Surrounded by water and dedicated open space, Benicia is primarily built out, with few places left for homeowners and developers to put up new housing. With its local charm and waterfront setting, Benicia is in a prime location. Part of the simmering hot Bay Area housing market, by several accounts it has one of the healthiest real estate markets in the region.
Those forces, combined with a strengthened economy have resulted in a flurry of home building activity on the few remaining empty residential parcels in town, on the west side near the water. “We are definitely seeing a lot of activity,” said Christina Ratcliffe, the city’s Community Development Director, who noted an overall increase in building permits for a variety of residential construction activity.
Some of the current home construction now taking place includes remodeling and additions, plus tearing down existing structures and building new ones. Some folks are taking advantage of the city’s residential solar incentive program, and various financing programs to install energy-reducing home features. “We are coming out of the recession and folks are feeling more comfortable” with adding on a new room, doing kitchen remodels or taking on more elaborate projects, said Ratcliffe.
With the town mostly built out residentially, homeowners and developers are getting creative in filling the need for more housing. Besides all the remodeling, more than a few new homes are going up, too. Amidst the activity are five new single-family homes on West L Street across from Benicia High School, and four parcels being prepared for new home construction on West K Street near West 10th. More construction is dotted throughout the west side, including on the few empty parcels remaining on the waterfront. Some new home construction is also in the works on the east side, though ground has not yet been broken. There are no new homes currently being built in Southampton as all the lots in that area have been built out, said Ratcliffe.
Vacant parcels for sale in Benicia attract a lot of interest. But Ratcliffe said what’s usually not publicized is that these lots are usually among the more challenging to build on, such as waterfront lots whose boundaries are partially underwater. Benicia architect Steve McKee, who has helped many residents design their dream homes, is building his own family’s home on a waterfront parcel on West 6th Street, which has a strict height limitation and a cliff in the rear. He said the lot is mostly flat and he’s made special accommodations to make it safe over the years. Building a waterfront home has been a long-term goal. “I’ve been living in my West K Street home for the past 28 years. I knew I wanted to build something with a waterfront view and I went shopping for it in 2010,” when prices were still lower by Bay Area standards, he said. The new home is slated for completion this year.
Benicia has also seen some new accessory dwelling units in recent years, though Ratcliffe said she is not seeing a huge trend. Accessory dwelling units are small units on the same parcel as a single family home, and can include an apartment over a garage, or what’s known as a granny flat, built next to the main house. One of these is currently under construction on what was a vacant parcel on West J Street between West 6th and West 7th Streets. The deep parcel will accommodate a larger, primary residence, currently in the planning stages, next too it. Overall, these small units are gaining in popularity as a way to meet housing needs, as well as provide affordable housing. Benicia has added seven since 2014, with three on the west side, two on the east side and two in the Southampton area, said Ratcliffe. They all add to the mix of housing available in the desirable Benicia housing market. With the recent activity, additional homes will be few and far between. McKee said that around town, there’s a general feeling that good parcels are scarce. In Benicia, the days of building major subdivisions are long gone. “There’s not a lot of space left even for minor subdivisions here. The little four-or-five-house subdivisions are rare.”