Looking back on a busy 2019

From potholes and pot plants to chickens and crape myrtles, the Concord and Clayton City Councils had their share of debates during 2019. With Concord’s continued battles over rent control and affordable housing, and Clayton’s search for a new city manager coupled with other staff resignations, it kept residents wondering what was next.

But there was time for celebrations, too – like the groundbreaking for the Shaivite Hindu temple in Concord and Clayton’s Making a Difference program to honor hard-working volunteers in the community. Here’s a look at some of the stories the Pioneer covered in 2019 (For a look at all the headline photos from 2019, click here.)


Todos Santos Utility Box Art Project unveiled at Music and Market
aRt Cottage owner Fro Schmidt , kneeling, CAA President Catherine Hensiek (right) and artist Sharon Petersen (left) at Petersen’s utility box, which honors Schmidt’s support of the local arts community. (photo: Lisa Fulmer)

Pushing for public art: The Concord City Council tried to refocus on public art installations, after the controversial Spirit Poles ended the city’s program more than 20 years ago. The council voted unanimously to develop an ordinance that would require public art as a condition of approval for future projects – but without any fees, as has been discussed. “Public art deals with the soul of the city,” said Councilman Edi Birsan. However, due to staffing changes, the plan was later delayed until 2020.

Meanwhile, the council agreed to pursue a utility box beautification project with the Concord Art Association (CAA). After holding a contest with the theme “Music and Market,” the winning artists painted or vinyl-wrapped the boxes over the summer. “We hope Concord residents and visitors will enjoy these vibrant works of art for years to come,” said CAA president Catherine Hensiek.

Revising rules for renters: Concord Mayor Carlyn Obringer and Councilman Dominic Aliano launched an ad hoc rent committee to review state and local requirements regarding tenant/landlord responsibilities and existing housing needs within the city. “We need to make sure that moving forward, we identify what we’re trying to get at here – the high cost of rents and landlords abusing their position when it comes to increasing rents outrageously,” Aliano said.

In June, the council heard the committee’s report and directed staff to work on rental housing policy options. According to community relations manager Jennifer Ortega, the council is tentatively set to review the plans on Feb. 11, 2020.

A day of religious rituals: In a daylong celebration, Shiva Murugan Temple broke ground Jan. 26 for a new Shaivite Hindu temple at Concord Boulevard and Second Street. The temple design team worked with the Concord Design Review Board for two years before final approval. Followers of Lord Shiva and his son, Lord Murugan, first established a temple in San Francisco in 1957 and moved to Concord in 1988. “We take pride and joy in the fact that beautiful Concord has been inclusive and welcoming of our temple,” said Meena Annamalai, director of temple construction. In November, a temple official told the Pioneer the project is expected to be complete in late 2020.


Helping out Regency residents: The Clayton City Council voted 3-2 to designate fee-based, resident-only permit parking on Regency Drive on weekends, because too many eager Mt. Diablo hikers were clogging the area. The city first added signage to discourage parking and increased police patrols last year, but it wasn’t enough. The pilot permit program launched this October. “It seems to be going well,” police Chief Elise Warren told the Pioneer in late November. “We’re still writing tickets on the weekends to violators, but that number is going down each week so it seems the outsiders are kind of figuring it out.” Councilwoman Julie Pierce noted that the parking crunch could become noticeable again when the waterfalls are running next spring. The council will reevaluate the program after a 15-month trial.

Taking it to the streets: The Concord City Council allocated an additional $400,000 for pothole repairs. The money was a one-time general fund residual because the city collected more than expected from the half-cent sales tax. “I think it’s very clear and evident that our roadways, especially the potholes and some of these small little pavement failures areas, are irking our community,” said Councilwoman Laura Hoffmeister. The vote came after what Birsan called a “gloom and doom” report detailing how the city’s roads could continue to deteriorate.


Soccer stadium as a city center: The Concord City Council entered into an Initial Exclusive Negotiating Agreement (IENA) with Hall Equities Group to bring a professional soccer stadium to the city’s downtown. The proposal includes hotels, a convention center, multi-family housing and retail or commercial development. Many residents spoke out against the project, saying it would forever change the city. The IENA gives the developer 18 months to conduct market studies.


A long and winding road: Members of the Concord City Council and Planning Commission held a joint meeting April 2, as the city continued its discussion of cannabis regulations. Talking points included non-storefront delivery businesses, retail sales and manufacturing. Over the summer, 474 people responded to a city survey – with the majority supporting retail cannabis businesses in a variety of areas. In November, the council reviewed and refined cannabis ordinances that they expect to approve in early 2020. The council decided to keep retail storefronts out of Todos Santos Plaza, while asking staff to draft regulations for up to three recreational storefront licenses. Aliano asked residents to “have faith” that the city will act in the community’s best interest on this contentious issue.

