.The Man Behind Richmond’s Renaissance

Crime is down, business is up, and the city is avoiding major budget cuts thanks to Bill Lindsay, perhaps the Bay Area's best city manager.

Early each morning on Richmond’s waterfront, just a few hundred feet from where thousands of men and women once feverishly assembled Navy ships, military jeeps, and half-track tanks during World War II, a new type of assembly line busily produces fresh, gourmet desserts.

Galaxy Desserts has been touted as one of the fastest growing businesses in the Bay Area. Its two hundred production workers steadily handcraft delectable crèmes, tarts, cheesecakes, mousse cakes, and the company’s most celebrated item — the three-ounce French croissant, which has so much morning goodness in its fluffy folds that Oprah Winfrey has featured it five times on her favorite things list. The Oprah exposure brought such an onslaught of new orders (the company now makes upwards of 75,000 croissants a day) that Galaxy needed a larger kitchen. So the company moved from its San Rafael facility in 2005 to Richmond, where it found an ideal geographical location, competitive leasing rates, and enterprise zone tax incentives.

“I don’t think any business looks forward to navigating city departments, but the City of Richmond has been more than functional; if I have a question, I know who to call to get it answered right away,” said Galaxy CEO Paul Levitan. “We’re entrepreneurs so we keep thinking about growing, and right now that would involve growing in Richmond.”

While it’s enjoying phenomenal success, Galaxy is just one element of Richmond’s newfound renaissance. It’s a startling turnaround for the hardscrabble city. For the past six decades, the mere mention of Richmond has conjured an image of the massive Chevron oil refinery looming over a bleak industrial landscape and violence-ridden neighborhoods where the heartbreak of each homicide bled freely into the next. But over the past six years there has been a profound change. A new spirit in city government has helped transform industry, the quality of life in the city, and Richmond’s grim reputation. The city has undergone a facelift, citizens are attending community meetings and events in unprecedented numbers, and new businesses — many of them green — are bringing economic opportunities back to town.

While other cities are desperately contending with debilitating budget deficits and struggling to maintain public safety and other basic services, Richmond has produced balanced budgets and enjoys a full complement of police officers. The combined efforts of city departments and community members have resulted in meaningful reductions in violent crime. And the city has completed numerous civic and neighborhood revitalization projects that have given Richmond a new air of vitality and community health.

There are many reasons for Richmond’s rebirth, but there’s widespread agreement in the city that much of the credit goes to the leadership of City Manager Bill Lindsay, who took over as the city’s top administrator in 2005. “You have to acknowledge Bill Lindsay’s role; he has brought a lot of integrity to Richmond,” said John Gioia, who represents Richmond on the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors. “The culture of any organization originates at the top. If the leadership is one of integrity and hard work, that message flows through the rest of the city departments. And that’s filtered out to the business community. Now the reputation of Richmond is that Bill Lindsay has brought integrity to the process and businesses have confidence that they will get a fair hearing.”

Richmond’s new reputation has been paying off. Not only have dozens of new businesses like Galaxy come to town in the past six years, but the city has negotiated valuable contracts at its port. The city recently signed long-term deals with Honda and Subaru to offload car carrier ships at the city’s port, which will bring in close to $90 million in revenue over the next fifteen years.

And there could be another rosy spot on the city’s financial horizon. Richmond is a finalist in the competition to host the second Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory campus. The two-million-square-foot project would create hundreds of high-quality jobs and draw dozens of new lab-associated businesses to the city. Richmond is considered a strong contender because of its proximity to the UC Berkeley campus and because the university already owns a ninety-acre plot of land on the city’s waterfront. The lab is expected to make its decision by November.

As for Lindsay, he takes a hands-on role in bringing new business to Richmond and in some cases he’s been the deciding factor, said Redevelopment Executive Director Steve Duran. “When we need to show a prospective business that they are important to the city, Bill always makes himself available to meet with the owners to let them know that Richmond is open to growth and if they have any problems, he’s available,” Duran said. “And people do go to him directly. He has such an open-door policy; I don’t know how he has time to do anything.”

Lindsay was born and raised in Walnut Creek, where he still lives with his wife Meg. They have two children: a son, Ian, who is in college, and a daughter, Sarah, who, after graduating, followed her father into public service and is currently working for AmeriCorps.

