This 13,000-unit development plan is billed as a 'once in a lifetime opportunity' — and, damningly, that may be so

Concord, for many San Franciscans, is an abstract concept. It’s a name on a map or a BART marquee that only becomes a real place after you fall asleep aboard one of the trains and miss your stop (and many stops thereafter). 

But Concord is very much a real place and, unlike Las Vegas, what happens here doesn’t stay here. On March 12 and the days thereafter, this may become all too apparent to even San Franciscans, who are predisposed to ignore even the existence of the smaller towns surrounding us, let alone their arcane development and political battles. 

This date is the put-up or shut-up deadline for a long-planned 13,000-unit housing development slated for the former Concord Naval Weapons Station. This sprawling site for years housed bombs and chemicals we shipped overseas and dropped atop people living even further from here than Concord. 

Now it’s slated for a truly massive development of the sort everyone but everyone in the Bay Area says they’d want. Of those 13,000 proposed homes, 25 percent would be affordable. Not one but two BART stations serve the area — as do multiple freeways and a regional airport. There would be space for retail and offices so that not only could people live here and commute (on rail) to the central Bay Area — people could live here and work here and not drive at all. 

Nobody would be displaced by this project, save for concrete bunkers and moldering ordinance. Transit-friendly housing, abundant affordable housing, jobs, amenities, retail, offices, parks, open space, a college campus, four elementary schools, a middle school — it sounds too good to be true. 

You can see where this is going. The smart money is, come March 12 — facing late-hour demands from labor that even third-party economists calculate would render the project infeasible — developer Lennar will walk away from the table and it’ll all implode. 

Despite what you may have read on housing Twitter, housing economics isn’t simple. But this is: Shit rolls downhill. If 13,000 units — which would house 25,000 people or more — aren’t built on BART-adjacent land in Concord, the ramifications will be felt here in San Francisco.

And not in a good way. 

Basketball coach Gregg Popovich, and his disciple Steve Kerr, often evoke the principle of “appropriate fear.” 

Those are successful guys. Their teams listened, and they built dynasties. 

In Concord, we’re on the way to building nothing. 

So, it’s hard to say that any of the directly or indirectly connected entities to this 13,000-unit, 25 percent affordable proposal have demonstrated appropriate fear, considering that the entire enterprise is teetering on the precipice. Considering what’s at stake here, we’re not even seeing the vituperative public comments and mobilizations and avalanche of mean Tweets that might accompany a potential San Francisco development literally 1 percent the size of the Concord Naval Weapons Station plan. 

Concord, for too many of us, remains an abstract concept. 

How did we get here? How did we take this long road that may yet lead nowhere? As you’d expect in a situation involving thousands of acres, billions of dollars, and a Russian novel’s worth of characters negotiating and leveraging one another, it’s complicated. 

This shot, from the cover of the project’s voluminous Environmental Impact Report, demonstrates the status quo at the Concord Naval Weapons Station.

After many years of formulating grand plans for the fallow Naval Weapons Site, Concord in 2016 signed a term sheet with megadeveloper Lennar. Many parties were involved in the crafting of this term sheet, including organized labor. The developer was required to negotiate in “good faith” with labor regarding a wall-to-wall “Project Labor Agreement.” 

Now, what’s a project labor agreement? That’s complicated, too. 

It is, in a nutshell, a negotiated deal setting the terms of a major construction project. Unlike “prevailing wage,” which mandates how workers are to be treated and compensated, a project labor agreement can do more — it can, in essence, dictate who those workers will be. 

Unions, you’ll be shocked to discover, would like to see union labor on these projects. It’s not enough that everyone be paid and treated well: In Contra Costa County especially, organized labor has been loath to agree to a project labor agreement where the jobs don’t, in practice, become all-union.  

Fair enough: As the kids say, shoot your shot. But there is literally a document, in writing, regarding what Lennar is required to do and there is, literally a section in it regarding a project labor agreement — and labor’s present demand that a wall-to-wall agreement be a binding condition isn’t in there

Labor and the city of Concord could’ve in 2016 put it in there. This demand could’ve been formally listed, in writing, as a necessity for the development coming to pass. Cost estimates could’ve, in 2016, moved forward with this in mind. 

