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PITTSBURG (BCN) – With strong union support but against broad environmental opposition, the Pittsburg City Council on Monday night unanimously approved the Faria/Southwest Hills project that will have 1,500 more homes built along the busy state Highway 4 corridor.

The subject of a 2005 city ballot measure that passed by less than 400 votes, the project was proposed by the Seeno Construction group under its Altec Homes subsidiary.

The company’s CEO Albert Seeno III attended the virtual meeting Monday night and spoke in support of the project at length with project manager Louis Parsons.

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City Manager Garrett Evans noted during the meeting that extensive public outreach has led to a project that is now designed for 341 acres of development and 265 acres of open space, down from the original plan for 478 acres of development.

Site of proposed Faria / Southwest Hills development in Pittsburg. (Bay City News Service)

The project includes $13.69 million for county habitat impact fees, $43 million for traffic mitigation (including improvements to the Highway 4 Bay Point exit and on-ramp), $13.4 million for school facilities and $1 million for Pittsburg facilities. The city will also realize a projected $2.75 million in added property tax revenue at the project’s completion.

Planning Manager Kristin Pollot also noted that the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District last month approved a $10 million contract to construct a new fire station on Goble Drive just north of the Faria project.

Faria will also include 150 affordable housing units, which several council members noted could be ADUs (accessory dwelling units), or “tiny homes” as small as 300 square feet. Several public comments criticized the plan for not requiring comparable stand-alone homes as affordable housing options.

Parsons and Seeno emphasized their belief that the positioning of the homes in the valleys of the hillside property will preserve the ridgeline views of the area with little development visible from the highway or the city of Concord. A number of public comments criticized the developer for submitting no detailed plan for streets, lots or neighborhoods. Lots can be as small as 4,000 square feet with 75 homes planned as single stories.

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Juan Pablo Galvan of the group Save Mount Diablo spoke against the project during the public comment session, citing the proposal’s increase of traffic, air emissions and wildlife impacts. The Greenbelt Alliance and other local environmental activists also submitted objections.

Several area affordable housing groups also sent written objections to the council. The East Bay Regional Park District also filed its opposition to the project. Seeno’s firm is currently suing the park district over the plans for the planned Concord Hills Regional Park nearby.

Several local union representatives spoke in support of Faria during the council meeting.

Council members Jelani Killings and Juan Antonio Banales noted Monday night that since voters approved the 2005 ballot vote rezoning the property, the council’s only choice was in the details of the housing plan, not if there will be homes there.

Mayor Merl Craft also said her support for the project will bring upscale housing and other commercial services to the city.

“We need to raise our income levels so that grocery stores and other retail will want to come to Pittsburg,” Craft said.

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U.S. Senate approves bill to tighten controls on Chinese-funded Confucius Institutes

Lily Thompson performs a Celebration Ribbons dance during a Lunar New Year celebration at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center in Westbrook on Saturday, February 10, 2018. Students from the CAFAM Chinese School performed traditional dances at the celebration that was sponsored by the Chinese & American Friendship Association of Maine and the Confucius Institute at the University of Southern Maine.Gregory Rec | Portland Press Herald | Getty Images

The U.S. Senate on Friday approved by unanimous consent a bill that would increase oversight on Chinese-funded cultural centers, or Confucius Institutes, on university campuses.

According to Human Rights Watch, Confucius Institutes "are Chinese government-funded outposts that offer Chinese language and culture classes." However, some politicians have accused them of spreading propaganda.

Sens. Marco Rubio and Marsha Blackburn last year introduced a bill to increase transparency around the centers. "For far too long, the Communist Chinese government has attempted to infiltrate American universities through the disguise of the government-run Confucius Institute," Rubio said.

The bill approved by the Senate on Friday would decrease federal funding to universities and colleges that have Confucius Institutes on campus that don't comply with new oversight rules and regulations.

The bill must be taken up by the House and signed by President Joe Biden to become law.

The case against the institutions has gained steam in the past few years, particularly among Republicans.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, in 2019 said U.S. schools are allowing a level of access to the Chinese government that can "stifle academic freedom" and provide an "incomplete picture of Chinese government actions and policies that run counter to U.S. interests at home and abroad," according to NBC News.

However, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said the Senate had uncovered "no evidence that these institutes are a center for Chinese espionage or any other illegal activist," in the same NBC News article.

Congress's 2019 annual defense spending package severely limited the autonomy of these Chinese-funded cultural centers by threatening to withhold language program funding from their host universities, Human Rights Watch reported.

In turn, nearly 22 Confucius Institutes have closed since the Act's passage, according to Human Rights Watch.

The University of Missouri closed its Confucius Institute last year, after a notice from the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs regarding visa concerns, amid a Trump administration drive to shutter the institutions.

Changes to State Department guidance on hosting the institutions would have made it too costly to maintain, a university provost said at the time.

Long before the lawmakers raised alarms, University professors signaled issues with the institutes.

The American Association of University Professors, or AAUP, released a report in 2014 which recommended colleges take a deeper look at curriculums and agendas brought forth in the classroom.

"Confucius Institutes function as an arm of the Chinese state and are allowed to ignore academic freedom," the statement said, also highlighting a lack of transparency. "Most agreements establishing Confucius Institutes feature nondisclosure clauses and unacceptable concessions to the political aims and practices of the government of China."

Recently-confirmed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield came under fire during her confirmation hearing regarding such Institutes.

Rep. Senator Ted Cruz highlighted a 2019 speech at a Confucius Institute, which has since closed, in which Thomas-Greenfield appeared soft on China. Cruz claimed Thomas-Greenfield was being overly optimistic about China's relationship with African countries while not being tough enough on Beijing's human rights record.

She later said the speech was a mistake, didn't portray her views on China and she vowed to limit Beijing's influence at U.N. general assembly meetings.

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