The Navy is poised to relinquish about 5,200 acres within the Concord city limits. The prospect of so much land becoming available in an area where real estate is at a premium excites city officials, developers, environmentalists and city residents, all of whom have at least slightly different visions for the property.
Currently, however, everyone’s vision is clouded by a controversial proposal from the Navy to transfer the territory to Shaw Environmental & Infrastructure, Inc., a Virginia-based military contractor. In exchange for the acreage, Shaw would provide the Navy with an as-yet unspecified amount of “engineering, design, procurement and construction of mission facilities, housing and infrastructure both nationally and internationally,” according to Shaw’s proposal.
The Navy has never attempted such a transfer of an old base but told the City of Concord in November that a transfer is under consideration. The news infuriated city officials, who contend that a transfer at this time would skew the planning process.
Congress put the “inland” 5,200 acres of the Concord Naval Weapons Station on the base closure list in 2005. (A discontiguous 7,000 waterfront acres several miles north is not slated for closure.) City officials did not expect to get the keys to the inland property: That style of base reuse has faded. These days, the military often auctions at least some of its surplus land to the highest bidder, as it did with former Marine Corps bases in Irvine and Tustin. But the auctions have been conducted after local jurisdictions completed their planning process for the old bases. Thus, buyers have a pretty good idea of what they’ll be allowed to develop and what will be required of them.
Handing the base to Shaw now would create a “developer-driven process,” said Jim Forsberg, director of planning, economic development and housing for Concord. “It gives the developer a lot more sway,” he asserted. Shaw has declined to comment publicly about its proposal.
The Navy was scheduled to decide how to proceed in December but pushed its deadline back to January 20, although further delays are possible. “Right now, we’re still consulting with Concord on it,” said Jill Votaw, a spokeswoman for the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) program management office in San Diego. Legal authority for the proposed exchange is new with the latest round of BRAC and has been used only by the Army for some small assets.
“This is an unsolicited proposal from Shaw. We’re really in uncharted waters here,” Votaw said. “We might go back to Shaw and say thank you, but no thank you.”
Concord is pressing hard for the Navy to do just that.
“We view the exchange authority as another potential tool to be evaluated as part of the overall disposition plan for implementation after the reuse plan has been adopted, not a convenient loophole allowing the Navy to bypass the BRAC process entirely,” Mayor Susan Bonilla wrote to Wayne Arny, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Navy. “By attempting to circumvent a community-driven planning process in favor of a developer-driven process, the Navy would reduce chances for community acceptance of any resulting development proposal and commensurately increase the risk of legal challenges and ballot initiatives.”
Navy officials protest that the early exchange would not necessarily harm the reuse process. “This proposal does not change the city’s roles and responsibilities to plan, zone and entitle property,” John Hill, the Navy’s base closure manager for the Concord site, told the Contra Costa Times.
The city may have political momentum on its side. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, and Reps. Ellen Tauscher (D-Alamo) and George Miller (D-Martinez) signed a letter to Arny asking that he “not select disposition methods until the reuse plan is complete.” Notably, Miller is a key ally of incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
While the Navy is deciding what to do, the city is proceeding as if the military will surplus the land under the normal BRAC process. The declaration of surplus would trigger a prescriptive reuse process that includes preparation of a reuse plan, an evaluation of the site for homeless services, and environmental reviews, said Michael Wright, the city’s project manager.
The city has hired a consulting team headed by Arup, and a 21-member citizens advisory commission began meeting in December. “We’re starting off into our planning process as if the Navy is going to eventually get around to surplussing the land,” Wright said.
This actually will be the city’s second attempt at planning the site, which comprises about one-quarter of the 31-square-mile city.
“We were the only city in the country asking the military to close a base,” Forsberg recalled. “It was 5,000 acres just sitting there. It’s been de facto closed for years.” The city saw development of the property as a way to meet regional housing mandates and entice economic development, which the city leaders consider essential because the city gets only 8% of the property tax.
When the city updated its general plan a few years ago, the city designated half of the area for 13,000 housing units and 15,000 jobs, while setting aside the other half for parks and open space. “Nobody paid any attention to it because nobody believed the base would close,” Forsberg said. The City Council endorsed the plan, but when the base appeared on the closure list in 2005, “everybody freaked,” Forsberg said. The City Council yanked the base out of the general plan update in May 2006.
The city at that point started a new planning process focused solely on the base. The initial result was an ill-defined vision for a “world class” plan that is economically sustainable, has a balance of uses, and maintains the community’s quality of life. In other words, the hard decisions about reuse are a ways off. Environmentalists have talked of devoting most of the base to open space, parks and wildlife habitat, while developers in a region of $600,000 houses have other ideas. City officials make clear they want to generate new tax revenue.
Opening up the base to development presents Concord with a new planning opportunity, Forsberg said. The 102-year-old city of 125,000 people has not had large development sites for many years, he explained. An available 5,000 acres on the edge of town would make Concord more like a peripheral suburb.
“It looks like greenfields, and it looks like brownfields. It gives us a much broader canvas on which to paint,” he said.
Michael Wright, City of Concord base reuse project manager, (925) 671-3019.
Jim Forsberg, Concord Department of Planning, Economic Development and Housing, (925) 671-3383.
Base Realignment and Closure program administrative office, (619) 532-0900.