RICHMOND — A controversial plan to build a mixed-used project with thousands of homes atop a contaminated site can move forward after the City Council approved the necessary permits, development agreement and environmental mitigation measures for the development Tuesday.
Plans for the site by the developer, Shopoff Realty Investments, call for building 2,000 to 4,000 housing units and up to 50,000 square feet of retail space on the site, which was once owned by the Zeneca (now AstraZeneca) pharmaceutical company and lies east of Marina Bay and west of Interstate 580 in southeastern Richmond.
The proposed development — called the Campus Bay Project in city documents — and cleanup plans for the site have long been a source of controversy. Formerly home to Zeneca and before that, to the Stauffer Chemical Company, the site was a dumping ground for toxic materials for decades, until Zeneca halted that practice in 1997 and began cleaning up the site in 2000.
After a long hearing that involved dozens of people calling in, vocal opposition and arguments between councilmembers, Mayor Tom Butt, Vice Mayor Nat Bates, and councilmembers Demnlus Johnson, Ben Choi voted in favor of moving the project plans forward, while councilmembers Melvin Willis and Eduardo Martinez opposed it, and councilmember Jael Myrick abstained.
Some councilmembers clearly struggled with the decision. Willis said it seemed as if there was no right answer.
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t do anything with the site — we can’t leave it like that. Something needs to be done to address the toxicity of the site,” he said, noting after, however, that “I can’t say I’m supporting housing here because I can’t guarantee future residents’ safety. The (community) benefits sound great. I just can’t support it on the site. … Especially when I’m not convinced this is going to be affordable enough.”
As part of the deal, the developer has agreed to commit millions of dollars in community benefits that include money for Richmond schools and community programs, improvements to a city fire station and community center, the use of union labor and to build a grocery store in the first phase of the development.
The City Council last year voted to support a cleanup method for the site that includes removing some contaminated soil, treating the groundwater and pouring concrete over the contaminated areas. While that plan was approved by the Department of Toxic Substances Control, activists and some residents have argued that method doesn’t go far enough. They want a more thorough removal of the soil, which the council had recommended before endorsing the capping method.
The Department of Toxic Substances Control, in a statement issued last year about its decision to approve the capping method, said the more complete soil excavation method would take 10 years and require an estimated 64,370 truck trips to get rid of the material, which would “create harmful impacts to the community, including air pollution, dangerous traffic and increased dust.” The capping method, alternatively, requires about two years and 1,050 truck trips.
Proponents of the more thorough soil excavation cleanup method say it’s the safer option for those who will be living on and around the site.
They had called on the city to hold off on any decision to move the project plans forward until new members of the City Council are seated in January. They ultimately want the city to develop a new environmental impact report that more thoroughly considers the threat of sea-level rise, in addition to the contaminated soil issue.
Some councilmembers expressed confusion over whether they have the authority to require more of AstraZeneca in the cleanup process.
Choi, in pointing out that the state Department of Toxic Substances Control is the agency overseeing the cleanup and has already issued its decision, said during Tuesday’s meeting, “I don’t think we actually have the choices that people think we have.”
After Myrick asked during the meeting whether it would be possible to require additional cleanup by AstraZeneca, city staff and its legal counsel said they weren’t confident there was anything they could do to compel the company to go above and beyond the state-approved plan.
The city has faced criticism over multiple development decisions. Recently, a coalition of environmental groups including the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against Richmond over its approval of another controversial mixed-use project that would sprout about 1,450 homes and more than 400,000 square feet of commercial space on the Point Molate peninsula, the site of a former military base.