Last spring, Costa Mesa discovered that the State was planning on withholding a significant portion of the Fairview Developmental Center and using it as a emergency operations center that would serve the southern half of California. Sara Cardine at the Daily Pilot has been covering this story (see here, here, and here).
Here is the City's statement on the news.
The Costa Mesa Alliance for Better Streets has been following this story closely, since this sort of project could have a significant impact on Costa Mesa transportation and the quality of surrounding streets.
The draft of the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) has been released, which provided us with an opportunity to comment on the project - though the comments are limited to the potential environmental impacts of the project, rather than the project itself. We have copied our letter below. This was sent to state and local officials, as well as environmental consultants on October 13th, 2023. The consultants are tasked with taking comments into consideration in the preparation of the Final EIR, which could greatly affect the project.
If you are interested in the City's planning of the Fairview Developmental Center, keep an eye on this page. Public meetings are scheduled for next week!
October 13, 2023
Terry Ash, Senior Environmental Planner
California Department of General Services, Real Estate Division
2635 North First Street, Ste. 149
San Jose, California 95134
Re: Draft Environmental Impact Report, Southern Region Emergency Operations Center Project, SCH No. 2023030046
Dear Ms. Ash:
We are writing on behalf of the Costa Mesa Alliance for Better Streets (“CMABS”), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to improving street infrastructure and policy to promote active transportation, transit use and people-centered urban design. We appreciate the opportunity to review and provide comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Report for the proposed Southern Region Emergency Operations Center Project, SCH No. 2023030046 (the “Draft EIR”).
We believe that the Draft EIR provides insufficient evidence that the project may be deemed to have “less than significant impact” with respect to transportation. Appendix G of the CEQA Guidelines states that a “significant impact” related to transportation would occur if a proposed project would:
Conflict with a program, plan, ordinance, or policy addressing the circulation system, including transit, roadway, bicycle, and pedestrian facilities;
Conflict or be inconsistent with CEQA Guidelines section 15064.3, subdivision (b);
Substantially increase hazards due to a geometric design feature (e.g., sharp curves or dangerous intersections) or incompatible uses (e.g., farm equipment); or
Result in inadequate emergency access.
We respectfully disagree with the Draft EIR’s rejection of potential conflicts (2) and (3) listed above. We also believe that the project may conflict with the objectives outlined in Senate Bill 188, which has earmarked the Fairview Development Center (“FDC”) site for affordable housing, and that the Draft EIR has not sufficiently analyzed these potential conflicts.
The project may be inconsistent with CEQA Guidelines Section 15064.3, subdivision (b)
The Draft EIR claims that the project meets the screening criteria for a “local government” project because the project “is not considered to be a project of regionwide significance”. However, throughout the document the Draft EIR emphasizes the critical role the proposed project would play in supporting emergency management services throughout the Southern California region, even when the Mather facility is fully operational:
“The project would develop another Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in Southern California that would mirror the operations of the Mather facility at a smaller scale and act as a backup EOC in the event that operations at Mather are interrupted. It would also provide more effective state emergency support to local governments within the Southern Region. The Southern Region covers 11 counties within two mutual aid regions (Mutual Aid Region 1: Los Angeles, Orange, San Luis Obispo, Santa Ana, and Ventura Counties; Mutual Aid Region 2: Imperial, Inyo, Mono Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego Counties) and includes 226 incorporated cities with a total population of 22.9 million people (Cal OES 2022b).” (Draft EIR, Section 3.1)
“The proposed SREOC would support full-time staff and establish a regional center to serve as a hub for critical emergency management planning and emergency preparedness services in support of local agencies. The Southern Region is charged with supporting a large area that is a major contributor to the nation’s gross domestic product, with a population density centered on some of the state’s highest risk earthquake faults.” (Draft EIR, Section 3.1)
“Although the proposed EOC would be a public benefit, the project would not serve the local community or planned uses at the rest of the FDC property specifically and would not reduce existing or future vehicle use.” (Draft EIR,Table 4.9-1)
The Draft EIR also states that, due to its role as an emergency management center, the proposed EOC would be completely car-dependent for its mobility and access ( emphasis below ours):
“However, the project would be reliant on automobile travel due to the nature of the project as an emergency facility.” (Draft EIR, Table 4.9-1)
Given the very high cost of living in Costa Mesa, it is likely that many of these employees will commute from outside of the local area. Therefore, determining that this project is “local” is grossly inconsistent with the plain reading of the screening criteria categories. The other screening criteria categories – schools, local-serving retail, community institutions, senior housing, student housing, etc. – are included because the vehicle miles traveled (“VMT”) generated by these types of projects are typically lower than those generated by regular office, retail, residential or other land use types, either because customers can access those institutions via alternative means (walking, bicycling, transit) OR because the users or employees of such institutions are more likely to be living without a car. In the case of an emergency operations center serving the larger Southern California region, where all full-time employees are expected to be commuting by car, it is possible that the VMT generated by the proposed EOC will be greater than that of a more typical office of similar size.
