To Save San Francisco, a Democrat Wants to Scrap Environmental Reviews

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Not long ago, it would have sounded preposterous: a San Francisco Democrat asking to peel back California’s treasured environmental protections in the heart of the city.

It would have been like painting the Golden Gate Bridge gray or cheering on the Los Angeles Dodgers. It just would not have flown.

But as California grows more desperate for housing and San Francisco struggles to revive its city core, State Senator Scott Wiener says one thing must go: environmental review.

Mr. Wiener on Friday will propose one of the broadest rollbacks of the once-vaunted California Environmental Quality Act by asking the state legislature to allow most projects in downtown San Francisco to bypass the law for the next decade.

Empty buildings could more easily be demolished to build theaters, museums or college campuses, Mr. Wiener said. Office towers could more readily be converted to a wide variety of housing. The withering mall on Market Street could more quickly become something else — like the soccer stadium that Mayor London Breed has envisioned.

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

For decades, Democrats in the mold of Mr. Wiener and Ms. Breed were among the most ardent defenders of CEQA, a landmark law signed in 1970, months after the celebration of the first Earth Day. But in recent years, a growing number of Democrats have begrudged the environmental act as a barrier to the projects they want, from infill housing to solar farms. Gov. Gavin Newsom is among its critics, last year urging the legislature to revamp portions of the law so California could “build, build, build.”

When CEQA (pronounced “see-qua”) was enacted, it gave residents a new way to challenge government projects during a building boom that followed World War II, as freeways were cutting through pastures and neighborhoods and as rivers were being dammed.

The California Supreme Court broadened the law in 1972 and said it could apply to almost any project in the state. That opened the door for environmentalists to challenge suburban developments and polluting factories, but also gave anyone with a grievance the ability to slow or kill projects. CEQA can force layers of review, litigation costs and years of delay, enough to render construction infeasible.

The law is hardly all that stands in the way of San Francisco and its downtown prosperity — 35 percent of office space remains empty four years after the onset of the pandemic. But there are glaring examples of how the environmental act has been used to try to block projects including food pantries and testing sites for Covid-19.

“We’ve had bike lanes stopped by CEQA. It’s crazy,” said Jim Wunderman, chief executive of the Bay Area Council, a business-friendly public policy group.

In one high-profile case, a nonprofit that owns and operates affordable housing used the state law in 2022 to argue that a plan to build hundreds of apartments on an empty Nordstrom parking lot would gentrify a neighborhood in downtown San Francisco — a socioeconomic argument that has gained traction in recent years. The Board of Supervisors sided with the nonprofit and asked for more environmental review.

“In this beautiful concrete jungle of downtown San Francisco, should environmental review operate that way?” Mr. Wiener asked as he walked through the Financial District, which was dotted with retail vacancies and “For Rent” signs.

Mr. Wiener has already pushed changes through the State Legislature to ease regulations on development, particularly for housing. He wrote legislation in 2017 that accelerated construction of affordable housing in cities that were not keeping up with state-issued housing targets and pushed for some transit projects and certain infill housing developments to be exempted from CEQA. And state lawmakers for years have sped review for major downtown stadium projects, including the Chase Center in San Francisco and SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif.

But exempting such a wide section — 150 blocks — of a city from environmental review would be a first.

Under Mr. Wiener’s proposal, San Francisco officials wouldn’t spend a year or more analyzing the environmental impacts of each redevelopment project, one by one, and average citizens wouldn’t have the right to sue to halt them.

To Mr. Wiener, this is the definition of environmentalism in today’s California, a state experiencing a lack of housing and growing homelessness in an era of climate change.

California environmentalism used to focus on preserving animal habitats, open space and beaches — and fighting developers at all cost. But Mr. Wiener argues that adding dense housing near jobs and public transit should be at the heart of the environmental movement. He and other Democrats have said that infill housing will cut down on hourslong car commutes and prevent additional sprawl.

A wholesale exemption for downtown San Francisco will undoubtedly face opposition at home and the State Capitol. Mr. Wiener’s proposal to accelerate development near transit stops, overriding local zoning laws, died in the legislature several years ago after a tough fight. At the time, local governments and low-income Californians argued that Mr. Wiener’s proposal would push existing renters to cheaper outskirts while benefiting developers and more affluent tenants.

A similar argument is likely this year. Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, which aims to eliminate homelessness and poverty, said the proposal seemed to be a giveaway to developers and could further push the poorest workers out of the city.

Some environmentalists may side with Mr. Wiener. Jake Mackenzie, a board member of the Greenbelt Alliance, said he would much prefer infill development over projects like California Forever, a plan by tech titans to build a new town on farmland about 60 miles northeast of San Francisco.

But others will very likely look askance at granting such a sweeping waiver of the state’s landmark environmental law.

David Lewis, executive director of Save the Bay, said his group was one of the first backers of Mr. Wiener’s proposals to stimulate housing construction near transit. But he added that Mr. Wiener’s new plan sounded “pretty extreme.”

He agreed with critics who say that environmentalists and other opponents of development have abused state laws. But he said that environmental review was important, observing that construction projects can create a lot of noise, pollute the air or cause traffic jams — and it would be important to know those harmful effects beforehand.

“People in government make smarter decisions when the public has more information, and that’s what’s at the heart of CEQA,” he said. “Exempting major projects from analysis is not the answer.”

Still, Mr. Wiener could find support from powerful labor allies, who have found themselves increasingly opposed to environmentalists in California. The bill being introduced Friday would waive environmental review for only projects that pay a prevailing wage, generally a rate negotiated by unions. It would still require environmental review for hotels and waterfront property, as well as for the demolition of any building that housed tenants within the past decade.

Mr. Wiener says that San Francisco is in dire need of a change. The California law gives local governments some leeway in how they apply CEQA, and San Francisco has long given more credence than other cities to development critics. A top state housing official denounced the city’s roadblocks to housing construction as “egregious” last year.

Mr. Wiener said exempting almost all projects downtown for a decade was necessary because many of the potential solutions for reviving the area — like a new college campus, student dorms, theaters, museums or artificial intelligence or biotech hubs — could otherwise be stalled.

After a strong rebuke from the state, San Francisco eventually approved the Nordstrom parking lot project. But the developer, Lou Vasquez, said it no longer pencils out financially after so much delay.

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

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