Concord- Buchanan Field's Relocation Plan Needs Work

Tuesday, March 15, 2005
Plan for Buchanan Field’s relocation may need work
By Peter Felsenfeld

Unexpected turbulence may temporarily ground a plan by Contra Costa supervisors to relocate Buchanan Field. A development group led by Shapell Industries no longer thinks its two suggested replacement airport sites will work. Additionally, county officials say the proposal is short on details and may undervalue the 495-acre Concord hub, which has served private commuter jets for six decades but is being eyed for new housing and offices.

Supervisors today will consider giving the consortium, known as Buchanan Field Partners, until September to retool its mixed-use proposal. The group comprises Shapell, Lennar Communities and Garaventa Enterprises.

The board has nothing to lose by granting more time, said Supervisor Mark DeSaulnier of Concord, who first proposed closing the airport in 2003. The developers are picking up all evaluation costs.

“I don’t see any harm in letting them see if they can come up with something,” DeSaulnier said. “It’s all their risk.”

Ironically, today’s expected board action comes on the same day airport officials begin crafting a master plan that would dictate what happens at Buchanan over the next two decades. The plan would become moot if the board decided to move the airport.

In November, Buchanan Field Partners suggested transforming the airport into a vibrant community featuring 6,000 residences, offices, a hotel, a park and a college campus. The development, they said, would generate more than 8,000 permanent jobs and create $6 million annually in property and sales taxes for Contra Costa County.

No other builder responded to a county invitation for bids.

Since then, however, a critical element of the plan has started to crumble. The project hinges on the developers winning federal approval for an alternate Central Contra Costa airport equal to or better than the existing facility.

It’s a high bar because the FAA transferred ownership of Buchanan to the county in 1946 with the stipulation the land would remain an airport permanently.

That didn’t stop the partners from presenting two long-shot alternatives: one on the Tesoro Golden Eagle refinery property, the other at the ACME landfill — both near Martinez.

Neither now looks good.

The oil giant isn’t interested in selling, said company spokesman Jon Ballesteros. “We believe taking off and landing so close to a refinery could pose safety concerns,” he said.

Further studies have shown the ACME property is “feasible but not ideal,” said Chris Truebridge, Shapell’s executive vice president.

“Everything is contingent on us finding another site,” said Truebridge, noting that the group is looking at two as-yet unspecified locations. “There aren’t a whole lot of reasons for us to spend a lot more time and money on this thing if we can’t.”

County planners are also wary given the lack of a convincing argument for relocating Buchanan and the absence of a required business plan for the replacement airport, according to a letter from Community Development director Dennis Barry.

Additionally, the letter questions the $141.7 million price tag the development group has assigned to the prime real estate, which is close to BART and at the intersection of Interstate 680 and Highway 4.

The figure “raises a number of questions about the approach, methodology and underlying assumptions used in this appraisal,” the letter states.

Interviewed Monday, Truebridge said the company and its financial expert will meet with county officials to explain the dollar amount more clearly. “We didn’t just pull it out of the air,” he said.

At least one critic, Diane Cole, executive director of the Friends of Concord Airport Coalition, said the county should abandon the process now to avoid keeping airport businesses in limbo for another six months.

“It’s ridiculous to change the process because a developer put in a deficient proposal,” she said.