To save San Francisco, Democrats want to abolish environmental reviews

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Not too long ago, it would have sounded ridiculous for Democrats in San Francisco to call for stripping environmental protections from California’s precious urban centers.

It would have been like painting the Golden Gate Bridge gray or rooting for the Los Angeles Dodgers. It wouldn’t have flown.

But as California’s housing shortage deepens and San Francisco struggles to revitalize its urban core, state Sen. Scott Wiener says there’s one thing that absolutely must be done: overhaul the environment. That’s what he says.

Wiener on Friday proposed one of the most far-reaching rollbacks of California’s once-vaunted Environmental Quality Act by asking the state Legislature to allow most projects in downtown San Francisco to circumvent the law for the next 10 years. I plan to.

Weiner said it could be easier to demolish vacant buildings and make way for theaters, museums or university campuses. Office towers could be more easily converted into a variety of residential uses. Market Street’s declining mall could soon become something else, like the soccer stadium Mayor London Breed envisions.

“We know we need to make our downtown viable,” said Breed, the bill’s sponsor. “We can’t let that get in the way of the process.”

For decades, Democrats in the mold of Mr. Wiener and Mr. Breed have been among the most ardent defenders of CEQA, the landmark law signed in 1970, months after the first Earth Day celebration. I was alone. But in recent years, a growing number of Democrats have complained that environmental protection laws are creating barriers to the projects they want, from infill housing to solar farms. Gov. Gavin Newsom has also criticized the bill, asking Congress last year to change parts of the law to allow California to “build, build, build.”

When CEQA (pronounced “see-kuah”) was enacted, residents were in the midst of a post-World War II construction boom when highways were cutting through pastures and neighborhoods and rivers were being dammed. It gave me a new way to tackle projects.

The California Supreme Court expanded the law in 1972 to apply to almost any project in the state. This paved the way for environmentalists to challenge suburban development and polluting factories, but also gave dissatisfied people the ability to delay or cancel projects. CEQA could impose multiple layers of review, litigation costs, and years of delays that could make construction impossible.

Laws aren’t the only thing holding back San Francisco and its downtown from thriving. Four years into the pandemic, he still has 35% of his office space vacant. But there are clear examples of how environmental laws have been used to block projects like food pantries and coronavirus testing sites.

“CEQA has shut down bike lanes. That’s crazy,” said Jim Wunderman, chief executive of the Bay Area Council, a business-friendly public policy group.

In one high-profile lawsuit, a nonprofit that owns and operates affordable housing is using a 2022 state law to block plans to build hundreds of apartments in a vacant Nordstrom parking lot in San Francisco. They argued that it would gentrify the downtown area. This is a socio-economic argument. It has been attracting attention in recent years. The Board of Supervisors sided with the nonprofit and called for further environmental review.

“Should an environmental review be done that way in this beautiful concrete jungle of downtown San Francisco?” Weiner asked as he walked through the Financial District, dotted with vacant retail units and “for rent” signs. .

Weiner is already pushing changes through the state Legislature to ease regulations on development, especially housing. In 2017, he will push to accelerate the construction of affordable housing in cities that are not meeting state-issued housing goals and exempt some transportation projects and certain infill housing developments from CEQA. drafted the bill. And for years, state lawmakers have rushed to review major stadium plans downtown, including San Francisco’s Chase Center and Inglewood, Calif.’s SoFi Stadium.

But this is the first time such a large area of ​​the city (150 blocks) has been exempted from environmental review.

Under Weiner’s proposal, San Francisco officials would not spend more than a year analyzing each redevelopment project’s environmental impacts, and the public would not have the right to sue to stop the project. It disappears.

For Wiener, this is the definition of environmentalism in today’s California, which is experiencing a housing shortage and increased homelessness in an era of climate change.

California’s environmental movement once focused on protecting animal habitat, open space, and beaches and fighting developers at all costs. But Wiener argues that adding dense housing near workplaces and public transportation should be at the heart of the environmental movement. He and other Democrats say infill housing would reduce long car commutes and prevent further sprawl.

A large-scale exemption for downtown San Francisco would undoubtedly face opposition nationally and in the state legislature. Wiener’s proposal to ignore local zoning laws and speed up development near transit stops was defeated in the Legislature several years ago after a bitter battle. At the time, local governments and low-income Californians argued that Wiener’s proposal would benefit developers and wealthier tenants while pushing existing renters to cheaper suburbs.

Similar discussions are likely to occur this year as well. Paul Borden, executive director of the Western Region Advocacy Project, which aims to end homelessness and poverty, said the proposal looks like a boon to developers and could further push the poorest workers out of the city. .

Some environmental activists may take Wiener’s side. Jake McKenzie, director of the Greenbelt Alliance, said he prefers infill development to projects like California Forever. California Forever is a plan by the tech giant to build a new town on farmland about 90 miles northeast of San Francisco.

But some may question the decision to grant such sweeping exemptions from the state’s landmark environmental law.

David Lewis, executive director of Save the Bay, said his group was one of the first to support Wiener’s proposal to encourage more housing near transit. But he added that Weiner’s new plan sounds “pretty extreme.”

He agreed with critics who say environmentalists and other development opponents are abusing state law. However, he noted that construction projects can generate a lot of noise, pollute the air, and cause traffic congestion, and it is important to know in advance the negative effects of these projects. He said the review was important.

“When the public has more information, government officials can make smarter decisions. That’s the whole point of CEQA,” he said. “Excluding major projects from analysis is not the solution.”

Still, Mr. Weiner may find support from powerful labor allies in California, which have increasingly pushed back against environmentalists. The bill to be introduced Friday would generally exempt projects that pay union-negotiated wages from environmental reviews. Environmental reviews of hotels and waterfront properties will still be needed, as well as the demolition of buildings that have been occupied by tenants within the past 10 years.

Wiener says San Francisco is in dire need of change. California law gives local governments some latitude in how they apply CEQA, and San Francisco has long given development critics more confidence than other cities. The head of the state housing authority last year decried the city’s obstacles to housing construction as “egregious.”

Wiener said a 10-year exemption was needed for nearly all projects downtown. Otherwise, many potential solutions to revitalize the region, such as new university campuses, student housing, theaters, museums, and hubs for artificial intelligence and biotechnology, could stall. .

After a strong rebuke from the state, the city of San Francisco finally approved the Nordstrom parking project. But developer Lou Vasquez said the delay meant it was no longer economically viable.

“This remains a parking lot,” he said. Nordstrom no longer exists either.

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