OP-ED: Hidden Hazards at 300 De Haro Street

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Last year DM Development invoked Senate Bill (SB) 35 to request streamlined review of its 11-story, 450-unit project proposed at 300 De Haro Street. Last month it was quietly entitled by the Planning Department, with numerous planning code waivers, no health and safety review. There were no hearings and no opportunity for meaningful public input. 

In addition to objections to the project’s height, neighbors had raised concerns that SB35, with the purported goal of speeding up affordable housing projects, would be used to greenlight grossly undersized living spaces that’re arguably not affordable, with the majority offered at market rate.

SB35 eliminates California Environmental Quality Act review.  CEQA, passed in 1970, requires cities to consider the environmental impacts of proposed developments, inform the public of potential dangers, and mitigate significant avoidable damage. Given that larger developments are often located on formerly industrial land, partially contaminated with heavy metals, asbestos and vapors from petroleum hydrocarbons, CEQA appraisal provides critical oversight. 

There‘s troubling evidence of highly contaminated soil at 300 De Haro. Preliminary studies done in 2018 and 2019 show extremely high lead levels, exceeding California hazardous waste thresholds by a factor of 14. The Showplace Lofts, directly adjacent, are under a deed restriction prohibiting any soil disturbance without California Department of Toxic Substances oversight. Across the street, the World Gym site is listed on a state database due to contamination from leaking underground storage tanks that contaminated the groundwater.

When DM Development applied for streamlined review under SB35, the Planning Department removed the environmental planner from the project and turned it over to the Department of Public Health (DPH). Under DPH there are no required public disclosures and nowhere near CEQA-level oversight. It’s likely there’ll be no further investigations and no mitigation plan until construction starts.

Even more concerning, DPH assigned 300 De Haro to Amy Brownell, who was accused of covering up radiation contamination at Hunters Point and Treasure Island. In 2019, out of deep concern for public safety, three members of the Board of Supervisors, including District 10 Supervisor Shamman Walton, unsuccessfully called for her ouster.

The developer provided DPH with preliminary studies based on outdated plans, prepared before the project grew from seven to eleven stories, described by its environmental consultant as still “valid”. Additional height presumably requires a more substantial foundation, resulting in greater soil disturbance and exposure to hazardous materials. 

Finally, the site is in a documented liquification zone, prone to building collapse. As part of the Planning Department application for the recently approved project, the developer submitted a geotechnical report created for the previous, seven-story proposal. The Planning Department considers the geotechnical study to be part of CEQA review and indicated no interest in obtaining an updated report. 

One wonders why the City hasn’t pursued opportunities to protect our health and safety. The Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission have no authority. Planning Director Rich Hillis told me his hands are tied; I’ve heard the Planning Department refer to SB35 as “the nuclear option”. However, while SB35 eliminates CEQA review, it doesn’t relieve the Planning Department’s responsibility to conduct appropriate reviews of environmental issues and seismic safety. 

With approvals in hand, the project now heads to the Department of Building Inspection where construction permits are issued.

Alison Heath is chair of the Potrero Boosters Development Committee.