects in recent years, but they have been in San Jose and San Francisco proper. Even those suburbs that have embraced relatively dense, transit-oriented development haven't seen anything on the scale of Saltworks.

The 1,436-acre site on the edge of San Francisco Bay has produced commercial salt, in evaporation ponds, since the early 1900s. The ecologically sensitive land has now been deemed by Cargill to be a little too valuable for it to be dedicated to a lowly condiment. Cargill and DMB propose not only 355 acres of housing, but about 1 million square feet of commercial and office space, as many as four schools, and about 360 acres of parks, greenways, sports fields and public open space. About 30% of the site, 436 acres, would be restored as tidal marsh.

In a way, Saltworks is a unique project. But, in ways that I find more interesting, Saltworks is not unique at all. Bonnie Fisher, a principal at ROMA Design who is working on the project and who noted its game-changing nature also said Saltworks provides "a casebook of a lot of issues."

Among those issues:

• What is infill? Saltworks proponents insist this is an infill site. It has provided industrial-scale salt production for a century and is bordered on three sides by heavy industry, a port, office buildings, mobile home parks and a garbage dump converted into a municipal park. Environmental groups say the site is actually part of the San Francisco Bay and should be returned to a natural state.

• How do you avoid land use conflicts? As noted above, part of the site borders very heavy industrial uses, such as aggregate processing plants and a port where ships unload raw materials. These are noisy, smelly operations that may run all day and all night, thus hearkening back to the earliest days of planning. The Saltworks plan would place office and commercial development across the street from the heavy industry as a way of buffering new residential areas. Is that enough? Wanting to ensure a diverse job-base (Redwood City was a casualty of the dot-com bust 10 years ago), city officials are wary of placing potential NIMBYs next to valued industrial activity.

• Crossing the freeway divide. Most of Redwood City lies west of the Bayshore Freeway. Saltworks lies east of the freeway. There currently are only three connections over the freeway. One of those is in Menlo Park, which is dead set against the project. One is at Woodside Road, which is already overburdened. The third is merely a two-lane street. Saltworks proponents are talking about extending a road to a different freeway intersection and building a flyover for transit. But even if designers solve the circulation issues, the concern is that Saltworks will evolve as an independent district -- an appendage. There's good reason for this concern, because of…

• The Redwood Shores example. Redwood Shores also lies east of the freeway and, although it is within Redwood City's boundaries, it has almost no relationship to the rest of town. Designed during the 1960s, and built mostly during the 1980s and '90s, Redwood Shores is a slice of Orange County pasted atop bay fill. Large office parks, lots of two- and three-story condos, wide boulevards, a grocery store/strip mall to which you can't walk. No one inside City Hall is willing to call Redwood Shores a failure. After all, both software behemoth Oracle and video game giant Electronic Arts have built their world headquarters in Redwood Shores. Combined, they employ about 8,000 people, many of them handsomely paid. Yet, no one wants a repeat of Redwood Shores. With a neo-traditional grid, mixed uses and many public amenities, the Saltworks design is nothing like Redwood Shores' suburbia. Still, what the public sees as an example of recent large-scale development is Redwood Shores.

• What about downtown? It took three tries, but downtown Redwood City redevelopment finally took hold during the last decade. Downtown is now a desirable place with a busy Caltrain station. A high-speed rail stop is likely. Private interests are starting to invest, locals are proud of downtown, and city officials envision greater things. The fear is that Saltworks would divert momentum and development interest away from downtown. Saltworks proponents say there is no cause for concern because downtown is poised for development right away, while Saltworks would grow over the course of 20 years.

• What is a transit-oriented development? Can it occur in a location that currently has no transit? I think Saltworks proponents are genuine when they talk about building transit lines through their project and across the freeway to the rest of town, including to the Caltrain station. But what sort of transit? Would it be compatible with the streetcar system Redwood City has planned through and south of downtown?  Even if the developers build the infrastructure, who would operate – and, therefore, subsidize – the system?

• What is a jobs-housing balance? Saltworks' new housing would be within easy biking distance of 2.3 million square feet of existing class A office space and R&D facilities at Pacific Shores Center and Brittania Seaport Centre. The proposed development would contain another 1 million square feet of office and commercial space, and the proposed transit flyover would tie right into a rapidly growing Stanford Medical Center outpost. But Saltworks proponents speak of 300,000 jobs within a 10-mile radius of the proposed development. Most of these jobs – even at Oracle and EA in Redwood City – are really accessible only by car. The Bayshore Freeway is already jammed (including at a spot known as the "Oracle Mile"), and, as mentioned above, Saltworks has very limited access. The public's top concern appears to be that Saltworks will create a massive traffic jam.

• And the alternative is… ? For many years, the alternative has been to build houses in Tracy, Modesto, Salinas and other distant places, and require people to endure insane commutes to Bay Area jobs. No one can seriously argue that this is a good long-term strategy. Saltworks is a chance to help offset some of the Bay Area's regional planning sins.

• Sea level rise. When experts predict sea level will rise by 3 to 4 1/2 feet this century, does it make sense to build a whole new community on a site that is at the current mean sea level? Saltworks development would rely on low-slung dikes that could be raised over time. Still, they would be artificial structures holding back water that is above ground-floor level.

 • The waterfront. It's always last on the list in the Bay Area, isn't it? Like all of its neighbors, Redwood City turned its back on the bay long ago. The bay was a place where you put your LULUs (locally unwanted land uses), such as garbage dumps, airports, batch plants and trailer parks. Redwood City does have a public port and a fairly new privately developed port, but there's no real waterfront. Saltworks would provide a three-mile-long waterfront greenway, permitting people to connect with the bay. What a concept.

Although Saltworks has been in the discussion stage for at least three years, and Cargill and DMB submitted an application in 2009, Redwood City is only now beginning the environmental review process. And Redwood City is only one reviewing agency. The project appears to need approval from six federal agencies and at least a dozen state and regional agencies.

– Paul Shigley

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