CITY PROFILE: Hercules
Hercules has a rich history as a small industrial company town, but for most practical purposes it is a very new city which has grown sensibly, if not always smoothly. There is very little housing older than the mid 1970s. Roads are well designed and there is great access to freeways. Despite affordable home values, the community boasts the best schools in West Contra Costa County.
While development of new housing and city infrastructure are likely stalled for a while, there are plans for an exciting waterfront and city center overlooking San Pablo Bay.
Hercules offers the convenience of a West County location with a fraction of the crime and infrastructure problems facing the urban areas to the south.
During its early growth phases in the 1970s and 1980s, Hercules had string funding from its industrial base which allowed it to be innovative in planning growth.
Hercules began as a company town for workers in the gunpowder and dynamite factory, whose major product was the Hercules brand (photo right). A small plant was bought by DuPont in the mid 1800s , expanded, and renamed for Hercules of Greek mythology. The town was incorporates in 1900 and received a Post Office in 1914. In 1912 anti-trust action resulted in the independent Hercules Powder Company.
The plant produced munitions for both world wars and Hercules dynamite was used to combat the San Francisco fire in 1906. Later operations expanded to include fertilizer and other chemicals. In the 1940s the Hercules Police Department was formed, with personnel from the plant security.
In 1966 Pacific Refinery opened in Hercules and operated there for 28 years. Taxes from munitions, fertilizer, and refinery production gave Hercules a high per capita budget and allowed the town to be proactive in its development. In the 1970s,Hercules was one of the first cities in the United States to develop a comprehensive Noise Element of the General Plan. This work included the production of noise contour maps for all major highways and arterial roads, as well as a city-wide mitigation plan
In 1966 the population of Hercules was only 300 people. By the 1970s land had become valuable and labor too costly to continue manufacturing in the Bay Area. By the mid-1970s Centex Homes and other developers began to build new subdivisions and changed Hercules into a residential suburb.
The 1980’s continued to see vast amounts of growth. Sycamore Place and Creekside shopping centers both opened, new parks including Refugio Valley and Foxboro were created and City officials worked on the drawings for a new Civic Center and Community Swim Center, which both opened in the early 1990s. Hercules was growing so quickly, that it was the fastest growing suburb in California in the 1980s.
In 2000, the City of Hercules chartered an urban-design-based land use planning effort. This plan attempted to balance the preservation of the city's undeveloped land against continued suburban sprawl and to redevelop the city's formerly industrial waterfront. The resulting plan directs that Hercules be turned into a transit-oriented, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use town. In 2006, the City used its power of eminent domain to prevent Wal-Mart from building a store overlooking San Pablo Bay which it deemed incompatible with the industrial waterfront redevelopment project. The City bought the land for redevelopment.
Some have been critical of City Leadership including attempt to incorporate low income housing in middle class neighborhoods, and lack of fiscal responsibility. After investing more than $38 million of its redevelopment funds an apartment project, Hercules sold the unfinished building for only $425,000. In 2013 State Controller John Chiang criticized the City for having what he called "the worst set of city accounting records he had seen.
Serious financial setbacks, caused in part by reduced property taxes on lower assessments, resulted in the closure of programs, reduction of the City’s staff by 40%, and a questionable ability to cover over $8 million in annual debt service, including payments on $138 million borrowed to finance mostly defunct redevelopment projects.
There are few homes in Hercules which are older than the mid 1970s, and most of the neighborhoods are well maintained. There are several new and creative developments, mostly on the water side of Highway 80. Several neighborhood have built with themes of classic early twentieth century architecture such as craftsman, federal, or victorian (photo right). This is consistent with few remaining homes from the old company town, most of which are lovingly preserved.
While most of the early neighborhood reflect the design of the time, a mix of single story ranchers and contemporary two-stories on wide lots, new construction is mostly two and even three stories on narrow deep lots, similar to the urban lots of the early twentieth century. In several neighborhoods, garages are accessed from rear alleys.
While these are aesthetically pleasing exteriors, the deep-narrow floor-plans often preclude the most desirable great-room effect, which people expect in newer homes. Some buyers object to the non-connected garages, for security reasons. While not for everyone, these creative designs and neighborhoods are often appealing and affordable alternatives to condominiums and townhomes in other communities.
Hercules students are served by two schools districts. Most children attend schools in the West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD), but several neighborhoods on the north end of town attend the John Swett Unified School District (JSUSD). The former is a large district serving most Contra Costa communities on the west side of the hills, from Kensington and El Cerrito in the south to Hercules in the north. John Swett is a small district serving Rodeo, Crockett, Port Costa, and part of Hercules.
In the both districts, kids attend elementary schools to the 5th grade. In the WCCUSD they then attend a combined campus for middle and high school. While on the same campus 6-8 grade students are on one side and 9-12 students are on the other, with the administrative complex and library separating the two sides. In the JSUSD kids attend 6-8 grades at Carquinez Middle School, then attend John Swett High School.
There are three neighborhood elementary schools in the WCCUSD areas Hanna Ranch, Ohlone, and Lupine with 2013 API scores of 880, 781, and 778 respectively. In the John Swett district, one elementary school Rodeo Hills with 450 students, serves: Rodeo, Crockett, Port Costa, and Hercules and has a 2013 API rating of 757.
Hercules High has a 2013 API rating of 738, the highest rating in in the West Contra Costa Unified School District. This rivals or exceeds the public high schools in Concord (non chartered), Berkeley, and all areas between Albany and Hercules. While not a stellar score, this is a good alternative for families who care about education but face a tight housing budget. John Swett High School has a slightly higher 2103 API rating of 756 virtually matching Berkeley High (757 API).
High Schools Map - Shows State API Score by Location
(Above 900 is excellent - Under 700 is scary)