Shouts of “lies!” rang out in Richmond’s city council chambers on the night of Nov. 5. Councilmember and former mayor Nat Bates had characterized people opposing the city’s current plan to develop Point Molate as non-residents who “don’t care about Richmond.” Yet almost every one of more than 20 people commenting publicly at the meeting identified themselves as Richmond residents. Mayor Tom Butt called for order several times, then threatened to empty the chamber, calling in Richmond police. As at least five squad cars pulled up and uniformed police entered the chamber, the council took a break.
The agenda item noisily being debated concerned amendments to the city’s plan to develop Point Molate. And the racket generated by the years-long battle resonates far beyond Richmond. In his book, The Golden Shore, David Helvarg of the Save Point Molate Alliance recounts a friend calling it, “The most beautiful part of the bay no one ever heard of.”
Point Molate is a 413-acre headland facing north toward San Francisco Bay and Mount Tamalpais. Part of the San Pablo Peninsula, it is accessible by land solely via Stenmark Drive, the last exit from Interstate 580 before the Richmond/San Rafael Bridge. The narrow, bumpy road winds through coastal grasslands, with sheltered inlets along 1.4 miles of shoreline to the west. Mule deer and wild turkey roam the grasslands among live oak, coyote brush, wild mint, huge toyons, and other native plants. More than 160 species of birds are found on the shoreline and surrounding acreage. The small Point Molate Beach Park, reopened in 2014 after extensive toxic clean-up, attracts dog owners and osprey watchers. The peninsula also is home to Winehaven, formerly the world’s largest winery, a giant red “castle” complete with parapet and turrets and surrounded by the remnants of the “village” once inhabited by winery workers. To the east rise the Potrero Hills and a 400-foot ridge that hides Point Molate’s immediate neighbor — the enormous Chevron Richmond refinery.
The site’s beauty, isolation, and million-dollar views isolation have led to the two competing visions for its future, either as preserved primarily for public access and parkland, or redeveloped into a residential community with waterfront homes.
The raging fight over Point Molate’s development involves a complex stew of issues being debated not just locally, but also statewide and globally. Gentrification, environmental preservation, wildfire prevention, planning for climate change, and preserving public land vs. economic development for cities in financial crisis are all parts of a complex equation, the solution to which hasn’t yet been found.
Point Molate’s adjacency to the Chevron Corporation’s refinery and tank farm, which experienced major explosions and fires in 1989, 1999, and 2012, and continues to be plagued by flaring and emissions, is further complicated by the site’s lack of access and egress. Stenmark Drive, directly next to the bridge tollbooths, is often heavily congested, creating possible nightmare scenarios for potential residents in the case of a wildfire or refinery accident.
Yet as many as 4,000 residents could be living at Point Molate in a few years under the plan approved in April by the Richmond City Council. Developer SunCal’s plan calls for approximately 1,500 units outside the historic area and 624,572 square feet of commercial space or 1,080 residential units, or a mix of the two, in the historic area. SunCal Senior Vice President David Soyka said in an email that the project will offer “market-rate townhomes” on 3,000-4,000 square-foot lots. “We will also be committed to building affordable housing to provide quality of life for working families.” At least 70 percent of the 270 dry land acres would remain as open space, Soyka added, with an enhanced shoreline park and Bay Trail improvement and a “rehabilitated and energized Winehaven historic district with commercial amenities.”
The appeal of such a development to cash-strapped Richmond is obvious. “This development will generate a new ongoing source of revenues to the city’s general fund derived from property taxes, and sales taxes collected from new commercial uses at Point Molate,” Soyka noted. Those revenues, he added, could then be used to pay for public services, city equipment, and public works anywhere throughout the City of Richmond, with the revenue stream helping alleviate the city’s budget deficit. The city’s financial pressures are very real. California State Auditor Elaine Howe recently released data showing that Richmond is high on a list of cities most at risk for financial distress, due to debt burdens, low level of general funds, and high risk for current and future pension obligations.