CMABS Comment #1
CEQA Guidelines Section 15064.3, subsection (b) states that land use projects “that decrease vehicle miles traveled in the project area compared to existing conditions should be presumed to have a less than significant transportation impact” (emphasis ours). The Draft EIR provides no evidence that the VMT in the project area would be lower than the existing conditions, or even that it would be lower than the VMT that would be generated by retail, office or other administrative uses of a similar size. As such, the Draft EIR does not sufficiently support its claim that it qualifies for the “local government” screening criteria and it is therefore potentially inconsistent with CEQA Guidelines section 15064.3, subdivision (b).
CMABS Comment #2
We do not believe that the lead agency may rely on CEQA Guidelines Section 15206 to support its conclusion that the “local government” screening criteria applies to the proposed project. Just because the project cannot be deemed to be of “regional, statewide or areawide significance” under Section 15206, it does not follow that such project is therefore sufficiently “local” to reasonably presume that VMT would be reduced compared to the existing conditions under CEQA Guidelines Section 15064.3, subdivision (b).
As the lead agency admits that the project does not qualify for any alternate screening criteria, the Draft EIR provides insufficient support overall for the presumption that it will have a “less-than-significant” transportation impact. The Draft EIR should be revised either to provide additional support for its claim that the project qualifies for the project type screening criteria or to analyze whether the transportation impact is sufficiently substantial to warrant mitigation measures.
The project may substantially increase hazards due to a geometric design feature
The project includes the creation of a new street through the Southeast corner of the Fairview Development Center site and certain “improvements” to the intersections of Shelley Circle and Fair Drive, Fair Drive and Harbor Boulevard, Shelley Circle and Merrimac Way, and Harbor Boulevard and Merrimac Way. While the Draft EIR describes these changes as “minor improvements” (Draft EIR, Section 3.5.2), they are not minor. In fact, each introduces a design feature that undermines the lead agency’s assertion that such changes will cause a “less than significant” impact under CEQA.
Relocation of Shelley Circle
First, while it is accurate to say that the relocation of Shelley Circle to the Southeast corner of the property would not presently require changes to the off-site circulation on city roads outside of the FDC campus, this conclusion requires willful blindness with respect to the FDC site’s present State ownership, the built environment of the FDC site, and the State’s and City’s intention that it primarily be used for dense infill affordable housing.
The City’s circulation element does not address development at the FDC site precisely because there is no present development at the FDC site, and the FDC site has historically lay outside the City’s jurisdiction. Therefore it is speculative to say that the proposed project “would not contribute to cumulative impacts with respect to hazardous design features” (Draft EIR, Section 14.13.8), as the City’s plans for circulation off-site circulation do not, and could not, take into account the full development plan of the FDC site.
Furthermore, the Southwest corner of the FDC site is currently only one of two large expanses of open space that is not presently occupied by buildings or other improvements. As such, it would be a prime candidate for open-space land uses that are necessary to support over 2,000 additional units of housing, such as parks or schools.
The decision to relocate Shelley Circle to bisect this open space will raise substantial land use challenges as the City’s affordable housing plan moves forward. The proposed road will have no sidewalks, no controlled or uncontrolled crossing points, and it will prioritize truck and heavy machinery traffic. Thus as designed, the proposed road will be dangerous or impossible to cross on foot or on bicycle, and the open space in the Southeast corner of the FDC property will effectively be cut off from the rest of the site. So either the City must either forfeit valuable public uses of the land in the Southeast corner of the FDC site or accept that the road proposed by this project will create a daily source of danger and discomfort for residents.
CMABS Comment #3
There can be no conflict with off-site circulation only because there is no off-site circulation of any kind within the FDC, as the FDC is currently inoperable and located on state-owned land. However, issues like the one raised above clearly will conflict with the planned off-site circulation of the FDC site once the City of Costa Mesa obtains jurisdiction over it, both the City and the State of California (via Senate Bill 188) has declared FDC’s highest priority to be the development of dense affordable housing. This was previewed by the City of Costa Mesa’s comment letter, dated April 17, 2023, to the Notice of Preparation for the Draft EIR, which requested that the Draft EIR incorporate an extensive discussion of active transportation facilities to be provided within the FDC site. Given that housing will be built by law, it is willfully ignorant to analyze only the transportation impacts on the present built environment. The Draft EIR should be revised to include a discussion of the City’s plans, as envisioned and funded by Senate Bill 188, for the Southeast corner of FDC, as well as its related interests in promoting active transportation and transit throughout the FDC site.
Increased turn radii at Harbor Blvd and Merrimac Way and Harbor Blvd and Fair Drive
Historically, the FDC was constructed to shield its prior residents – individuals with mental and developmental disabilities – from the public right-of-way, and therefore only provides two access points to the site. Therefore, project proposes to increase the curb radii at or near these exit points, at the intersections of Merrimac Way and Harbor Blvd, Merrimac Way and Shelley Circle, and Fair Drive and Shelley Circle, to fifty (50) feet to accommodate the large trucks and equipment that may be stored at the proposed EOC site.
According to a preliminary investigation requested by CalTrans in 2012 and prepared by Kendra K. Levine, Institute of Transportation Studies Library, UC Berkeley, titled Curb Radius and Injury Severity at Intersections, “pedestrian safety at intersections is directly related to the vehicle speeds and the facilities available for pedestrians to occupy. For intersections with large curb radii and wider crossing sections, pedestrians are prone to vehicle collisions. The severity of injuries to these pedestrians correlates to the speed of the vehicles traveling through the turn.” Writing more specifically, Levine states:
In more residential areas, small curb radii of 15 to 25 feet is preferable because it reduces traffic speeds. In areas with significant traffic volume from large trucks and buses, curb radii of 30 to 45 feet accommodate the turning radius of the vehicle without encroachment on other lanes or the curb. The larger radii are less safe for bicycles and pedestrians because they allow for higher vehicle speeds through the turn and result in larger crossing distances. Smaller curb radii create facilities that are more pedestrian and bicycle friendly through shorter crossing distances.
Each intersection referenced above will have its curb radius expanded to fifty (50) feet, which is a radius sufficient to accommodate the largest tractor trailers. However, as the FDC site will primarily be used for housing, the vast majority of the traffic that will use these intersections on a daily basis will be private vehicles and bicycles. Therefore the extremely generous curb radii at these intersections is very likely to permit higher vehicle speeds through the turn and result in larger crossing distances for pedestrians and bicyclists.
The Draft EIR also states that “the project would not include site improvements that would interfere with existing public transit, bicycle, or pedestrian facilities, or impede the construction of new or the expansion of existing such facilities in the future” (Draft EIR, Section 4.13.5). We disagree. The proposed changes to the intersection of Merrimac Way and Harbor Blvd will interfere with the Class I multipurpose trail located on Harbor Blvd. By widening the curb radius to 50 feet at this intersection, the significant number of pedestrians and bicyclists presently using this facility will be exposed to dangers associated with higher private vehicle speeds, all because this intersection must only occasionally accommodate the largest vehicles.
Expanding the curb radius at this intersection also undermines the City’s potential expansion of its award-winning bicycle facility on Merrimac Way into the FDC site. Once the FDC site is developed for housing, Merrimac Way will provide a direct route for our new residents to access Orange Coast College, Jack Hammett Sports Complex, the Orange County Fairgrounds and Costa Mesa Middle School, among other amenities. The location of Costa Mesa Middle School close to the terminus of Merrimac Way makes it very likely that young students will use the Merrimac Way bicycle facility as a safe route to school, and heightens the interest of the City in ensuring that the intersection between Merrimac Way and Harbor Boulevard is made as safe as possible for bicyclists and pedestrians.
CMABS Comment #4
Fifty-foot turning radii at the intersections of Harbor Blvd and Merrimac Way and Harbor Blvd and Fair Drive pose known hazards to pedestrians and bicyclists. The project also conflicts with the existing Class I bicycle facility on Harbor Boulevard and the City’s potential expansion of the Merrimac Way bicycle facility into FDC. Therefore we believe that the Draft EIR does not contain sufficient evidence to conclude that the project will not “substantially increase hazards due to a geometric design feature”. We respectfully submit that the Draft EIR should be revised to include a discussion of these changes and to make a determination as to whether they will substantially increase hazards due to a geometric design feature.
Once again we appreciate the opportunity to review the Draft EIR and to provide feedback to the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and the Department of General Services Real Estate Services Division. We look forward to updates regarding this project.
The Board of the Costa Mesa Alliance for Better Streets