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December 17, 2008 > Mark Leonard, Economic & Community Development Director, Union City

Mark Leonard, Economic & Community Development Director, Union City

By Simon Wong

Mr Mark Leonard will retire on December 29, 2008, after 24 1/2 years as Union City's Economic & Community Development Director.

Originally from Boston, Massachusetts, Mark Leonard moved to Southern California between his junior and senior years of high school. He remained in Pasadena for twelve months before moving to San Diego State University where he earned a degree in Geography with a minor in Biology.

As an undergraduate he studied physical geography, social, transportation and other forms of urban geography and, in his senior year, took an internship in the City of Coronado Planning Department in the San Diego area. He discovered he had an affinity for the work and earned his Master's degree in Urban and Regional Planning from San Jose State University in 1974.

While a graduate student, he worked for Los Gatos on the Work Study Program and conducted a land-use study for the town. The study became the subject of his Master's thesis.

Before graduating from San Jose State, Leonard was hired by the City of San Mateo as an Assistant Planner in Current & Advanced Planning where he remained for four years. The following seven years were spent as Planning Director then as Community Development Director for the City of Arcata. He also instructed undergraduates as a visiting professor at Humboldt State University.


TCV: You could have pursued an academic career or joined a private sector company; why public service?

LEONARD: I was more interested in working for a community. Basically, I consider myself a product of the 1960's and wanted a career in a socially responsible profession. I have an affinity for the public sector and city planning.


TCV: At the start of your career, what issues faced planners?

LEONARD: Affordable housing was a major issue. The 1970's saw house price inflation begin accelerate. This put home-ownership beyond the reach of an increasing number of people. At the same time, the Bay Area was starting to densify. BART entered service in the early 70's and there was regional attention on transportation and traffic issues. The Environmental Movement had gained enough momentum for the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to be adopted in 1970. There were also an increasing number of issues surfacing with regard to the loss of natural habitat in the Bay Area and urban areas in general.


TCV: Was California a leader of this change of mood?

LEONARD: Most definitely. I believe the Environmental Movement has its roots, to a great degree, in California. The passage of CEQA is evidence of that. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) also came into being at about the same time.


TCV: Why did you apply to work in Union City?

LEONARD: I applied in Union City because I saw the potential for guided growth. At that time, the City had about 39,000 residents; there were large tracts of undeveloped land and a need for major infrastructure. Development came south from Oakland, San Leandro and Hayward and north from San Jose and converged in Milpitas, Fremont, Newark and Union City.


TCV: When you joined, presumably the planning commissioners and elected officials had their view of what direction Union City should take? How has that changed?

LEONARD: When I first came here, I think there was a lack of understanding of the immediate and long-term impacts of development and of preservation goals. I don't think the community had come to grips with what was important to protect, such as wetlands and hillsides, and what was important to develop, in terms of densification in the urban core, especially around BART.

Union City effectively began as an industrial community. Before large-scale residential development began, residential development was interwoven with industrial areas without much logic. Often, the proximity of the uses was inappropriate, such as homes encroaching on chemical companies and heavy industry without proper safeguards and buffers.


TCV: What do Union City's elected officials and planning commissioners want for the community?

LEONARD: Union City, from a policy standpoint, is very pro-business. We depend on businesses to be productive because there is an inseparable link between the public and private sectors. Anyone who doesn't understand that does not understand how public services are provided. The city's General Plan, rewritten in the late 1990's is based on two things - economic development and services to our youth, seniors and families. That understanding, on the decision-makers' part, has really enabled the community to balance residential growth with business growth.


TCV: Union City covers a total of 18 sq. miles. Developable flatlands consist of 9 sq. miles and the protected Hillside Area accounts for the remainder. What problems are associated with the development and management of such scarce resources?

LEONARD: I regard the mix between the undeveloped hillsides and the developed flatlands as an opportunity. Much of Union City's hillside areas are publicly owned, notably by the East Bay Regional Park District. About half of the hillside area is privately owned, most of it by one, large landowner.

The City's hillside areas are very steep with virtually no access roads to the back. Ninety percent of the hillside area has no urban services of any kind, such as sewer, water and electrical lines. There is very little pressure to urbanize the area at this point.

To protect the hillsides, in 1989, Union City voters passed Measure B that required a Hillside Area Plan that mandated certain environmental protection policies but still permitted some small areas of the hillside to be developed under very limited conditions. In 1996, Measure B was strengthened by Measure II which stipulates that the policies of the Hillside Area Plan can only be amended by the voters and not just the City Council. So, there was a strong movement to recognize the challenges of developing the hillside areas and preserving those environmental resources.


