Category Archives: Benicia General Plan

Elizabeth Patterson: Do you support sustainable development?

Elizabeth Patterson, Benicia Mayor 2007–2020.

By Elizabeth Patterson, first published in the Benicia Herald on May 17, 2024

What is sustainable development?

Sustainable development has become a popular planning expression used abundantly but often not understood. “Sustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Benicia General Plan, 1999).

Most of us get that we need to reduce greenhouse gases that drive climate change and increase climate instability; in short, stop adding carbon to the atmosphere.  The state has attempted to achieve this by adopting law to reduce vehicle miles traveled.  This makes sense because 40% of carbon is from transportation, and so far there are not enough electric vehicles to drive down the amount of carbon from transportation.

If you support sustainable development, it is helpful to ask questions about the City of Benicia’s projects and processes.  To what extent are the City’s decisions reducing greenhouse gases, or at least not increasing greenhouse gases?  Everything is connected – economics, public works, land use, recreation, culture – like bones in a skeleton – it all has to work together by connecting the dots.

The first dot is, fortunately, defined in the Benicia General Plan.  General Plans are the constitution of land-use planning.  Like the U.S. Constitution, one cannot just have an idea and expect to implement it without an assessment of its consistency with the General Plan and thus its “sustainability.”

It is not advice, it is the law.  Community development and sustainability are at the heart of the goals developed in the Benicia General Plan.  I have heard from time to time that the General Plan is old – it is – and out of date – not really.  Would a new, updated General Plan delete sustainable development?  Anything could happen I suppose – one needs to stay alert.

The second dot is that the Benicia General Plan is the principal policy document for guiding future conservation and development in the city. It reflects the community’s shared values and determination of what Benicia is and should continue to be ­– an uncommonly special place.  Just a quick read of the city-adopted Downtown Conservation Plan reveals how “uncommon” it is:

“The failure of the various attempts in the 19th century to transform Benicia into a major city has resulted in the retention of the scale and character of the historic downtown, which presents a rare view of the evolution of architecture from the mid-19th century to the 20th century in California.”

This means that one should not destroy the “evolution of architecture.”  Goals expressed by city officials at public meetings to be like American Canyon’s “hotel row” is not protecting the gem of the uncommon qualities of Benicia attracting residents, visitors, and businesses.

The third dot to connect is the public process.  You really ought to read about the public process involved developing the General Plan: start at page two here.  People were engaged, met together, received mailed surveys, and we even had help from University of California at Davis for outreach, especially to young people.

Want to know what young people wanted?  Check it out at the link. The General Plan is the outcome of a process which began with the General Plan Oversight Committee (GPOC) and the Work Program (1994–1997). It is a process in which the GPOC held more than one hundred meetings and, with public participation, identified the Goals, Policies, and Programs (GPPs) which are the heart of the General Plan.

The GPOC survey identified the following 10 issues receiving the highest level of support (69% or greater) as being important to the community:

    1. Feeling safe in residential areas at night
    2. Feeling safe Downtown at night [ed: this is before tree lights and mixed-use development in the early 2000s]
    3. Good public schools
    4. Balance growth to ensure maintaining Benicia’s quality of life
    5. Small town atmosphere
    6. Growth should maintain small-town character
    7. Citizens need a voice in growth decisions
    8. Attract businesses that sustain environmental quality
    9. Pedestrian-friendly streets in the Downtown and other commercial areas
    10. Library facilities

The fourth connecting dot is that while the City may decide to amend this plan, the primary position of the City will be to implement it as adopted. This will honor both the principle of stability and the extraordinary degree of community participation that went into the formation of the plan. In short, is the General Plan still in step with community values and conditions, to wit: sustainable development, reducing our carbon footprint for future generations’ quality of life?

The last dot to connect is the so-called Seeno project at Lake Herman Road and East Second.  If we are going to reduce vehicle-miles traveled, do we build the stuff that has been built over decades for car-centric development?  Or do we avoid business as usual and design and build projects that are walkable, clearly reducing the need for increasing vehicle miles travelled?

It is a simple question. Think of roads as bones.  The bones tell us how we move.

Remember Lucy, Australopithecus, discovery by Donald Johanson?  Lucy represents the transition from walking on four feet to walking on two feet by standing up.  Bones tell it all.

Well, the roads of development are exactly the same:  are we going to drive or walk?  The transportation  road design of any project will make that clear. Business as usual or taking the path for future generations to have a livable community and planet?

