With a population pushing one million, a respectable daily newspaper in the Contra Costa Times, and a vast petroleum industry, Contra Costa County could be one of California's most important urban centers. Symphonies might be feting visiting dignitaries; executive vice-presidents plotting their seizure of Pacific Rim trade; ward heelers skimming from the sewer fund. Instead, key elements of urban life are missing from the east side of the Caldecott Tunnel even as the region outgrows its suburban roots. Contra Costa's population is now far larger than that of San Francisco, yet it has no UC or CSU campus, no Asian Art Museum or Moscone Center, no gold-domed, imperial City Hall under which armies of homeless people push their shopping carts.
What the county has instead is harder to describe. Is Contra Costa the pleasant box canyons of Lamorinda or Walnut Creek, ringing with the melodies of rehashed Broadway ditties at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts? Is it a decrepit shipyard, rotting in the shadow of oil refineries? Is it a cattle ranch dotted with signs announcing future subdivisions? Contra Costa is all of these things, yet none of them define the county. Most metropolitan conglomerates have a single, dominant city looming large in the public's imagination. But Contra Costa has no Oakland or San Francisco; instead, it's a collection of nineteen tiny burgs, each of which jealously guards its distinctiveness and views all things big, dense, and gritty with suspicion. And that creates its own unique problems.
The story of Contra Costa is a familiar one: White-collar professionals fled the crime and noise of the urban core, only to bring various urban ills along with them. White flight transformed the county from a collection of old company towns and ranch holdings into a vast bedroom community, straining county roads, highways, schools, and water resources. But even as the acres of tract homes grew to resemble one another, residents responded to unchecked growth not by forming large cities and wielding enough clout to stand up to big developers, but by incorporating into small, fiercely independent towns defined by their allegiance to a Mayberry ideal.
No city exemplifies this trend any better than Clayton, a tiny outpost whose population barely exceeds 10,000. "It became Clayton in 1964, when Concord was doing a lot of rather rapid housing expansion, and the folks in Clayton decided that they didn't want to be part of the endless strip malls and subdivisions," says City Councilwoman Julie Pierce. "We have struggled ever since to maintain the identity of the little mining town that was founded in the 1850s."
Clayton has paid a hard price for this independence. Its population is so small, and tax revenue so limited, that city officials have to ask for volunteers to help with certain basic functions. But thanks to a civic ethic and enough retirees to stuff envelopes and staff the library, the city manages to keep running. "It's that roll up your shirtsleeves, can-do spirit that make Clayton what it is," Pierce says, "and that's the way we want to keep it."
Of course, staying small has kept Contra Costa free of some of the worst big-city problems. Crime is nothing like that of Oakland and San Francisco, civic participation isn't the exclusive province of cranks and gadflies, and local government remains transparent and accountable. But according to former County Supervisor Donna Gerber, the atomization of Contra Costa into speed-traps and small towns has also created some serious problems. Government duplication has flourished, as each small town is forced to hire its own city manager, police chief, and planning officials. Because their budgets are so small, cities can't hire enough smart planners to make prudent decisions about their futures. Worst of all, the county's tiny burgs are pushovers for developers and big box chains who play one city off another or influence local elections in an effort to extort tax breaks or pave open space by the hectare.
"Essentially, Contra Costa has opted for a lot of nice, local identities -- Clayton is Clayton, Oakley is Oakley," Gerber says. "But they all fight with each other over sales tax dollars, they fight over who gets to have the auto dealerships and Bishop Ranch. ... It's the fiscalization of land use. Cities want to approve certain kinds of uses to raise money, and they're heavily influenced by Shappell Industries, Albert Seeno, all the sprawl developers who play heavily in local politics."
In 1998, for example, business was so good at the Martinez Costco outlet that company officials decided the time was right to expand. But why pay for the expansion yourself when you can simply blackmail the city into footing the bill? Costco officials demanded that Martinez finance the expansion through $2 million in tax breaks, and when the city refused to play ball, the company announced that it would move a few miles east, where the town of Concord was happy to furnish them with seventeen acres for a new store. Costco's departure cost Martinez roughly $550,000 a year in taxes, or 5 percent of the city's annual budget.
