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March 18, 2009 > Masonic Homes' Flatlands Project sparks debate

Masonic Homes' Flatlands Project sparks debate

A third open house meeting is scheduled for 5.30 p.m. - 7.30 p.m. on Thursday, April 30, 2009, at Union City Sports Center.

By Simon Wong

Over 100 Union City residents attended public meetings in mid-February to learn more about a proposed Masonic Homes Flatlands Project. Amenities are intended for the general population, not specifically for Masons and the prevailing tenor of discussion suggest widespread support. A minority of speakers oppose any development or favor only partial development pointing to loss of habitat for flora and fauna, despoliation of hillside views and proximity of the new development to existing homes and property.

All parties to any potential development agree that the hillside is an area of natural beauty and a community asset. Although there is no legal requirement to produce an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), Masonic Homes will do so voluntarily. The possibility of additional development on the hillside was dismissed by development representatives. "Anyone who thinks that this project will lead to later development of the Hillside is mistaken. The Hayward Fault is a limiting factor. We cannot build on it," said Gerry Tierney of Perkins + Will, a commercial architect and design firm representing the Masonic Home.

The proposed flatlands development consists of three parcels: "A" - 29.5 acres; "B" - 2.5 acres and 12 acres; and "C" - 20 acres. Following community input, conceptual plans were revised, most notably land use. A proposal to construct "soft storey" single-family homes on Parcel A was poorly received. Such buildings consist of a house supported only on three sides by a ground-floor garage. Typical of San Francisco neighborhoods, this type of construction is not expected to withstand the next big earthquake. Residential development will incorporate streets, perpendicular to Mission Blvd, to preserve linear views of the Hillside. To be economically feasible, 25 units per acre is the minimum density for Parcel A.

Land earmarked for a community center on Parcel B has increased from 1.5 acres to 2.5 acres. The question of whether this parcel should be limited to uses that benefit the entire community or can be limited in scope to a specific group has been raised. Suggestions for a community facility range from an Asian temple to a petting zoo; a BMX park, botanical garden or a center for disabled children and seniors. Retail development including green commons and parking will be shielded from Mission Blvd to avoid the impression of strip malls and remove asphalt from views.

City Council and Planning Commission comments favor development. Mayor Green has commented that his preference is to include a city amenity such as a city-owned aquatic center for all age groups, a signalized intersection at Daggett-Mission to serve the entrance to the Masonic Homes campus and to stair-step some residential properties. Native California species should be used for landscaping. Planning Commissioners wish to blend the aesthetics of any new development with the Masonic Homes' nineteenth century faŤade. They have requested a financial analysis. The East Bay Regional Park District, custodian of nearby Meyers Estate does not favor high density development.

In opposition, some residents are either against any development or want to limit it to a community facility.

"I feel this development totally disrespects what the voters told Staff and Council [when Measure II passed in Nov 1996]. We have a Station District that is under-utilized and needs retail space to revitalize our downtown area. So, this is misguided. It is making it like Hayward, like everywhere else in the Bay Area. We want to do something unique. A vineyard, event center or aquatic center is fine. Anything other than housing or a retail center. It's also on the Hayward Fault. I'd like to know what the Fire Chief thinks will happen when a 6.9 earthquake strikes," said Elizabeth Ames, a former planning commissioner who participated in the drafting of Measure II.

Measure II prevents changes to the General Plan's Hillside Area Plan, which protects the Hillside from environmentally-destructive development, without a public debate and majority vote of Union City residents. Importantly, rather then prevent development, it permits change with voter approval. The exact form of the November 2010 ballot measure has yet to be decided.

"The Masons talk about 'financing future philanthropic endeavors.' We have heard repeatedly of the need for residential development in Union City. We did that but the Council still asked for money for the 911 emergency response system, police and fire. This Council has more funds than when I was a Councilman. Union Landing is fully developed. Pacific States Steel cost us money. How will the flatlands proposal provide everything that is needed?" queried Bob Garfinkle who served as a Councillor from 1989 to 1997 and successfully chaired the Measure II campaign.

"Has thought been given to horse trailers passing through the retail center between the Hillside stables and Mission Blvd? Houses will be subject to glare from commercial center lighting. Traffic from Decoto Road must cross Mission. Soft storey buildings are structurally unsound. The whole Project needs to be considered carefully.

"The Project is something about which to be really concerned. The best thing is to leave everything as it is," concluded Garfinkle.

A third open house meeting is scheduled for 5.30-7.30pm on Thursday, April 30, 2009, at Union City Sports Center.

For more information, visit www.unioncity.org/commdev/general_plan.htm and www.masonichome.org. Union City's Hillside Area Plan can be viewed at http://tinyurl.com/ambnmc.

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