Here are three planning principles for walkability:

  1. Don’t cluster commercial development in one blob,
  2. Do integrated commercial in workplaces and near residential areas within walking distance, and
  3. Don’t build suburban sprawl.

Watch the decisions about projects and you will learn if we are meeting the vision of sustainable development.  God help us if we are not.

Elizabeth Patterson, MA Urban and Regional Planning
Mayor (2007-2020)

Benicia Historical Society Seeks Public Input on First St. Height Limits at March 5 City Council Meeting

[Note from BenIndy: The comment the BenIndy received from the person who forwarded this Benicia Historical Society message was, “Our historic protections are unraveling right before our eyes. Are we the next American Canyon?” If you would like to participate in the March 5 Benicia City Council Meeting either to register your opposition or support to increasing the height limit in our Historic Downtown to four stories to allow for hotel development, instructions for accessing that meeting are available at the end of this post. The BenIndy is not affiliated with the Benicia Historical Society and they did not ask us to share their email communication to their supporters; we were forwarded the message by a follower of these developments and we share it to alert our community so they can participate in the public process. Emphases in this message were added by BenIndy.]

The Benicia Planning Commission is considering amending the development standards in the Town Core Zone in the Downtown Mixed Use Master Plan (DMUMP) to allow a height of up to four stories (50 feet) with a use permit. The Planning Commission did not adopt the proposed amendment and recommended that the City Council direct staff to conduct public outreach on this important issue. | message.

Message from Benicia Historical Society:

On February 7, 2024 the Benicia Herald printed an Op-Ed from the Benicia Historical Society on the proposed building height increase in Downtown Benicia. The Benicia Planning Commission on February 8, 2024 considered amending the development standards in the Town Core Zone in the Downtown Mixed Use Master Plan (DMUMP) to allow a height of up to four stories (50 feet) with a use permit. The Planning Commission did not adopt the proposed amendment and recommended that the City Council direct staff to conduct public outreach on this important issue.

We would like to thank the dozens of people who attended the meeting in person and Zoom and spoke passionately on this issue. Your attendance and comments, along with the comments of the Historical Society made a difference in the outcome of the proposed height increase. We would also like to thank the Planning Commissioners for listening to the public and the concerns that were raised, and their thoughtful deliberation of the issue. It was a testament to public participation.

If you attended any of the Q&A meetings on the city’s financial challenges, you would have heard that increasing the height limit in our Historic Downtown to four stories would allow for hotel development.  At the Q&A session on February 27, at the Southampton Fire Station, Mayor Young reiterated that a four story hotel with a roof top bar was proposed for the corner of First and East D St. (the Avant Garden site). He further stated that additional hotels could be built on First Street similar to the hotel boom in American Canyon along Highway 29.

What hasn’t been discussed or presented is that the increase in the height limit to four stories (from 2.5 and 3 for housing opportunity sites) would apply to all buildings and vacant parcels in the Town Core Zone. Once approved, the development standards in the Town Core Zone to allow for four stories (50 feet) with a use permit will cause property values to rise and place economic pressure to redevelop, increasing the potential for demolition of existing buildings including historic buildings. It would also allow for four story buildings adjacent to residential homes on the side streets.

The Historical Society is concerned that the character and historic fabric of our Historic Downtown will unravel as development occurs with higher building heights. Our history is the city’s richest asset; it sets us apart from other Solano County cities, and downtown entices visitors to its small scale and walkability. Visit California, which markets California in partnership with the state’s travel industry, states this about Benicia. “As one of the oldest cities in California—and the third city to have served as the state’s capital, from 1853–54—Benicia is filled with vintage architecture and historic landmarks that date back to the Gold Rush, the Wild West, and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.” Our historic downtown matters and is our best marketing tool. If First Street is lined with multiple four story buildings overwhelming historic structures and disrupting the continuity of our small scale walkable downtown, who will be staying in the hotels?

On Tuesday, March 5, the Benicia City Council will hold a public hearing to adopt the resolution amending the height limit of the Town Core in the DMUMP allowing for four story (50 ft.) buildings on every parcel along First Street south of K Street. The staff report on this item mentions the Planning Commission recommendation to conduct further public outreach, but fails to propose any action on the recommendation.

We are all aware at this point of the financial issues of the city. We are aware that change will occur, as it always has, but what we need is thoughtful consideration of how change is allowed in our downtown which still reflects much of our history left by earlier generations. We are in favor of compatible development that follows existing zoning and complies with the Downtown Historic Conservation Plan. We need to value the historic integrity of downtown and be assured that our ability to market and attract visitors to our stores and restaurants will not be diminished. This can only happen with additional public involvement.


Board of Directors
Benicia Historical Society

Accessing the March 5, 2024 Benicia City Council Meeting

The Benicia City Council Agenda Packet for March 5 is your first and best resource for accessing this meeting because it contains the best and most recent instructions. However, here is a quick guide for participating in person, by Zoom, or through written comment. The following was cribbed from that packet and adjusted slightly to accommodate the format used here.

How to Participate in the Meeting:

1) Attend in person at Council Chambers
2) Cable T.V. Broadcast – Check with your cable provider for your local government broadcast channel.
3) Livestream online at
4) Zoom Meeting (link below)

The public may view and participate with a public comment (via computer or phone) link:

  • If prompted for a password, enter 449303.
  • Use participant option to “raise hand” during the public comment period for the item you wish to speak on. Please note, your electronic device must have microphone capability. Once unmuted, you will have up to 5 minutes to speak.
  • To dial in with phone, view the Benicia City Council full agenda packet for March 5 here and follow instructions.

How to Submit Written Public Comments for this City Council meeting:

Besides appearing in person or by Zoom and offering public comments, members of the public may provide written public comment to the City Clerk by email at Any comment submitted to the City Clerk should indicate to which item of the agenda the comment relates. Specific information follows:

Comments received by 2:00 pm on the day of the meeting will be electronically forwarded to the City Council and posted on the City’s website.

Comments received after 2:00 pm, but before the start time of the meeting will be electronically forwarded to the City Council but will not be posted on the City’s website.

For inspiration for a written comment, check out what other Benicia residents have sent regarding the controversial DMUMP amendment.

Elizabeth Patterson: Blaming “stagnant population growth” for our budget crisis is wrong…and risky

Elizabeth Patterson, Benicia Mayor 2007–2020.

Stephen Golub submits many interesting and important writings in the BenIndy, the local newspaper, blogs and so forth.  His insights are helpful.

But I am disappointed about his statement about “stagnant population growth” as one of the reasons for the city’s budget woes.

It seems he has unintentionally been captured by the influence of “development machine” (which happens to be the title of a 25-year-old University of California book on developers and their practices).  A casual reference to “stagnant population growth” does not make population growth itself a legitimate path to economic prosperity.  For just a few examples, this EPA report titled “How Small Towns and Cities Can Use Local Assets to Rebuild Their Economies: Lessons from Successful Places” highlights what small cities can do for economic health with a stable population.

It is true that we need to provide for housing, and I like the idea of tasteful additions of duplexes, ADUs and multifamily units as infill development.  But, of course, it is the developers who build – not the cities – and developers have shown their true intentions when they have the chance to build expensive housing instead of affordable or middle-cost housing.  They go for the higher profit.  We are told they have to do this because of the fees, time to process and so forth.

But a recent incident in San Jose demonstrates that this is false.  In this case, the developers were approved with entitlements for high-density residential and mixed-use.  Perfect.  But when they learned that San Jose may have been late in approving its housing element, what did the developers do?  They resubmitted their plans under the “builders’ remedy” for high-end single family units and condos.  

Anyone read The Ox-Bow Incident?  You should.  It would teach you about what the “market can bear” the intentions of the commercial class – in this case, the railroads.  And yes, we are being railroaded into building anything, anywhere, no matter what.

So, back to Stephen’s piece.  The population growth issue is being used by the city in support of sprawl development out by Lake Herman Road.  Now back up a second and think about population growth and the need to develop outside of the city’s urban footprint.  If it were true that we must have population growth to thrive, when does it stop?  We just keep having population growth to the end of time?  Of course not.  This is a failed concept and people should stop saying that we must approve development inconsistent with the city’s General Plan due to stagnant population growth (General Plans regard the constitution of land use development and fealty to them is the law, not a choice).

To be clear, Stephen does not say he supports sprawl development.  He doesn’t.  In fact, he supports the East Fifth Gateway mixed-use plan. It’s a good plan and needs city initiatives to encourage development. But he does use the “stagnant population” theme, which is troubling.

I suggest that we dig deeper into this concept of population growth and connect the dots of congested roads, long lines at National Parks, food shortages and pollution.  There is a connection.  It is not likely that we will solve problems like these by having more people.

And lastly, population growth is projected to begin to decline near the end of the century.  This is certainly true in the US and California.  We could wind up with lots of empty residential development just like we are seeing with the over-built, retail commercial development that we were warned about years ago.

What then, is the answer?

Consider economic development with the increasing need for manufacturing that is green, more local shopping at smaller, more community-based stores, not to mention the arts and entertainment. Our aging population  will need services and housing accommodations over the next 25 years.

Thoughtful development with these needs in mind will create a place that people want to visit, shop in and work in.  This is not a pie-in-the-sky idea, but it does take hard work and we, the people, need to do our part and help with city revenues for our infrastructure.  And maybe with less stress the city council and staff can focus on the future so clearly described in the General Plan.

Elizabeth Patterson

Seeno in Benicia – here we go again…

Warning and good advice by architect of Benicia’s General Plan, former mayor Elizabeth Patterson


Benicia, California

May 26, 2022

Tail wagging the dog – a Benicia story

Many moons ago – before the red moon and blue moon – city leaders began the planning process for developing Sky Valley (1990s). Imagine suburban development like what is happening on Columbus Parkway along Lake Herman Road. More streets, water lines for more water and more traffic with more carbon emissions.

The first tail wagging.  Sky Valley planning process was the  tail wagging the dog. Why? Because the then General Plan was old and did not anticipate that kind of growth. The city council decision makers balked at paying for a general plan update. A group of organized citizens proposed to the council that the council establish a task force to determine wither the General Plan should be updated. The task force with a consultant was approved, and reported to the city council the need for an update.  Council adopted a resolution establishing a commission which was charged with leading the community discussion. The Council resolution included substantial city funds for the commission and future consultants including an economic assessment.

Take note that there are details to this story which I have provided in earlier postings such as a citizen collecting signatures in opposition to Sky Valley development and a vote by council to not move forward. This was after the respected city manager at the time initiated a specific plan process. The public was treated like most of these processes — being fed information in meetings and not being part of the ownership of the decision. Indeed one of the finest consultants in California known for her public participation process quit because of this flawed process. But I digress.

What a community-led process is. The General Plan update process was led by the General Plan Oversight Committee (GPOC – pronounced gee pock). There were panels of experts on property rights, geologic issues, affordable housing, open space and conservation and economics. By consensus – not brute power – GPOC found common ground in a shared vision for Benicia. And that shared and adopted vision is our current General Plan.

But that dog’s tail is wagging again. And this story follows a red moon. [This has nothing to do with the story but it does add color].

The second tail wagging. Coincidentally at the May 17th council meetings  two tails were on the agenda. Let me explain: as a result of the community led GPOC, the consensus was that in keeping with the vision for Benicia as a small town, smart growth and sustainable development, an urban growth boundary line (UGBL) would be established along Lake Herman Road excluding urban development requiring municipal services. This is another story I’ve written about and to keep this posting shorter I will just say that because of council wavering on the UGBL, citizens ran an initiative in 2003 to establish the UGBL by a vote that cannot be undone by Council. That initiative must be renewed after twenty years. The council voted to place the renewal of that initiative on the ballot this coming November.

Seeno Again. And at this same May 17 council meeting – coincidentally – council approved a planning process for what is called the Seeno property, establishing a “community-led” process to recommend a “vision” for the Seeno property. The property owner goes by another name now WCHB. But it is Seeno. So who is Seeno and where is the property?

Google Seeno and you will find stories of blatant destruction of wetlands and millions of fines paid – the price of doing business. You will find law suits against communities such as Brentwood for denying one of their projects. You will find in the 1980s about how Seeno built a commercial building in Concord that exceeded the Concord Airport safe aviation height. You will find articles about how the federal government and over 20 agencies “raided” the corporate offices in Concord. It had something to do with politics in Nevada and death threats on both sides. Seeno. They even filed a lawsuit against the City of Benicia for its planning efforts for creating walkable and bikable streets in the Industrial Park. They were not successful. And that family-owned business has owned over 530 acres here in Benicia west of East 2nd and along Lake Herman Road for over 35 years.

The current General Plan is the vision for Benicia. To change that vision requires a public process and an amendment . . .  and CEQA. The overarching goal of the General Plan is sustainable development. There are a multitude of goals and policies about land use, walkability, water, traffic and economic goals and policies. All of these are the guiding principles for development. It’s the constitution for land use. It’s the law.

At the May meeting Council adopted resolutions and approved consultants to determine a “vision” for the Seeno property. The “community-led” process is similar to the failed process in the Sky Valley experience. The planning consultant will meet with the council subcommittee of two (Young and Macenski) and then meet with the “community-led” public meeting.

Community-led process. So what is the community-led process? Three or so public meetings where you can show up and listen and comment. No formal commission. No stakeholder process. No ownership. Will this meeting process review the General Plan especially for the overarching goal of sustainability and more specific considerations of topography, view sheds, and other quality of life and city policies?

The scope of work for the two consultants – planner and economist – make no mention that the General Plan is the first step for considering the use of the Seeno property. Opportunities and constraints are fundamental planning approaches. I wrote a white paper on this very topic in anticipation of development of the Seeno site. The General Plan goals and policies are where one starts for “opportunities and constraints”. If the current planning process anticipates changing the land use, start with the existing framework. By the way, in the 1990s the Benicia Industrial Park Association conducted a robust campaign against housing/mixed use for the whole area including Seeno.

Best planning tool is not being used. Secondly and for a technical reason, a review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is not going to be done. The technical reason reminds me of the expression of “do what you want and ask for forgiveness later”. Why? Because CEQA is the best planning tool we have in California.  CEQA is intended to inform government decision makers and the public about the potential environmental effects of proposed activities and to prevent significant, avoidable environmental damage. It asks nearly all the questions one would want to ask about development. Think about it. Would we have built an asphalt plant near residential development if CEQA had existed? When will the carbon footprint be assessed? What are the potential off-setting strategies for the carbon footprint?

Water. Water supply. The cost of water treatment. When will these issues be addressed and what will be recommended and how much will it cost?

Not doing a CEQA-like process means that is less likely a proposed development will avoid impacts. What is more commonly done is mitigation for impacts. Meaning instead of avoiding potential water supply issues, CEQA could address with rain water capture, industrial above the ground cisterns. Avoiding storm water pollution and flooding would be designed up front in the potential future project feasibility. But waiting until an impact is formally identified, the typical mitigation would be water supply and storm water treatment. Such mitigation approach is expensive and not sustainable.

Carbon Footprint. How will there be an assessment for avoiding adding to our carbon footprint? Better yet, will there be a benefit of reducing our carbon footprint? Or are we going along in willful ignorance? Without some kind of CEQA assessment the answer is disturbing.

Economics. Speaking of economics, the second consultant is the economist. And the consultant is the same firm that did the 1999 General Plan economic study and EIR assessment. Their scope of work has nothing in it to assess development for consistency with the General Plan goal of sustainability. Nor does it lay out a decision making process for life cycle cost analysis. This means the real cost of maintenance and operations for roads, water lines, water supply, waste water treatment, and other municipal services. For instance, residential development property taxes don’t keep up with the cost of things and therefore some municipal services such as roads are not maintained as good as they should be. Or there may be a need for higher sales tax to cover these. Or… there could be other strategies so the city does not dig its financial hole deeper with added cost of residential development or any development.

What Kind of Retail Matters. The economic scope of work will assess retail. Retail that provides services within commercial and light industrial development (the current general plan designation) is sustainable and should reduce driving because these services are within walking distance. But. Large scale retail – including a movie complex or chain retail – will wreck downtown. Just look around and see: Pleasanton, Fairfield, Vallejo. Where is the analysis for this effect?

We as a city have had the best planning processes in the past as described earlier for GPOC. We had internationally regarded planners conduct meetings, seminars and charrettes. We had a nationally recognized economist detail what cities need to think about when doing development. At one time we were leaders in reducing our carbon footprint. Best of all we have a specific plan for the Seeno site based on the opportunities and constraints of the land and policies and a graphic supporting the specific plan.  This was the product of a citizen-led effort.  Have we learned from our past efforts?

Oh, and did I mention that Seeno is paying for this work?

My recommendations are for the council to

  • Establish a formal task force perhaps along the lines of the Waterfront Park process (done by the same firm that the current planning consultant worked for). This would be a community-led process.
  • Ask how can we add value to what we have and avoid failed business as usual development.
  • Adopt a CEQA approach that is not an actual legal CEQA but uses the tools and approaches for assessment of development choices.
  • Ensure by council resolution that any agreement for potential future specific plan includes a development agreement.
  • Adopt a resolution affirming the General Plan goal for sustainable development and no net increase in our carbon footprint. Climate crises is real. Business as usual is unforgivable. I expect nothing less from our council.

    Elizabeth Patterson, Benicia Mayor 2007 – 2020
    Elizabeth Patterson After three terms as Mayor of Benicia CA, Elizabeth retired from Benicia’s city council in 2020. She is vice-chair of the Delta National Heritage Area Advisory Committee; serves on the North Bay Watershed Association representing Solano County Water Agency; is policy chair for AAUW; is a lecturer for a grant funded semester course at Sonoma State on land use planning and management and water.  She loves to walk and hike with Alex, her 18 month-old puppy.