At 55, Lindsay still has a boyish look, though he has some gray showing in his otherwise thick hair. His sincere manner belies a quick wit that is often self-deprecating and has been a valuable asset at city functions. He earned his undergraduate degree from Yale and an MBA from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. After graduating he committed himself to public service, and before coming to Richmond, he was the city manager of Orinda, a leafy, well-heeled suburb whose kinship to Richmond is at best paradoxical.

But Lindsay has not only managed a steep learning curve, he has kept the city on a sustained course of community and financial recovery and helped make Richmond one of the most remarkable stories in the Bay Area. During a recent interview in his office at the newly renovated city hall, Lindsay was modest about his role in Richmond’s turnaround. “A lot of it is just not screwing up,” he said.

Despite the fact that Richmond has been producing balanced budgets and maintaining upper-tier bond ratings while sitting atop $10 million in reserves, Lindsay is only modestly optimistic about the city’s financial health. He pointed out that property tax revenue has taken a 30 percent hit — the worst in Contra Costa County — and sales tax income dropped 12 percent. The city is facing a deficit next year in its $120 million general fund, but it’s relatively small — $5 million. Lindsday added that a 2012 ballot measure to increase sales tax is vital to the city’s continued financial health.

He also grudgingly admitted that Richmond is doing well compared to other Bay Area cities and that the troubled city is experiencing a new sense of optimism for the first time in sixty years. “We have a strong credit rating, which is nice because five years ago we didn’t have one at all,” he said. “I can’t say we’re doing swimmingly, but I can say we are swimming effectively upstream. It’s a bit like ‘been down so long, it feels like up.'”

Modesty aside, Richmond has accomplished some impressive redevelopment projects thanks to its high bond ratings. More than two hundred city employees have now reoccupied the historic Memorial Civic Center after the six-acre complex of three buildings and spacious quad underwent a $100 million seismic retrofit and remodel.

The city’s downtown corridor also has undergone an extensive makeover and now boasts new sidewalks, crosswalks, lighting, and 130 new trees. Nevin Park, once the focal point of violence in Central Richmond, has had a $3.7 million facelift that includes a new, fenced-in playground, upgraded community center, and the installation of police surveillance cameras. The city also has contributed to the retrofitting and remodeling of important historic buildings such as the Winters Building, which houses the downtown East Bay Center for the Performing Arts and The Plunge, an 85-year-old warm water, indoor swimming pool.

“And our roads,” Lindsay added with a hint of pride, “our roadways were once rated the worst in the Bay Area, and though there’s still work to be done, they are much better.”

Lindsay has enjoyed city council support on most issues since he took over the city’s affairs a half-decade ago. The council was reduced from nine members to seven in 2008, which helped streamline the process of governing. And after the 2010 election, the council was further stabilized with a majority of progressives who endorse Lindsay’s good-government policies.

Lindsay rebuilt city government from the ground up following the colossal mismanagement of the previous city manager, Isiah Turner, who plunged the city into financial crisis in 2003. Turner had been the mediocre director of the city’s Employment and Training Department when fire department Captain Darrell Reece, a legendary behind-the-scenes power broker, political consultant, and union boss, essentially installed him as city manager in 1998.

Turner was born and raised in Richmond, which made him a popular choice despite his lack of experience and dodgy background. Several years earlier, Turner had quit a government job in Washington state when an auditor discovered he misused $22,000 of taxpayer funds. Nonetheless, at Reece’s insistence, a divided Richmond City Council voted to put Turner in charge of the city’s bureaucracy. Once he took the helm, Turner set about hiring many of his friends and associates as department heads and doled out numerous no-bid city contracts for up to $10,000, many of which were said to have gone to his supporters.

“Isiah Turner used to play different council members off of each other,” said longtime Councilman Tom Butt, who voted against hiring him. “He played political favorites and he had his buddies around town that he looked out for. It was a very unhealthy situation.”

Turner’s reign lasted until 2003 when he suddenly announced his resignation, citing doctor’s orders. The city threw him a lavish retirement party in the 3,000-seat Memorial Convention Center. Then, shortly after he moved out of his office — and the state — it turned out that Turner had left behind a hidden $35 million budget deficit that was largely the result of fat contracts with the police and fire unions, according to a subsequent state audit.

The result was devastating. The city was forced to lay off hundreds of employees, libraries were closed, senior and community centers were shuttered, and services were drastically cut back. Contra Costa County’s former administrator Phil Bachelor stepped in temporarily to run the city. Bachelor, a no-nonsense manager who is highly respected for his fiscal responsibility, performed emergency triage and was able to stanch the city’s financial bleeding. But, more importantly, he recommended Lindsay be brought in as permanent city manager.

