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Citing wages and affordability, Concord rejects development of prime downtown parcel

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A proposal to develop a prime downtown parcel just blocks from Concord BART with a mix of housing and retail was voted down by the Concord City Council Tuesday night.

Every councilmember and the mayor expressed desire to develop the space at 1765 Galindo Street, but they collectively questioned, “At what cost?” In the end, the city chose to prioritize union labor and affordable housing over promised cash payments developer AvalonBay Communities had offered.

The developer had brought back a plan to build 310 units of housing and 6,500 square feet of retail on a three-acre downtown parcel dubbed the “white picket fence” lot. A Masonic Temple once stood on the land before the whole building was literally moved to another location in 2013. The property has been a dirt plot bordered by a white picket fence since.

After two years of discussion and proposals, Nathan Hong of AvalonBay presented yet another revised plan that threw a potential $1.1 million into the city’s community benefit fund but failed to meet the 15 percent prevailing wage Project Labor Agreement the council asked them to consider at the last hearing.

The parcel sits three blocks from Concord BART and two blocks from the city’s central square at Todos Santos Plaza. The plaza is a vibrant area, home to restaurants and pubs and surrounding a park with a stage that hosts farmer’s markets, kid and beer fests alike.

In other words, AvalonBay was about to score the development deal of the century — until they didn’t.

Nik Wojcik/SFBay A sketch of AvalonBay Communities proposal for a three-acre parcel on Galindo Street is seen during a Concord City Council meeting in Concord, Calif., April 8, 2019.

Hong said:

This development for us has always been tight. … We are coming up with our own creative design and program solutions to make it work as a market-rate deal … there’s no room to absorb the PLA workforce agreement.”

AvalonBay had proposed eliminating five planned low-income affordable housing units and reducing retail space in exchange for monetary contributions to the city. Another workaround to the prevailing wage request was to offer to contribute 15 percent of total construction cost at the project’s completion. Neither of these solutions sat right with councilmembers Tuesday.

Councilmember Tim McGallian was “troubled” by the developer’s inability to meet the prevailing wage mark and expressed further concern about a “division of labor” sowed throughout the long proposal process, further noting such division only serves to benefit the developer.

On one side of the chamber, backed by a group of about 25 members of the organization Carpenters in Action, was a developer who wanted nothing more than to advance a project years into negotiations. On the other side sat members of trade unions representing plumbers, steamfitters and electricians.

Nik Wojcik/SFBay Members of Carpenters in Action stand to support the AvalonBay Communities development proposal at a City Council hearing in Concord, Calif., April 8, 2019.

The city council sat in the referee’s seat, attempting to balance housing and development priorities against needs of working-class residents and local craftspeople. They sat and attentively listened to both sides.

Dan Sherman of Concord stepped up the podium during public comment to speak as a member of Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 159. His voice and hands shaky, Sherman thanked the council for sticking up for Concord’s working families, reading from prepared comments:

“We’re here today because this developer is not willing to do what developers in Richmond, Walnut Creek, El Cerrito, Pittsburg, Antioch …and other Contra Costa communities have done. Residential developers are making those communities better by providing local jobs, apprenticeship opportunities and working-class wages.”

Sherman continued:

“What’s being offered does not meet the expectations you have set.”

The counterargument came from carpenter Patrick Dennis, speaking on behalf of Carpenters In Action, asking his “brothers and sisters” of CIA to stand in a show of support. The large group of men and women, most wearing work clothes and high visibility vests rose in solidarity as Dennis urged the council to approve the deal “because carpenters need work”:

“As a resident of Concord, I would like to speak in favor of the project because we don’t have enough housing. … We have enough strip malls. We have enough auto dealers in Concord, I think. But affordable housing is a supply and demand issue.”

The urgent need for affordable housing, and what constitutes “affordable” in the Bay Area, demands an urgent response. However, Concord resident George Fulmore, 76, argued that the availability of housing is not the immediate problem:

“I would like to challenge first that idea that we don’t have enough housing in Concord. .. We have enough housing if you can afford it. There are hundreds of apartments or houses available right now in Concord for rent but a lot of people in Concord can’t afford them. So, this property and this proposal brings more units to the market that most people in Concord can’t afford.”

Nik Wojcik/SFBay Nathan Hong of AvalonBay Communities sits in the City Council chamber during public comments about the proposed development on Galindo Street in Concord, Calif., April 8, 2019.

Each council member and the mayor withheld support for a project they would in actuality prefer to see completed, although Councilmember Laura Hoffmeister was reluctantly leaning toward approval until the bitter end. Each gave their own given reasons for the rejection, but they collectively agreed that a local labor workforce agreement and affordable housing units need to be incorporated into future plans.

Councilmember Dominic Aliano did not mince words:

“The community benefit is too little, too late. The $650,000 community benefit is not enough to answer the needs of the affordability crisis. We need units that are identified as affordable, plus there’s not enough local hire proposed.”

Councilmember and former Mayor Edi Birsan used his speaking time to celebrate unions and the important role local trade professionals play:

“This is our town. … We should build it together.”

Birsan continued:

“This is public property. It has to provide a public benefit and sometimes we have to hold the line on a couple of things: for quality jobs for people, all our people and for all our workers. I believe that this can still be done…that maybe we have to go back to a (request for proposal) and remind everyone involved that we’re in it together for a quality project that benefits Concord, and that’s what I’d like to see.”

In a unanimous vote, members of the council voted Tuesday to hold the line.

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