Meanwhile, a reopened Winehaven would attract visitors from all over the Bay Area and potentially all over the world. Richmond currently spends approximately $500,000 annually to maintain the Winehaven buildings and security for the site.
But members of the Save Point Molate Alliance have major objections to SunCal’s proposal. “Point Molate should be a model of what we should see in the future, not a throwback to the 1970s,” Alliance cofounder Pam Stello said. An alternate “Community Plan” put forward in 2018 by the alliance calls for restoration of Winehaven and its village, including a hotel and conference center, restaurants, an education facility, and “other business and job generators.” It also calls for a park, playing fields and other recreational opportunities, the public beach to be fully restored, and preservation of the area’s natural habitat including its offshore eelgrass beds.
“This concept can work for Richmond,” said Richmond City Councilmember Eduardo Martinez, pointing to the success of San Francisco’s Presidio and Crissy Field projects. “We can have Point Molate in a public land trust.”
The Alliance maintains that community meetings and surveys have repeatedly revealed that the majority of Richmond residents do not want a major housing development at Point Molate, and that safety, concerns about infrastructure costs, and potential ecological damage to the site are being ignored.
The dispute over the proposed development is also fascinating for the ways that in has jumbled traditional Richmond political alliances. The progressive and environmental opponents of housing at Point Molate find themselves in uneasy tacit agreement with Chevron, which made an $80 million offer for the property in 2004 that was rejected by the city.
“Chevron does not want to be in contact with immediate residential neighbors,” said Robert Cheasty, executive director of Citizens for East Shore Parks and former mayor of Albany. His group supported the Chevron proposal, which would have preserved Winehaven and created park space, and a business incubator.
Mayor Butt said Chevron doesn’t have an opinion about the current proposal. “They have accepted at this point that this project is going to happen,” he said.
Meanwhile, Butt and former mayor Bates — who have so often clashed on a variety of issues over the years — oddly find themselves united in support of the proposal. They see the SunCal proposal as the resolution of years of lawsuits, including one that stemmed from an unsuccessful attempt to develop a casino on the property. Failure to finalize some new development agreement by April 2020 could force the city to sell the land back to the would-be casino developers for just $300.
Point Molate’s known human history began as home to the Native American tribes Ohlone and Miwok. The early 1800s saw the arrival of padres from Mission Dolores, and in 1871, Chinese immigrants established a shrimp-fishing camp there. After the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, the California Wine Association built Winehaven, which at its height could ship 500,000 gallons of wine annually. But Prohibition shuttered Winehaven in 1919; the “castle” and surrounding 35 buildings are now on the National Register of Historic Places.
By 1902, neighbor Standard Oil (now Chevron) had already established itself, then as now using wharves to unload crude oil and reload refinery products for shipment on tankers. From 1942 until 1995, the U.S. Navy used Point Molate as a fuel and storage facility, building numerous houses for its officers there. With passage in 1990 of the U.S. Department of Defense Realignment and Closure Act, Naval operations ceased in 1995.
Community disagreements about what to do with the property started almost immediately, culminating in a 1997 “Reuse Plan.” The Navy sold 218 acres of the land to the city of Richmond for one dollar in 2003. The rest of the land was transferred to the city in March 2010 and now consists of approximately 413 total acres, of which 270 acres are “dry upland acres” and the remainder off-shore acreage.
In 2004, developer Jim Levine and the city reached a deal for his company Upstream Point Molate LLC to build a casino and hotel on the property, based on the contention that the Mendocino Guidiville Rancheria Pomo Indians once had fishing rights there. The city council ultimately chose Levine’s casino proposal over an alternative one submitted by Chevron, with Butt, Bates, and four other council members favoring the casino, and then-mayor Irma Anderson abstaining. In a telephone interview, Bates insisted that most people do not remember that the U.S Navy’s 2003 transfer of the property to the city was contingent on its use including economic development and jobs creation. “The casino would have generated 10,000 jobs and millions of dollars in revenue,” he said.
