How the Bay Area’s biggest housing development fell apart in 2020

“Concord is effectively built out,” says Guy Bjerke, Concord’s director of community reuse planning. “We’re fooling around with some parcels downtown, and there is some ability to redevelop, but there isn’t a lot of green field development going on. This base provides the best opportunity [to hit major housing goals].”

It’s perhaps the only opportunity.

3e5cd 1200x0 How the Bay Area’s biggest housing development fell apart in 2020

View of the giant cranes used for loading and unloading ships along the tidal area of the Concord Naval Weapons Station.

Kim Kulish/Corbis via Getty Images

The weapons station is a Superfund site, and efforts to clean up toxic leftovers from its decades of service as a munitions depot have lasted nearly 40 years. Even so, the city hopes to eventually create 13,000 new homes here (equivalent to 28% of the 46,500 homes Concord had in 2019), with a quarter of them priced as below-market-rate housing, plus 2,700 acres of parkland and 6 million square feet of commercial space.

That’s bigger than any other single Bay Area development — so big that its gravity would affect housing pressures across the entire region. And Concord needs those homes; the Association of Bay Area Governments estimates that in 2017 (still the latest year for which estimates are available) the city had met just 4% of its 2023 regional housing needs.

Omnipresent Miami-based developer Lennar, the same company overseeing San Francisco’s Treasure Island and Hunters Point redevelopments, was supposed to build phase one of the project, a 500-acre proposal for 4,400 homes.

It was a deal years in the making — and months in unmaking, as last-minute negotiations between the developer and labor unions scuttled the whole thing. In March of 2020, days before life as we know it in the Bay Area froze over, the Concord City Council effectively voted to kibosh the Lennar agreement. “It felt kind of like we were dating, and [going ahead] would have meant marriage, and the majority of the council felt like it wasn’t working out,” Concord’s Vice Mayor Dominic Aliano says.

The vote yielded outrage from housing hawks, but councilmembers felt the developer didn’t care enough. Bill Whitney, CEO of the Contra Costa Building and Construction Trades Council, the union league negotiating with Lennar at the time, dismisses the company as “a bunch of Miami suits.” A Lennar spokesperson declined to comment for this story.

3e5cd 1200x0 How the Bay Area’s biggest housing development fell apart in 2020

View of “Blast Area” sign on an unused facility on the inland area of the Concord Naval Weapons Station.

Kim Kulish/Corbis via Getty Images

This would have been controversial at the best of times, but 2020 turned out to be hardly the best of times. Although this puts Concord in a singular position right now, the larger problems the city faces are not necessarily unique. Lots of Bay Area cities, San Francisco included, are balancing their housing goals on a handful of megadevelopments. Just in San Francisco, “major multi-phase projects” amount to more than 30,000 planned homes.

But megadevelopments are an exercise in competing priorities. “There is a real mismatch between what a local jurisdiction wants and what a developer wants,” says Debra Ballinger, director of the East Bay housing advocacy group Monument Impact.

Cities look at massive projects like piñatas full of affordable housing and amenities; developers, on the other hand, are in it for market-rate homes and commercial spaces that pad their profits. When these goals conflict, the strain can sink a development — and a city’s housing futures.

So if Concord in 2020 served as a regional example of how megadevelopment goes wrong, what can the city do in 2021 to right the ship again? In a November memo to the city, Bjerke noted that the financial risk is too great for the city to act as its own master developer. After consulting 15 different companies, Bjerke noted that many showed interest in the site and most “viewed the pandemic as having a temporary impact on the market,” but also that “access to the scale of capital required [...] is somewhat limited right now” and “uncertainties” can throw a scare into developer ambitions.

Housing advocates, still stung from last year’s breakdown, sound despondent about the future. “My husband and I joke that we won’t see anything in our lifetime,” says Ballinger.

“I don’t think they would have walked away” if they’d known the scale of the crisis brewing, says William Goodman, an organizer with the housing group Hope Solutions. “There were jobs, there was housing, there was a lot of land; we had a pot of gold.”

And some are still angry. “It’s inconceivable to me that a group of five council people can kill a project of regional significance with one vote,” says an East Bay housing advocate who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of jeopardizing future work. (Granted in accordance with our ethics policy.) “Now we have a soft market, and who would trust the city after this?”

But the city and labor interests sound bullish, insisting that they can still deliver on the promise of 12,000-13,000 units, 25 percent affordable housing, and 100 percent union labor, even despite the downturn.

“This is a 30-plus year project; time is on our side,” says Whitney. What the economy is like right now matters relatively little for a decadeslong plan that assumed a recession would come along eventually, he argues. Even now he says he wouldn’t go back to the Lennar deal.

Concord Mayor Tim McGallian calls the recession a “stress test” for potential new developers, and says that anyone scared off “might not have been qualified to be master developer.”

He remains confident on the housing numbers but does hedge that not everything from past plans may appear again down the line. “We all went into this blind,” he says. “We asked for this huge laundry list of things, but nobody added column A to column B.”

The recession has eased some of the pressures of the housing crisis this year, but if economies bounce back that letup won’t last forever.

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