Approval of New Development Raises Questions about Rigidity of General Plan

blogimage.jpgA new neighborhood is set to come to Richmond’s Brickyard Cove. Last night the Richmond City Council approved a controversial amendment to the General Plan which will allow for the development of the new, 60-home Bottoms Property owned by Shea Homes. The development will offer expansive views of the Bay, bring hundreds of new jobs, and, inevitably, interrupt the lives of current Cove residents. 

Some on the Council and in the audience were ecstatic to see approval for the development of a new neighborhood, while others protested the project’s disregard of the city’s General Plan regulations. During last night’s lengthy and technical debate on the matter, broader issues around zoning, development, and conservation in the city divided the Council and the public.

Richard Mitchell, Director of the city’s Planning Department, Rob Wainwright of Shea Homes, and Councilmember Tom Butt stood as the most vocal proponents of the project. Citing developments to the Bay Trail, the creation of over 300 construction jobs, and a minimal environmental impact, the supporters of the project argued that the development offers many benefits to the city.

However, they had a hurdle to cross. Because eight of the 60 planned units in the project exceed the General Plan’s 35-foot height limit, a General Plan Amendment to increase height restrictions was required for the project to go ahead. 

Opponents found this contingency controversial for two main reasons. First, many Brickyard Cove residents were troubled that this increased height limit would block their views of the Bay.

“These people are opposing an altering to their way of life,” argued Allan Moore, a lawyer with Gagen McCoy representing Brickyard Cove residents against the Bottoms Property development. 

Most members of the public echoed this sentiment. Some were concerned with increased traffic in the area, and others argued that the environmental damage would be catastrophic.

In contrast, one Brickyard Cove resident stood with the developers. “I walk my dog out there everyday,” she explained. “I know that this development would interrupt some aspects of my life, but in the end I think the development is worth it for all it will bring to the city.”

The second point of contention concerned the virtues of the required amendment to the General Plan. Members of the public and councilmembers argued that it would create a slippery slope to future changes to the city’s guiding development document. 

Margaret Jordan, President of the Point Richmond Neighborhood Council stood at the meeting in opposition to the project. “If this type of development and change can happen to these residents, then none of us can be sure that the General Plan rules won’t be arbitrarily changed in the future for developments in our neighborhoods,” Jordan declared. 

Councilmember Butt rebutted that “General Plans are not set in concrete” and can regularly be amended. A departure from a statement at a Brickyard Cove Mayoral Forum in October where he asserted that he is not in favor of changing the the General Plan to suit certain projects, Butt argued last night that such amendments are routine and necessary. “For any future projects, all any amendment to the General Plan needs to be approved is a CEQA review, a Planning Commission review, and four votes on Council,” said Butt.

Vice Mayor Jovanka Beckles disagreed. “This motion disrespects the feelings of the community,” Beckles explained. “I cannot support this.” 

After a prolonged back and forth on the measure, a motion was put forth by Butt which allowed for the amendment but carried specific language limiting its scope. The motion passed 4-2, but the fight isn’t over yet. The lawsuit against the development could take years to sort out, but for now the project is one step closer to construction. 

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