No New Burbs, but Bring on the Factories

The new middle-class residents of Pittsburg organized to oppose a blight more noxious than new power plants -- new homes.

Among the bedroom communities of Contra Costa County, Pittsburg has always stood out as the one dollop of spice in an otherwise vanilla world. Once home to thousands of army brats whose fathers drilled on the fields of Camp Stoneman, Pittsburg acquired a striking ethnic diversity amid the lily-white cities of the East County. Coal, fishing, and steel production cemented its blue-collar feel, offset from farming towns and office parks.

It had another, less savory reputation as well; as the city’s center was hollowed out by the closing of Camp Stoneman and the decline of commercial fishing on the Sacramento River, Pittsburg fell prey to machine politics, and its passive electorate was at the mercy of industrial giants, big developers, and city hall fixers. As communities such as Concord and Walnut Creek became the places where people lived, Pittsburg remained the place where people worked — and it was tough, knuckle-breaking work when you could get it.

Of course, those days are just about gone. The housing market and demographic convulsions of the Bay Area will not be denied, and the city’s working-class vibe is giving way to make room for people with letters like Ph.D and Esq. after their names. Even in the tired, industrial downtown, homes start at $225,000 these days. But more than just housing comes with a college degree, and one of those things is a sense of political entitlement. Pittsburg’s newcomers actually expect city government to listen to them rather than to conduct business as usual. One by one, the old cronies who ran this town are being run out, and a middle-class transparency and responsiveness are taking root.

Still, Pittsburg’s choice of battles has been rather perplexing. As energy deregulation began to work its dark magic on California, some of its biggest players floated a plan to drop two vast power plants right in the heart of an already crowded industrial district, mere blocks away from residential neighborhoods. Rather than fight the proposal, as one might expect the city’s new residents to do, Pittsburg threw out the welcome mat, gladly agreeing to sacrifice its air quality to keep California’s lights on. But when it came to Albert Seeno Jr., the housing developer who built most of the subdivisions that attracted these middle-class homeowners, Pittsburg’s voters threw all his friends off the city council last November, after mobs besieged City Hall with “Stop Seeno” signs.

No white-collar suburban family worth its salt lets some giant of heavy industry depress its property values, yet that’s just what Pittsburg did. What gives? How did Al Seeno become more hated than Enron in his own hometown?

After all, it’s not as if the power plants came in without controversy. When Enron executives first approached Pittsburg with a plan to build what became the Los Medanos Energy Center, the city’s part-time attorney Michael Woods threw himself into the work, ultimately billing Pittsburg a remarkable $530,000 in fees between 1997 and 2000. When Enron’s ultimate successor, the San Jose-based energy firm Calpine, reimbursed the city for Woods’ bills, some city officials saw not a gesture of corporate citizenship, but evidence that maybe the attorney had been advancing the company’s interests all along. City councilmen Frank Aiello and Frank Quesada complained to the state Attorney General, the Fair Political Practices Committee, and the district attorney, claiming that Woods — who simultaneously served as a private businessman, city attorney, and even Pittsburg’s city manager for one year — had far too many conflicts to properly represent the city’s interest in energy deals.

Some residents were appalled at the prospect of two power plants, which would generate enough electricity to light about 1.3 million homes, belching toxic emissions right next door. Calpine’s two plants, Los Medanos and the Delta Energy Center, were projected to spew out roughly one thousand pounds of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds a day, which meant a lot of smog swirling in a city whose heavy industry was already generating nasty goo such as benzene, vinyl chloride, and ammonia. In 2000, school board member Jim MacDonald signed on to a civil rights complaint against the plants, charging that both the Energy Commission and the Bay Area’s air district glossed over studies on how such toxins would affect the health of nearby minority children. MacDonald’s complaint is still pending, and he’s still angry about the deal, even though the plants have long since fired up. “They basically stomped on the civil rights of minority individuals,” he says.

But MacDonald, a downtown Pittsburg newcomer who moved here from Marin, didn’t find many friends among his neighbors. In fact, aside from an angry revolt when word leaked that Calpine was trying to raise the amount of emissions the two plants could legally spew, Pittsburg was only too happy to build the generators. The Calpine plants meant property taxes and Pittsburg could find a lot of things to spend up to $4 million a year on. And really, what other options did the city’s downtown residents have? While most of the city’s middle-class residents are tucked away on rolling hills miles from the industrial district, the older and poorer downtown is caught between the car exhaust of Highway 4 and the industrial waterfront. If the older part of Pittsburg were ever to revitalize itself, it had to go with the one thing at its disposal: cheap land for factories.