With so many tiny towns scrambling to outbuild one another and beef up their tax coffers, it's fallen to the county Board of Supervisors, the only body charged with pursuing a regional approach to growth, to put the brakes on sprawl. To be sure, county supervisors have approved their share of ghastly projects; think of the luxury homes at Tassajara Valley and the bizarre houseboats and timeshare condos of Discovery Bay. But they've also orchestrated the transit village at the Pleasant Hill BART station, enforced the urban limit line, and provided the impetus behind "Shaping Our Future," a project designed to redirect development away from unspoiled open space, build apartment complexes along transit lines, and create dense, vibrant quasi-downtowns that bustle with life and culture. Along the way, they've run afoul of East County cities such as Antioch, Brentwood, and Oakley, whose leaders have embarked upon a decade-long binge of sprawl development and are often too caught up in their own parochial interests to give much thought to the infrastructural ramifications of their lust for growth.
No other city grows like Antioch. Between 1990 and 2001, its population spurted from 62,000 to more than 90,000, as the city council approved the construction of no fewer than 16,403 houses, according to a report published by the Greenbelt Alliance. Now, the Antioch city fathers are locked in a showdown with the Board of Supervisors over a controversial, even comical development known as Roddy Ranch.
Decades ago, rodeo superstar Jack Roddy bought himself two thousand acres in the hinterlands of East County and settled down to a life of cattle ranching. But as the creeping suburbs made ranching more expensive, he decided to catch the wave. Beginning in 1998, Roddy and his partner Wayne Pierce planned to convert the ranch into luxury homes and a golf course. Of course, Roddy had a few obstacles to overcome first: His land was zoned for agricultural use only, and since his proposal was a classic example of "leapfrog" development, county supervisors were guaranteed to reject the proposal. Nonetheless, Roddy and Pierce convinced the city of San Joaquin and the Merced County Board of Education to issue $39 million in bonds to finance the project, exploiting a loophole in state law that has since been closed.
To be fair, part of Roddy's land lay within the county's urban limit line, so he had a remote chance of convincing the county to allow the development. But he and Pierce borrowed millions before securing the county's consent, and when the county redrew the line to exclude his property in 2000, Roddy had no way of paying off the bonds. His company filed for bankruptcy last year, and the state of California stripped the bond's underwriter of his license. By any measure, Roddy's project was an unmitigated disaster.
Infuriated by the county's decision to redraw the urban limit line, the Antioch City Council has now promised to incorporate Roddy's property into the city and greenlight the development. County supervisors are equally adamant in their opposition, and the tension has grown so severe that last month, Mayor Don Freitas vowed to withhold support from the county's efforts to redirect growth toward transit hubs unless the county backs down.
According to Antioch City Councilmember Arne Simonsen, county supervisors are pushing their "smart-growth" projects down the throats of East County cities that already pay $7,500 in highway improvement fees for each new house. Moreover, he says, smart-growth is a quasi-socialist scheme to deprive red-blooded Americans of their birthright. "The American Dream is still single family housing, and to deny them that is saying that future generations have to live in high rise apartments and Hunters Point projects," he says. "I think it's social engineering, trying to create utopia. It's pie in the sky, the stuff you dream up in college till you get out in the real world and see what takes a bite out of your taxes. You're trying to socially engineer people out of single-family homes and into multifamily units, and people don't want that. And if you push too far, people get into the Prop. 13 mode."
County Supervisor Mark DeSaulnier retorts that while Antioch's leaders are determined to fulfill what he calls their "manifest stupidity," someone has to show responsible leadership when it comes to growth. This November, the voters will probably get their chance to decide who's right, as County Supervisor Federal Glover has floated a ballot measure to lock up the urban limit line in perpetuity. This fight illustrates the essential tension in Contra Costa County, an ongoing war of wills between the small cities and the county government. Are the cities of East County irresponsible growth junkies, always jonesing for that next fix of building permit fees? Or is the county an arrogant pack of utopian meddlers determined to keep Antioch and Brentwood from fulfilling their destiny?
As long as Contra Costa has no single urban center of gravity, county government and the small burgs will always be locked in conflict. But don't worry -- a dominant, imperial city that overwhelms its neighbors is perhaps less than a decade away. Based on growth trends documented by the 2000 census, Antioch will surpass Concord as the largest city in the county by 2009. And given its leaders' current attitude to growth, the sky's the limit. The future belongs to Antioch, but whether it's a future worth sticking around for is another question.
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