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Wild West on the Waterfront

SEA LEVEL RISE: 2nd in a Series



As developers challenge state environmental rules, local leaders push to build more projects

In summer 2015, the Public Press first reported on how rising seas could inundate coastal land in the Bay Area. Since then, we have discovered that state regulation of waterfront development has loosened, while local governments have been slow to respond.

The landmark California Environmental Quality Act, which cities have used compel adaptation to climate change, has been weakened by legal challenges from the powerful building industry. In San Francisco, as elsewhere, officials continue to promote large developments on the bay despite scientists' increasingly dire scenarios as greenhouse-gas emissions melt the world's glaciers and spawn powerful storms. 

To gauge how interpretation of state law is changing, we searched public databases of construction projects, reviewed dozens of lawsuits and court cases, and analyzed thousands of pages of environmental records filed with planning agencies. A public records request also revealed efforts by developers and builders to lobby Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration to dissuade cities from invoking the state’s environmental law to address climate change. We also used public records requests to determine why a major city-commissioned report on flood risk in Mission Bay was not published before officials and voters signed off on the San Francisco Giants' Mission Rock development and the Golden State Warriors new arena.

The spring 2017 print issue of the Public Press is now available at select locations

See part 1 of this series: Sea Level Rise Threatens Waterfront Development, from the summer 2015 edition.

1. Developers Use Courts to Undermine State Law, Weakening Sea Rise Protections for Bay Area Cities

Two years ago, the California Supreme Court overturned decades of land-use law by upholding lower court rulings that cities could no longer require developers to take into account the effects of climate change on their projects. That decision has unsettled public officials and planners, and critics say it will allow real estate interests to saddle taxpayers with a gigantic bill to defend against rising seas.

Published April 19, 2017


2. TIMELINE: Lawyers for Developers Share Tactics

Invoking recent court decisions, developers are pushing back on the ability of Bay Area cities to use the California Environmental Quality Act to regulate waterfront development and protect residents from rising sea levels.

Published April 19, 2017

3. Projects Sailed Through Despite Dire Flood Study

A city-commissioned environmental study that detailed how the Mission Bay neighborhood would be inundated by rising seas in coming decades went unpublished for more than a year while two showcase waterfront developments won key approvals from city officials and voters, a Public Press review of records shows

Published April 19, 2017


4. Emails Show How Flood Study Finally Became Public

Officials offer explanations for 18-month delay in releasing city-funded study that foresees serious climate-related flooding in Mission Bay in the decades ahead. The release followed a public-records request by the Public Press.

Published April 19, 2017

5. Mapping the Shoreline Building Boom As Seas Rise

Although Bay Area planners have in recent years elevated the role that sea level rise projections play in the permitting and design process, cities are still under pressure to approve more development quickly on under-used land. 

Published April 20, 2017


6. Local Planners Brace For Antarctic Ice Melt

Across California, policymakers and urban planners at every level of government are struggling with how to respond to new computer models that show massive ice sheets in Antarctica on the brink of collapse.

Published April 20, 2017

7. VISIONARY Solutions to Bayfront Inundation

The changing climate and shifting weather patterns are affecting each region of the globe differently, and not all coastal cities will experience sea level rise in the same manner. Likewise, there will not be a single most effective adaptation strategy, but many.

Published April 20, 2017


REPORTING: Kevin Stark, Mary Catherine O’Connor, Ellyn Beale, Noah Arroyo and Lulu Orozco

EDITING: Michael Winter and Michael Stoll

PRINT DESIGN: HyunJu Chappell/Magna Citizen Studio

CARTOGRAPHY: Marcea Ennamorato

DATA EDITING: Subramaniam Vincent

COPY EDITING: Michele Anderson, Zachary Benjamin, Richard Knee and Dean Takehara


ONLINE: John Angelico

AUDIO EXTRAS: Audrey Dilling

This project was made possible by donations from Public Press members, the Fund for Investigative Journalism, the Strong Foundation for Environmental Values, and by a challenge grant from the San Francisco Foundation