But that didn’t happen. And now labor, at risk of scuttling the project, is demanding a wall-to-wall agreement — or else. 

This verdant sports complex was planned for the site — along with a college campus, multiple K-12 schools and 25 percent affordable housing on a 13,000-unit project. C’est la vie.

“The issue of how much union labor the project can afford is a fundamental one,” says Guy Bjerke, the Concord staffer helming this development. “The unions believe it can afford more and Lennar believes it can only afford so much.” 

Like boxing, however, there’s a third judge here. In September 2019, the Concord City Council was presented an economic analysis undertaken by its own economists — and it by and large backs up the developer’s assessment: Labor’s late ask would add more than half a billion dollars to the tab. This, the report states, would push the developer’s estimated near future returns into the red. 

It remains to be seen whether Concord’s elected officials choose to acknowledge the numbers calculated by their own number-crunchers.

An aside here: Your humble narrator’s heart does not especially bleed for developers or megadevelopers crying poverty. Additionally, your humble narrator is a member of a union, the son of a former union attorney — who once, literally, cross-examined an employer out of a chair — and the grandson of a man who made Bernie Sanders look like Barry Goldwater. 

And yet, it’s hard to insist a private developer undertake a deal that even third-party economists predict won’t make money; that’s why Lennar has given every indication it’ll walk on March 12. 

It’s also hard not to fault Concord elected officials for their passivity and acquiescence here to labor’s demands for concessions that weren’t on the term sheet. In case you were wondering, yes, organized labor has an influence on politics and politicians, and, yes, part-time elected officials may not be the best people to oversee decades-long, multifaceted $6 billion regional development deals.

It’s all wickedly complex stuff, but this isn’t: The most politically viable move at this point may be to let the project sink beneath the waves and then point fingers and shrug shoulders. The safe bet, as ever, is always on entropy. 

Concord may be an abstract concept to San Franciscans. But the housing crisis — reverberating back to this city and beyond — is not. 

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Joe Eskenazi

Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. “Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior...

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25 Comments

  1. I’m surprised the article does not mention Lennair’s record as chief developer of the Hunters Poiint Naval Yard and its record re environmental clean-uo.

    1. Sir or madam — 

      Lennar has many poles in many pools, and I’m not going to run interference for this company. But, to my knowledge, the major wrongdoing on that site has been perpetrated by the Navy itself and Tetra Tech, which out-and-out faked cleanups.

      JE

      1. Very disingenuous response from the author here. He is well aware of the multiple bad behaviors by Lennar during San Francisco projects. Too many to mention but wide ranging, from interference by Willie Brown and Lennar when the Planning Commission recommended a different developer than Lennar be master developer at Hunters Point (Willie Brown went on to make millions selling HB5 visas for Lennar on the project) to Lennar’s failure to adequately water down contaminated dust at Candlestick (not the Navy, very specifically Lennar) to Lennar’s previous ballot measure to change portions of the Hunters Point project from housing to office space (so much for the author’s lament on lack of housing – why should Concord build housing with a shady developer so SF won’t be affected if SF won’t build housing for itself).

        Lennar also interfered with selection of the master developer in Concord. The committee formed to make the recommendation planned to recommend Catellus but former Concord City Councilmember Tim Grayson bullied staff to remove that recommendation without the required public hearing on it after receiving lots of campaign money that violated the negotiating agreement between Concord and Lennar. Concord had to hire an independent law firm to investigate the matter after Concord City Attorney committed suicide before presenting the findings of his own investigation. Concord City Council went on to allow Lennar to be the sole developer to bid on the project, bidding against itself amd eliminating the possibility that a second bidder would demonstrate the poor deal Concord was getting from Lennar. (For example, the Catellus proposal allowed $65M for infrastructure upgrades required just outside the project while Lennar allowed only $15M, a $50M difference that will have to now be made up by Concord taxpayers. Since Lennar was bidding against itself, it offered to give $15M dollars to repair a bridge but then also took $10M away from community benefits. Yet Concord Council still thought choosing Lennar was such a great deal. No wonder there was no PLA specifics in the negotiating agreement since its pretty clear Lennar was in control of the terms here).

        The author also fails to mention the dumpster fire that is Lennar’s shake down of Vallejo at Mare Island. This post is too long already but long story just a little shorter – Vallejo ended up filing bankruptcy while Lennar swiped $900M from CalPERS and was allowed to buy land for pennies on the dollar. No affordable housing has been built yet at this site.

