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South of Market Community Action Network v. City and County of San Francisco (2019) 33 Cal. App. 5th 321

In 2014, Forest City California Residential Development, Inc. proposed a mixed-use business and residential project known as “5M” in the area bounded by Mission, Fifth, Howard, and Sixth Streets in San Francisco. The 5M site included seven parking lots and eight buildings with office and commercial uses. The San Francisco Planning Department released a DEIR on October 15, 2014, which described two “options” for 5M—an “office scheme” and a “residential scheme”. Under both, 5M would result in new active ground floor space, office use, residential dwelling units, and open space. Both schemes would reserve and rehabilitate two of the existing buildings on the site, and demolish the six remaining structures. The DEIR discussed nine alternatives to 5M, and rejected five as infeasible.

The San Francisco Planning Commission held an informal hearing on the DEIR, accepted public comment until January 2015, and published the FEIR. Following certification of the EIR, South of Market Community Action Network, Save Our SOMA, and Friends of Boeddeker Park (collectively, Plaintiffs) appealed the decision to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The Board of Supervisors denied the appeal. Plaintiffs filed a petition for writ of mandate in superior court alleging CEQA violations. The court heard arguments and denied the writ. Plaintiffs appealed to the Fifth District Court of Appeal, arguing deficiencies in the EIR’s discussion of the project description, cumulative impacts, traffic and circulation impacts, wind impacts, open space impacts, shade and shadow impacts, area plan consistency, and statement of overriding considerations. (For the purposes of this outline, only the project description portion of the Opinion is analyzed in detail.)

Plaintiffs alleged the EIR failed to provide a stable and accurate project description. They argued that the “office scheme” and “residential scheme” alternatives were “confusing” and hampered commenters’ ability to understand the project that was actually proposed and analyzed. The Court found Plaintiffs’ claim that the DEIR presented multiple possible Projects (rather than a description of a single project with two possible buildout schemes) “specious”. The Court noted that Plaintiffs failed to attack the project description on grounds related to CEQA’s technical requirements, or point to erroneously omitted information.

The DEIR’s project description stated that 5M is a mixed-use project on a four-acre site in downtown San Francisco featuring two project options with substantially the same overall gross square footage but with a varying mix of residential and office uses. It set forth measurements of gross square footage for each scheme along with site plans, illustrative massing, building elevations, cross sections, and representative floor plans. The DEIR also evaluated the environmental impacts of each scheme independently. The Court found that this level of detail, along with response to public comment when contentions of confusion arose, constituted an appropriate project description and served the informational nature of the document to allow for public participation.

The Court dispensed with Plaintiff’s reliance on County of Inyo v. City of Los Angeles (1977) 71 Cal. App. 3d 185and Washoe Meadows Community v. Department of Parks and recreation (2017) 17 Cal.App.5th 277, noting that unlike those cases, here, there were no fluctuations in the project description during the EIR process, the initial project description was not misleading and a small fragment of the ultimately approved project, and the project description clearly identified what was going to be built in either proposed scheme.

Plaintiffs alternatively alleged the 5M project description was deficient because the FEIR ultimately adopted a proposed plan based not on the two described schemes, but rather, based on a “revised” variant of the preservation alternative identified in the DEIR. The Court found Plaintiffs failed to identify any component of the revised project unaddressed in the DEIR, and stated that the CEQA reporting process is intended to be flexible to allow for the implementation of “unforeseen insights” gained during the project consideration. The Court stated that the whole point of requiring evaluation of alternatives in a DEIR is to allow thoughtful consideration and public participation regarding other options that may be less harmful to the environment. If the approved action must be a blanket approval of the entire project as initially described in the EIR, the informational value of the document would be “sacrificed”. The Court concluded that although the project description did not include a verbatim description of the ultimately approved Project, the adopted characteristics came from one of the proposed alternatives; satisfying “one of the key purposes of the CEQA process”.

The First District similarly dismissed Plaintiffs’ remaining arguments relating to cumulative impacts, traffic and circulation, wind, open space, shade and shadow, area plan consistency, and statement of overriding considerations. Accordingly, the Court upheld the judgement of the superior court in full.