The Mayor and Council can do better than this
EL PAT’S FORUM
by ELIZABETH PATTERSON
July 25, 2022
The Mayor and Council can do better than this. “This” is the draft Housing Element.
Their sworn duty is to make decisions based on public health safety and welfare. They are to uphold the laws of the city including the general plan.
The draft housing element is part of the state mandated seven elements plus optional elements of the general plan. One optional element of the general plan is economic development. The highest and best use of the historic districts is to foster and support economic activities such as historic museums, parks and commercial uses. The draft housing element proposes to have multifamily housing in historic districts on the National Register – that is a big deal. The reason Jefferson Ridge (Park Road and Jefferson Street) is on this prestigious list is because it is the only presidio commissioned by President Lincoln to establish a union Army presence in California to prevent the pro slavery counties and confederates from pushing California into a slave holding state. That too is a big deal. The only one in California. The only one by President Lincoln. The only one in the West that is intact and complete. The only one.
On its own this treasure should be protected, championed, and developed for visitors to marvel at this one-of-a-kind Civil War Era enclave protecting California from becoming a slave state.
But there is more. Not only is this site of such rare qualities it is also smack dab in the vicinity (less than a thousand feet) of oil pipelines and a full port of shipping fossil fuel oil and products. These things can blow up. They also catch on fire. We just had one. A prudent Mayor and council would NOT put people – mothers, fathers, children – to live so close to such places. How will they shelter in place? How will they evacuate? How will they have less polluted air than is currently in that area? How will children not venture into these wonderfully complex and dangerous places for the excitement of risk?
And then there is the doctrine “when in a hole, stop digging”. The city can’t maintain the roads, sidewalks, trees, water lines, parks without more revenue. This council wants us to vote on another general sales tax to help pay for these things. The use of the historic districts that are far from walkable distance and little to zero services will require all that new and improved infrastructure to be maintained. But property taxes only go up 2% a year versus the cost of everything else which is at least 3% and right now at 9%. Don’t keep digging.
And we all agree that we need affordable housing – although the proposed Arsenal projects are only providing 10% of all the units– a shamefully low percentage. And the reason that housing is not affordable in most communities is the cost of land. And the cost of land is driven by investors who want the low capital gains tax at 14% to make their profits. The cost of land is disconnected from the marketplace. The only market for land is with the investors and developers. Wages have not kept pace with the inflationary value of investor-owned land. You can’t solve problems if you don’t focus on the root of the problem.
Nonetheless the state in service to the land investors and the good intention of others is mandating that California cities and counties provide for more new development. It seems regardless of the other state mandates to reduce greenhouse gases, reduce vehicle miles traveled and achieve clean air and save 20% on water use – just “build baby build”.
Can we meet the state mandate to provide opportunities for housing based on the state’s standards – Regional Housing Needs Assessment? Yes. The city staff and consultants have identified more than enough without residential in the Arsenal historic district. The Mayor and council can have their good intentions for housing AND protect the Arsenal. Will they? Tune in or show up this Tuesday the 26th at 6:00 PM at city hall. Share your thoughts and recommendations.
Attached is a comment letter for the July 26, 2022 City Council/Planning Commission joint study session on the Public Review Draft Housing Element. Please forward it to City Council members and Planning Commissioners.
RE: Public Review Draft 2023-2031 Housing Element – July 26, 2022 Joint Study Session
Dear Council Members and Commissioners:
I am writing to request that the Jefferson Ridge and other Arsenal Historic Conservation Plan parcels be removed from the list of potential housing sites in the Draft Housing Element. As explained in more detail in my April 16, 2022 letter to the City Council (attached), the 12 Arsenal sites, shown in Draft Housing Element Figure 3.1.E, should be removed due to:
- The health and safety hazards of siting housing in an active heavy industrial area that includes the Valero refinery, the Port of Benicia, and the adjoining Interstate 780 freeway; and
- The potential for high-density housing, especially streamlined projects enabled by state law (Senate Bill [SB] 35), to overwhelm the Benicia Arsenal Historic District, a nationally significant historic gem that deserves careful planning.
