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Mel’s Bowl Development Scrapes Through

Redwood City councilmembers reject two separate appellants’ appeals and approve construction of new housing. Do you think this was the right decision?

The vacant former Mel’s Bowl site is going to become a 141-unit apartment building. But it was a tough battle for the developer amidst council questioning and a slew of union workers in attendance Monday night.

The Redwood City City cCuncil upheld the Planning Commission’s approval of the building development 5-1, with Vice Mayor Jeff Gee dissenting and Councilmember Rosanne Foust abstaining. The six councilmembers rejected two appeals over the project’s lack of affordable housing and an absence of a prevailing wage for the construction workers.

However, the Building and Construction Trade’s Council's highlighting of several environmental concerns prompted Councilmember John Seybert to temporarily shelve approval for another motion. He proposed to delay a decision for two weeks to allow for more time to analyze the environmental impact report.

Councilmember Jeff Ira emphasized the soundness of the report, and city staff clarified that the proposed project complied with the city’s General Plan and zoning ordinances. Legally, the city cannot require private developers to provide any units of affordable housing or demand a prevailing wage for the laborers hired.

Seybert eventually revoked his motion, stating that the short two-week delay would not provide an extensive environmental analysis needed.

 “It could be another 20 to 30 years before another development like this comes along,” Ira said of the appealing factors of this particular development.

Palo Alto-based Urban Housing Group promised a restoration of the surrounding El Camino Real neighborhood, including cleaned up store fronts of the six surrounding businesses and a .

“These community benefits might not take the traditional form of affordable housing, but the bookstore being gone is amazing,” Ira said. He added that he appreciated the developer's outreach to the community.

"The of this," he added.

Councilmember Barbara Pierce added, “We need housing. And there are no jobs without developers. They need to get their needs met, too.”

She thanked the developer for supporting the local residents by searching for Redwood City contractors.

 

A Dearth of Affordable Housing

Urban Housing Group voluntarily promised five affordable housing units after the Planning Commission’s approval. As a private developer that is not using any public funds, they did not ask for any density bonuses or building concessions and thus did not have to provide affordable housing units.

However, many housing advocates believed these five of 141 units, 3.5 percent of the project, was inadequate.

“It’s like a pole vaulter asking for a gold medal after stepping over a fallen branch,” said James Lee of Occupy Redwood City. “This does not qualify as affordable housing.”

Joshua Hugg of the Housing Leadership Council of San Mateo County, which advocates for lower-income housing, cited the median price of $2,000 monthly rent for a two-bedroom, a market rate that many working families could not afford.

Appellant Diana Reddy, also of the Housing Leadership Council, said that providing more affordable housing would draw more seniors to the development, who are the highest users of public transportation and frequent businesses. Residents over 65 make up 11.4 percent of Redwood City and have a median income of $22,976.

However, Redwood City does not have a law requiring developers to offer any affordable housing units. When redevelopment funds still existed, cities had much more bargaining power and could fund 15 percent of the units below market rate. But since the state yanked the funds in July 2011, the city has little financial flexibility to offer these units.

Bill Ekern, the city’s community development director, added that the project complies with the city’s General Plan, or city’s blueprint, and the zoning assignment. California’s Housing Accountability Act states that if a development project meets the city’s housing plans and zoning regulations, a city council cannot reject a proposal.

Affordable housing advocates argued that establishing an affordable housing requirement should be the council’s next priority. Many aim for 15 percent of units at below market rate. 

“A community is judged by how well it takes care of the neediest,” Reddy said. She argued that giving people the chance at a roof over their head is imperative.

 

Seeking a Prevailing Wage for Workers

The second appellant, Redwood City Citizens for Responsible Development—including the Building and Construction Trades Council of San Mateo County—contended two points: that the developer would likely not provide prevailing wages to the hired laborers and that the environmental impact report failed to address several significant impacts to the surrounding community.

Several dozen union workers packed to demonstrate their concern that whichever contractor the developer hired would not pay its workers prevailing wage. The city is not required to mandate that developers negotiate a certain contract.

