Benicia moving to build apartment complexes on historic land in the Benicia Arsenal
Letter by Kathryn Reiss and Tom Strychacz of Benicia, July 20, 2022
[Editor: see additional supporting documentation below. – R.S.]
We are 25-year residents of Jefferson Street, and we are extremely concerned about two large apartment complexes threatening Officer’s Row in the Historic Benicia Arsenal. The city intends to develop two sites on our street—yet both sites of these planned developments are on the National Historic Register of Places, and as such are not projects that should be part of SB35. The city has a charge to protect the Historic Arsenal and Officer’s Row, and NOT throw it under the bus in its quest to provide much-needed affordable housing. We request that the Historic Benicia Arsenal in its entirety be removed from Housing Element Opportunity listings, and we hope that other residents of Benicia will write to the city to make their views known. These protected lands of national historical significance should not be part of SB35 development, and the city has a duty to protect the area.
- “1451 Park” is a project on the corner of Jefferson and Park that intends to build several large three-story apartment buildings on a lot where the army’s Officer’s Club once stood. The current plan is not in keeping with the scale and appearance of the existing homes on Jefferson Street. There is room for 4 or 5 cottages on the 1451 Park plot, if designed to be in scale and appearance with the existing homes. It would be excellent if homes on this lot truly were all affordable housing. Additionally, there must be a safety setback from Park, which is a busy road with truck traffic whizzing through the industrial park.
Why cottages, front porches and picket fences? Because this “Officers’ Row” is a beautiful street of carefully maintained and preserved historical homes from the mid-19th century and is a treasure for our city. The homes are frequently featured in the city’s Historical Homes tours. The street has been used in television commercials. It is considered a special street, and one that our City Conservation Plan vows to protect and conserve.
Therefore, ANY new construction must fit in appearance with the historic homes already on Jefferson Street—just as the new-builds constructed in the 1980s were designed to fit in seamlessly among the 19th century homes. Residents on Jefferson Street, whether living in a 19th or 20th century home, have been under the restrictions and guidelines of the Historic Preservation/ Historical District plan when making any changes or updates to our properties. The city has been quite strict in enforcing the guidelines—rightfully so—in order to preserve the integrity of this Historic district. So the city needs to be equally stringent in any new development.
Thus, any new development on 1451 Park must respect the integrity of our city’s Conservation Plan, while still providing several affordable homes in the beautiful historic Arsenal neighborhood. The new builds must fit in rather than stand out like the proverbial sore thumbs. The east side of town already has many townhouses, condos and apartment buildings — and other areas of Benicia need to absorb their fair share rather than transgress on historic Jefferson Street.
- “Jefferson Ridge” is a project slated for the second block of Officer’s Row—Jefferson Street—on the undeveloped land adjoining and across from three 19th Century Mansions. These were the homes of the highest-ranking military officers and–continuing along the street–the impressive Commanding Officer’s Mansion. The Clock Tower at Johansson Square completes this collection of magnificent historic buildings.
This collection of buildings atop rolling hills and affording views over the Carquinez Strait is the only property of its kind in the state of California. It is considered of value to the entire United States—having earned its place on the National Register of Historic Places as a Civil War Era relic of national importance. Benicia has a responsibility to protect it. We urge the city to research and consider other spaces for the necessary affordable housing required by SB35 without ruining forever the historic lands already on the National Register. The protection of the Historic Benicia Arsenal is not only a city issue; it is a state and national issue.
Rather than build on this land with its sweeping views of the hills, the port, and the Carquinez Strait, we request that the city turn it into a much-needed east-side park. Its open spaces were once enjoyed by countless visitors and dignitaries—even President Ulysses S. Grant– and it should continue to be enjoyed that way by future generations. Families living on this under-served side of town deserve a beautiful park—one for all residents of our city to enjoy. What a draw such a park would be for out-of-town day-trippers as well, who would then stay to dine at First Street restaurants and shop at First Street shops.
Even without a proper city park on this side of town, the Benicia Arsenal land has already become a de facto park for the lower east side. Picnickers, dog-walkers, bike riders make daily use of the land. Wedding photographers are often seen staging shots with the imposing Clock Tower and elegant Commanding Officer’s mansion in the background. The Jefferson Street Mansion is a popular wedding venue that would be put out of business entirely if the land around it were to become a high-density apartment complex housing hundreds of residents.
Additionally, the ten-fold increase in traffic and parking will cause mayhem and safety concerns for the narrow streets in the area. And the water needed for such a high-density development draws on resources California simply does not have.
To conclude: There is a time and a place for affordable housing—and though the time is now, the place cannot be the Historic Benicia Arsenal. Other areas of town can and must be found for development, and there are many areas that would serve without ruining forever our city’s Civil War Era gem of national significance. The city of Benicia should stand as stewards for our historical treasures—not allow them to be lost forever.
Losing such an irreplaceable resource causes irreparable harm. There is no going back once historic lands are developed. Therefore, we fervently ask that 1451 Park be developed in keeping with the other houses on Jefferson Street, and we ask that Jefferson Ridge be preserved as an east-side park where our city’s heritage is honored and where all residents can enjoy the special beauty of a bygone era.
Kathryn Reiss and Tom Strychacz
Kathryn Reiss is a Benicia author. See her online presence at https://www.kathrynreiss.net/
Tom Strychacz is a Benicia artist. See his online presence at https://www.tomstrychaczart.com/
Documents opposing the development, by Marilyn Bardet
City of Benicia documents