In the aftermath of the recent hazmat incident caused by an accidental chemical release in Redwood Shores, some bioscience safety advocates are now concerned about an upcoming biotech lab near downtown Redwood City.
The new lab, that’s in the process of being built, is called El Camino Yards or Elco Yards. It is owned by IQHQ, a life science real estate developer. It is located at 1601 El Camino Real, just a block away from the city’s downtown area.
Elco Yards will feature a childcare center, high density housing, restaurants, a dog park, and will also include space for research and development labs. The structure is going to be sandwiched between multi-family housing neighborhoods on El Camino Real and Pennsylvania Street.
“We believe that scientists cannot be trusted to regulate the most dangerous types of research in biology. The public at large needs to assert its right to protect itself against risky research,” said quantitative biologist Justin Kinney, who is one of the co-founders of Biosafety Now!, a nonprofit organization focused on the prevention of lab leaks that could cause local epidemics.
“As we started learning about biosafety, these neighborhood labs started coming up all over the place in the Peninsula, not just in our neighborhood,” said Nina Goodale, a Redwood Shores resident, who, along with her partner Steve Goodale, has been outspoken about keeping a bioscience development project, Redwood Life, from being built nearby by Longfellow, a real estate company.
In June, Redwood City voted to prohibit Level 3 and Level 4 biosafety labs in the downtown area; these are CDC classifications for different types of laboratories that contain risk. For example, Level 4 labs are those in which scientists work with dangerous microbes for which there is no known vaccine or treatment. Moreover, housing cannot be included in buildings with research and development labs that deal with infectious agents or toxins.
However, Level 1 and Level 2 biosafety labs are allowed in the downtown area.
City officials say public health and safety is being factored in, in the context of new projects like Elco Yards.
“When the City approved (research and development) uses with the project entitlements in 2020,” outgoing Assistant City Manager Alex Khojikian said, “(biosafety levels) were not a topic that the City was discussing, and the City has not historically regulated BSL levels in any of its life science projects.”
Khojikian said that the City has since done its research, received public input and added the BSL restrictions to its plans.
“The City proactively worked with IQHQ and has imposed a number of precautionary regulations to protect the health and safety of future residents,” Khojikian said.
Due to the emergence of life science development projects in the recent past, motions for regulations to protect public health and safety have been put in place, said City Manager Melissa Stevenson Diaz.
“This includes the Elco Yards project, where we required a restrictive covenant on properties intended for research and development laboratory purposes,” said Diaz. “We are committed to resident and environmental safety, and have set operational requirements that go above and beyond standards set by regulatory bodies.”
Diaz also said they will continue to work with regulatory agencies and industry leaders, to ensure the long-term safety and sustainability of bioscience developments in Redwood City.
Jeanne Sullivan Billeci, Redwood City spokesperson said the restrictive covenant includes a number of operational requirements such as development of a biosafety plan, medical waste management plan and requirements to prevent the emission of toxic air contaminants.
“Moving forward, the City aims to implement the most effective strategies to ensure the long-term safety and sustainability of these types of developments,” said Billeci. “We will continue to collaborate with industry experts and regulatory agencies to safeguard the well-being of our residents and environment.”
Earlier this summer, the City of San Carlos approved a ban on Level 3 and Level 4 biosafety laboratories. Residents of San Carlos received support from Bryce Nickels, co-founder of Biosafety Now!, who said residents must have a say in what goes on in their community.
“There's nothing controversial,” said Nickels. “They (San Carlos residents) have really researched all of the nuances and details that are specific to their locations.”
According to Nickels the main concerns for residents are accidents like chemical spills that would most likely affect their local area. “There's a long history of corporate environmental pollution.”
The Elco project is expected to be completed by the end of 2025.
“The building shell would be designed to accommodate subsequent tenant improvements that could accommodate labs for up to BSL 3 facilities," said Billeci. “But no labs are being installed at this time.”
At the time of filing this report, it was unclear whether a Level 3 lab is in fact being built in Elco Yards, but bio safety advocates are certainly worried.