Public Comment

More Reasons Why the Harold Way Project EIR is Inadequate

Christopher Adams
Saturday April 25, 2015 - 12:36:00 PM

On April 23 the Zoning Adjustments Board declined to certify the Final Environmental Impact Report for the proposed project at 2211 Harold Way. Board members are to be commended for refusing to accept the misguided staff recommendation to certify the EIR in the face of what, one suspects, was strong pressure from the Mayor and his Council allies to push this project forward.

The Final EIR, which was before the ZAB for certification, consisted of a “Draft EIR,” with numerous appendices and a “Response to Comments,” in which the City and its consultants attempted to answer critics of the Draft EIR. Before the April 23 meeting the Planet had already published criticisms of the Draft EIR, and many at the meeting spoke to its weaknesses. Here is what I wrote to the ZAB about my comments on the Draft EIR and the ineffective “Response to Comments” (RTC) which the City and its consultants prepared in rebuttal:

The Draft EIR totally failed to explain what the project benefits will be. The RTC does not deny this but simply states: “It is not within the purview of the Draft EIR to determine whether significant community benefits would be provided by the proposed project” and “this information is outside of the scope of the EIR, which focuses on physical impacts to the environment.” If this is so, then why are community benefits repeatedly included in the Draft EIR to explain and justify most of the significant impacts of the project? The City cannot have it both ways. If benefits are discussed in the Draft EIR, they are fair game for comments, and these comments cannot then be brushed off as “opinions.” The Draft EIR has not adequately defined or explained project benefits, and the Final EIR must respond and discuss them or remain inadequate.  

It is a fact that the proposed 120 foot high and block-wide building along Harold Way is not compatible with anything existing in downtown or with any sketches or discussion in the Downtown Area Plan. Towers are arguably part of the vision of the DAP, but a block-long wall twelve stories tall has no precedent in the existing fabric or the vision of a new downtown. The RTC dismisses my comment as an “opinion.” 

The RTC claims that the impact on views from the Campanile was adequately discussed, and I will not pursue this argument, which has been much discussed in other forums. However, the RTC also fails to respond to the second part of my comment which stated that the Draft EIR “fails totally to consider the impact of views from the west,” because the RTC claims these will be from “private viewpoints” as if this means they don’t matter. In point of fact the most likely damage to views will be from places like Treasure and Yerba Buena Islands and the new east bay segment of the Bay Bridge. 

The RTC states “The commenter states an opinion that the Draft EIR fails to consider an alternative with a smaller number of residential units and less square feet.” No, this is not an opinion. It is a fact that the EIR does not consider a smaller project alternative. I admit that it is my ‘opinion’ that this is a basic failure under CEQA; perhaps the City, the project developer and their attorneys don’t agree with my ‘opinion.’ But the EIR does not provide a smaller project alternative. All the alternatives simply shift the square feet around, but the same number of square feet remain in all of them.  

In my comments I noted that the Draft EIR had nothing about sunlight and shadows except in Appendix A, and I questioned the accuracy of the determination of shadows on Allston Way by including a photograph of the Brower Center taken on the summer solstice. The RTC answers by noting that the project won’t cast shadows on pubic spaces several blocks away, which may be true but was not in any way the subject of my comments. It then goes on to deny that summer solstice shadows would be equivalent or greater than those cast by the nearby Brower Building because the proposed project would be set back 15 feet above the fifth story and because my photograph of the Brower shadow was taken at 11 AM rather than noon. References to standard sun angle diagrams suggest that the hour difference is inconsequential, but more to the point, the 15 feet setback would not make any difference to my comment. Anyone with a protractor can make a diagram which will show that a 15 feet of setback on a 120 foot high building is equivalent to a 75 foot building without a setback, or greater than the Brower Building. The drawing shown in Appendix A of the Draft EIR appears to be wrong. The least amount of shadow, at noon on the shortest day of the year, will be at or close to the center of Allston Way.  

In my comment I noted that buried in Appendix F to the Draft EIR the wind consultant noted that roof furniture should be fastened down so it would not blow off and injure people below. The RTC says that this is just a “standard recommendation for any rooftop space.” Really? We are talking about large objects which could fall from 120 to 180 feet onto the sidewalks and streets below, and the RTC insists that this impact is “less than significant.” The rooftops of most high-rise buildings are not accessible to anyone but service workers. For this project the room terraces are a major amenity and intended to meet the open space needs of residents of 302 apartments, who just might bring their own furniture up to the roof. This is a significant impact and should be so acknowledged. 

The RTC acknowledges that “the project plans have been subject to refinement since the wind consultant’s report was prepared.” In other words the design has been changed. It goes on to say that the wind consultant sent the City some email about these issues. Perhaps one should be grateful the City and the project proponents acknowledge the problems that winds may cause, but if the project design has changed because of information about wind that was not included in the EIR as circulated, then the EIR should be recirculated to show the revisions to the design and give the public the opportunity to review the new information from the wind consultant. 

Christopher Adams is a retired architect and city planner.