There were several longtime council members, chief among them former Councilwoman Maria Viramontes, who publicly doubted whether Lindsay, the mild-mannered suburbanite, would be able to last in rough-and-tumble Richmond, with its chronic urban crime, complex network of industries, and engrained political dysfunction. But Lindsay’s accomplishments have been impressive, and last December, the council renewed his contract for five more years at an annual salary of $271,000, which makes him one of the higher paid city managers in the Bay Area.

Lindsay made his mark by being remarkably adept at hiring new department heads, working with the city’s unions, and establishing new administrative policies with an emphasis on governmental transparency. Under previous administrations, federal search warrants and FBI raids were about the only way the city would give up any embarrassing information. But under Lindsay, Richmond’s government suddenly opened up as it never had before. When millions of gallons of Richmond’s raw sewage overflowed the city’s antiquated sewers in 2006, Lindsay stepped in front of a bank of news cameras and fully admitted the city’s responsibility for polluting the bay. When a longtime government reporter at the West County Times requested all of the city’s cell phone bills, he was amazed to receive all of the records within 48 hours.

Openness has now become part of the city’s culture. Lindsay said the city attorney takes any request for public information very seriously and each one goes immediately into the queue. Transparency also has been a big factor in improving the flow of information between city departments. “Secrecy drags down an organization; it’s pernicious and can pit one department against another,” Lindsay explained. “Delivering the bad news can be rough at times, but you get more trust from the community and the council if you’re open about the things that aren’t so good.”

Lindsay also formed a good working relationship with city unions that had been decimated by layoffs in the financial crisis. He credited them with cooperating with administrators to help the city begin its recovery. The police union and other public-employee unions agreed to 8 percent pay cuts (the firefighter union refused to cooperate, forcing the city to impose cuts when negotiations failed). Union cooperation not only helped lift the city out of its financial morass, but also helped inoculate Richmond against the national fiscal crisis that began in 2007 and has laid waste to city and state budgets and pension funds across the country.

Lindsay, meanwhile, also assembled his own management team. One of his key hires was Financial Director Jim Goins, who engineered effective strategies for regaining the city’s bond rating, achieving balanced budgets, establishing regular department audits, and ensuring overall fiscal responsibility. Lindsay also brought in Assistant City Manager and Human Resources Director Leslie Knight, who created both stability and accountability among city staff, and Employment and Training Director Sal Vaca, who has helped expand the city’s job training programs to include the award-winning RichmondBUILD, which offers hands-on training for construction and solar installation.

Lindsay also promoted Richard Mitchell to planning director, which proved to be a valuable move. Mitchell was born and raised in Richmond and has a reputation for bringing high standards to his hometown. “Richard Mitchell won’t accept low-quality projects,” Lindsay said. “If they won’t let them build it in San Ramon, Richard sees no reason why it should be built in Richmond.”

But Lindsay didn’t completely clean house. He retained some effective department heads, including Community Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Steve Duran and Redevelopment Director Alan Wolken, who have overseen the city’s revitalization projects. Port Director Jim Matzorkis was a key factor in securing the Honda and Subaru contracts.

“Duran, Wolken, and Mitchell have done an incredible job; they’re about getting things done,” said Eddie Orton, owner of Orton Development, which refurbished the historic Ford Assembly Plant into a prime waterfront office and restaurant space. The saw-toothed building also boasts the Craneway Pavilion, a 45,000-square-foot event space with sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay. “But the lynchpin is Lindsay. He’s the lynchpin for Richmond’s success, there’s no question about it.”

Richmond’s new stability has caught the attention of businesses that are now willing to invest in the city and take advantage of its industry-friendly infrastructure. Besides Galaxy Desserts, there are a number of new, small, thriving businesses in the city, including the Artisan Kitchen and Cafe, which recently moved into one of Richmond’s “commercial condos” near the waterfront, and Catahoula Coffee Company & Roastery, which has created an unlikely cafe society on San Pablo Avenue. Richmond also had attracted big-box stores — Walmart and Target, whose presence, while usually damaging to small retailers, shows that the city is now viewed as a place of economic opportunity.