Clayton’s guiding light: At the April 2 City Council meeting, Clayton city manager said he would retire in July. As a token of appreciation, the council declared July 26 as Gary Napper Day. “For the last 18 years, the city of Clayton has benefited from Gary Napper’s professional, diligent, humble and caring leadership,” Mayor Tuija Catalano wrote in her Pioneer column. “Without a doubt, Napper deserves a lot of credit and thanks for all of the positives in Clayton today.”

Joe Sbranti was interim city manager as the council hired a recruiting firm to find a replacement. The council also posted a community survey online to seek input from residents about qualifications and characteristics. After reviewing 33 applicants, the mayor announced in November the hiring of Ikani Taumoepeau – the assistant city manager for Santa Paula.

A vote for local labor: After months of review, the Concord City Council voted against AvalonBay’s mixed-used project on “the white picket fence property” on Galindo Street. Because the three-acre parcel is city-owned, the council wanted to mandate union hires and prevailing wages for the housing/retail project. Despite multiple revisions that including adding affordable housing units, AvalonBay’s proposal did not sway the council. “This is public property – we have to satisfy a public benefit,” Birsan said. He said the council needed to go back to the Request For Proposal (RFP) stage “and remind everyone involved that we’re in it together for a quality project that benefits Concord.” Ortega said the council’s Housing and Economic Development Subcommittee reviewed the RFP for the Town Center II site in August and November and plans to look at it again on Dec. 16.

Capitalizing on community contributions: Building on the city’s Do the Right Thing program for students, the Clayton City Council launched a pilot Making a Difference program for adults. “Many people in Clayton regularly extend themselves to make a difference, without thought of recognition. They inspire the rest of us to do better,” Catalano wrote in her Pioneer column. The program recognizes adults based on different themes – starting with an outstanding teacher, mentor and/or coach award. The pending theme is for an exemplary community contributor, giver and/or benefactor.


Ease on down the road: Work began this month on a $14 million northbound truck lane project on Kirker Pass Road. The plan includes a 12-foot truck lane and an 8-foot paved shoulder for one of Contra Costa County’s most traveled commute routes. Chris Wikler of county Supervisor Karen Mitchoff’s office said completion is expected in September 2020.

Commuters are also waiting to see results of the $136 million Interstate 680/State Route 4 interchange improvement project, which started in January 2019. “No new lanes are operational, but the project is moving forward and there should be a major traffic switch in late spring 2020,” Wikler told the Pioneer in November.

A proud moment: A crowd gathered to celebrate the raising of the LGBTQ Pride flag at Concord City Hall on May 31. The council voted to fly the flag all of June for Pride Month. “It’s about diversity, inclusiveness, tolerance and coming together, especially during these troubling times,” said Jack Rednour-Bruckman, executive director of the Rainbow Community Center.


Park district moves ahead with Concord Hills
The view over the Diablo Valley from Concord Hills, the temporary name for the 2500-acre park planned for the Concord Naval Weapons Station. (Photo: Stephen Joseph)

Campus considerations: Just days after Concord’s Blue Ribbon Committee presented ideas for a “multi-versity” at the former Naval Weapons Station, the city became one of five sites being studied for a possible new state campus. Obringer later led a delegation to meet with Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis about the Concord campus district and the Cal State University feasibility study. “I will continue to seek support to build a public university campus to be the focal point for research, innovation and good jobs for our community,” Obringer posted on Facebook after the Dec. 2 meeting. The state report is due by June 30, 2020.

Troublesome forecast: The Concord City Council approved a balanced biennial operating budget after dipping further into General Fund reserves and using more Measure Q funds. “It’s not a sexy time to be a council member, because this budget is really scary,” Aliano said. As the city looks toward future budget woes, the council advocated community outreach – especially regarding a potential increase to the half-cents Measure Q sales tax in 2020.

Things are looking better in Clayton, where the city’s mid-year budget report reflected a strong fiscal standing. “Other cities would love to be in our position,” Pierce said.

CV grads are killin’ it in LA
Former Concord resident Kyle Newacheck relaxes on the set of “Murder Mystery” in Italy with Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston.

