As the sun sets over Redwood Creek, the reflection of floating boats and homes glistens atop the water. The Redwood City neighborhood, known as Docktown, is eclectic both in color and character. Elegant, multistory floating homes neighbor small, scrappy boats, with a houseboat shaped like something out of “The Hobbit” movie nestled along the shoreline.
For 50 years, residents of Docktown, made up of families, retirees, veterans, artists and more, have floated on the murky waters of Redwood Creek. But like so many other relics of that long-ago freewheeling Bay Area of the 1960s, the 100-acre property may soon be swept away, with an eviction battle currently stirring in San Mateo County Superior Court.
On Dec. 12, 2016, Redwood City’s City Council approved The Final Docktown Plan – the city’s plan to remove and relocate the 117 residents of Docktown. The decision brought to a close nearly four years of conflict over the city’s efforts to comply with state statutes and the Public Trust Doctrine, which according to the State Lands Commission does not authorize residential use of Redwood Creek.
Then, San Francisco Bay Marinas For All, a nonprofit, on behalf of the citizens of Docktown, filed two lawsuits in January to stop the city’s plan. On March 30, Judge George Miram of the San Mateo County Superior Court, denied the group’s motion for a preliminary injunction to pause enforcement of the Docktown Plan during the trial. The nonprofit is now moving forward in both lawsuits, as the plan for relocation continues.
If the residents prevail, it may well be because of a particularly poetic defense: their homes have been part of the muddy ecosystem for so long, they claim, removing them would cause more damage to the environment than keeping them in place.
“We are a part of the ecology of the creek and moving us would change that. We need to look at that impact,” said Lee Callister, a white-haired, 73-year-old Docktown resident, who pointed to marine life growing along the docks and hulls of the floating vessels. “When the tide comes in, we go up, when the tide goes out, we go down.”
For years, city administrations played hot potato, gifting the responsibility of Docktown’s future to the next generation of officials. Throughout that time, residents-turned-activists crowded City Hall to protest their concerns and negotiate their futures.
Residents said the city’s efforts to close Docktown were fast-tracked due to a lawsuit filed in 2015, by a group called “Citizens for Public Trust.” Organized by Ted Hannig, an attorney and neighbor to Docktown, the lawsuit challenged residential use of the creek as a violation of the state’s public trust laws. In January 2016, the City settled the lawsuit, which led to the requirement for the relocation plan last December.
Members of city council have denied requests for interviews.
Also required under the settlement agreement was an environmental analysis of the sediment in Redwood Creek. Last year, the City hired Erler Kalinowski Inc., an environmental consulting firm to perform the analysis. The study showed traces of sediment contamination in the creek but did not address whether removing the marina would have environmental impact. Because of this, Erler Kalinowski Inc. told Peninsula Press it would not comment on the Docktown issue.
Alison Madden, an attorney and resident of Docktown, said the first lawsuit was filed to compel an environmental impact review, as required under the California Environmental Quality Act, before the community is relocated and the marina destroyed. According to Madden, the second lawsuit points to whether jurisdiction over Docktown’s removal belongs to the city government or rather the Port Commission of Redwood City.
“Nobody even mentioned state lands when I moved in 15 years ago,” said Ellen Savage, 67, while sitting inside her two-story floating home. Savage nicknamed her home “Floating World” to honor her late husband’s appreciation for a style of Japanese art known as Ukiyo-e or “Pictures of the Floating World.”
On Friday evenings, Savage joins other “Docktowners” and residents from across the city at the Peninsula Yacht Club for dinner and an update on the lawsuits. The building, which sits adjacent to the creek, is an old tankhouse that dates back to the dawn of the 20th century.
Community members said the yacht club building was at one time a tannery, which for years produced toxic byproducts that built up under the creek. Savage said the lawsuit to require an environmental review could avoid the impact of disturbing the contaminated sediment and support residents’ defense as to why the community should stay put.
Built from rustic redwood timber, a giant metal tank sits upon the yacht club’s roof with a brightly painted flag. According to Savage, it’s somewhat of a community landmark, but in recent years, it’s become headquarters for activists in the community to meet and discuss issues facing Docktown. Inside the walls are dressed with flags and nautical memorabilia and newspaper clippings with headlines about Docktown.
Savage said the last four of her 15 years at Docktown have felt like “living in limbo,” but the community has rallied to the cause. “As they have always rallied to anything that is affecting people here badly, whether it’s a boat sinking or losing your home in another way.”
Docktown was once one of three floating communities in Redwood City. Peninsula Marina and Pete’s Harbor were stripped of their floating boats and homes and are now rimmed with high-end apartments. Plans for development at Docktown have been proposed but not yet approved by the city.
Madden, who is director of the nonprofit working on the lawsuits, moved to Docktown in 2013, after the closing of the marina’s neighbor, Pete’s Harbor, where she lived for a year. Over a hundred condominiums, nearly identical in design, reside there now, mocking the present and foretelling Docktown’s potential future.
“This is what they [the city] did at Pete’s Harbor,” Madden said. “They don’t care what the people think. They know what they want and what they need to do to get it.”
Residents said happenings at Docktown fit the larger narrative of cities and spaces in the Bay Area transforming into battle zones, during a rise in development.
Callister, a nine-year resident, said the lack of affordable housing would force many Docktown residents to leave the Bay Area.
“We are in a time and place when there’s a real shortage of affordable housing. Docktown has affordable housing in place,” Callister said. “It’s the kind of community Redwood City always says they want – neighbors interacting with neighbors, working together. That’s what we got here. Why would you want to get rid of that?”
Lush gardens grow off the back decks and front porches of the floating homes, and American flags wave above the water. With spring looming, the sound of birds, nestled up in the eaves of the boats, is met with the jingle of wind chimes. As residents fight in what may be their final attempt at saving the community, Savage said her most peaceful moments are out on the creek in her kayak.
“I want as much time here as I can,” Savage said. “I love living here. This is my community. This is my home. And if I have to live here but there’s an end date further down, at least that gives me some time to prepare for the inevitable. Time is better than nothing at all. Isn’t it?”
Video produced by Peninsula Press Reporter Bethney Bonilla.