But some of the most exciting businesses to come to town are green. According to the city, there are 65 certified green businesses in Richmond. Among them is SunPower, which leases space in the remodeled Ford building. Even Chevron, the city’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, has gotten into the green mix with its Engineering and Technology Division, which employes one hundred renewable-energy researchers, making it the fourth largest green employer in the city. Councilman Jeff Ritterman, a heart surgeon who was elected to the council in 2008, has been one of the city’s most enthusiastic promoters of Richmond’s new green-friendliness. “The real challenge for us is bringing more of these companies that can provide jobs in a meaningful way,” he noted.

The financial rise of Richmond and its potential as a center of green industry also has given residents a new sense of independence from the traditional power-brokers in town — developers, public-safety unions, and heavy polluting industries. During the 2010 election cycle, Chevron spent about $1 million in an effort to defeat the city’s Green Party mayor, Gayle McLaughlin, and to put candidates friendly to its agenda on the council. But McLaughlin retained her job and Chevron’s three council picks lost to more progressive candidates. Voters clearly reaffirmed their desire for leadership not beholden to large industry.

The council and city residents also are exhibiting a new sense of Richmond’s self-worth. The council, for example, recently voted down a longstanding proposal to build a $1.2 billion Indian gaming casino and resort at Point Molate, despite promises of new jobs and tax revenues. When the casino was first proposed six years ago, the city was in financial chaos, and the project appeared to be a done deal. But in 2010, 58 percent of Richmond voters said they no longer wanted it.

And so when the council finally nixed the proposal several weeks ago, it represented another clear sign that Richmond residents have a new image of their city and its future. In March, KQED’s Forum aired a debate over the casino proposal. A woman who identified herself as a Richmond resident called in to challenge casino developer Jim Levine‘s argument that the city desperately needed the jobs and tax revenues the casino would provide. “I want to tell the developer that Richmond is undergoing a renaissance; we have a progressive leadership, cutting-edge solar businesses, and new contracts at the port,” she said. “Even though Richmond has been downtrodden in the past, the days of developers telling residents that ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ are over!”

McLaughlin, who has been the city’s foremost proponent of solar business and solar job training, echoed the caller’s sentiment. “There’s a new understanding that the community has a right to state what its wishes are,” she said. “People in Richmond are not going to be spoon-fed. Now they are saying, ‘We can do better.'”

From Lindsay’s perspective, the city’s renaissance is vitally linked to the health of its residential communities. With that in mind, he has required all city departments to shift any discussions of city services into a context of community health. “The effect is to restructure communication with community members and look for solutions for problems that can be easy to fix,” Lindsay explained. “For example, if parents express concern that there is no safe walking route to the local elementary school, the city will make improvements, such as blight removal, lighting, repaving, landscaping, etc. — things relatively easy to achieve.”

But Richmond’s problems over the years have been much more serious than the need to make crosswalks safer. Indeed, the most critical public health problem facing the city has been its notoriously high violent-crime rate. So one of the most important decisions Lindsay has made as city manager is the selection of a new police chief. After a nationwide search, he chose Chris Magnus, a little-known chief from Fargo, North Dakota. At first, the pick was a head-scratcher. Magnus, after all, did not seem a likely candidate for chief in a city whose most prominent civic distinction was regularly ranking among the nation’s top ten most violent cities. Perhaps the doubt stemmed from the fact that Magnus is white and gay, and much of his crime-fighting experience took place in a city where criminal ambition is largely suppressed by sub-zero temperatures and relentless snowstorms.

But Magnus turned out to be exactly what Richmond needed. Despite an entrenched department culture that was resistant to change, he has instituted a major reorganization of policies and procedures, including a series of long-term, community policing strategies. He broke the city into three geographic zones and redeployed officers into specific beats within those zones. The beat officers’ familiarity with the neighborhoods they patrolled enabled them to more easily spot crime trends, from graffiti and public drinking to drug dealing and assaults. Magnus also required zone commanders to provide active community members with their cell phone numbers, which helped establish a bridge to neighborhoods that had long mistrusted city cops.

Magnus said it’s unusual that a police chief has the opportunity to develop long-term plans to reduce crime, and it’s even more unusual that they are allowed to commit to them. “People want immediate solutions to problems so it’s not uncommon for cities to do crime management by press release, always coming up with a new program and constantly being in a reactive mode,” Magnus said. “It was Bill who allowed me to make a longer-term investment in problem solving and that is very rare, to tell you the truth.”

