Blueprints for Housing and Waterfront Begin to Take Shape
Meanwhile, refinery issues "root cause analysis" on Thanksgiving accident, says it had no idea that it had spewed toxic dust into the community, no mechanism for knowing if it happens again
City leaders have continued efforts over the past several weeks to draft blueprints to guide the development of much-needed housing and long-awaited repairs and upgrades to the marina and waterfront, offering guidance on what they envision as staff and consultants work to hammer out details. The efforts are born of both necessity and desire.
Every city in California is required to update its Housing Element every eight years and detail plans for building an appropriate amount of housing to accommodate the needs of various income levels, including those at the low end of the economic spectrum who have been increasingly squeezed by the region’s housing crisis. The city has already missed its Jan. 31 state-mandated deadline to certify its updated Housing Element, meaning developers could bypass the standard city approval process and zoning restrictions to initiate projects geared toward low- or moderate-income groups, though there seemed to be little concern expressed by city leaders that would happen during their Jan. 25 workshop on the topic, given the current climate for housing construction with interest rates and building costs both on the rise.
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The Martinez Waterfront Master Plan process, meanwhile, is the continuation of a long-awaited dream of turning the waterfront into a top-notch destination that will draw residents near and far. But of more immediate concern is the necessity of completing marina repairs, particularly to the eastern seawall to stop buildup of sediment that requires frequent dredging — as well as to mitigate the impact of rising sea levels and flooding risks from climate change. At the Feb. 1 City Council meeting, council members took the next step in crafting a plan to shore up the marina’s infrastructure and devise a wish lift for new amenities and features, such as a BMX bike park and food-service facilities including a restaurant, by ranking and discussing their top priorities.
In both cases, the blueprints will be the easy part. Turning plans into action that achieve the city’s housing needs and waterfront goals will be much more challenging, especially when it comes to luring developers to bring affordable rooftops to town, and turning the waterfront into a site that blends its natural and recreational appeal with greater commercial activity that is economically viable. And that’s before nailing down the various costs involved and how to pay for it all.
In this post, I’ll break down the discussion for each separately while sharing some of my own observations and thoughts (feel free to chime in with yours).
Each council member expressed his or her preferences and ideas, with widespread agreement on the need to rebuild the eastern wall as soon as possible to deal with the sediment/dredging concerns and sea level rise. One question that was discussed by staff and council members in relation to the wall project was whether the city could devise a more creative, sophisticated replacement that would provide for public access onto the wall itself, or whether such an elaborate design would need to take a backseat for the time being to the pressing need to shut off sediment flow.
There was also significant support for the introduction of a restaurant and food facilities and for the retention, and possible expansion, of the dog and skate parks, which have developed popular followings. Traditional marina-focused activities such as boat storage and small watercraft facilities, such as kayaking and windsurfing, were also embraced.
The future of the amphitheater seems very much in doubt as it’s fallen into a state of significant disrepair, requiring costly repairs to make it once again useable, with little confidence that it will become a viable venue (even before the pandemic shuttered it, the amphitheater was infrequently staging community events). While there is strong support for a BMX bike park, City Manager Michael Chandler noted that the State Lands Commission, which is working with the city on plans, is not “keen” on the idea because it’s not an activity that by its nature needs to be located at the waterfront and the facility would take up a significant amount of space. There was also strong support for upgrading the skate park and making it more accessible to younger, less-experienced skaters.
Opinion was split on the idea of pickleball courts at the waterfront, at least in the short term, given that plans are currently underway to bring pickleball facilities to Hidden Valley Park. The idea of an all-abilities playground was generally supported, though, as in the case of pickleball, it was noted that another such facility is already in the works — in this case at the planned Pine Meadow Park. Interest also seemed lukewarm at this point for developing a cultural/education center as part of the initial waterfront plans; council members weren’t opposed to the idea but didn’t generally see it as a top priority.
Residents will have more opportunity to weigh in with their thoughts on the future of the waterfront and marina at a community workshop on Feb. 22 from 6 to 8 p.m. Register for the workshop at https://swa.mysocialpinpoint.com/martinez-waterfront
MY TAKE: In listening to Wednesday’s discussion, one overarching question came to mind: In its efforts to bring commercial activity to the waterfront and introduce specific recreational and entertainment amenities, will the city be able to maintain the open-space vibe and connection to nature that draws many people to the area as an escape from the distractions and stresses of daily life (not to mention the downtown hustle and bustle)? While the idea of a hotel seems to be a non-starter for the time being, council members clearly want to see other amenities built into the final plan. The city-owned land is also adjacent to the East Bay Regional Park’s Radke Martinez Shoreline Park, raising the question (at least in my mind) of how the city’s vision will align and juxtapose with the nature of a regional park. While Councilman Jay Howard promoted the idea of a concert venue with a beer garden, Councilwoman Debbie McKillop expressed a desire for scenic walking and jogging trails. It will be interesting to see where the final vision lands in terms of striking a balance among open space/nature, recreation and entertainment, and how much excitement vs. tranquility residents want in their waterfront.