Years passed, the council’s makeup changed, and the new councilmembers rejected the project’s environmental impact report. The Point Molate Citizens Advisory Committee developed a questionnaire and held meetings to find out what Richmond residents actually wanted. “Maybe six people we surveyed wanted housing out there,” said former member Jim Hite, who served on the committee until ejected by Mayor Butt.
Richmond residents definitely voted “no” on a 2010 ballot measure about the proposed casino. “We made a mistake by placing it on the ballot,” Bates said. The following year, the casino plan was rejected by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which ruled that the Guidiville Band of the Pomo had no claim whatsoever to Point Molate.
Levine and the Guidiville Band sued Richmond. In fact, the developer repeatedly sued the city for either the right to build on the property or to retrieve the $17 million that his company paid to the city as a nonrefundable deposit toward a $50 million purchase price.
By 2016, Levine was back, touting a new plan that included 400 units of senior housing, 1,100 residential units, a 150-room hotel with an additional 29 hotel cottages, a 5,000-square-foot ferry terminal, and 100,000 square feet of office space. “Advocates for open space and small-scale development at Point Molate have grown furious because city officials have been holding closed-door discussions with Jim Levine about his proposed large-scale multiuse project at the site,” an article in Oakland magazine stated. “City officials claim that discussions are preliminary, but according to Planning Department emails, Levine has paid the city $24,520 for a biological resource survey and traffic studies at the site.”
The new plan also went nowhere. And on April 12, 2018, U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers ruled that no casino would be built and that the city did not have to pay damages to Levine’s company, Upstream Point Molate.
But in August 2018, four private citizens; the group Citizens for East Shore Parks; and a coalition known as the Sustainability, Parks, Recycling and Wildlife Legal Defense Fund (SPRAWLDEF) filed a new lawsuit contending that a deal cut between the city, Upstream Point Molate, and the Guidiville Rancheria violated the Brown Act, the state’s open meeting law. The suit alleged that discussions about the settlement agreement, calling for a minimum of 670 housing units to be built on the site, should have been made in open session since they involved non-government parties and resolved a land-use decision. As part of the settlement agreement, the city was required to approve a plan by April 2020 or sell the land back to Guidiville Rancheria and Upstream Point Molate LLC for $300.
On Sept. 14, 2018, Judge Rogers permitted the lawsuit to proceed, stating that she was concerned by parts of the agreement’s language. “You cannot do an end run around the Brown Act by entering into settlement agreements and negotiations in order to get property variances or accommodations outside of the public process,” Rogers was quoted in press coverage.
Bates and Butt vehemently disagree. “The law permits execution of contracts behind closed doors,” Bates said.
Attempting to move forward to meet the original settlement’s 2020 deadline, on April 23, 2019, the city council voted to sell the Point Molate acreage to Winehaven LLC, a subsidiary of Irvine-based SunCal, for $45 million, while negotiating specifics during the following six months.
SunCal’s proposal was chosen from among the four presented. Other contenders included Point Molate Partners, Sanuelson Schafer, and Orton Development. Butt told the San Francisco Business Times that SunCal was selected because the company “had more experience, a better financial position, and just seemed better suited,” to the project, this despite the company not presenting a complete proposal at the meeting. The council voted 5-1-1 to select SunCal, with Martinez voting “no” and Melvin Willis not present.
SunCal submitted a proposal in September 2018 that mostly depicted projects elsewhere. Local real estate agent and member of the Save Point Molate Alliance Toni Hanna called the proposed housing an anachronism. “With their proposal as described, SunCal seems to be applying a suburban Southern California subdivision template to the urban Bay Area, which is a very different market,” Hanna said. She noted that a 3,000-4,000 square-foot lot is “a massive size for a townhome,” and would sell for starting prices in “the low $1 millions.”
