By Thomas K. Pendergast
A lawsuit has been filed against a proposed redevelopment plan for 3333 California St. by the proponents of an alternative plan, after they lost an appeal of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ approval.
Among the many points of contention about the project is the cutting down of 226 mature trees on the 10-acre parcel at the same time that experts are saying we only have about a decade to deal with climate change before its effects become irreversible. Trees are an effective way to reduce greenhouse gases like carbon, because they take it out of the atmosphere and replace it with oxygen.
Furthermore, it appears that the City follows the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) rules in analyzing new construction projects, but the “carbon sequestration” potential for trees – that is the amount of carbon trees remove from the atmosphere – seems to be a minor consideration at best, or it is not considered at all.
The Laurel Height Improvement Association (LHIA) of San Francisco, Inc. filed the suit against the City and County of San Francisco in January in San Francisco County Superior Court.
The proposed project would demolish the existing annex building, surface parking lots and circular garage ramps. A four-story office building would be partially demolished and divided into two separate buildings, given new heights of 80 and 92 feet and adapted for retail space.
Thirteen new buildings, ranging in height from 37 to 45 feet, would be constructed along the perimeter of the site and would include: 744 dwelling units totaling 978,000 square feet; 35,000 square feet of retail space; 15,000 square feet for a childcare facility; 857 car parking spaces in below-grade garages; 839 bicycle parking spaces; and almost 2.9 acres of open space areas.
LHIA has been pushing its own plan that it says would maintain the historically significant characteristics of the site by preserving the existing main building. LHIA also claims that its plan would provide the same number of new residential units but offer less retail commercial space.
The LHIA Vice President Kathryn Devincenzi said that while they support building 744 housing units, they oppose more retail stores. Just down the street is the Laurel Village commercial corridor, and not far away are a Target store and a Trader Joe’s grocery store.
The San Francisco Planning Department, however, rejected the group’s plan, and the Board of Supervisors rejected their appeal of the department’s decision.
Department spokesperson Gina Simi said the trees must be removed in order to build the project, and she noted that the 226 trees to be removed will not only be replaced, but an additional 286 trees will eventually be planted, bringing the total number of trees on the site to 512.
San Francisco attorney Josh Klipp is not impressed with that plan, considering the timeline of construction for this project versus the time the City says action must take place to do something about climate change.
“Our Department of the Environment says we have 10 years before climate change is irreversible, so before this project is even done our world will have reached the point of no return on climate,” Klipp said. “Our city has declared itself to be in a climate emergency and our Department of the Environment has specifically recognized that if we are going to meet our climate goals, we must sequester more carbon. The most effective tools for that are big, mature trees.
“We have not asked these experienced developers why they need to chop down 10 acres worth of big, healthy trees. We haven’t asked their talented architect whether the plans could have incorporated rather than killed these trees. And until we ask these questions and take bold action to preserve the natural resources that we need to live on this planet; then we are failing to do everything we can for our city and our future,” Klipp said.
Devincenzi said with the LHIA alternative plan “much of the natural green landscaping and landmark building can be preserved and adapted to residential use under state-sanctioned historic design guidelines.”
The lawsuit challenges what the petitioner, LHIA, contends is “the City’s failure to comply with (CEQA) in approving a million-and-a-half square feet of mixed-use development without adopting feasible mitigations mandated by state law.”
But in rejecting that challenge at a Board meeting on Nov. 12, 2019, Debra Dwyer, an environmental planner with the Planning Department, said that they are following CEQA, but carbon sequestration by trees has little to do with it.
“We heard a lot of testimony regarding the loss of trees and climate change,” Dwyer told the Board. “The City and the department understand the importance of this issue. The project complies with requirements of the (greenhouse gas) reduction strategy. The project is an in-fill development, which is a key strategy in reducing vehicle trips and greenhouse gases … by locating housing in a transit-rich area, in proximity to jobs.
“And I’d also like to note that emissions from vehicles are a far worse contributor than loss of trees,” she said. “The appellant has not provided substantial evidence to support a claim that the (Environmental Impact Report) failed to comply with CEQA.”
District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar said this explanation “didn’t sit right with me.” Then he mentioned that more than 200 trees were slated to be cut down.
“I seemed to hear you say that because of that, therefore it’s OK that 200 mature trees are going to be removed because they are not as significant,” Mar said. “I just want to understand that.”
“I’m not saying that trees are not important but I am saying that under the questions that we look at for the purpose of CEQA, we are looking at whether there are special status species on the site, in addition to looking at local tree protection ordinances and how the project would comply with such an ordinance,” Dwyer responded. “In this case the majority of the trees are not special status trees and therefore, for the purpose of CEQA, we’re not going to find that their removal would be a significant biological impact.
“For the purposes of CEQA we would not find this tree removal to be a significant impact under the criteria that is in Appendix G, the CEQA check list.”
Mar responded “So, you’re saying that you really mostly look at the type of trees and the species but not how trees can play a significant role through carbon sequestration and reducing greenhouse gas emissions; that’s not part of CEQA.”
“In the different topic areas the questions that we look at are very specific, and with respect to biological resources it has to do with species that have some special status, like the Endangered Species Act, they have to be listed,” Dwyer explained.
Wade Wietgrefe, an environmental planner with the Planning Department, also discounted the importance of preserving the trees.
“The fact of the matter is, by locating a project here, or really almost anywhere in San Francisco, you are way more greenhouse gas efficient, even if you are removing trees, which we acknowledge this project is doing, than locating the project somewhere else,” Wietgrefe said.
But Klipp pointed to the SF Department of the Environment’s declaration of a “climate emergency” last year.
“And the point of that declaration was to get the Department of the Environment to go back and revise our climate action strategy,” Klipp said. “So the Department of the Environment did that. What they came back with and said is ‘we need more trees because we need to sequester more carbon. If we do not sequester more carbon, even with everything else that we’re doing, we will not meet our climate goals.
“You’ve got the Department of the Environment recognizing the profound importance of carbon sequestration; then you’ve got the Planning Department … not prioritizing it at all,” he said. “There’s recognizing the need for change and then there’s taking the steps we need to take to make it happen. And I think the City’s really lagging, and unfortunately we’re lagging at a time that we really don’t have time to lag.
“Could these changes be made in the next five or 10 years? Perhaps. But the planet is not waiting that long.”
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