In my public comments at the Feb. 1 meeting, I urged the council to also incorporate public art elements into their plans and, where possible, to test out their more ambitious proposals on a more limited, trial basis to determine whether the demand exists to support them long term (I also think casual, café-type food options would be more popular and viable than a formal sit-down restaurant in which diners would have to fret about making their reservation times while stuck at the train crossing). As the amphitheater experience has shown, “build it and they will come” tends to work out a lot better in baseball movies than in public land-use initiatives.
It was made clear at the Jan. 25 City Council-Planning Commission workshop that Martinez’s current zoning appears insufficient to accommodate the number of housing units, particularly low-income housing units, required under state mandates. Local governments such as Martinez are required to demonstrate that they have plans in place to accommodate existing and projected housing needs for all economic groups. Martinez has been assigned 1,345 such units, 551 of which are to be allocated for low- and very-low-income levels, for the 2023 to 2031 period.
City Council and Planning Commission members at the workshop seemed to be generally supportive of 15 specific staff proposals “to eliminate impediments and incentivize housing development” in coming years, and directed them to continue the work necessary to turn their proposals into reality so that the city can come into compliance with state law as quickly as possible. Some of the more noteworthy proposals include updating accessory dwelling unit (ADU) regulations and standards, along with granting “amnesty” for ADUs that were constructed without all the proper permits, and providing free prototype plans to owners interested in building such units; waiving or reducing minimum landscape requirements for affordable housing projects; establishing a fee-deferral program for building permit fees and development impact fees for affordable housing projects; and establishing an affordable housing concierge program that would assist affordable housing developers in identifying suitable locations and securing applicable entitlements.
The real question at this point seems to be what will happen once the Housing Element Update is adopted? Plans for new housing are great but mean nothing if they don’t lead to shovels in the ground, especially with California’s housing and homelessness crises showing no signs of abating. The city will need both developers (presumably with some carrots) and the community to get on board with the desperate need to make housing both affordable and accessible to residents from all walks of life and income strata, lest more residents find themselves unhoused through no fault of their own.
Councilman Mark Ross, a longtime Realtor in town, highlighted the challenges to jump-starting housing construction in the current economic environment and urged flexibility and creativity in devising plans to make more housing a reality.
“The (building) costs have gone up so much that the profit margin is so thin, which is why we don’t have people knocking down our door to build in Martinez or a lot of other cities,” he said. “It’s just not profitable. But we have a great need. I see the need every day.”
The influential advocacy group Thousand Friends of Martinez, which has been outspoken on many open-space initiatives and politically active in local elections, quickly weighed in after the workshop in its email newsletter, saying “ … while we agreed with many of the strategies, we were concerned about plans that increase density in our downtown and lead to stark changes in the character of our community. We also don't feel that the proposed waiver of developer fees is a wise course of action. These fees are used to remediate impacts new development has on the community and should not be given up.”
One intriguing idea that has been floated is the creation of a “Religious Institutions Overlay Zoning District” that would allow 100 percent affordable housing units by right. This would empower religious institutions that are focused on the public welfare, as opposed to self interests and economic incentives, to take a lead role in addressing this crisis by making their properties available for affordable housing development.
“I am very happy to see the religious institutions overlay on the list,” Mayor Brianne Zorn said during the workshop. “I think that’s a really interesting opportunity.”
The Rev. Deborah White, rector of Grace Episcopal Church on Muir Station Road, has spoken at multiple Housing Element workshops in support of the “Yes, in God’s Backyard” movement to transform unused space on faith-based properties such as hers into affordable housing.
“This is something that has been in the works for quite awhile among religious institutions,” she said at the Jan. 25 workshop. “I’m really delighted to partner with the city on this. I think this is really a tremendous option for Martinez. Looking at churches and asking them to look at their unused properties will help you in this quest to identify good sites.”
MY TAKE: When it comes to housing development in Martinez (and cities like it), I subscribe to an alternate definition of “character” from the one used by Thousand Friends in their statement. Defining character as “moral or ethical quality,” I believe strongly that Martinez would greatly enhance its character as a city by working aggressively to build affordable housing wherever possible and as quickly as possible. I believe it’s time for our city (along with others throughout the state) to treat NIMBY sentiments that block badly needed housing development in much the same way we treat racism: as an affront to human dignity and basic rights, one that elevates self-interests and political and personal privilege over the needs of historically disadvantaged and marginalized communities. I also encourage city leaders to expend as much effort, and preferably more, on remediating the grave human impacts of decades of inaction in building necessary housing as they do on remediating any impacts of new development on the city.
