Environmentalists Take Lead in East Bay Land Disputes

By Richard Brenneman
Friday January 05, 2007

For some East Bay developers, 2006 was the year of the environmentalist. 

Anxious and stricken neighbors, joined by environmentalists, health care professionals, union members and community organizers, have emerged as a new force in the battle over development in Richmond. 

Enlisting the support of two key members of the state Assembly, they halted—at least for now—two major waterfront developments, forced a change in regulatory oversight and helped propel one of their own into the mayor’s office in November. 

Their compatriots in Albany scored a similar coup, blocking—again, at least for now—a major waterfront mall. 


Richmond projects 

In Richmond, a state-authorized Community Advisory Group (CAG) is evolving into a significant force, bankrolled in part by the very developers who had opposed its creation. One of its members, Richmond Progressive Alliance activist and Green Party member Gayle McLaughlin was elected mayor in November. 

For a city that only this year recovered from a crippling deficit that had forced extensive layoffs of city workers and service cutbacks, Richmond ended the year on a confident note, approving the first crucial step in the largest public works project in its history—a $104.9 million Civic Center renovation. 

A month earlier the City Council upheld the environmental impact report (EIR) for the 330-unit, five-story Point Richmond Shores condo project, despite fierce opposition from neighbors who contend the project’s design will mar a significant piece of shoreline and add too much density to a sensitive area. 

Planning commissioners had rejected the document, but a bare council majority gave the crucial authorization. 

The developers—Toll Brothers—have agreed to hold a design charette with neighbors, who have said in response that the move gives them little power. The project is being built on land that had been owned by the city.  

Two major Richmond projects remain on hold—a 1331-unit condo and apartment complex and a neighboring two-million-square-foot corporate academic research park. 

Both were at least temporarily derailed because of efforts of activists alarmed that projects were planned on a site contaminated by a century of chemical manufacturing with heavy metals, organic poisons and other toxic compounds. 

Cleanup efforts had been conducted under the auspices of the San Francisco Bay Area Regional Water Quality Control Board, but activists—like Sherry Padgett, who works adjacent to the sites, UC Berkeley professor Claudia Carr, who lives nearby, and Ethel Dotson, who grew up in the segregated Seaport Village housing next to the site—demanded a change. 

Padgett and Dotson have both been stricken with cancers, which they suspect may have been triggered by exposure to toxins from the sites. 

Demonstrations, aggressive questioning and the enlistment of support from other activists like McLaughlin and well-connected San Francisco attorney Peter Weiner were given a powerful boost by the actions of Assemblymembers Loni Hancock and Cindy Montanez and, finally, a resolution from a previously reluctant Richmond City Council. 

Early in 2005, the state handed jurisdiction over to the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), which is well staffed by experts in the science of toxic substances while the water board lacks even a single toxicologist on its staff.  

DTSC regulations allow residents to create a CAG to share concerns with the agency, and the activists jumped at the opportunity with Dotson taking the lead in circulating petitions calling for establishing a group, initially focused on Campus Bay, the proposed site of the residences. 

When the CAG formed, Padgett and Dotson both joined, and the group is chaired by environmentalist Whitney Dotson, Ethel’s brother. 

Since the CAG’s first meeting in June 2005, the group has expanded its focus to include the university’s Richmond Field Station adjacent to Campus Bay on the northwest, and then to other sites in southern Richmond. 

During the past year, the CAG pressured the DTSC to conduct more extensive testing of the two key sites and adjacent properties, resulting in discovery of wider contamination and the revelation that groundwater had been contaminated with radioactive particles. 

Other CAG accomplishments included forcing the posting of signs near the sites warning of the dangers, and the ending of two programs that brought school age youth onto potentially hazardous areas of the sites. 

Plans for both of the major developments remain on hold, and the group is asking more questions about other sites slated for development in a city where the economic boom created by World War II has left an enduring toxic legacy. 

