Editorial: Concord should end weapons station deal with Seeno group

The Concord City Council tonight should reject the demands of a consortium led by the Seeno construction family and look for another master developer for the massive project at the Naval Weapons Station site.

And if the council caves to the Seeno consortium — a signal that it’s placing politics ahead of the public interest — the U.S. Navy, which still owns the land, should look for another government agency to take the lead.

Council members should never have partnered last year with the consortium knowing the Seeno companies’ history of environmental and other legal violations.

Now, the consortium is demanding changes to its agreement with the city for the $1 billion-plus residential and commercial project, which covers an area half the size of the city of Pleasant Hill and would include 13,000 housing units and millions of square feet of office and commercial space. Suddenly, the consortium wants enforceable rights to the property before the planning process is completed. That’s absurd.

It would undermine the city’s bargaining leverage for the months, perhaps years, of difficult negotiations ahead. It could expose the city to litigation and liability if the city and the consortium were unable to agree to terms during the planning process.

And, right now, the city doesn’t even own the property — the Navy still does. The city will only get the rights to the property after the planning is completed. So, it is unclear whether the city even has the legal ability to grant such property rights to land it would be acquiring in the future.

Meanwhile, the consortium has failed to complete even the first basic step of the planning process it agreed to. Yet, it’s already complaining that it can’t make the project pencil out and that it needs to renegotiate the original terms.

How ironic. Seeno was chosen after the last developer bailed because it said that the council’s demands for exceptionally costly labor agreements made the project financially unworkable. The Seeno consortium was then selected largely because it promised to meet those same demands. Now it says it can’t make the numbers work.

Council members should consider this a harbinger of the gamesmanship that lies ahead if they stick with the consortium. They should cut their losses.

The good news is that the consortium, known as Concord First Partners, has failed to meet its first deadline. Consequently, the council has the option to end the deal. They should do so and then reconsider the other companies from last year’s selection process.

But if the council caves to the Seeno consortium demands, the Navy should reconsider whether to let the city continue as the lead agency in this project. For nearly a decade now, since the start in 2013 of the search for a master developer, Concord council members and city officials have repeatedly botched and politically tainted the process.

The first round of solicitations for a master developer imploded in 2016, when the backroom tactics of the council, City Manager Valerie Barone and political consultant Mary Jo Rossi were too much for the staff-recommended firm, Catellus. At the time, the field had been narrowed to two, and the remaining firm, Lennar, effectively won by default.

Then, in 2020, the building trades unions demanded union wage rates for infrastructure such as utilities and public buildings, a so-called project labor agreement like those that have become increasingly common in California. But the unions also wanted to expand the agreement to include locked-in wage rates for residential homes in the project — what would have been unusual and a vast overreach.

Lennar said the unions’ residential demands would have sucked up all the company’s potential profits, a claim corroborated by the city’s independent consultant. The council was unmoved. So, Lennar bailed, and the city started the selection process over, landing last year on the Seeno consortium out of a field of three firms — despite the Seeno family’s troubled past.

In 2002, they were fined $1 million for destroying endangered red-legged frog habitat in Pittsburg. In 2008, they reached a $3 million settlement relating to grading at an Antioch development. In 2018, Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig filed a civil suit alleging they had bulldozed Native American human remains in West Sacramento. A trial is scheduled for August.

Meanwhile, the Nevada Gaming Control Board fined the Seenos, who owned casinos there, $775,000 for not alerting the agency of environmental violations and other issues. And, in 2016, the sales arm of the Seeno homebuilding empire accepted a guilty plea involving a mortgage fraud scheme and was ordered to pay fines and restitution of $11 million.

Now the Seeno consortium is demanding Concord renegotiate the terms of last year’s deal that named it master developer for the weapons station. The City Council should say no and find another partner for this critical project.

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