TCV: What do you consider the single biggest challenge during your tenure in Union City?

LEONARD: Perhaps the biggest challenge today is the need to retain the remaining small amount of vacant industrial land for industrial development. Besides pressure from the current economic downturn, which I hope will be of short duration there is great pressure to convert land to residential purposes. We've lost hundreds of acres of industrial land to residential use. We have to bring jobs into closer proximity to our housing.

One of the biggest challenges in the mid to late 1980's was how we should develop and protect our Bay front lands. We had approximately 1,000 acres of marshes and salt flats along the Bay in private ownership and subject to tremendous development pressure.

We prepared a plan in cooperation with the landowners, developers, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the US Fish & Wildlife Service and California Department of Fish & Game to identify upland areas that were logical to develop and wetland areas that were logical to preserve in a natural state. We prepared the "9-11 Plan" which was a landmark effort to advance/identify wetlands prior to the filing of a development application. That removed the uncertainty, mystery and pain of debate as to whether land was appropriate for development along the salt flats or whether it was appropriate for preservation. The Plan resulted in the development of 250 acres and the preservation of around 750 acres for natural uses.

Another major challenge of great significance to the community was the cleanup and development of the Pacific State Steel Corporation (PSSC) site. We had a steel mill that essentially went into receivership in 1978. Bills were owed to the pensioners of the former steel company and Union City was left with a blighted mess. We worked with Federal and State agencies, including the Federal Court, to find a way to generate revenues through the clean up and development of the land to discharge the former steel company's obligations. That took twenty-years to accomplish.

Although PSSC was a private entity, there was no help to pay for the clean up and development of the property without public involvement. We used the resources of the Redevelopment Agency to pay for some of the urban infrastructure to write-down the costs of clean up and redevelopment. Clean up of the site began in earnest in the late 80's/early 90's. It took some time to develop a plan, fund it and then implement it. The least contaminated land was developed and those development revenues funded the clean up of the most polluted portions of the property.


TCV: During your tenure in Union City, what period has seen the fastest pace of change?

LEONARD: Union City has grown very quickly. From the late 80's to the mid-90's we were developing a million square feet of industrial properties each year. We were also approving large sub-divisions of homes and building large shopping centers. Union City has had a steady pace of development since the 1960's to date. In historical terms, that's a relatively short period of time.

When you have strong development pressure, you can make mistakes when you don't have time to evaluate what you are doing. I would say that we are fortunate to be part of a well-developed, urbanized area. There are many examples of good, as well as bad, development nearby. We would take the time to visit other communities, look around and see what we felt they were doing right and what we felt they had not done right. The advantage was that we were close to other communities that served as examples of development efforts that have proven either successful or less than productive.


TCV: What issues face planners in the next twenty-five to fifty years?

LEONARD: Planners will have a major role in the Green Revolution. It is incumbent upon us to understand, from a scientific standpoint, the relationship between growth and carbon emissions. It is our responsibility to translate that information from the scientific community to policy makers so that the values that surface and the programs that are developed in response to those values are environmentally responsible. We need to be diligent students of economic, social, political and environmental trends and act as interpreters to help guide decisions.


TCV: What are your personal values?

LEONARD: I believe in fairness. It's very important to be fair. As a manger, it is important to understand people's strengths and to give them an opportunity to let them perform in their jobs. I believe in open communication and the exchange of ideas through teamwork. It is important to listen because if you can understand the core values of people, you'll be much more successful in making changes that are socially responsible.


TCV: Why should anybody contemplate a career in planning?

LEONARD: If a student has a particular interest in urban studies, I would encourage them to learn more about the political system and what's happening in their own community.


TCV: What have been the rewards of your time in Union City?

LEONARD: We have built an interactive and socially diverse community of which I am particularly proud. Our community is safe. We have a wonderful school system and a community that is physically very attractive and healthy.


TCV: What will you miss about work?

LEONARD: I shall miss the people with whom I work directly, my friends in the community, with whom I also work on City affairs, and the future opportunities to put forward my thoughts to help direct future growth.


TCV: Is there anything that you would like to say to our readers?

LEONARD: Yes. Please participate in your local city governments. Those who work for you need to hear from you. We need to know what you value and what you need. That's the only way that we can most efficiently and most effectively provide our services. Please participate in city government.

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