A proposal to close Buchanan Field airport in Concord to allow development of housing, public facilities and other urban uses has divided two of Contra Costa County’s largest developers. The proposal also appears to be dividing the county, which owns and operates the airport, and the City of Concord, in whose sphere of influence the airport lies.

On opposite sides of the issue are Shapell Industries and Seeno Construction. Shapell has expressed an interest in developing the airport site; Seeno opposes the idea, in part because the company has developed more than a 1 million square feet of office space along the I-680 corridor, near the airport. Tenants see the airport as a local asset, according to Seeno.

Everyone involved agrees that the airport’s status will not change anytime soon. Shutting down the airport requires approval of the Federal Aviation Administration, which would allow the closure only if it were part of a plan to enhance regional aviation. The early proposal is for the county to greatly enhance the Byron Airport roughly 30 miles to the east and possibly build a new facility elsewhere. Even so, no one believes that it will be easy to convince the FAA, which can be very protective of urban airstrips.

In December, the Board of Supervisors directed a team of staff members to prepare a request for proposals. Supervisors are scheduled to consider the RFP, which is still being written, in April. The RFP will likely ask respondents to explain how they would develop the site, how they would pay back past federal aviation grants, how they would provide for aviation needs, and how they would make every party fiscally whole, said Patrick Roche, a principle planner for the county.

Supervisors allocated $50,000 from a developer-funded, long-term planning account to pay for the initial RFP process and background work. Simultaneously, the county is updating its airport master plan.

Buchanan Field’s location is driving the discussion. A former World War II facility that the county acquired in 1947, the 500-acre airport is surrounded by urban development in thriving central Contra Costa County. Supervisor Mark DeSaulnier says that the county should consider using the site to help satisfy the area’s intense demand for housing. The site is surrounded by freeways, is near an existing BART line and is within a few miles of job centers in Concord, Pleasant Hill and Walnut Creek. Plus, expanding the airport is probably not realistic because of the adjacent development, DeSaulnier and others say.

"It’s 500 acres in the middle of this fast-growing region," said Roche. "I think a lot of people are asking if this [airport] is the highest and best use of the land. There is a sense that this airport is limited to general aviation use and a limited amount of commercial use."

Buchanan Field has not had commercial passenger service since the early 1990s, and there are doubts about whether passenger service would ever be practical in the future, Roche said. As of now, Buchanan provides mostly for general aviation and corporate air travel.

Another consideration is safety. During the 1985 Christmas shopping season, a twin-engine plane flying in foggy conditions crashed into Sun Valley Mall — located only about one mile from a Buchanan runway. The crash killed seven people, including four mall patrons, and seriously injured 17 other people.

Shapell Industries Vice President Tom Koche said the company has begun background work in preparation for responding to the RFP. "At this point, we’re enthusiastic about considering the site," Koche said, noting the unique nature of a flat, 500-acre infill site in central Contra Costa County.

"It’s a great opportunity to do a lot of things the planning community and the environmental community have tried to do with regard to redirecting the housing growth," Koche said. A project would amount to infill on a brownfield site near numerous modes of transportation, he noted. "We’re clearly not meeting the [housing] demand, especially at the affordable end of the spectrum," he said.

DeSaulnier in particular has emphasized the possibility of extensive affordable housing development on the airport site. For decades, the suburbs of central and eastern Contra Costa County offered some of the Bay Area’s least expensive real estate. However, the county’s median home price has reached nearly $400,000 — and the central part of the county is often more expensive yet. The National Low-Income Housing Coalition now ranks Contra Costa as the sixth most unaffordable county in the United States.

Still, warned Koche, the Buchanan Field project would involve far more than simply closing the airport and building houses. Developers and the county would have to ensure there are no losers, meaning that improved airport facilities would have to be provided somewhere.

Opponents of closing Buchanan say there is no way to provide those facilities, so the county should expend its affordable housing efforts elsewhere.

"Even if this were a good idea, it’s not going to happen," said Rick Norris, of Walnut Creek’s Archer Norris and an attorney for Seeno Construction.

Buchanan’s location is not as bad for an airport as detractors contend, Norris said. The area usually has fine flying weather, while Byron is located on the edge of the Central Valley and frequently has wintertime fog. Plus, Norris said, Buchanan would be ideal for NASA’s proposed Small Aircraft Transportation System — a nationwide air taxi service that would provide direct, on-demand flights between most public-use airports in the country — because of the nearby concentration of offices. Byron is distant from the county’s existing center of commerce.

Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Nicholas Virgallito said that a survey of members found 90% support for maintaining Buchanan.

"I’ve had nothing but positive comments [about the airport]", Virgallito said. "It brings business to the city and the county. It enhances the ability of some of our businesses to lease their buildings."

Additionally, say airport backers, the facility is handy during emergencies and for transport of medical supplies. The county’s focus should be on enhancing Buchanan and bringing back passenger service, Virgallito said. "Workforce housing is very important, but not at that location," he said.

Norris and others say the county should restart its efforts to get control of portions of the Concord Naval Weapons Station to allow for housing development. The military owns thousands of acres of grasslands at the lightly used facility, and local officials for years have tried — unsuccessfully — to get the military to release some of the property to accommodate urban development.

The City of Concord has not taken an official position on the Buchanan proposal. However, during a presentation by DeSaulnier in January, members of the City Council said they want to keep Buchanan Field open. Concord Planning Manager Deborah Raines said she was unsure exactly where her city and the nearby cities of Pleasant Hill and Martinez fit into the county’s process. Because Buchanan Field is in Concord’s sphere of influence, the assumption is that the city would annex new development.

But while there is obvious support for keeping Buchanan open, DeSaulnier and others contend that the facility is underperforming and that the number of people who benefit from corporate air service there is limited. And, because of budget and site constraints, there is no reason to believe Buchanan’s situation will change in the foreseeable future. Development of the site could potentially generate a large amount of money for the county to invest in more strategic air facilities.

Shapell’s Koche declined to speculate how much Buchanan’s real estate might be worth, but he said it would be a large amount, even considering the risks associated with a 60-year-old airport site.

Seeno’s Norris, however, said those risks should not be understated. The site, like any old airport, is very likely to have contamination, he said. Plus, the county or developers would have to buy out all existing leases and put a substantial amount of money into extending infrastructure. In the end, there might not be much money left for new air facilities, Norris warned.

The issues Norris raises are exactly the sort of questions that RFP responses might answer. That RFP could hit the streets as early as this spring.

Patrick Roche, Contra Costa County advance planning division, (925) 335-1242.
Office Supervisor Mark DeSaulnier, (925) 646-5763.
Rick Norris, Seeno Construction attorney, (925) 930-6600.
Tom Koche, Shapell Industries, (408) 946-1550.
Nicholas Virgallito, Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce, (925) 685-1181.
Deborah Raines, Concord Planning Department, (925) 671-3369.