        One could also have mentioned that all of the Lennar executives during the Vallejo bankruptcy moved to Five Point, a company in which holds controlling interest, after Concord gave Lennar the project. Then Five Point began “managing” on behalf of Lennar at Concord. Now Kofi Bonner, one of the executives who moved from Lennar to Five Point, has left Five Point. What are his plans? He has joined up with Willie Brown and Willie’s attorney Steven Kaye to form Shipyard Advisors, a consulting company to “help” cities developing former military bases. Only a complete idiot or corrupt councilmembers would move forward with Lennar. SF and Mission Local can keep Lennar in business themselves – Concord doesn’t need it, there is a better development outcome to be created without it.

        1. You should be more careful throwing around terms such as “disingenuous,” Hope.

          As noted, I’m not going to run interference for Lennar, which does not have a peachy record here. But if you think some other company is going to swoop in and save the day, and if you’re implying that all the numbers are fake and it’s all a conspiracy — and that there was a benevolent megadeveloper who’d have done things right — I think you’re going to be disappointed.

          Yours,

          JE

    2. Lennar has a horrible record of development with many more failures that successes and many lawsuits in their wake.

      In addition the proposed 13,000 homes will cause traffic gridlock on the highways and are located on toxic soil and groundwater contamination sites which the military refused to properly clean up, just like Hunter’s Point, Treasure Island and Hamilton Airfield.

      When the housing is found to be over toxic waste, who will face the cleanup bill? Who will have their residences become valueless because they cannot sell (banks won’t loan on a contaminated site).

      This proposal is and always was a recipe for disaster.

      1. Concord already has gridlock issues from politicians selling out…Concord…as a city to relish…Bart, Parks, traffic, and traffic….try driving up Willow Pass from 3p-6p…Concord politicians are a joke…

  2. Such a joke. This is exhibit A on why Bay Area has an affordability crisis. Unlike the government where unions reign in the private sector the math has to work or there is no incentive to build.

    If the developer pulls out there will be a big backlash. Unions should negotiate the best deal they can, but should get it done.

  3. Examining the Area Plan document, one sees that the vast majority of the developed area is to contain up to 35% detached automobile-dependent single-family housing.

    https://www.concordreuseproject.org/DocumentCenter/View/1105/2012-01-24-CRP-Area-Plan—Book-1-Vision-and-Stand?bidId=

    In this day and age, we should no longer be developing environmentally wasteful, car-centric single-family housing.

    The unions, with their unreasonably demands, may be cutting-of -their-noses-to-spite-their-faces, but the proposed Area Plan should have much greater density (by eliminating detached housing) — which, btw, will improve the economics and make the housing more affordable — across the board.

    1. Right, because stacking housing together so you can hear through the wall what your neighbors are saying or watching on their tv…. of course it should be autocentric, people love their cars, whether gas or electric. packing people in like sardines is not the way to go for new communities.

      1. And also traffic is terrible but somehow no one makes the connection.

        But I’m sure one more freeway lame will solve that problem.

      2. If people don’t want high density housing then the houses wont sell. But tax dollars should not be spent putting BART stations where people are just going to drive anyway.

  4. Hi Joe,

    A correction – Concord does not have two BART lines – it does have two BART stations, however. Thanks for the article.

    1. You’re 100 percent right and I have changed this. Incorrect word choice on my part. Thanks!

      JE

  5. Do say, what is that better development outcome you speak of if the only interested party is stepping down? Maybe the city can step in and build a landfill.

  6. We will all be better off once Lennar exits from this project. First, any actual building is decades away. Second, the land and the housing opportunities will remain, once Lennar and their corrupt MO of doing business are gone.

  7. Thanks for this reporting. I was unable to find any additional information, especially from the Concord City Council (CCC). With so many housing projects getting stopped in the Bay Area, I’d really like to see this one go through. Is this mega project going to die in 9 or 10 days? Seems to me the City should mediate at the late date and help cut the best feasible deal for labor, conditional on Lennar still being willing to go forward.

  8. So if you complain about high housing prices and rising rents, then this is a major disaster…but most progressives don’t see it that way, and thats how they royally screwed up San Francisco and now Oakland.

