Tom Butt
  E-Mail Forum – 2023  
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  City Planning Functions Pretty Much Useless Anymore
March 24, 2023

Back in the day, we had planning staff, a Design Review Board and a Planning Commission that protected the interests of residents. That was before the incompetent and corrupt city attorney preempted legal and traditional protections, essentially took over Richmond government and intimidated the Design Review Board and Planning Commission into approving really bad projects, such as the Quarry Project, Terminal One and now, the PG&E site project.

The so-called PG&E site (location of former PG&E gasholder tank at Brickyard Cove) was approved by the Planning Commission on March 16, 2023.

One of the biggest issues was the design concept that requires 63,700 cubic yards of fill, requiring 5,238 truck trips over the five-month period required to bring the fill to the Project Site – up to 153 trucks per day. The following is from the staff report:

The Project would be constructed in two phases. The Applicant anticipates that construction of the Project would begin in late 2023/early 2024, beginning with site clearing. Grading would take approximately five months, with building construction taking approximately 20 months. Rough grading would generate approximately 63,700 cubic yards of cut, which would be redistributed onsite as engineered fill material. An additional approximately 68,100 cubic yards of fill material would be imported to raise the elevation of the Project Site and create construction pads. A total of 131,800 cubic yards of fill would be used on-site, including reuse of the on-site cut material. Depending on the characteristics of the soil, one truck could carry between 13 and 16 cubic yards of fill, requiring 5,238 truck trips over the five-month period required to bring the fill to the Project Site. Up to 153 trucks per day could be scheduled to bring fill to the site, although the number of trips would vary from day to day.

My understanding is that the city attorney barred both the Design Review Board and the Planning Commission from rejecting or modifying the plan based on the Density Bonus law and Housing Accountability Act (HAA). City staff and the city attorney do not understand these statutes and simply cave in to developers rather than protecting the City’s interests.

Former Design Review Board Chair Jonathan Livingston wrote:

I have been involved with a few of these of late and it is shocking how impactful these laws are and how little the decision makers understand them. Decision makers are put in a position and told to approve projects or get sued, and none of them seem to understand any of the laws. It is becoming a crisis. In Richmond, The Design Review Board, the Planning Commission and the City Council are all ignorant to these laws and their legal staff is being manipulated by the legal threats from all of the developers' lawyers.  It is a due process nightmare.   The very much needed firewalls that the Municipal code has in its statues are useless now as well as environmental protections for the citizens.  

These statutes are intended to limit a city’s ability to deny approval of a housing project, in the case of HAA, in recognition that "the lack of housing, including emergency shelter, is a critical statewide problem." They are not however, free passes for developers. In the case of HAA, a city can deny or require changes to a project if it causes a "specific, adverse impact" to public health,” or fails to meet the standard of the California Environmental Quality Act.

Part of the problem was an entirely insufficient CEQA review. For example, Appendix G, Transportation, to the CEQA review did not even look at impacts for hauling nearly 70,000 cubic yards of fill, stating, “Construction related details are not known at this time.”

Regarding diesel exhaust from 5,238 truck trips, the CEQA review stated, “Diesel exhaust and ROG would be emitted during construction of the proposed project, which are objectionable to some; however, emissions would disperse rapidly from the project site and therefore would not create objectionable odors affecting a substantial number of people.” Are you kidding me?

The problem with 5,238 trucks exacerbating the frequent railroad grade crossing blockages on Canal Boulevard was not even considered. The CEQA review simply stated, “Trucks would access the site from I580, exiting on Canal Boulevard, then traveling via Seacliff Drive to Brickyard Cove Road. The builder would be required to prepare a Construction Traffic Plan per General Plan Action SN4.E to mitigate noise, traffic, and control dust. This allows the City to coordinate traffic from concurrent projects and ensure that traffic flow is not impeded on roadways or at railroad crossings. The City will require that adequate access for all transportation modes, especially emergency vehicles, be maintained during construction.” Note that how the railroad crossing blockage was not resolved, just kicked down the road to be somehow  “coordinated:” by the City.

Most people do not know that the CEQA mitigations for the Honda Port of Entry project in 2008 required limitations on Canal Boulevard grade crossing blockages but the City has never enforced the mitigations, caving in to the desires of the Port of Richmond to maximize car imports.

Former Design Review Board Chair Jonathan Livingston pitched a plan that would require no imported fill and result in even more units, but the city attorney told the Planning Commission they could not consider it.

Figure 1 - Appearance of the proposed PG&E site project

Figure 2 - Site plan of the proposed PG&E site project

Figure 3 - Site section for the PG&E site project showing the amount of fill required

Figure 4 - Alternate plan prepared by Jonathan Livingston with no imported fill and more units

Figure 5 - Rendering of Jonathan Livingston's alternate plan