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Crucial 13,000-unit Concord housing development might never happen

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Heated debate over labor and budget could tank major housing project

An aerial photo of the Concord Navy base, with gray concrete structures dotting a plain of yellow grass.
The “inland area” of the shutter Concord Navy facility.
Photo by Daniel Schwen

In terms of Bay Area housing development, the Concord Naval Weapons Station is the mother lode, a proposal of such proportions that even calling it a mega-project doesn’t do it justice.

On this defunct Contra Costa County military base, omnipresent housing developer Lennar plans a mixed-use project that would create over 13,000 homes, the result of years of planning, arguing, negotiation, and public pressure from every side of the issue.

But the entire project could fall apart in just a few days, as a longstanding impasse over labor and Lennar’s multibillion budget could leave Concord with nothing to show for it all except a decaying base and a ticket all the way back to square one.

What’s the Concord Naval Weapons Station?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) describes the station as “a major ammunition trans-shipment port of the West Coast for the Department of Defense operated by the U.S. Army,” sprawling over 12,800 acres in two different locations in the north of the city.

The larger northernmost facility, called the “tidal portion,” technically lies outside the bounds of the city, on the shores of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta; this facility is still in use, although the Navy transferred it over to the U.S. Army in 1999.

It’s the smaller (a little less than 5,200 acres) “inland portion” in the city itself that is the target of Concord’s current ambitions. The Navy still owns this land right next to the North Concord BART Station but began closing it in 1997. Today no weapons are stored here, and there’s not much left but old bunkers.

In short, it’s a big, mostly empty parcel of land right next to BART that absolutely nothing important is happening on right now—seemingly, the perfect place for new housing. But unfortunately the land is also a Superfund site, blighted by “contaminants in soil, sediments and groundwater” including arsenic, mercury, lead, and chromium.

The EPA says that work to excavate and haul away contaminated soil started in 1983—and they’re still not done. Despite these problems, Concord has high hopes for the weapons station.

What’s the redevelopment plan?

Still-extant health risks and remaining construction aside, the city of Concord describes the weapons facility as a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to create a new neighborhood that could fundamentally change the city.

Concord City Hall refers to the redevelopment as “the Reuse Project.” The city chose mega-developer Lennar to head what it calls phase one of the plan, which covers roughly 500 acres and 4,400 homes—1,100 of which will be affordable housing.

Potential long-term plans for the site include up to 13,000 homes (a quarter of them affordable), plus 2,700 acres of parkland, millions of square feet of retail, and a budget of $6 billion.

For context, the U.S. Census estimated in 2018 that the entire city of Concord had fewer than 51,000 homes Thirteen thousand homes is more housing than exists in many entire Bay Area cities like El Cerrito, Millbrae, and Los Altos.

Both Concord and Lennar hoped to break ground and begin construction on what will be a 30-plus year redevelopment in 2020. However, the project is not going as planned.

What’s the problem?

Lennar and the Contra Costa Building and Construction Trades Council, a body that oversees dozens of labor unions in the Bay Area, are fighting over labor.

The union council alleges that the developer previously agreed to use only union labor on the job and is now attempting to renege on that promise. Lennar denies ever making such a commitment, saying that union labor would drive up the cost of the project so much (nearly $550 million) that it would no longer be affordable.

This dispute is so heated and intractable that the San Francisco Chronicle reported in January that Lennar might just abandon the entire project, ruining years of work and, perhaps, any potential for meaningful redevelopment.

In a January letter to the city, Lennar President Jonathan Jaffe claimed “the city’s own expert conclusively found that the present demands of labor make the project infeasible” and that phase one wouldn’t pencil out if they conceded to union demands.

In a competing letter sent the same day, council CEO Bill Whitney said that the unions are simply trying to enforce the city’s own standards for work and complained that the developer is hampering negotiations.

The two parties have not come to an agreement in the weeks since those reports. In fact, Mission Local reported that Lennar could make good on its threats to walk away from Concord altogether on March 12.

That would leave the city to go back to finding a master developer for phase one, possibly among past bids deemed less attractive than Lennar’s. But there’s always the risk that those older offers might not be on the table anymore, which raises the stakes for the current negotiations even higher.

Lennar is the same company currently developing housing on other former Navy assets in San Francisco, including Treasure Island and Hunters Point. Despite anxiety about potential lingering contamination at those sites, development on both is proceeding.