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Turning land-use restrictions into something positive

Using the environmental review process to guide a design can be a win-win for the client and community

A proposed affordable housing project in Oakland, California, will add more than 500 units to the community. (Credit: Riverside Charitable Corp.)

By Trevor Macenski, Senior Principal (Walnut Creek, California)

California’s Bay Area is one of the nation’s most expensive places to call home. I’ve lived here for close to a decade in total, and I’ve seen home prices double a few times. It seems like the market is not slowing down anytime soon, but there are developers trying to provide buyers with options.

One of those options is Oakland’s International Boulevard project. When the developer embarked on the project in 2016, the main goal was simply to create “affordable housing.” Yet, this project would be unique as one of the city’s largest privately-funded affordable housing projects to date.

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Knowing the project would face a litigious entitlement process, the developer engaged Stantec’s team of urban planners and environmental permitting specialists early to help develop a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) compliance and entitlement strategy that would be the basis for the project’s design.

As our team began to evaluate permitting and entitlement paths for the proposed site and concept, we quickly realized that both would be very constrained by the local municipal codes and city-specific CEQA thresholds. Initially, the developer was targeting 300 to 400 units for the building. So, our team began working backward, looking at the most legally defensible CEQA strategies that could apply to the project, as well as how to maximize the site and still be able to exempt the project under CEQA.

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The Stantec team used the environmental review process to guide the design for a proposed affordable housing project in Oakland, California. (Credit: Riverside Charitable Corp.)

Three steps to an exemption
In order to have a defensible entitlement and CEQA process, Stantec started working side-by-side with the developer’s architect, and we came up with a three-step plan to keep the project moving.

  1. We developed a site remediation and cleanup strategy to support the entitlements and CEQA strategy. Additionally, we identified a voluntary cleanup program that needed to be completed prior to the application submittal so the project could still utilize a streamlined CEQA exemption.
  2. We identified which resource considerations would “drive” or influence the CEQA process the most and we identified we need to start with a traffic study, which helped identify the point at which traffic improvements would be needed or trigger a threshold of significance. By utilizing the local BART station and Bus Rapid Transit Corridor to reduce the overall project trip generation, we identified how many additional units could be accommodated before the project would result in a significant impact, negating the CEQA exemption approach. In total, the team increased the unit count from 300 to 529—a 76 percent increase in the number of units.
  3. Our engineers, planners and scientists worked with city staff and completed a series of technical studies to support the CEQA exemption as required by statue. Studies included greenhouse gas, air quality, and noise studies, along with water supply and traffic studies to identify at which point the project would exceed local and regulatory agency thresholds.  

This approach allowed the project to qualify for two important CEQA streamlining provisions, the “Infill Exemption” and the “Community Plan Exemption.”

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Our approach to using the CEQA process itself as the basis to help create the project form allowed the team to identify the thresholds the project would exceed and develop a project that was able to get the maximum return on investment for highest and best use of the property while streamlining the environmental review and entitlement process with the city.

As a frame of reference, a typical Environmental Impact Report (EIR) takes from 12 to 36 months and costs from $200,000 to $1 million. The Oakland International Boulevard project took only nine months and cost the developer $115,000—a substantial savings in time and money.

Sometimes, restrictions can help move a project in the right direction. That was certainly the case on the Oakland International Boulevard project, and now this Bay Area community is on its way to having more affordable housing options.

Also by Trevor: The search for ‘green unicorns’—they do exist!

Trevor is a senior principal and environmental compliance specialist based in the Bay Area. In addition to his client work, Trevor teaches environmental impact assessment methodologies at the University of California, Davis.

A typical Environmental Impact Report takes from 12 to 36 months and costs from $200,000 to $1 million. This project took only nine months and cost the developer $115,000.

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