Is a proposed high-density project in Redwood City an example of smart growth, or a gridlock-inducing suburban nightmare? That is the question voters will answer in November, when they vote on whether to allow 17 high-rise towers to be built along the city’s San Francisco Bay waterfront.

The upward thrust of the Marina Shores Village — the towers would range between 15 and 21 stories high, with 2.8 million square feet of residential space, along with offices and retail — is unprecedented in the suburban Bay Area. In the region, only San Francisco has more high-rise buildings.

But without San Francisco’s transit infrastructure, the $1 billion project has opponents who predict it will lead to traffic gridlock on Highway 101, which is already jammed with commute traffic.

“Smart growth” often means high density development built around mass transit, but in this case the mass transit — in the form of the Caltrain commuter train — is across the freeway and its crowded intersections from the development site. Marina Shores Village sits next to the Bayshore Freeway and along Redwood Creek, which turns into San Francisco Bay. The project would be carved out of two boat marinas..

Developer Glenborough-Pauls LLC plans to run six daily shuttle buses from the village to the Redwood City Caltrain station. But Redwood City environmentalist Ralph Nobles thinks the shuttles are not enough to reduce the congestion.

“What this means is you’ll have someone to talk to while you’re stuck in traffic,” Nobles said.

Paul Powers, president of Pauls Corporation, which is a partner with the Denver-based Glenborough REIT in building Marina Shores Village, said the project will provide housing to local workers who want to live close to their jobs. He estimated the approximately 3,900 residents of Marina Shores will live within three miles of 30,000 to 50,000 jobs. The largest employer in the city is Oracle, which has between 6,000 and 7,000 workers at its headquarters near the Marina Shores Village project site. Powers also expects local residents to move to the new development as they downsize from houses. “We will take cars off of 101,” Powers said.

A group called People for Housing Not High-Rises was able to gather more than 3,600 signatures to force a referendum on the project one month after the Redwood City council approved the project and raised the allowable height limits from 75 feet to 240 feet.

The project is unusually large for suburban San Mateo County, which has little easily developable land remaining. A total of 1,930 condominiums and townhomes are proposed to be built in phases over a 20-year period at Marina Shores Village.

Powers said the project has “tremendous support from people who want to do away with urban sprawl.” Among those endorsing the project is the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group (SVMG), an influential business group that, among other things, lobbies for housing development in the area.

“Traffic is always an issue in any kind of infill proposal,” said Shiloh Ballard, SVMG’s director of housing and community development. “If you don’t put the homes here, folks are going to commute from somewhere else.”

Water, however, could be a problem. Currently, Redwood City uses more water than it is allocated by the Hetch Hetchy project, and there is no guarantee of water for Marina Shores Village. With each phase of the project, a consultant funded by the developer but working for the city would study the water situation and determine if supplies are adequate for construction to go forward, according to Tom Passinisi, the city’s acting planning director. The city has no new water sources, although the developer could purchase someone else’s water supply, Passinisi said. Developer Powers noted that the city plans to begin recycling wastewater to make up for the shortfall.

City planner Mike Church said earlier plans for the project called for more towers at a lower height. But Powers said lowering the towers further would not leave enough land for all the improvements planned for the area.

The development is expected to receive approval from the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which has jurisdiction over development on the bay and 100 feet around it, according to Will Travis, the commission’s executive director. “Generally, high rise development along the waterfront is not something we’re opposed to if it has adequate public access,” he said.

Marina Shores is proposed to have 6.8 acres of new parks, as well as marinas and access to open space. The project also would have public walkways on all areas along the water, and the developers plan to build trails and a pedestrian/bicyclist undercrossing beneath Highway 101.

Altogether, the developers have promised 97 units of affordable housing for very low-income families making between $33,000 and $42,000, and 193 units for those making $80,000 to $102,000 a year, a moderate income in San Mateo County. The rest of the units would be sold at market prices. Two-bedroom condominiums in the nearby Redwood Shores neighborhood of Redwood City sell for approximately $450,000.

But the developers may not place the 97 units of very low-income housing on the site, noted Nobles, who is a former city planning commissioner. A city report acknowledges that the very low-income units may be built offsite.

More than 20 unmitigated impacts were identified in the project’s environmental impact report, mostly related to traffic. Loss of views from Redwood City and from the neighboring cities of San Carlos and Belmont is also identified as an unmitigated environmental impact. Nobles said additional unmitigated impacts of the project include effects on a nearby wildlife refuge and conflicts with planes at the nearby San Carlos Airport, which lies one mile away. But Powers said the Federal Aviation Administration has approved the project.
Nobles, 84, was a leader in a 1982 referendum in Redwood City to prevent development of Bair Island, an open space area adjacent to Marina Village. That land was bought by the federal government and is now protected open space. The 1982 ballot measure won by less than 50 votes out of approximately 20,000.

“This election will not be that close,” Nobles predicted.

Powers refused to speculate about the project’s future should it be rejected. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said.

Paul Powers, Pauls Corporation, (650) 369-8651.
Mike Church, Redwood City Planning and Redevelopment Agency, (650) 780-7237.
Will Travis, Bay Conservation and Development Commission, (415) 352-3653.
People for Housing Not High-Rises: