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Marina Center Tome Arrives

Arkleys' Balloon Track project gets 'War and Peace'-sized environmental report

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It's finally here! More than two years after its original ETA, the much-anticipated Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) for the Marina Center project arrived like a solemn Christmas present, dropping with a thump on Eureka City Hall, libraries and the doorsteps of local pooh-bahs. Coming in at more than 2,100 pages, the monumental document falls squarely into the "be careful what you wish for" category.

Most people the Journal asked to comment were incredulous. "Have you seen the size of it?" asked Pete Nichols, executive director of environmental watchdog group Humboldt Baykeeper. Larry Evans, whose organization, Citizens for Real Economic Growth, has lead the charge against Marina Center, griped that it would take him a month to get through it. Regardless, the 60-day public comment period has commenced, and the longstanding arguments for and against the controversial project can finally have some focus. Let the substantive debate begin.

Digging deep into this vast stocking we find two glaring bullet points: Air quality and transportation are deemed likely to present "significant unavoidable environmental impacts." Considering that there were 17 categories examined -- from aesthetics to urban decay -- some may be surprised that only two have been deemed "significant." Even before the DEIR, Marina Center has been the subject of pro and con bumper stickers, door-to-door opinion polling and the notorious alleged shoving incident between Rob Arkley and Eureka City Councilman Larry Glass.

For those who have somehow managed to avoid all the hubbub, the issue, in a nutshell, is this: Local millionaires Rob and Cherie Arkley want to develop the "Balloon Track" property in Eureka, a former rail yard that sat festering for more than 20 years. Through a subsidiary company called CUE VI (CUE being an acronym for "Clean Up Eureka"), the Arkleys have proposed Marina Center -- a 614,000-square-foot mixed-use development featuring apartments, offices, light industrial space, restaurants, a wetland preserve, a pedestrian/bicycle path, a new home for the Discovery Museum and (cue controversy) lots of retail, including a 132,000 square foot Home Depot.

In order for Marina Center to proceed, the Eureka Planning Commission, the City Council and the Coastal Commission must approve zoning changes for the proposed 43-acre site, located in the northwest corner of Eureka along Waterfront Drive. And that's just the first in a series of legislative hurdles for the project. Plus, the project's backers must withstand the likely lawsuits and inevitable objections from a largely dubious citizenry. (Eureka voters shot down Wal-Mart's pitch for the same location in 1999.)

All of this -- the City's approval, the lawsuits and objections -- will be influenced by the DEIR. Which brings us back to those two red flags: air quality and transportation. The DEIR finds that the Marina Center project would cause a "considerable net increase" in particulate matter pollution -- tiny liquid and solid particles floating in the air that, when inhaled into the deepest parts of the lungs, can increase the occurrence and severity of lung disease and reduce the body's ability to fight infections. The pollution would result both from construction activities, as well as increased traffic and general operations at the site. The California Air Resources Board cites studies linking these microscopic particles to the premature deaths of people with existing heart and lung disease, especially the elderly.

"Air pollution is gonna harm the whole town," Evans said. Though he'd only skimmed the report at the time, Evans echoed the concerns of other locals who say hypothetical future pollution should take a backseat to the toxins already there. CUE VI's proposal includes a promise to thoroughly clean up the brownfield land, which is reportedly saturated with lead, petroleum and other toxins despite a $250,000 cleanup effort from Arkley-owned Security National in 2006. But Evans says their plan is vague. "We want a full cleanup," he said, "not some cheesy, least-we-can-get-away-with thing."

That's exactly the goal of a lawsuit filed by Humboldt Baykeeper, originally against Union Pacific, though CUE VI assumed liability when they took ownership of the property in 2006. The suit alleges violations of the Clean Water Act, claiming that contaminants are leaking into Humboldt Bay. Nichols said Humboldt Baykeeper will take a very close look at the DEIR to see if it adequately addresses the "significant contamination problems" in Clark Slough, which flanks the property, as well as the surrounding wetlands.

Eureka Senior Planner Sidnie Olson, who acted as middle-woman between CUE VI and ESA, the environmental consulting firm that prepared the DEIR (acronym overload!), said the cleanup will at least comply with state remediation standards, though she admitted that the specifics remain vague. "How will [CUE VI] do the actual cleanup? Will they scoop it out? Cap it? Nuke it? Send it to Mars?" She said the water quality board will issue a cleanup order, but since the project has yet to be approved, an application cannot be submitted to the board. "It's a bit of a Catch-22," Olson said.

Eurekans have also expressed their concerns about the project's impact on traffic, and the DEIR won't do anything to appease them. Marina Center likely would cause more congestion at intersections, create more traffic in general and may necessitate infrastructure developments for which CUE VI is only partially responsible, the report says. One intersection in particular -- Koster Street and Wabash Avenue, between Adel's and Costco -- is identified as a likely ongoing traffic-jam.

There are plenty of other concerns related to the Balloon Track/Marina Center, but Olson stressed that many of them are not within the purview of the DEIR, which is limited to environmental impacts. "We have to respond to every single written comment we get," Olson said. "[But] some people won't be able to separate out the merits of the project from the environmental impacts," she added.

In other words, complaints about Home Depot's customer service or the Arkleys' politics will fall on deaf ears. Even the economic impacts of the project are dealt with cursorily in the DEIR because, under California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) guidelines, the report is only required to determine whether the project is likely to cause urban decay. In a five-page chapter on the issue, the report concludes that it won't.

"At the time that the study was prepared, the site had uncontrolled plant growth, old pieces of railroad machinery, homeless encampments, and high levels of crime and drug use," the report reads. Now that it's fenced off, it says, the property is just ugly, so practically any development would be an improvement. And since consultants believe the shopping center won't annihilate local businesses elsewhere in the city, they conclude that the risk of urban decay is "less than significant."

No doubt plenty of Eurekans will beg to differ with that conclusion. With the economy officially in a recession, many, including Councilman Glass, have speculated that the project might be abandoned. But Security National Vice President of Real Estate and Development Randy Gans said all systems are go. "The project is proceeding as planned," Gans wrote in an e-mail to the Journal. He added that the economic downturn merely "demonstrates that the project is needed now more than ever," claiming it will "generate more than 1,000 good-paying jobs and provide millions in tax revenues for [Eureka's] schools and public safety." As for the environmental impacts, Gans said the risk is insignificant, and that the "limited impact is a fair trade-off for the many benefits Marina Center will bring to the community."

A closer look at the economic repercussions will be left in the hands of the City. Councilwoman-elect Linda Atkins refused to comment "beyond what I said in my campaign, which is that I'm totally biased toward local businesses." Councilman-elect Frank J├Ąger, meanwhile, seemed apprehensive about being thrown into the middle of this contentious issue. "I think we just need to take a breath and study things," he said. "It's just a draft report. If changes need to be made or if there are things we don't like, there's time and room to do that."

Not much. The public comment period ends January 30. For more information, including the full text of the DEIR, visit the City of Eureka's website, www.ci.eureka.ca.gov, or call Sidnie Olson at 441-4265.

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