Whose Richmond?

New city council may re-examine development decisions

When the reconfigured Richmond City Council was sworn in on Jan. 12, power shifted once again. Joining progressive members Eduardo Martinez and Melvin Willis were new member Claudia Jimenez and former Richmond mayor Gayle McLaughlin. This meant that progressives again dominate the seven-member council. It also meant that two key, controversial decisions made about development on Richmond’s 32-mile shoreline by the previous council would be re-examined, particularly in light of multiple lawsuits pending against the city contesting those decisions.

Both Point Molate and the AstraZeneca site represent Richmond’s history—and its potential future. And their fates have implications and impact for the entire East Bay, the whole Bay Area, and for California.

The battle over Point Molate, the 413-acre headland facing north across the bay toward Marin, has gone on for decades, ever since the U.S. Navy, which used the area as a fuel and storage facility from 1942-1991, sold part of the acreage to the City of Richmond for $1 in 1995. A “Reuse Plan” was created in 1997, and the Navy ceded the rest of the property in 2010.

But over the ensuing years, different Richmond leaders have had differing visions for this secluded, environmentally sensitive area, from building a casino to preserving much of the area as public parkland. Despite accusations of backroom deals, and multiple objections by residents and environmental groups, the former city council voted 4-2 on Sept. 9, 2020 to approve the “Point Molate Mixed Use Development Project,” allowing developer SunCal to build 1,450 housing units on the site, along with commercial development, while preserving some land for public use.

By contrast, the 86-acre AstraZeneca site, located next to the Stege Wetlands (as well as Richmond’s Costco and Point Isabel dog park), has suffered severe contamination since 1887. The Stauffer Chemical Company dumped sulfuric acid, pesticides and herbicides on the land for decades. New owner Zeneca (eventually AstraZeneca) added radioactive toxins to the dumping. The “clean-up” of 1999-2002 placed a cap, intended to be temporary, of cellulose, fibers, cement and water on 30 acres of the site.

Residents and environmental groups have been fighting for years for a full clean-up, and in 2018, the Richmond City Council approved one. But the succeeding council used a recommendation from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) for a partial clean-up to justify overriding that decision. Moving forward with a plan to develop the site, including up to 4,000 housing units, on Dec. 15, 2020, the lame-duck council voted 4-2 to approve a deal with Shopoff Realty.

Another lawsuit contesting that decision immediately joined two others already in court contesting the Point Molate plan.

Robert Cheasty, attorney, and executive director of Citizens for East Shore Parks explained that both a federal and a state lawsuit are currently challenging the Point Molate deal, and multiple groups have filed a state lawsuit contending that “AstraZeneca cannot expunge their [clean-up] liability under state law,” and that outdated data was used to evaluate the toxicity of the site and potential impact on the Bay of sea-level rise. “They cannot be allowed to build a Love Canal on the site,” he said.

Both Pam Stello, co-chair of the Point Molate Alliance, and Tarnel Abbott, longtime member of the Richmond Southeast Shoreline Area Community Advisory Group, believe that the Richmond city council’s recomposition will lead to re-examining decisions on both sites—though they admit it will not be easy.

“It will be a tough fight and require a lot of continued public input,” said Stello. “The developers involved are big companies and known to be litigious.”

“The [AstraZeneca] agreement has many legal handcuffs,” agreed Abbott. “But new information pertinent to the health and safety clause, and new standards of acceptable levels of toxins could lead to a re-opening of the Environmental Impact Report.”

Council member Eduardo Martinez stated in an email, “The new council subscribes to the precautionary principle, which raises many questions which have yet to be answered. We will make sure that any project is an environmentally friendly one that looks out for the health of the residents…It is my opinion that our planning department has allowed developers to define what the city will look like, despite our city plan.”

“I am not against developing the AstraZeneca site,” emphasized Council member Claudia Jimenez. “But it must be cleaned up to the highest standards.” She would like to see the “Community Plan” created for Point Molate implemented, and referred to “backroom deals” that allowed both projects to be approved by the former council.

Cheasty believes the new council will help “stop fighting with the community, and look at what is beneficial, as opposed to what makes short-term profits.”

These fights, however, are far from over, and the outcomes remain uncertain.

(For extensive looks at Point Molate and AstraZeneca site history and controversies, see https://eastbayexpress.com/the-clock-is-ticking-at-point-molate and https://eastbayexpress.com/the-fight-to-clean-up-another-richmond-brownfield-2-1/)

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