Should the city of Newark build housing at the end of Mowry?

The terminus of Mowry Avenue in Newark, where Integral Communities is planning to develop 203 single-family homes. (Sonia Waraich - East Bay Echo)

NEWARK, Calif. — The location of a proposed housing development is raising questions about the project’s environmental impacts and its safety.

Integral Communities, the developer of the proposed Mowry Village Project, seeks to redevelop the 29.21-acre Pick-n-Pull site at the end of Mowry Avenue, adjacent to the Cargill salt ponds, into a residential community with 203 all-electric single-family homes equipped with two-car garages. Similar new construction in Newark is going for between $1 million and $1.8 million on Zillow.

“We’re especially excited about Mowry Village, which provides housing for the missing middle,” Tracy Craig, speaking on behalf of Integral Communities, told the Planning Commission at a Tuesday public hearing.

A handful of commenters spoke in favor of the project, saying it would provide much-needed housing in a market without much supply, particularly for young people. Louis Mirante, vice president of public policy at the Bay Area Council, which represents the region’s 30 largest employers, said the development would cut down on the number of super-commuters who might live an hour or two away but come into the Bay Area to work.

“This is exactly the type of housing that we need,” Mirante said. “The Bay Area, as you all know, is facing an immense crisis when it comes to housing and homelessness and that’s being driven by a lack of supply.”

However, local residents and environmental groups have voiced reservations. They said the project would be better-suited closer to existing city development and essential services like the NewPark Mall project. The selected site raises a host of concerns: it is expected to experience flooding with future sea level rise; the only way in and out is a single road that goes over train tracks with heavy freight traffic; and it’s going to require its new residents to be dependent on driving.

The area has also been designated as a climate resiliency hotspot by the Greenbelt Alliance. Liz Ames, the BART director for the area and vice chair of the Tri-City Ecology Center; Victor Flores, with the Greenbelt Alliance; and Dani Zacky, with the San Francisco chapter of the Sierra Club, were among those advocating for its preservation as open space.

“We need a climate adaptation strategy for the southern Alameda County area,” Ames said. “I’ve noticed an encroachment of buildings and homes closer to the shoreline, and when we have predictions of 7 to 10 feet of sea level rise in 2100 — roughly 75 years from now — when we have that condition, we need to develop space for the water to move inland and create a new shoreline and habitat.”

Jana Sokale, a Newark resident and a member of the Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge, pointed out the broader ecological significance of the site. The area not only serves as a resting spot for migratory shorebirds and waterfowl but also holds potential for carbon sequestration and flood mitigation through the restoration of tidal marshes.

“We should be restoring that land just like we’re doing salt pond restoration in order to add it to the (Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge),” Sokale said, “and in order to try and mitigate the impacts of climate change.”

Craig said that the area is not currently defined as a wetland by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and that the developer would be cleaning up the site and putting it to a higher and better use than its current use as a salvage yard.

In terms of sea level rise, Craig said the building pad elevations are expected to be an average of 2 feet over the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission’s recommended minimum of 12.2 feet for a projected sea level rise of 3.4 feet by the year 2100. The Adapting to Rising Tides Bay Shoreline Flood Explorer shows the project site experiencing flooding at 4 feet of sea level rise.

Ames said that would still prevent the ecosystem from being able to thrive, and Newark resident Margaret Lewis, also a member of the Citizen’s Committee to Complete the Refuge, said that the surrounding area would remain vulnerable to flooding.

“Mowry Village will be on an island,” Lewis said.

The development’s distance from existing transit and services also necessitates driving for its future residents. The environmental impact report lists an increase in the vehicle miles traveled as a significant and unavoidable impact. Vehicle miles traveled by residents of the development are projected to be approximately 44% to 47% higher than the target citywide average.

Despite various project alternatives considered in the report, Anna Radonich, project manager and principal planner with consultant Stantec Consulting Services, said they concluded that none would substantially reduce vehicle miles traveled.

Safety issues were raised as well. Planning Commissioner John Becker echoed concerns that the environmental report didn’t adequately address the fact that the single point of entry to the site could become blocked off by train traffic, which could prove disastrous in emergency situations.

“It still is a concern that there’s a lot of train traffic there,” Becker said. “And when the train is crossing, there’s no ability for people to access that site.”

The public has until Sept. 18 to comment on the environmental impact report for the project. A draft is available at the Community Development Department in Newark City Hall at 37101 Newark Blvd. It can also be found online here.

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