Effort launched to remove Seeno Companies’ grip on major Concord housing development plan
SiliconValley.com, by Shomik Mukherjee, September 29, 2021
In response to the Concord City Council’s decision last month to negotiate exclusively with the controversial Seeno Companies and its affiliated developers to oversee one of the East Bay’s biggest housing projects in recent history, Seeno’s longtime foes are launching a two-pronged effort to sway the council to reconsider.
Notorious for playing hardball with local governments and environmental groups, family-run real estate developer Seeno and its associated companies won the council’s approval for a shot at possibly becoming the master developer of the former Concord Naval Weapons Station. Discovery Builders, which was established by a Seeno family member, is listed as the group’s lead company.
The grassroots Concord Communities Alliance is circulating an online petition that so far has collected 1,300 signatures urging the council to revisit its 3-2 vote. Meanwhile, a member of the Democratic Party of Contra Costa County has written a resolution formally opposing the council’s decision and asked the party to throw its political weight behind a formal protest.
But the opposition will have to move swiftly if it’s going to sink the arrangement. Concord Economic Development Director Guy Bjerke said Tuesday his goal is to finish negotiations by late October. After that, the council could make Discovery Builders the project’s official master developer.
The stakes are high. The master developer would implement the city’s vision for 13,000 new homes and millions of square feet of office and commercial space — in essence, a new community — on the former naval weapons site.
Discovery Builders had previously sued the Navy to stop the project when it was in the hands of another developer.
Now the company, headquartered in Concord near the site of the proposed development, is poised to be in the driver’s seat to oversee that very project.
The resolution by Democratic Party secretary Kenji Yamada blasts Seeno for a “history of bad faith and unethical behavior,” suggesting the company’s negotiations with the city will either end in turmoil or lead to “poor-quality homes and environmental destruction.”
The resolution is currently being reviewed by the party’s “issues” subcommittees and could appear before its central committee for consideration in October. Yamada, who also is a member of the party’s executive committee, says he wrote the resolution as an individual.
“I was surprised that they were selected, not so much because of their atrocious record of ethical violations, but because the name of Seeno is so notorious among residents and constituents of the City Council that I didn’t think the council would dare to select them,” said Yamada, who ran unsuccessfully for the council in 2018.
The development partners, which include Lewis Planned Communities and California Capital Investment Group as well as Seeno and Discovery, released a statement saying they were “extremely honored and proud” to be selected for the project.
“We look forward to working with the City of Concord and the Concord community to design and develop a first class project that the entire region can all be proud of,” Louis Parsons of Discovery Builders said in an emailed statement.
Former council member Colleen Coll said Seeno has a reputation of running roughshod over any obstacles to its desired developments.
“They don’t disclose their financials, the rules don’t matter to them — none,” said Coll, who served on the council in the 1980s.
Though vilified by environmental groups and others, Discovery and Seeno also have their backers, including labor unions. Well before the council vote, they had secured a project labor agreement with the building and trades union, which guarantees that construction jobs will go to union members. The site’s previous master developer walked away from the project after refusing to sign such an agreement.
The three council members who voted to award the exclusive negotiating agreement last month to the Discovery/Seeno team dismiss the criticisms leveled at Seeno.
“The art of diplomacy and negotiations seems to have a very slow learning curve in a state where 20% of the country’s lawyers live,” Councilman Edi Birsan said in an email addressing Seeno’s long history of litigation.
Seeno sued the Navy in 2018 to stop it from transferring the weapons site to Concord, claiming the influx of new homes would result in traffic gridlock. Last year, Discovery Builders sued the East Bay Regional Park District to prevent it from acquiring adjacent Navy-owned land for the establishment of new parkland.
Discovery Builders claimed the park district did not do a “sufficient environmental review” of the planned park’s impacts on the surrounding environment.
But East Bay environmental groups say Seeno’s track record shows it’s no friend of the environment.
Save Mount Diablo, which advocates for conservation of open space and natural lands, lists on its website a timeline of news reports detailing past criticisms of Seeno.
“There are clear ethical and environmental violations,” said Zoe Siegel of San Francisco-based Greenbelt Alliance.
It’s unclear what impact the petition or the party resolution would have on the council’s decision-making.
Kathy Gleason, a Concord resident since 1974 and a fierce opponent of Seeno’s selection, said she doubts the opposition will succeed in changing the council’s mind but she hopes it’ll at least serve as notice.
“It seems, the way we exist today, that if the public speaks up loud enough and long enough, maybe we’ll get change,” Gleason said.