The City has identified many other sites where development of housing would be more appropriate and would easily meet the City’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation. These sites are in existing residential neighborhoods, close to services and away from hazardous industrial activity. They offer ample opportunities for replacing the housing development potential of the Arsenal.
The fact that the City has removed some of these logical infill sites from consideration while continuing to designate housing in the Arsenal raises serious environmental justice concerns. The process to date has created the unfortunate impression that the City will quickly remove sites in response to sentiments from residents of existing, established neighborhoods, but has no qualms about placing future residents—many of them low-income—in a heavy industrial area, where they will face air pollution, noise, truck traffic, and other hazards and nuisances not experienced in other parts of Benicia.
The Draft Housing Element designates the 12 Arsenal sites for 340 units, of which 176 would be “lower income.” Those numbers represent almost 50% of the City’s total Regional Housing Needs Allocation (750 units), and more than 50% of the lower income housing allocation (339 units). Ironically, the Draft Housing Element contains a policy (5.03) and a program (5.04) that try to address the health and safety hazards that residents on the east side of town already face due to heavy industrial uses—and yet it plans for almost half the city’s new housing to be in the Arsenal, even closer to industry.
By removing the Arsenal parcels from consideration for housing, the City can resolve this contradiction and begin planning more responsibly and creatively for the Arsenal and Benicia as a whole. The City can meet its housing obligations in more appropriate locations, and retain the Arsenal as an important place in the history of the city and the nation.
RE: April 19, 2022 City Council Agenda Item 15.C (Draft Sites Inventory for 2023-2031 Housing Element)
Dear Mayor Young, Vice-Mayor Campbell, and Council Members:
I hope you will review the draft sites inventory with an eye toward removing the Jefferson Ridge and other Lower Arsenal parcels from the list of potential housing sites, for the following reasons:
- The Lower Arsenal is not a safe place for housing. Jefferson Ridge is right next to the Port of Benicia, with aboveground Valero fuel pipelines running along the northern boundary of the site. Other potential housing sites in the Lower Arsenal are also surrounded by heavy industry. The recent Port fire and news of ongoing air quality violations at the Valero refinery are just current examples of why a heavy industrial area is not a good place for housing. The existing Housing Element calls for 153 units of very low- and low-income housing on Jefferson Ridge. Even if that number were realistic, which seems doubtful, there are serious health, safety, and environmental justice issues with siting that much housing, especially low-income housing, in a heavy industrial area, with all the hazards and nuisances it would create for residents.
- Jefferson Ridge is the heart of a nationally significant historic district that deserves careful planning. Jefferson Ridge is the city’s most historic place – and it’s a historic district, not just a collection of historic buildings. It’s a place that’s important in state and national history, as well as local history. The entire district is on the National Register of Historic Places, which makes it very special. The recent Senate Bill (SB) 35 proposals there have shown how high-density housing development will completely overwhelm the historic nature of the place. A change.org petition opposing the SB 35 proposals because of their impact on the historic district has 800 signatures and is still growing. There is community support for preserving the historic district and planning for it more carefully. Removing the Jefferson Ridge parcels from the Housing Element is an important first step.
- The City can meet its Regional Housing Needs Allocation on other sites. City staff and the consultant team have done an excellent job of scouring the city for housing opportunity sites. They found some very interesting possibilities for sites throughout the city with a range of housing types and densities – places where housing could work well, for the people who live there and for the city as a whole, whether it’s downtown, in other commercial areas, or in residential neighborhoods. These sites have more than enoughhousing unit potential for the City to meet its Regional Housing Needs Allocation.
The Housing Element update is an exciting opportunity to do some creative and far-reaching planning for Benicia’s future. I hope you will take advantage of it.
Thank you for considering these comments.
Steve Goetz submitted detailed comments in the letter below – see the link.
Re: July 26, 2022 Joint Study Session on the Public Review Draft Housing Element
Dear Council Members and Commissioners:
This letter describes some initial comments for your consideration on the Public Review Draft Housing Element. These are comments on the Housing Element’s disproportionate impact on disadvantaged neighborhoods, how this disproportionate impact can be corrected, the need to use City-owned open space for the Housing Element sites inventory, and the need for revisions to several programs that support Housing Element goals and policies.