Rhea Mahbubani

Former Pittsburgh Steeler Helps Expand East Bay Regional Park Land

“It made more sense to donate it to the park district than to build it out,” Gordon Gravelle said.

On the gridiron, Gordon Gravelle was a bruiser. He spent eight seasons playing tackle in the NFL — five on the immortal 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers. He played in three Super Bowls taking home two rings.

In his second career — Gravelle was more likely to tackle big real estate deals as a long-time developer in the Antioch area. But Gravelle’s most significant deal might be the one that earned him no money — and instead kept a prime piece of ridge line in Antioch from ever bearing a single house.

This week Gravelle’s Suncrest Homes signed the papers to conclude a land donation of 50 acres to the East Bay Regional Parks District. The donation followed decades of work securing permits and mollifying wildlife agencies in order to build 50 high-end homes on the prime piece of property. By the time Gravelle pulled the plug, the $3 million piece of land was fully permitted for building.

gordon pic-pittsburgh steelers
Joe Rosato Jr./NBC Bay Area
Former Pittsburgh Steeler-turned-real estate developer Gordon Gravelle donated 50 acres of prime ridge line land to the East Bay Regional Parks District. (Dec. 21, 2016)

“It made more sense to donate it to the park district than to build it out,” Gravelle said this week.

Gravelle’s company bought the property in the 1980s with the intention of eventually building high-end homes with sweeping views of the Sierras and the Delta. The path was anything but smooth as state and federal agencies required numerous assurances because of endangered species that are believed to call the land home.

Several years ago, Suncrest Homes struck a deal with the agencies to donate 134 separate acres of land to the parks to mitigate the impact of building homes on the 50 acres.

But even after securing all the needed permits, Gravelle said the recent recession made the project economically unfeasible. He decided to throw in the towel and donate the land.

“I think this project ran out of its time,” Gravelle said. “It made more sense today to have it become part of the ridge line.”

barn-nfl-pittsburgh steelers
Joe Rosato Jr./NBC Bay Area
A barn from the early 1900s sits on a 134 piece of land currently being purchased by the East Bay Regional Parks District near the entrance to the Black Diamond Mines Regional Park. (Dec. 21, 2016)

The grassy ridge, which rises above rows of houses, will now connect to thousands of acres of the East Bay Regional Parks' nearby Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve.

The parks district is also nearing completion on its purchase of 155 acres of land at the entrance to the preserve just south of Antioch, which includes a rickety, but historic dairy farm from the early 1900s. The district is expected to complete the $300,000 purchase from the Antioch School District by early next year.

“If the park district hadn’t acquired it, it could have developed into a school, subdivided into ranch-ettes,” said Liz Musbach, chief of Land Acquisitions for the East Bay Regional Parks District. “And then all the surrounding space you see around it and the historic structures very well could have been lost forever.”

The farm includes a failing barn and numerous other crumbling buildings. The parks district hopes to eventually restore some of the structures and use them for interpretive spaces or offices. The land purchase will allow the parks district to move some of its services to the park’s entrance, rather than a mile into the park where they currently sit.

barn and view
Joe Rosato Jr./NBC Bay Area
A farm from the early 1900s sits at the base of hundreds of acres of open space at the entrance of the Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve near Antioch. (Dec. 21, 2016)

“Now you’re really going to have this really cool site, where you’re going to get to appreciate the heritage of dairy farming,”  said East Bay Regional Parks board member Diane Burgis.

The pair of land acquisitions mean some 250 acres of prime territory will remain open space, even as development marches to the preserve’s edges.

“What it means is this landscape and wildlife corridor will be preserved in perpetuity,” Musbach said.

The parks district hasn’t decided what it will do with the property donated by Gravelle’s Suncrest Homes. Musbach said the land might not be fitting for trails or public use and may be eventually fenced off and remain undeveloped.

Gravelle had planned to the call his proposed development "Sierra Vista" for its views of the far-off Sierra Mountain Range. He called the project one of the most “sensitive” he’d ever seen in his development career — a choice of words that suggested he was well-removed from his years as a football bruiser.

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