Tuesday, February 12, 2008

528-Acre Business Park Goes Before Benicia Council

528-Acre Business Park Goes Before Benicia Council
East Bay Business Times - by Jessica Saunders

The Carquinez Strait with Benicia, left, and Martinez on the right. The proposed business park is in yellow. (Courtesy photo by Roy Tennant)

View Larger A controversial 528-acre light industrial and commercial development that has been in the works for 30 years may take a major step forward Feb. 19 when the Benicia City Council meets to consider the project's environmental impact report.

Developer Albert D. Seeno Jr. has been trying for nearly 30 years to build a light industrial and commercial park that could generate 7,600 jobs on the boot-shaped property, the largest undeveloped tract remaining in Benicia.

The hilly parcel located northeast of the new Benicia bridge on Interstate 680 adjacent to Benicia's industrial park, overlooks the Carquinez Strait and Suisun Bay.

Among the controversies, the proposed development would require grading of 9 million cubic yards and substantial removal of hillsides to the south of the site. City leaders have said they would like to preserve more hills.

Discovery Builders Inc. of Concord, owned by Seeno's son Albert Seeno III, is seeking approval for Benicia Business Park under contract for property owner West Coast Home Builders. West Coast is owned by Seeno Jr. and his brother Tom Seeno, according to Discovery Builders Vice President Salvatore Evola.

Discovery Builders has opted to pursue the EIR separately before presenting a detailed project plan for review by the city. That is the developer's right, but it has created "some misgivings among the public that the project as proposed is what is going to be done," said Charlie Knox, the city's community development director.

Those misgivings have included claims that the developer plans a truck stop and repair facility on the site, as well as a 200,000-square-foot Wal-Mart store.

"We are not building a Wal-Mart and we are not building a truck stop. You heard it from me," Evola said.

Seeno's leasing and management firm, Sierra Pacific Properties, has been shopping Benicia Business Park for several years and gets calls weekly from interested companies who want to know the development status, Evola said. Those calls have included Extended Stay Hotels, Courtyard by Marriott and Trader Joe's, so those types of businesses are contemplated for the 837,000 square feet of commercial retail space, he said. No tenants have been identified so far.

"We can't focus on the users, the tenants or the project details until we have a certified EIR," he said.

Uses contemplated for the 4.5 million square feet of light industrial space, under the city General Plan, could include wholesale, distribution and storage facilities, research and development uses, and related industrial and commercial services. Additional uses such as auto sales and services, mini-storage, restaurants, bars and churches may be allowed with a use permit, according to the parameters outlined in the EIR.

A 1999 version of the project was rejected because of federal officials' concerns that the plan called for filling in three natural water drainages. Now the most important drainage, a creek and adjacent wetlands, is preserved as part of 212 acres of open space - 40 percent of the total - in the middle of the project. Evola noted the entire property is zoned for development.

One key issue is the report's finding that the proposed project would "substantially conflict" with environmental protection policies in the city General Plan, which unlike other impacts cannot be mitigated, Knox said. The policies discourage grading of hillsides and disturbance of streams and wildlife corridors, and require retaining scenic views, among other issues, he said. Excavating 9 million cubic yards of soil, despite plans to balance it on site, and filling in two natural water drainages are conflicts.

Discovery Builders has acknowledged in face-to-face meetings with the city that it will have to make changes to the project, Knox said.

The city staff plans to recommend the council certify the EIR, Knox said. But he also planned to ask the city manager's approval to further recommend the certification specifically require the project to "fit with the General Plan."

It's up to the council to decide whether the development is consistent with the General Plan, Evola said.

The proposed EIR going before the council Feb. 19 is the third for the site since the 1980s, Evola said.

jsaunders@bizjournals.com | 925-598-1427

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