Residential is the key word in a new proposed mixed-use development concept for a 527-acre vacant lot in the Benicia Business Park. Owned by the Seeno family, the site is an oval-shaped parcel bound by East Second Street, Lake Herman Road and Interstate 680. The Concord-based Seeno Construction, one of the Bay Area’s largest developers, withdrew its business park proposal in 2010, citing economic issues and a changing market, according to city staff. A new proposal has now come forward.

The Schwartz Land Development Company is under contract with the owner and has an option to buy the property, according to a city of Benicia Community Development staff report. The concept includes a mix of industrial, commercial and residential land uses for the city’s last large undeveloped parcel. It does not contain specifics on how many housing units would be proposed, nor does it contain other components of a more fleshed out development application.

The Northern Gateway parcel is currently zoned light industrial and commercial. A residential component would require a General Plan amendment. The Schwartz firm of Orinda has submitted a General Plan amendment application, but has not submitted a detailed Master Plan/Specific Plan application and zoning ordinance amendment, city Community Development Director Christina Ratcliff said. A General Plan amendment would not go out for a public vote, she said, adding that the City Council would have the final say on the issue.

The Schwartz firm is currently seeking opinions on whether or not city officials would give the residential component a fair shake, said Ratcliffe. Toward that aim, the company presented its concept to the Benicia Planning Commission on Jan. 26, and was scheduled to go before the City Council on Feb. 23, Ratcliff said. A key concern for staff is that “the city has always held that land as industrial and commercial,” she added. However, the Schwartz firm has indicated that residential is necessary to make the development financially feasible, she said.

Northern Gateway is proposed to have 112 acres of residential, 150 acres of industrial, 22 acres of commercial and 244 acres of open space, according to the city staff report. Current zoning would allow 466 acres of industrial, 62 acres of commercial, and zero acres of residential and open space. The proposed plan would retain a commercial site at the Lake Herman Road and I-680 interchange. However, the applicant is proposing that parcel be zoned Community Commercial (rather than General Commercial) to allow for businesses to meet residential needs.

Planning Commission members and speakers at the Jan. 26 workshop weighed in on the concept, giving mixed reactions. Nearly a dozen residents spoke under public comment. Some speakers indicated a need for transparency while others expressed concerns about water, traffic, loss of rural character, and the mix of uses in the industrial area, including close proximity to the Valero Refinery. Some supported the concept, saying the residential part would jump-start the commercial and industrial components and provided needed jobs.

Former Benicia Planning Department Director John Bunch said residential units would be isolated and residents would need to drive through industrial areas to get to other parts of the community. Former City Councilman Mike Ioakimedes urged the Planning Commission to keep an open mind. Meanwhile, planning commissioners, for the most part, indicated they would be willing to consider residential uses, but they had reservations, and that the decision to open the parcel up for residential could have major implications for Benicia.