Smart Growth in the Burbs

  • February 29, 2012

Concord's eco-friendly, socially conscious plan for its shuttered military base may be a model for future development in the Bay Area.

By Jean Tepperman

Suburban cities don't often embrace transit-oriented development and eco-friendly growth, but the City of Concord is glowing with pride these days over its highly touted plan for the shuttered Concord Naval Weapons Station. The plan, approved last month by the Concord City Council, is a model of enlightened development. More than two-thirds of the land will remain open space, and the project will feature transit-oriented jobs, housing, and a new CSU East Bay campus next to a BART station. It will also include compact, walkable neighborhoods clustered around shops and transit, green building standards, affordable housing, and jobs for local residents.

There's also a lot of pride about the way the plan was developed: an open process involving hundreds of residents in dozens of meetings and a broadly representative community advisory council. "Things got defined during the public process rather than in some back room," said Ron Brown, executive director of Save Mount Diablo.

In fact, planning for the project may represent a blueprint for sustainable development in the future. "At the end, everybody was happy with the process," noted Roseanne Nieto, a 45-year Concord resident and leader of the Naval Weapons Station Neighborhood Alliance. "But we had to be at the city council banging on the table to make it that way."

In 2005, residents first heard about plans that had been drafted "under wraps," Nieto said. Kathy Gleason, whose backyard borders the base, said she received notice that the city planned to build up to 19,000 housing units there. "Within two weeks," Gleason recalled, "we had sixty people at the city council saying, 'Back up and do this right!'"

The project encompasses more than 5,000 acres — the inland section of the former Naval Weapons Station. "It was such a huge project; it had so much potential to be divisive, with people pitted against each other," said Amie Fishman, executive director of the Oakland-based East Bay Housing Organizations.

Instead, EBHO joined with residents, unions, environmentalists, affordable-housing advocates, and religious leaders to form the Coalition for a Sustainable Concord. The coalition was "wildly successful," said Seth Adams of Save Mount Diablo. The planning map adopted by the council mirrored the map created by the coalition.

The coalition's strength was communication, said Paul Doolittle, a fourth-generation Concord resident and assistant business manager at International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 302. "We met so much, listened to each other's point of view so much."

"People really came to own each other's issues," said Richard Marcantonio, managing attorney at Public Advocates. The unions' goal was jobs — they won a commitment that 40 percent of the construction jobs would go to local residents. But, said Doolittle, "We also live here, we raise our children here. We need open space, affordable housing."

Neighborhood residents "really wanted 100-percent open space," said Nieto. But, Matt Vander Sluis of Greenbelt Alliance said, "there was an early realization that some well-planned development could generate the economic foundation for preservation of open space." And dense development, his group argued, is the only way to preserve open space as the Bay Area population grows from 7 million to 9 million over the next thirty years. At the same time, the coalition embraced residents' demands for a big "buffer" of green space between existing and new neighborhoods.

The coalition and its member organizations drove the process. They brought hundreds of people to meetings, providing testimony by both experts and Concord residents. Members of the Neighborhood Alliance conducted petition and postcard campaigns. "We had tables at farmers' markets showing the community what was being planned, got a lot of people to sign up on our web page, gave the community opportunities to express themselves, then took their comments to the city council," Nieto said.

"We kept being there and coming back," Fishman added. "We created a lot of momentum. The city council changed, but we were there providing an anchor. We were able to organize community interests and concerns in a way the city could work with."

But not everyone agreed with the coalition's goals. Former Councilman Guy Bjerke, who previously worked for the Bay Area Building Industry Association, said that some developers felt the plan included too much open space and too much affordable housing. But "by the time decisions were made, the business and building communities were decimated" by the recession, he added. In addition, larger developers were already moving toward denser development, in response to shifts in the market.

While the coalition was mobilizing the grassroots, Brown of Save Mount Diablo was "working quietly behind the scenes" in the Contra Costa Council, an organization of movers and shakers from business, educational, environmental, religious, and labor organizations. "We tried to bring together some of the really divergent stakeholders who are normally standing up in public meetings expressing opposing points of view," Brown said. "Council members have a high interest in coming together for something that benefits the community as a whole. By the time it got to the city council, everyone agreed."

Some of the coalition's environmental goals were an easy sell. "Density around the BART station was a no-brainer," Bjerke said. And environmental laws created "significant issues" for development that were addressed by "preserving a significant chunk as a regional park." Still, the coalition had to push hard to keep development off steep slopes and out of the environmentally rich eastern and southern areas. "They tried to put a development on a hillside," Nieto said. "We smushed that."

At first, "city leaders thought they were being generous talking about 50 percent open space," but that space was fragmented, Adams said. The final plan calls for 69 percent open space, most of it managed by the East Bay Regional Park District. The coalition also successfully pushed for more housing density, with detached single-family homes representing only about 20 percent of the units.

The coalition's demand for affordable housing met stronger resistance from the city council and some residents, although the final plan calls for 25 percent of the units to be affordable to lower-income people, an "unusually significant" commitment, according to Public Advocates' Marcantonio. Even some members of the coalition were initially wary about affordable housing. "I wasn't too thrilled about it when it started," Nieto acknowledged. "Then Amie [Fishman, of East Bay Housing Organizations] took us on a tour of some affordable housing developments and it really turned me around." When city officials saw affordable housing built by nonprofit developers "who own and take care of the property for decades, not private developers who would flip it," they were reassured.

Public Advocates also made legal arguments tying affordable housing to the requirements of environmental laws. With new retail and office development, the plan will create "thousands of new low-wage jobs," explained Marcantonio. "If you only build housing for affluent people, you force those workers into their cars, creating traffic congestion, greenhouse-gas emissions, and poor air quality. We need to make sure that people can afford to live where they work."

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