Using Environmental Regulations to Hold Up Housing

A union coalition opposes affordable housing on environmental grounds. Is this enlightened activism, or hard-ball labor negotiating?

At a time the East Bay suffers from a severe housing shortage, a proposed development conceived to fill a decades-old hole in San Lorenzo with 163 units of housing — including affordable teacher and workforce housing — faces an uncertain future.

There is little community opposition to the San Lorenzo Village Green project, which also would include retail space and $300,000 in community benefits to help refurbish the old-time Lorenzo Theater. But last February, just days before an Alameda County Planning Commission hearing on the project, four building trade unions opposed the project on environmental grounds, including the relocation of a gas line.

Developer Terry Demmon and his representatives alleged that the union’s true aim is to force them to enter into a Project Labor Agreement for construction of the project, which would require the use of union contractors. Demmon said that would increase the development’s costs by an estimated $4.5 million to $6 million, making it financially unfeasible.

Housing advocates call such tactics, which employ the California Environmental Quality Act to slow down or stop a variety of construction projects, “CEQA abuse.” It’s a common strategy all across the Bay Area and the state. In fact, the four unions that banded together under the name of Alameda County Residents for Responsible Development — the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 595; Sheet Metal Workers’ Local Union 104; Sprinkler Fitters Local 483; and United Association Local Union 342 — have used similar tactics to attack housing projects in Oakland and elsewhere in the East Bay. In Oakland, the same four unions called themselves East Bay Residents for Responsible Development, and variations of that moniker have been used in other East Bay cities.

But while an attorney for the Village Green said he has seen this strategy many times before, he was surprised by how readily Alameda County officials succumbed to the union’s pressure. In the few months since the county Planning Commission initially approved the development 4-1, an appeal hearing originally set for next week was pulled from the Board of Supervisors’ agenda, possibly to return later this summer.

During a meeting with the staff of Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan, who represents the area, Chan’s chief of staff Dave Brown made two frank admissions in the presence of other county staff, according to attorney Robert Selna of Wendell Rosen Black & Dean. Selna said Brown told him “we know that this is not going to pass,” and “the union has a lot of leverage on the fifth floor,” the latter a reference to the county supervisor’s Oakland offices. Selna said Brown gave no indication of how Chan or any other supervisor would vote on the appeal, but was nonetheless surprised by Brown’s candor.

Labor’s leverage over Alameda County officials is indeed very real. Even in the labor-friendly East Bay, no other government body has been more supportive of union contracts over the years than the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. Even the board’s most moderate supervisors — Scott Haggerty and Nate Miley — routinely offer strong support for labor issues and contracts.

John Dalrymple, a representative of the union’s front group, said the CEQA appeal of the project concerned the health of union workers and the public. In contrast to the developer’s contention that unions are using environmental regulations solely to procure a labor agreement, Dalrymple said it is actually the developers who are deploying a “CEQA smokescreen” to discredit their environmental concerns. The union’s appeal revolves mainly around its concern that a particulate matter study used an incorrect measuring tool, he said. There also are concerns regarding the relocation of a PG&E gas line.

“The appeal may postpone the project 6-12 months,” Dalrymple said. “What if we’re right about the environmental concerns?”

Yet Dalrymple conceded that as a coalition of labor unions, his group’s intent is always to find good-paying jobs for its members. “We want something built,” Dalrymple. “We’re construction workers. We want new housing.”

Selna countered that the project’s construction practices are quite standard and likely being replicated currently in projects all over the Bay Area, without any additional concern for additional particulate matter in the air.

Dalrymple countered that he doesn’t believe the developer’s contention that employing union labor will make the development unprofitable. “What the attorneys are trying to do is help the developer make greater profits by going against what the community wants, which is good-paying union jobs,” Dalrymple said. “It is sound policy for county officials to urge for union labor. Those wages are spent in the community and help the local economy.”

The unions contend that Demmon has offered no evidence to prove its financial claims. Union construction worker wages, typically around $35,000 a year, don’t break the bank, Dalrymple said. “They must be paying $15,000 to $20,000 a year with the numbers they are giving,” he said.

The area where Demmon hopes to build has some historical significance. San Lorenzo was one of the country’s first planned communities, and the square at Hesperian Boulevard and Paseo Grande was once a bustling downtown lined with shops, restaurants, a theater and, later, the first Mervyn’s department store. But by the early 1990s, big box stores began siphoning away the neighborhood’s customers. The shops closed, the theater fell into disrepair, and the old Mervyn’s building was eventually demolished.

Today, the parcel on which the Village Green project would sit looks more like a downtrodden Rust Belt town after the local auto plant was closed than a small enclave in one of the country’s most expensive areas. For a generation of San Lorenzo residents, the area’s focal point has been a barren asphalt lot that sometimes hosts food trucks and, most recently, homeless people sleeping in their cars. 

EDITOR’s NOTE: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the meeting between an attorney for the project and the staff of Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan. We suggested that union officials were present during the meeting we described, but that was not the case.


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