The Vanguard was very critical of the efforts of the Planning Commission in the 4-3 vote to uphold an appeal to deny the B Street Residence project. It turns out the council was as well, with at least three councilmembers on Tuesday openly questioning why the project was even before them.
However, on Wednesday night, the staff laid out a very simple and direct instruction of the duties of the Planning Commission, which voted 6-0 to recommend certification of the Mace Ranch Innovation Center EIR.
As staff explained, “The requested action is limited to certification of the FEIR and is not an action on or approval of the project.” Further, staff wrote, “The question before the Planning Commission is whether or not the EIR document, as prepared by the City, provides adequate analysis to certify under CEQA based on the project description contained in the EIR document.”
There is no doubt that this process was unusual, but there was nothing in the law prohibiting the city from certifying an EIR even though the applicant is not currently actively advancing the project. But that may change now, as Dan Ramos told the Vanguard following the meeting.
Dan Ramos told the Vanguard that just to get the project to this point has already cost $3 million.
We asked him point blank if this project was going to happen and he was fairly emphatic that it was their intention to move forward. “We’re very much interested.” He said, “We wanted to see if we can at least get to this milestone and then sit down with the council and see what’s going to be on the horizon in 2018, what kind of project they would like, and keep working on it.”
When asked if he anticipated significant enough changes to warrant a new EIR, he responded, “Who knows.” He added, “Obviously there will be something that we have to go study.”
He stated, “We are going to take significant efforts once this gets to market to find an anchor tenant.” Finding an anchor tenant now is crucial to allow the project to move forward, he said.
One of the people he plans to talk to is incoming Chancellor Gary May. It has been the Vanguard’s view that the site might be perfect as a location for the World Food Center. While the center itself would not be a tax generator for the city, businesses attracted to the location could provide a wealth of revenue.
“We have a lot of work to do,” he said. But he clearly sounded hopeful that this project can move forward.
The process, of course, has generated a lot of criticism. There are those who have questioned whether the city should move forward with certifying a project that in their eyes does not exist. That is despite the fact there are a number of protections in place to prevent real abuse.
During public comments Eileen Samitz argued, “There is no project defined so far from the project developers. There is an application on hold with a number of alternative projects and two equal weights.”
She also cited “serious flaws in the EIR, particularly the false assumptions that you have to have 60 percent of the units – 850 units – (that) would have to be occupied by at least one employee. It’s ridiculous to assume that that [can] happen when it can’t be reinforced legally.”
Ms. Samitz is referring to the equal weight alternative, that the staff concluded is the environmentally superior alternative, “assuming (that) the addition of a legally enforceable mechanism to ensure that at least 60 percent of the on-site units would be occupied by at least one MRIC employee can be provided.”
Staff is unclear at this point in time whether there is a legally enforceable mechanism to ensure that 60 percent of the occupants would be MRIC employees, but it also may be a moot point. The project alternative was summarily rejected by council back in the winter of 2016.
While MRIC could come back with another mixed-use proposal, it seems highly unlikely that council would want to risk another housing proposal for the project. Housing is widely seen as a poison pill for the project and would make it far more difficult to pass.
In my view, having housing on site makes a lot of sense given our housing shortages and the environmental impact of having workers come from Elk Grove and Natomas via I-80. But, given concerns about the enforceability of whether they can restrict the housing to employees and people’s overall opposition to housing, it makes more sense to build the innovation center first and figure out where to house people later.
Ms. Samitz on the Vanguard also worried that the city “loses leverage to get design, sustainability, and timelines negotiated.”
But is that really true?
Even with the EIR certified, the city council still has to take several direct actions to put the matter on the ballot. The council would have to approve a General Plan amendment. It would have to approve zoning changes. It would have to approve the baseline project features.
The council also may wish to act on additional things like a Development Agreement, Design Guidelines and a tax sharing agreement with the county.
Of course all these agreements are then subject to ratification by the voters.
So the idea that the council somehow loses leverage over the project because the EIR could already be certified by the time the project comes forward is inaccurate in our view.
I suppose the developers could act to get signatures and put the project on the ballot through initiative. But that would require something on the order of 7000 signatures and then would face the task of getting voter approval. That is not clearly the path of least resistance.
The bottom line is that, while the EIR process is an important environmental disclosure document, it is not the end of the process at all. The project at this point still needs council to certify the EIR – at this point, we would expect that to happen.
Then the developer needs to decide if they are going to go forward with a project. Dan Ramos clearly has an eye toward 2018, but to do that he would need to really move quickly here to get an anchor tenant and move on a project by early February.
That seems rather ambitious at this point. A November vote would require the project to be ready by this time next year, and that might be more realistic.
But the council vote and then the public vote are two huge hurdles – even after EIR certification and if the project finds the kind of anchor-tenant it needs to go forward.
Bottom line is that the project benefits from this move, but they still have a lot of hurdles to get over to get the project to fruition.
—David M. Greenwald reporting