Along these lines, I highly recommend that city leaders and residents check out this recent “In the Bubble” podcast episode titled “the Blue State Homelessness Crisis” hosted by former Obama and Biden administration official Andy Slavitt in which he and his guests delve deeply into the connection between the NIMBYism that has for decades prevented needed housing from being built in our state and the homelessness catastrophe (dispelling myths that homelessness is more about mental health and addiction issues than it is access to stable, permanent housing). From the episode description: “Why do progressive states with lots of wealth often have the worst homelessness problem? Simply put, they stopped building enough affordable housing. Atlantic writer Jerusalem Demsas and California YIMBY policy director Ned Resnikoff explain the obvious answer to homelessness, debunk myths about drugs and mental health, and spell out what needs to change in government policy and neighborhood sentiment.”
If interested in reading more of my perspective on the topic of affordable housing, I invite you to check out this opinion piece I wrote for the East Bay Times in 2018 based on my experience with the Winter Nights homeless program.
The Martinez Refining Co. has filed its “root cause analysis” from the Nov. 24-25 toxic dust (spent catalyst) hazardous materials release. It is available on the Contra Costa Health Services website by clicking here.
I gave it an initial glance and, not surprisingly, much of the report is consumed by technical jargon that is difficult to interpret, let alone explain in layman’s terms. From what I could glean, there seems to be little in it that hasn’t been reported or discussed earlier, but a couple things that jumped out to me:
While the refinery’s investigation found two instances where refinery workers did not comply with refinery policy and procedures during the incident, “it was concluded that these deviations do not appear to have directly contributed to the root causes of the incident … ”
The refinery reiterated again that the reason it did not immediately communicate the release with the public and county health officials was that “MRC personnel were unaware that the opacity event resulted in any release into the community.” It went on to say: “There was (and currently is) no mechanism to alert MRC personnel to the potential that an opacity event might result in a release of catalyst into the community.”
For what it’s worth, when MRC’s manager gave this explanation at the town hall meeting in December, I asked during my public comments how it could be that the refinery has no way of knowing whether it is spewing toxic materials such as spent catalyst into the community until residents notice that metal-laden dust is covering their cars and homes and call to inquire what has happened? After all, the refinery abuts residential and business developments around Pacheco Boulevard and is in close proximity to sensitive facilities such as schools and the county hospital, as well as the environmentally rich Martinez shoreline. Has this always been the case? MRC is considered one of the most complex refineries in the nation, yet for some reason, it apparently lacks the technology to detect whether toxic dust is spewed into the community during an incident such as this? (at least that’s what its own report seems to indicate).
MRC proposed 11 “corrective actions” that it would like to implement as a result of the release and failure to promptly notify the public (much of them very technical in nature, but they largely boil down to equipment, training and process improvements) and said it “looks forward to discussing whether any additional actions are appropriate.”
Meanwhile, Contra Costa County Health Services is moving ahead with its own independent investigation into the incident, which is expected to begin this month, as well as a safety inspection of the unit responsible for the release. The District Attorney’s Office is also weighing whether to file charges against MRC over the incident.
Finally, MRC’s 72-hour report on last week’s small fire has also been posted. You can view it here. According to the report, the fire occurred at 11:25 a.m. Jan. 31 after contract workers who had been “chipping heavily packed residual coke-like material” in a column of the crude unit went to lunch. A safety contractor responding to abnormal monitor readings in the area observed smoke, and refinery staff then responded and encountered flames in the manway. The refinery’s emergency response team extinguished the fire; the following morning, another small flame was detected and put out.
Thank you for your thoughtful commentary. I strongly support reviving the amphitheater for a number of reasons, mainly the lack of entertainment options (some business establishments have acoustic and there are many activities for kids) and cultural activities. I see Martinez changing, with an influx of younger residents, and it's time we moved forward! I have lived in Martinez for 12 years and during that time I was aware of just a couple of events there. I see this as a lack of interest and creativity on the part of city management. As a San Franciscan I enjoyed endless opportunities for public events of all sorts and I think that with experienced and visionary management, programming and marketing the venue could attract a wide audience. It might not be a big moneymaker and the venue is rundown but it is worth trying a modest re-opening that need not cost big bucks. I would happily volunteer to get this enterprise off the ground and gather support for doing so. BTW the idea of permanent structures such as hotels and restaurants on the waterfront is hideously inappropriate and counter to the concept that our waterfront is public space and a natural environment. Let's not let non-water-related business be the driving force for the future. Let's adopt a vision of nurturing the gift we have of open, natural space for all.
So, I always like your perspective on things, Craig. Housing has always been a real issue, here in Martinez. Decent low income or “affordable” housing has been largely ignored which really ticks me off. People deserve a nice place to live and thrive, period! The homes going up here are being built by DeNova Homes and each home is not designed for low income nor what I would call as necessarily affordable. That money has to be allocated soon or we will forever lose out on the opportunity of housing anyone.