What a Dump! Movie Line as Sustainable Development

For the last five or so years the San Francisco Bay Area has emerged as a leading example of environmentally blessed “sustainable development.”  Strangely, environmentally blessed development includes residences and other structures built on waste dumps.  These dump sites are variously known as landfill (garbage), brownfield (toxic waste), and infill (“underdeveloped” for various reasons).

Dumpster Building is Not New

Building on dumping sites is not new.  For example, Treasure Island, Foster City, and parts of San Francisco’s financial and Marina districts are build on landfill.  What is new is labeling such development sustainable and environmentally desirable.

UPC has four major development projects in the pipeline.  Development Agreements for these projects are approved by the respective agencies. Schlage Lock Redevelopment in Visitacion Valley, a brownfield site, currently transitioning to a transit oriented development (TOD) including retail, office and housing project on a brownfield; Executive Park, a mixed-use/housing project near Candlestick Point in San Francisco, and the Sierra Point Hotel Project – at the Brisbane Marina.  The Brisbane Baylands, a 660-acre brownfield redevelopment project on a former landfill and railyard in Brisbane is currently going through the public approval process…Environmental sustainability is a core value that guides our projects – from conceptual design to property management.

UPC’s projects pale in comparison to Related Companies plan to build the “largest housing project ever proposed atop a landfill in the Bay Area, regulators say, and perhaps in the entire state.”  The $6.7 billion mixed-use project in the City of Santa Clara will contain 1,680 housing units.  And predictably the project is "sustainable:"  "Related is exploring a number of ways to incorporate the sustainability and environmental consciousness that defines the Bay Area." The complex will be sitting on top of a foot-thick concrete barrier intended to protect residents, shoppers, and workers “from any kind of problem.”  In contrast to this strange assertion, a writer in SF Ceqa says,

Are we this desperate for land that we need to build on a dump?  Can’t wait to see the marketing materials and disclosure statements on this one. This is not the first I have heard about building on landfill.  Major problems with shifting soil would seem particularly concerning in an earthquake zone. Maybe you can sell housing to non-natives, but it may be hard to convince people to buy on landfill.

Problems With Landfill are Not New Either

Marina District building during earthquake

The soil liquefaction that contributed to the collapse of seven buildings in San Francisco’s Marina District during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake should make the sustainability of such structures questionable.  Years later, after much promotion of improved methods of building on landfill, we have the sinking and tilting Millennium Tower.

Asbestos and lead were praised as miracle building materials, but today are vilified as health hazards.  Yet, toxic waste dumps are now environmentally desirable.  However, an article on Bankrate summarizes the challenges well,

Pipes may break, drywall can crack, doors may not close properly and kids or dogs might pull dangerous materials out of the ground, including lead, plus leaching chemicals and sinkholes are legitimate possibilities as well.  Ground that is marginally stable after fill-in typically erodes further as the land settles and chemicals eat away at organic materials.

Buyer Beware

In California, if your Granny died within the last three years in the home you are now trying to sell, by law, you must advise all prospective buyers of the death except if Granny died of AIDS.  Also by law, you must prove to prospective buyers that the home you are selling does not contain hazardous levels of radon or mold.  Yet the challenges of a home built on landfill are by and large overlooked, and disclosure requirements unclear.  Disclosure is based on whether problems are detectable by visual inspection by the average buyer or seller.

Easton v. Strassburger: A case regarding a home built on a landfill that had not been disclosed to the listing broker by the seller, was sold, and then subsequently suffered major damage due to land slippage.  The ruling set precedent for future cases that if there are red flags then the problem should be properly investigated and fixed.  Broker should inspect property and disclose any facts that may affect the marketability.

It appears that disclosure rules might be biased toward what central planners want you to know or not know.

Traces of the Wild West

In the Old Wild West, people took extreme chances in hopes of extraordinary gains.  Perhaps nothing has changed.  Landfill homes are akin to throw of the dice.  Foster City suffered relatively small damage during the Loma Prieta earthquake, while San Francisco’s Marina District suffered greatly.  Large structures east of San Francisco’s Montgomery Street are surviving, while the Millennium Tower is sinking.  Planners and developers say landfill is environmentally desirable, sustainable and safe.  Soil liquefaction, waste mass shifts, toxic gases that might not be contained with present technology say otherwise.  As long as buyers and renters take the chance to buy or rent in landfill, developers will continue take the chance to build on landfill.