“People might have been looking for this in the ’70s and ’80s, but now they want homes that have high walk scores, are near urban amenities and good schools,” she said. Hanna said a similar development in Point Richmond, Waterline, was not selling. “Too much house for that location, which will probably be under water in a decade or so,” Hanna said. “They’ve been trying to sell those for at least three years and have been slashing the prices.”
Other major questions confronting the plan are who would pay for the huge infrastructure improvements needed, and the safety and insurability of the proposed homes due to poor vehicle access to Point Molate.
SunCal’s Soyka said all project development costs would be borne solely by residents of the development. “The residents of Richmond outside of Point Molate will not be paying for the infrastructure or development of this new community,” he wrote. “The developer will be funding the required onsite and offsite infrastructure improvements, and a community facilities district will be created within Point Molate to finance these costs solely from onsite property values.”
However, Stello of the alliance said a report created for project opponents by the business and engineering consulting firm Hatch found that the proposed sale of public land for a “luxury housing tract” could end up costing the city $2.4 to $3.5 million a year in services and other expenses. “This would mean today’s residents of Richmond, with average incomes of $55,000, would end up subsidizing thousands of new residents with incomes of over $200,000,” Stello said.
Councilmember Martinez, the lone “no” vote on the April 23 SunCal proposal, agreed with that assessment. “Richmond taxpayers may not pay for the infrastructure,” he said, “but they will pay for the maintenance of the infrastructure and operation of wastewater, police and fire.” Meanwhile, Martinez added, the tax scheme necessary to pay for the infrastructure would make the homes so expensive that only the wealthy could afford them. “This translates to the poor paying for the wealthy to live in Richmond,” he said.
The opposing sides also have differing takes on the safety of building any type of housing on the inaccessible peninsula. Central to all of these discussions is Point Molate’s proximity to Chevron’s Richmond refinery and tank farm. Asked to comment on the safety issue, a refinery spokesperson responded with a pro forma statement: “We respect the City’s desire to develop Point Molate and understand the City’s interest in economic development of the property. The Richmond Refinery will continue to work constructively with city officials and local residents, including those that live in close proximity to the Refinery, regarding issues of importance to the community.”
Soyka said SunCal has been quite attentive to the safety issues posed by the property’s configuration, and its proximity to Chevron. “Police and fire facilities will be constructed onsite, and the community design includes the widening of Stenmark Drive [the one road in and out of the area] to allow for increased vehicular capacity,” he said. The development will add additional emergency vehicle access to the property, he said, done in cooperation with the fire department as part of the planning and approval process. Fire Department-approved safe refuge areas will be provided in conformance with city code requirements.
But project critics regards those concessions as insufficient. Hanna called the parcel “a totally inappropriate site for housing” due to the hazards posed by Chevron and other nearby industrial uses. Alliance cofounder Helvarg referred to the proposal as “subsidizing people to live in harm’s way.” Meanwhile, Councilmember Martinez said, “Putting a large community at Point Molate exponentially increases the chances for a major disaster.”
“The road will need to be expanded to a minimum width of 26 feet to allow fire trucks to enter while traffic is exiting,” Martinez said. “Traffic will be coming to and from I-580, which is congested at commuter time. And, as we saw from the NuStar/Phillips 66 fire, an accident can happen any time, especially in our earthquake zone.”
Comparisons to what happened to Paradise residents during the 2018 Camp Fire are inevitable. Trapped and unable to get out on a congested, fire-engulfed road, more than 80 people died and the town was destroyed. Point Molate’s Stenmark Drive, which ends in a cul-de-sac at the San Pablo Harbor, remains the only way in and out of the area. What might be described as red-flag warnings went up on Oct. 26, 2019, when eight fires sprang up in 18 hours in Contra Costa County. Martinez, along with many others, believes planning needs to take into account this new climate normal.