Celebrity status: Clayton Valley High School grad Kyle Newacheck directed “Murder Mystery,” which tallied 30.9 million views for the biggest opening weekend in Netflix history. “It’s wild to have that many people watching the shots that I chose and the takes that I chose and the rhythms that I chose,” Newacheck said of the film, starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston. The movie’s soundtrack includes music from CV alums Jay Whitlatch and Jeremy Wells.

They aren’t the only locals making it big in Hollywood. Six-year-old Mateo Garcia of Clayton signed autographs at a private showing of “40: The Temptation of Christ” in Concord on March 5. Mateo Ray, as he is known in movie circles, portrayed the young Jesus.

And this fall, Clayton resident Makenzie Lee-Foster appeared at the Clayton Library for her new book, “Kickin’ It with Kenzie: What’s Meant for Me Will Be!” The 8-year-old also plays young Deja on the TV series “This is Us.”


Concord Java and Jazz Ellen Herdegan
Ellen Herdegan

Fifty years strong: Concord went all out to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first Concord Jazz Festival. The 1969 festival in what is now Dave Brubeck Park led to the Concord Jazz record label in 1973 and the opening of the Pavilion in 1975. “All That Jazz” was the theme of the 2019 4th of July parade, honoring grand marshal Ellen Findlay Herdegen – who played several roles in establishing the city’s jazz legacy. That was followed on Aug. 3 by a star-studded, seven-hour celebration for 9,000 concertgoers at the Concord Pavilion. “This was a great celebration of what started 50 years ago by Carl Jefferson,” said Concord Records president John Burk. “It’s almost hard to describe my feelings how all things – artistically, audience turnout and the venue – came together.”

Preserving parkland: The East Bay Regional Park District accepted 2,216 acres of former Concord Naval Weapons Station from the Navy for a future regional park. “This is a proud moment for the park district and shows the great power of persistence and working together with the community,” said Beverly Lane, who has represented Concord on the park board since 1994. Park development is expected to take several years.


In search of a chief: Concord Police Chief Guy Swanger announced his retirement after nine years in the post. “The department is in a good place. We have a good City Council,” he said. “I just think it’s time.” Ortega said the city is working with a recruiting firm, with interviews expected in January and a hire in spring 2020. Residents can offer opinions about the job qualifications at opentownhall.com/8045 until Dec. 20. Swanger said he will stay on until the city finds a replacement.

Main St. pistache trees threaten underground utilities
Clayton is about to replace six pistache trees along Main St. that have burst their planters and are threatening serious damage to sidewalks and underground utilities. The trees will be replaced with six crape myrtles. (photo: Tamara Steiner)

Pistache problems: After hearing about liability issues due to sidewalk cracking, the Clayton City Council voted to remove six Chinese pistache trees that were bursting out of planter boxes on Main Street. The city contracted with Kerex Engineering to replace them with 24-inch box crape myrtles, while also running electricity to the tree wells for lights as well as electrical access for downtown events. The project is expected to start mid-December.


Coasting along: At the Sept. 10 Concord City Council meeting, Economic Development manager John Montagh expressed optimism about a deal with the Coast Guard to purchase 58 acres for a mixed-income residential project.

Ortega told the Pioneer in late November that the city is still in negotiation with the General Services Administration, which represents the Coast Guard. The city plans to work with DeNova Homes to develop the site.
A new 911 option: The Concord Police Department launched a 911 texting system, targeted at people who are hearing or voice impaired or are incapable of talking due to a medical emergency. Sgt. Kevin Halm expects it will be used “fairly infrequently,” noting that phones calls are still the best way to reach emergency services.


St. Bonaventure mourns death of popular priest
Father Mathew Vellankal

Faith communities in transition: Father Mathew Vellankal, the pastor of St. Bonaventure Catholic Church in Concord, died in a car accident in Colusa County on Oct. 10. “He was such a gem, easy going and very humble,” said William Gall, a deacon at St. Bonaventure. “He was very collaborative and encouraging and had so much energy.” Father Oscar Rojas is the interim parochial administrator.

Meanwhile, parishioners at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Concord marked a new era as Father Marin State, who led the congregation for 20 years, stepped aside – making way for his son, Father Michael State. “When the possibility presented itself, it was extremely exciting and humbling,” the younger pastor said.


Hen hospitality: The Clayton City Council finalized an ordinance on Nov. 19 that will allow residents in most single-family homes to keep up to 10 hens – but no roosters. “It’s time we do this,” Pierce said. “It has become far more commonplace throughout the county.” Truth be told, there were probably many hens already pecking about in the city’s backyards. Now those chickens can enter 2020 with their heads held high.