Union-Tribune building in Mission Valley
The fate of Doug Manchester's U-T San Diego property in Mission Valley appears to up in the air, literally, as an environmental rights group has threatened to sue the City of San Diego and Manchester if greenhouse gas emissions are not accurately recorded and reduced, as required by California law.
On Tuesday, September 15, the city council will decide whether to overturn approval of Manchester's proposed 12.86-acre conversion of what is now San Diego's daily newspaper headquarters to a mixed-use residential and commercial mixed-use development.
In June of this year, the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation (CERF) appealed the San Diego Planning Commission's approval over claims that the city failed to use accurate greenhouse-gas emission estimates and instead fudged the numbers to save Manchester, and other developers, from having to perform any air-quality mitigation measures.
If the council refuses to grant the appeal, the environmental foundation’s attorneys have indicated a lawsuit could follow.
Here Comes the Boom
The planned development of the Union-Tribune parcel, located south of Fashion Valley near Friars Road, is one of many projects slated for Mission Valley. According to numerous city reports, Mission Valley and surrounding communities are expected to bear the brunt of a forecasted population surge in coming decades. One such forecast, the 2050 Regional Growth Forecast (conducted by the San Diego Association of Governments), predicts the city's population will swell to just under 2 million by 2050 from what is now estimated at 1.3 million.
In response, city planners and developers have focused their sights on centrally located areas near transit and other public services. Mission Valley is among those communities. Massive mixed-use projects such as Civita, Archstone, and others have already begun. More are planned, including the long-talked-about expansion of the Town and Country Resort, located next to the Union-Tribune property. With development sure to come, environmental rights groups are watching closely, ensuring the city follows all environmental laws.
Something in the Air
In regards to their appeal of the Union-Tribune development, CERF attorney Livia Borak and executive director Marco Gonzalez objected to air-quality numbers used in the project's environmental reports.
In a June 17, 2015, letter, Borak and Gonzalez accused the city of failing to recognize the actual increase of greenhouse-gas emissions as a result of the project moving forward as planned. In addition, they objected to allowing Manchester to build without addressing those issues.
"Unless the [environmental impact report] analyzes the project's true impacts against the existing environment, it will fail to comply with [the California Environmental Quality Act]. CERF urges the city to consider its role in reducing [greenhouse gas] emissions as a local entity with land-use authority. Unless the City complies with the [Assembly Bill 32], Scoping Plan, Executive Order S-3-05, Executive Order B-30-15, and CEQA, the [draft environmental impact report] will not withstand judicial scrutiny."
But the city is sticking to its guns. In an August 25, 2015, memo, an employee for the city defended the environmental report in regards to future emissions.
Senior planner Jeffrey Szymanski said the city used a baseline of zero greenhouse-gas emissions for the environmental report because the Union-Tribune’s printing plant will no longer be used and the new buildings will be located on what are now undeveloped areas of the property.
As for greenhouse-gas emissions, the city's environmental report estimates 1983 metric tons of carbon dioxide will seep into the environment. That number, wrote Szymanski, will be offset, however, by 722 metric tons in reductions from clean car and energy efficiency laws already on the books. The reduction amounts to 36.4 percent, far below the state-mandated 28.3 percent that California state law requires. As a result, Manchester can forego performing additional mitigation measures. According to the letter, the formula used by the city was referred to as the "business-as-usual scenario."
Business as Usual
Attorney Borak, however, attacks that business-as-usual approach. The so-called 722 metric tons in reductions should have already been factored in, meaning the law currently requires that the fuel and energy reduction measures be implemented and should not be identified as mitigation measures.
Borak says the business-as-usual approach will get the city, and its residents in trouble.
"The developer hasn’t agreed to do anything. That’s why there’s no mitigation," writes Borak in a September 10 email. "The baseline the city used is the project without energy and fuel reduction measures. This is crazy because those regulatory measures are already in place. In other words, there’s no way the project could be built without these reductions. It would be illegal. Nonetheless, that’s what the city calls business as usual and that’s what the city uses as baseline. The city and consultant then calculated the project as it will be built in reality. But that’s not a reduction. That’s just reality."
The council will hear the appeal on Tuesday September 15 during council's afternoon session.