Elaine Breeze of the Urban Housing Development explained her company's bidding process. They advertise in the Builders Exchange Magazine and identify all interested parties in Redwood City and the surrounding nine counties in the Bay Area. Once bids are placed, and if a Redwood City union contractor is within 5 percent of the lowest bid, it’s theirs.

But union laborers distinguished between local contractors and local laborers. Contractors based in Redwood City don’t necessarily hire laborers from Redwood City.

Union laborers demand pensions and health care to achieve a standard quality of life while non-unionized workers are able to under cut other workers and potentially work for minimum wage.

“We’re just looking for a guarantee of the prevailing wage,” said Mark Leach of the Electricians Union.

Prevailing wages range amongst different trades, he said.

“Please stand up for the workers of Redwood City,” asked Edward Evans of the Carpenters Union Local 217. “Large projects like this propose to use the cheapest labor available.”

 

Environmental Concerns Cause Council Hesitance

On the affordable housing and prevailing wage fronts, the council was not legally bound to any obligations. But Seybert expressed concern over the soundness of the environmental impact report.

“I may be gun shy,” he said of project approval, “but I think it would be worthwhile to delay approval to ensure that we don’t go through months of litigation.”

In 2007, the city over a shadow report that delayed its Downtown Precise Plan for two years and cost the city more than $841,000. Seybert cautioned the council that this was a recurring possibility if it eagerly approved any development project that made its way to the dais.

The appellant’s attorney pointed out that there is an over 10 in 1 million cancer risk connected with the project, which is defined as a significant health and safety issue.

However, the California Environmental Quality Act states that this risk only be recognized then mitigated, according to the appellant’s attorney, Tanya Gulesserian of Adams, Broadwell, Joseph & Cardozo.

Vice Mayor Jeff Gee had several issues with the language in the document. In the section addressing noise, the report stated that no construction would be conducted on weekends or holidays. Gee expressed skepticism of the estimated completion timeline of 19 months with these limited construction times.

The developer’s attorney then clarified that “no construction” would not exclude painting and interior work.

Gee also expressed a desire to further explore the traffic analysis—or lack thereof. The developer’s attorney assured that at peak traffic hours, there would be fewer than 100 trips—the threshold that requires mitigation. However, Gee pointed out uncertainties in the report, such as which direction occupants would be driving, particularly with the new Facebook building moving to Menlo Park.

He also criticized the developer’s lack of recycled water usage. Currently, there are 1,000 gallons of water being used, which would increase to 20,000 gallons once construction begins.

“Disappointed is a polite word,” Gee said. “And any other developer that comes through here better have a plan to use recycled water.”

These concerns caused Seybert to make a motion to extend any approval decision until the next council meeting in two weeks so councilmembers could clarify environmental hiccups.

Former planning commissioner Gee liked the idea of having more time to scour the environmental impact report for other potential unidentified significant impacts that could place the city in another legal debacle.

But councilmembers Ira and Pierce vehemently supported immediate approval because of the proposal’s adherence to the law and the need for housing.

 

Placing Value on Their Values

Throughout the night, there was no argument over whether affordable housing and prevailing wage was important to the community.

But with this particular project, the council had no legal obligations. Yet that didn’t stop councilmembers from pushing the conversation forward on ways to establish city guidelines on these two issues.

With several development proposals in front of city staff awaiting Planning Commission approval, affordable housing advocates and union workers are pressuring the council to propose action if it truly values these two issues.

Councilmember Ian Bain looked to the Housing and Human Concerns Committee to suggest ways to provide more affordable housing despite no more redevelopment funds. To ensure prevailing wages for hired contractors, he encouraged more communication between developers and unions.

“If this needs facilitation, I’d be happy to do that,” he said.

