Smokestack will be razed
By Tanya Rose – Contra Costa Times
Article Launched: 07/29/2008 05:24:41 PM PDT
As soon as a contractor is on board, perhaps a year from now or maybe sooner, the 244-foot Cowell smokestack will be taken apart piece by piece until it’s gone.
The tower has marked the city’s skyline for 74 years, serving as a morning salutation for Ygnacio Valley Road commuters heading into Concord and Walnut Creek from points east every day.
But it is crumbling, and in danger of falling onto houses and into a neighborhood swimming pool if an earthquake occurred.
City leaders decided Monday night that the Cowell Homeowners Association does not have to commission a $100,000 environmental report on the impacts of knocking the stack down versus fixing it. That study would take months, and every moment wasted is another moment the tower weakens, they said.
So, as soon as the homeowners can pull demolition permits and find a contractor to take down the tower, they have a green light to make it happen. Association board member Patrick Lammers says the teardown won’t likely start for eight months, after rainy season is over.
“There are a lot of people living in close proximity to that smokestack,” said Councilman Guy Bjerke. “I know we all like it, but it really is a safety issue.”
The Planning Commission ruled in February that the homeowners association would, in fact, have to do the environmental study. But since then, Concord spent $12,000 hiring its own engineers to study the integrity of the stack. Based on that new information, the council reversed the February decision.The engineers found the tower is “very vulnerable” to overturning, and that there’s a 47 percent chance it will fall in the next 50 years. Based on a 350-foot radius “impact zone,” the city estimates 374 people are vulnerable to being hit by a falling stack, and that $8 million in property value is at risk. That includes a swim team assembly area and pool, a playground, tennis courts, soccer league turf area and 12 houses within the impact zone. The association estimated about 200 people, mostly children, are present at the pool staging area during a swim event.
There would also be about $700,000 in cleanup costs, according to the city staff report.
State law requires an environmental impact report, but there is an emergency exemption if the structure is in danger of falling.
This is good news for the association, which has already spent $250,000 on its own engineering studies, and has fought hard for the right to tear the stack down. The group argued publicly that the 1,000-plus families living in the neighborhoods there can barely afford the $1 million demolition price, let alone the $4 million it would take to restore the stack.
“We’ve always felt this was a safety issue,” said Lammers. “We don’t want the stack to come down, but it’s the thing to do.”
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Cowellian Blog — 12 September 2008
On September 3, the City Planning Commission approved granting a Demolition Permit for the Smokestack. Now, everyone is waiting for the the mandated appeals period to expire. At this point, the only allowable appeal would be that leaving the smokestack would not be a danger.
Meanwhile, Swinerton is actively writing the Request for Proposal (RFP), and expects to present it to the CHA Board of Directors about October 1st. Last night, the Board appointed a committee of engineers and bankers to review the RFP on the Board’s behalf.
The Smokestack Committee, like the Board itself, is working for free.
The people living in the smokestack’s shadow are justifiably nervous, especially after last week’s temblor. However, after the RFP goes out, and the bids start coming in, things could move pretty quickly.
Of course, the great unknown is still the cost, and how to pay for it. The earlier estimate was $1.5 million, so we’re starting with that assumption. After paying for the engineering study, there is over $200,000 in the smokestack account, but we’ll have to have all of the money to pay the contractor once the demolition is complete. In order to get a loan, 60% of the homeowners would have to approve it, and it’s rare when even 30% of the homeowners bother to vote in any election. However, once they find out that the only alternative to approving a loan is an immediate emergency assessment, they may be more willing to mark and return their ballots. I stay current with my mortgage and dues, but I certainly don’t have an extra $1,500 laying around for my share of the demolition.
Cowell Historical Society