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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