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Gloria Linda Maldonnado February 15, 2012 at 11:59 PM
I did not find any info on who donated to whom. I would like a response from council members regarding donations whether or not the developer, his agents, representatives or spouses have donated money to them. I have heard the rationale for having the meetings away from the citizens they represent but that does not alter the fact that price and location make it difficult for many to attend to address concerns about our city. I don't buy it. But the fact remains it is a location far from the scrutiny of residents. When one attends an event to that attempts to "inform" about proposals in a luxurious setting it remains a perk. Two dinners at $150.00 each might be a plate of shrimp and a glass of wine to you but that is not the issue. The issue is a gift of . If labor donated to Mr. Ira I wouldn't say they bought him off . They should have looked at his voting record on labor issues before throwing money his way. It is obvious by the council members' votes that the city residents who work in construction have not been the primary concern of the city. Whether they can afford to rent or buy in Redwood City makes no difference to the council nor do the needs of residents for "affordable" housing , or for below market housing, or for traffic or environmental concerns. The question remains, Did the developers, their agents, representatives or spouses donate money to council members. I don't want your opinion on what makes a perk, $300.00 is a perk Gloria Maldonado
Lou Covey, The Local Motive February 16, 2012 at 12:19 AM
Actually, Gloria, there is a version of the seminar held a month or two after the main event where a summary is given of the days discussions. It's held at the Oracle event center and most of the players are in attendance. You can come to that. whether you "buy" the chamber's reasons for having it away from Redwood City is not relevant. The Chamber can make it's own decisions. If you don't like it, join the chamber (I have) and voice your opinion. There are many meetings council members and city officials attend outside of the city, when the issues discussed affect not only the city, but the region. As far as the union donations, I'm pretty sure they are savvy enough to check the records of the politicians they support. The fact of the matter is that you are not prohibited in any means from talking to your city officials. You just have to make the effort to do so. Same for finding out about who contributes to what. It's all on record.
Barb Valley February 16, 2012 at 02:37 AM
Gloria, Councilmembers' names, addresses, email, phone and fax numbers can be found at www.redwoodcity.org. Plenty of opportunity to contact them individually and ask your questions. Campaign statements can also be found on that website. The SMC Chamber decides where their seminars are held. If it's not to your liking you can give them a call as well.
Sarah H. February 16, 2012 at 04:45 AM
I do believe that Redwood City and the rest of the Peninsula needs more affordable housing. But by that, I don't necessarily mean reduced rate apartments or homes for families that barely scrape by with close to poverty level incomes. I'm talking about the rest of us. Those of us who have good middle-class incomes, incomes that would make people doing the same job in other parts of the country envious, but STILL can't comfotrably afford to purchase a home or rent a house in this area. Those of us who make a reasonable salary tend to make too much to qualify for any sort of "affordable" housing, but not enough to actually afford to live here. Sure, many of us scrape by and cough up 50% or more of our take home pay on rent to live here. And sure, many people seem to be willing to be mortgaged to the hilt to live here (half a mil more more for a tiny house in a questionable neighborhood). And others, seeking the dream of home ownership, are willing to engage in hours-long commutes, just so they can keep the jobs here in the Bay Area that pay them so well, and make it possible to buy a nice new tract home in the Central Valley. And as long as we have plenty of homeowners who purchased their home decades ago, or inherited their homes, who sit on mountains of equity, or willing to buy in no matter the cost, housing costs around here will remain unreachable for those of us looking to buy in. It's that whole self-interest thing, you know? The whole thing seems rather dysfunctional.
Lou Covey, The Local Motive February 16, 2012 at 04:35 PM
All your points are valid, Sarah, but in this case, the issue is rental property, which is at an even greater premium in Redwood City. We have the lowest stocks of rental property--at any price--on the Peninsula and the greatest demand. Because demand is high, rents are also high. Adding large amounts of stock will naturally depress prices, which has occurred quite often in the south bay. Dealing with affordable real estate for purchase is a similar problem. We have a lot of people that work in Redwood City and most of them come from out of town. The estimates are we have 40,000 people commute INTO Redwood City every day. That doesn't count those commuting THROUGH. CalTrain is at capacity and lacks adequate funding to expand and local forces successfully killed the funding to do that expansion when they drove the HSR system into the Central Valley. So you are absolutely correct that we need to build more homes that can be afforded by people like you and me and get those commuters off the freeways.

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