  9. “… would add more than half a billion dollars”… So What? San Francisco alone spends $240 Million annually on housing and treating homeless citizens… Unfortunately, dealing with homelessness is more profitable than preventing it… Yes, local municipalities are ill-equipped to deal with mega-resourced land developers… That’s why “local control” doesn’t work for such ambitious projects… Heck, state- and federal-level projects are also rife with inefficiencies and low-level graft… It’s the nature of the beast…

  10. As a Concord resident and homeowner located not far from this planned development, I am against this project.
    There are roughly 40,000 housing units in Concord. This development plans to introduce 13,000 more. That is a significant increase that would require significant upgrades to the infrastructure that every elected official seems to forget. The Bay Area has a track record of making decisions without planning out all the implications.
    In addition, there are plenty of open or derelict sites in the downtown district of Concord with existing infrastructure in place: adjacent to super markets, the downtown Concord BART station, and a host of locally run businesses.
    Concord has spent some time developing the Todos Santos park and surrounding area. Concord has really made the town pleasant for people wanting to raise families; most of us had to relocate from SF due to this life decision.
    What Concord doesn’t need is the additional population, congestion and a host of big box stores that are sure to follow (like Super Walmart’s, Targets, etc).
    There is nothing wrong with a 2,500 acre Regional Park in a densely population region for all to enjoy.
    In summary, please feel free to work with the elected officials in SF on brainstorming ways to have more low to middle income housing in San Francisco. Just because they have failed there doesn’t mean we should replicate problems elsewhere.

      1. I have not seen the documents for this project, but traditionally what happens here is that the developer negotiates a break on so-called impact fees. The project goes in, then, lo and behold, the city needs to upgrade a bunch of stuff. Let’s imagine they need a new sewage treatment plant 20 years ahead of schedule.

        Rather then the developer paying for it, and passing those costs on to the new home buyers, the city as a whole pays for the new plant. The people who lived there before, who already paid for their sewage treatment, also get to chip in for sewage treatment for their new neighbors.

        It’s one of a jillion ways developers externalize the true costs of projects like these. It consititutes a transfer of wealth from existing residents into the pockets of new residents and the developer. Expecting the existing residents to be happy about this is absurd.

  11. I’m all for more housing. It’s needed, like, yesterday. But I can’t help but be bothered by the continued insistence that “high-density, BART-adjacent development” means everything will be well and rosy for accomodating additional residents into our transportation infrastructure. BART is not an infinite resource. It’s already stretched to capacity at rush hour, and a new signaling system and new train cars can only add so much capacity (not to mention the more-standing-less-sitting new train cars are pretty awful for long-distance commuters like those from Concord). I dunno, I don’t have a solution, but I just wish we could all recognize BART-adjacent isn’t a magic bullet for the housing crisis, and that we need to come up with transportation solutions in tandem with housing.

  12. As for the Unions, hire me, I am happy to have a good wage and benefits. And I am a skilled tradesman and I will sign a document that I will NOT join any Union for any reason. As for my Union rep, when you come back from vacation, again, why haven’t you found us work?

  13. As someone who has personally spent over a decade of my grassroots work life fighting Lennar’s manipulations of public process to build (or at least pretend to build) luxury condos on former toxic and radioactive Navy bases in the Bayview, and on Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island – someone who is also aware of Lennar’s widespread real estate shenanigans on Mare Island and other decommissioned (and likely toxic) military bases – I can tell you that Lennar, The Navy, Tetra Tech, Shaw Environmental, the San Francisco Dept of Public Health, The San Francisco Planning Commission, The former Redevelopment Commission (now OCII), The California Department of Toxic Substances Control, the California EPA, and the Treasure Island Development Authority have all been as thick as thieves in deep corruption *together* working to screw over the public and our communities for these bogus projects – most of which will be swamped by sea level rise and thereby made into total boondoggles within the next 50 years – while the people of the Bay Area pay the cost, and Lennar runs away with Federal Reserve funded stock bailouts. The whole process is rotten to the core, and good riddance, and good for our communities if labor puts a stop to it all.

    Eric Brooks
    Campaign Coordinator
    Our City SF
    http://our-city.org/campaigns/AntiToxicDevelopment.html

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