“Pittsburg has always been an industrial town,” says Mayor Yvonne Beals. “The environmental consciousness may not be what it should be. I think the new residents who have come have brought those perspectives, but it’s not a ball that’s rolling really fast in our community.”

Perhaps the most important factor to explain Pittsburg’s love of power plants is that — hard as it may be to believe — Enron was the good guy in Pittsburg. While there were certainly some shady aspects to the deal, Pittsburg Redevelopment Director Garrett Evans says Enron and Calpine made remarkable efforts to work with neighbors and keep them informed. No doubt they were only too aware that a power plant is a hard sell in any neighborhood. But according to Evans, that only made them more accommodating. “Enron came in and did the smart community groundwork,” he says. “They made a neighborhood committee and had the main vocal people involved in the beginning. They listened and tried as best they could, within their model, to implement community input.” As a result, neighbors got a park, a bypass road to keep industry traffic from the neighborhoods, a sound wall to block noise pollution, and storm and sewer drain repairs. Calpine and Enron even paid for an independent auditor to vet the companies’ revenue projections. Good thing they used KPMG, instead of their usual bean counter.

Now that Pittsburg can soak up all those property taxes, it hopes to have a nice pot of money to play with. City officials are drafting a bond measure to finance the renovation of a historic theater and construction of several housing projects and a new library. Like every other city, Pittsburg’s leaders are still worried that Gray Davis might seize a bigger chunk of property taxes to balance the state’s budget, wiping out their cash cow. But for now, they’re getting ready to build stuff. Does anyone remember the last time a city built a new library?

While Enron and Calpine were playing nice with Pittsburg, the city’s homegrown kingmaker was paying the price for decades of arrogant bluster. Albert Seeno’s family has been in the construction business for sixty years, using Pittsburg as a base to build a vast housing empire throughout East County. Along the way, the curmudgeonly libertarian and his father virtually ran the city, personally approving many city council candidates over the years. But last year, infuriated by Seeno’s perceived arrogance and a series of damning exposés in the Contra Costa Times, a reform slate of candidates emerged to challenge Councilmen Aiello and Quesada, both of whom wore white hats when it came to Calpine but had compromising ties to Seeno (who did not return phone calls for comment). Aiello, for example, got himself a sweet mortgage from a Seeno partner that saved him $16,000 on his down payment, the Times reported, and Quesada not only rented his home and business from Seeno, but has owed him money for years.

During that period, an awful lot of votes seemed to go Seeno’s way at the expense of the public interest. In 2001, a pro-Seeno majority amended the city’s general plan to greenlight the construction of 1,597 houses that the builder longed to erect. But when rival developer Eugene Alves tried to build a 556-apartment complex near the BART station, the same council majority amended the general plan to outlaw his project.

Finally, last year, when the city’s planning commission tried to fast-track approval of two massive Seeno subdivisions without environmental reviews, the developer may have crossed the line. Thousands of angry residents organized the Save Pittsburg coalition, picketing the city council and making the subdivisions the central issue in the upcoming elections. Visions of Seeno the puppet master — the developer who recently drew a $1 million fine for wiping out an endangered frog’s habitat — filled voters’ heads as they headed for the polls last November. By the end of election day, Aiello and Quesada had been drummed out of office.

Ironically, Seeno built the very engine of his own downfall in the thousands of middle-class homes he planted on Pittsburg’s hillsides. People flee the cities to avoid the problems caused by other people, including traffic and crime. As a critical mass of middle-class neighbors arrived in town — and Pittsburg grew by almost 20 percent between 1990 and 2000 — many concluded that they already had enough neighbors, thank you, and a vote against Seeno’s cronies was a vote against further growth. Seeno built it, they came, and then they tossed him out.

There are plenty of reasons for the disparate treatment of Seeno and the power plants: Pittsburg’s changing demographics, its industrial heritage, and its lingering resignation to civic corruption. But sometimes, being able to build something that your neighbors won’t like just comes down to how nicely you ask.

clear sky
56.2 ° F
56.2 °
56.2 °
68 %
0 %
67 °
68 °
68 °
68 °
66 °