After four years of sticking with the community policing strategy, there is cautious hope that it’s paying off. In 2009, Richmond had the second highest per capita homicide rate in the country with 47 killings. But in 2010, the number of homicides plummeted by more than 50 percent to 22. This encouraging statistic was accompanied by other encouraging trends, such as a 30 percent reduction in violent crimes overall.

Captain Mark Gagan is quick to point out the police department cannot take full credit for crime reduction. Gagan said almost as soon as Lindsay became city manager, he made it a requirement that crime reduction and public safety were to be the No. 1 priority of every city department. That directive has factored into library and after-school programs, graffiti abatement, code enforcement, redevelopment projects, and economic revitalization. Over the past four years, there has been a coordinated and sustained effort on the part of multiple city departments to reduce crime, Gagan said. City programs like the Office of Neighborhood Safety, the Main Street Initiative, and Literacy for Every Adult Person have been major contributors to crime reduction. Gagan also commended the faith-based community for being a particularly important partner.

Gagan said redevelopment projects in central Richmond have restructured the environment. The upgrading of Nevin Park was critical, and the senior housing across the street was designed with windows that face out on the park, which has discouraged loitering, Gagan said. The neighborhood improvements have instilled a new pride in neighborhood residents. When police officers go to community safety meetings in central Richmond, there are regularly fifty people instead of fifteen, Gagan said.

“I remember what the streets used to be like,” Gagan continued. “We would drive through 4th and Nevin and there were 35 people loitering and drinking, there was a dice game, there was a fistfight, and that would result in a shooting. Just a few years ago, I was standing in the 300 block of 4th Street and within 120 feet there were six memorials for murder victims who had been killed within three months. It’s simply not that way anymore.”

Lindsay also subscribes to the notion of continually looking for formulas that make Richmond a better place to live and work. Every two years, for example, he commissions a survey of residents to find out what they think the city is doing right and what could be done better. Typically, wealthy suburban enclaves conduct such surveys as a way for local officials to give themselves a public pat on the back. But officials in cities with entrenched problems, like Richmond, actively avoid asking residents how they feel about local government because the answers can be damning.

For Lindsay, the survey is an effective way to gauge the city’s job performance. After each survey is completed, the city manager holds mandatory meetings with the entire city staff to thank them for their successes and examine areas where they need improvement. “What’s important to me is not how we compare to [another city],” Lindsay explained, “but whether we are improving every two years.”

Councilman Butt, who is in his sixteenth year on the city council, has been a major promoter of the city’s rich World War II history, its 4,300 acres of parks and open space, and its 32 miles of shoreline. He has also been the council’s most consistent voice for the good-government practices that have now taken hold on the council. He said Richmond’s recent progress has been rewarding, though there are still many challenges. But he admits he doesn’t have as much angst over the city’s problems as he used to and he finally sees the possibility of a better future.

“My dream for Richmond has always been to transform it from a place people avoid to a place where they say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s where all that shoreline is, Rosie the Riveter National Park, and restaurants. We’re going to ride the Bay Trail through Miller/Knox Park and have lunch in Point Richmond,'” Butt said. “I think that’s our destiny … if we can ever get there.”

Yet despite Richmond’s remarkable progress, its traditionally bad reputation has been difficult to overcome. Developers selling expensive new condos along the city’s southern waterfront promote a host of amenities — easy commuting, restaurants, parks, sailing, biking, jogging, but they fail to mention that this prime location is in Richmond, calling the area instead “Marina Bay.”

Recently, the Richmond Art Center celebrated its 75th anniversary. The center has some of the best art classes in the Bay Area and has exhibited some of the best-known contemporary artists of the 20th century, including Jasper Johns, Roy De Forest, and Richard Diebenkorn. Peanuts creator Charles Schulz once had an exhibition there. But the San Francisco Chronicle reporter who wrote about the celebration described the center as being surrounded by bail bonds businesses, fast-food joints, and a center for homeless youth. He also thought it was relevant to mention “live chickens are sometimes sold in the parking lot across the street.” It was somehow lost on the reporter (who no doubt wore a pith helmet for the assignment) that the art center is located in the Memorial Civic Center, which has won numerous national architectural awards and had recently undergone a $100 million renovation.

Lindsay is disappointed by such cliché news coverage, but he is convinced that in time, Richmond will get its due. “There’s no reason Richmond can’t be one of the premiere cities in the Bay Area,” he said. “We have all the bones to make that happen.”


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