Facing all these issues, could homes built on Point Molate even obtain insurance? Butt said, “If they can’t get insurance, they can’t build them — but that’s never happened.” Hanna, however, provided a letter written to Richmond’s Director of Planning and Building Services, Lina Velasco, by Sarmad Naqvi, a personal insurance consultant, calling the area “almost uninsurable,” and noting that the Paradise fire cost the industry $12 billion.
“We now look at road access and proximity to hazardous vegetation more than ever. The proposed property will only have one road in and out. The road could easily be blocked and not allow a fire truck to access the property. Also, the refinery located within close proximity is a concern,” Naqvi wrote.
For many project opponents, the region’s environmental delicacy is perhaps the biggest issue of all. “This is a regional issue,” Helvarg said. “Point Molate is the last unprotected public habitat on the bay.”
Its shoreline hosts 180 acres of eelgrass, one of the last thriving habitats on the San Francisco Bay, and vital to the health of the whole bay. Helvarg called the eelgrass beds a “natural nursery,” home to Dungeness crab, sea hares, and leopard sharks, among many other species. Eelgrass blades slow the motion of the tides, allowing sediment to settle and combating sea level rise, while their photosynthesis ability sucks in carbon. On Nov. 5, the same day as the city council meeting, a report compiled by more than 11,000 global researchers stated: “Climate change mitigation efforts should focus on protecting and restoring ecosystems such as forests, coral reefs, savannas and wetlands, which naturally absorb and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”
Runoff from construction and residences could seriously damage the watershed and eelgrass beds, Alliance members contend. Native plants and wildlife habitat would be destroyed or heavily impacted, they said. Helvarg and Stello also pointed to the city’s foot-dragging on requesting a new environmental impact report to replace the one created for the failed casino development. Soyka, however, wrote that a new environmental impact report being prepared by the city will build upon the work and analyses done in the previous report.
Yet another possible outcome was suggested in late October, when Contra Costa Supervisor John Gioia sent a letter to the federal judge who will preside over a settlement conference joining together two lawsuits involving the property. Gioia threw his support behind a proposal to pay off Levine and the Guidiville Rancheria to withdraw their claims against the city. He also supported the idea of the city deeding all Point Molate property outside of the Winehaven site to the East Bay Regional Park District for ultimate use as a regional shoreline park. He noted that some funds were potentially already available through Measure WW, the Regional Open Space, Wildlife, Shoreline and Park Bonds, approved by voters in 2008 — including 75.1 percent of the voters in Richmond.
During the Richmond council’s Nov. 5 meeting, approximately 20 speakers asked that body to reconsider the current plan. Comments included questions about the community-input process, which some described as being slanted by the city toward housing.
“The city will be on the hook after the next Chevron fire,” said one, referring to the 2012 disaster that sent 15,000 people to the emergency room. “It’s putting lipstick on a pig,” said another, referring to the proposed amendments. “This settlement does not protect the city of Richmond,” said former Richmond Planning Commissioner Jeff Kilbreth. Speaking for the Save Point Molate Alliance, Stello stated, “This is a perfect example of powerful interests trying to transfer public wealth to private interests.”
Butt made a statement touting his development knowledge and role in restoring multiple Richmond properties, including the Craneway Pavilion, the Richmond Plunge swimming pool, and the Hotel Mac. While true, this aroused the suspicions of some opposition members that the mayor, an architect, contractor, and former real estate broker, wants the potentially lucrative contract to restore Winehaven. Butt also referred to the anti-agreement attendees as “a bunch of old white folks,” and claimed to have seen “no people of color” speaking, apparently forgetting that local Native American leader Courtney Cummings had spoken about the misuse of Ohlone sacred sites.
Finally, the council voted 4-3 to approve the amendments, with the mayor and Councilmembers Bates, Ben Choi, and Demnius Johnson voting yes, and Councilmembers Martinez, Willis, and Jael Myrick voting no.
Opponents of the SunCal plan vowed to fight on.