As the newly elected mayor of Richmond, McLaughlin’s environmentalism can be expected to play an increasing role in city developmental politics, since—unlike Berkeley—it is the mayor who makes appointments to city commissions and committees, subject to approval by the full council. 


Albany de-malled? 

Meanwhile, Albany voters, deprived by errors and a court ruling of a chance to vote directly on the issue, elected two candidates opposed to what would have become the largest development in that city’s recent history. 

The City Council’s selection of a third project critic as mayor gives opponents a solid majority on the new council. 

Though Los Angeles developer and Republican fund-raiser Rick Caruso had officially dropped his proposal for a trendy waterfront mall in July, after the 3-2 council majority refused to commit to his project before they had seen an EIR, critics suggested he was only waiting until the election to see if supporters were elected to the two open seats. 

A coalition of environmental groups had circulated petitions for a ballot measure restricting waterfront development and setting up a civic process to plan for acceptable projects on the largest expanse of relatively undeveloped land in the city, the property owned by Golden Gate Fields and its parent, Magna Entertainment Corp. 

After gathering signatures from a fourth of Albany’s registered voters, initiative backers were halted by a court ruling in July that petition backers had failed to give proper legal notice before circulating the petition. 

With no time left to circulate a new petition, the focus of the battle became the City Council election, where project critics Marge Atkinson and Joanne Wile ran as the Save Our Shoreline team against Caryl O’Keefe and Francesco Papalia, who had voiced a willingness to consider the project as submitted. 

Papalia’s own conflicting stances on Prop. 90—he praised it during a candidate’s forum, but later signed an opposition endorsement after his position became an issue—helped earn him a last-place finish, while O’Keefe was narrowly defeated. 

That the project’s would-be developer was a Republican Southern California mall magnate whose fundraising prowess for his party’s Presidential ticket had earned him the sobriquet of “Bush Ranger” (also Australian slang for an Outback bandit) probably didn’t help. 

Magna, meanwhile, is pushing forward with plans to build a new $250 million racetrack 53 miles to the northeast in Dixon, a project contested by a group of local residents there who are gathering signatures for a ballot initiative opposing the project. 


Casino plans 

Plans by Native American bands backed by corporate casino interests to build two new Richmond casinos—one, featuring a mall, hotel and entertainment complex inside the city limits, and the other a sleepless gambling parlor in unincorporated North Richmond—continue to advance. 

Meanwhile, the East Bay’s only functioning tribal casino, barred from installing conventional slot machines, is rolling in cash from another form of paydirt—electronic bingo machines which play at a pace nearly as fast as the more traditional slots. 

Casino San Pablo’s payments to the city have quadrupled since the machines were installed, and hit more than $10 million for the year. 

One threat to the bonanza enriching the city and the Lytton Rancheria band of Pomo tribespeople is looming in the form of possible revisions to national tribal gaming regulations that could force a slowdown in play—a proposal strongly resisted by tribes limited to the bingo machines because they haven’t been able to quality for slot machines. 

Of the two current pending proposals for full scale casinos—one in Richmond at Point Molate and the other along Parkway in North Richmond—the latter, dubbed the Sugar Bowl, has moved farthest along the regulatory approval route. 

The first step is federal approval of the tribes taking the sites into trust as reservations, followed by approvals by the National Indian Gaming Commission and the state of gambling compacts that set the terms on casino size and the number of games allowed. 

The Richmond City Council in November approved a $335 million, 20-year pact to provide municipal services to the Scott’s Valley Pomos if their plans for the Sugar Bowl casino are approved. 

The city already has a similar $350 million agreement with Upstream Point Molate LLC, which has put together a proposal to build on city-owned property that once served as a U.S. Navy refueling station. 

Upstream, created by Berkeley developer James Levine, has partnered with the Guidiville band of Pomos, former Defense-Secretary-turned-Washington-lobbyist William Cohen and Harrah’s Entertainment, the world’s leading gambling corporation. 

One unknown in the Point Molate equation is the pending sale of Harrah’s, which will become final later this month unless the firm can find someone willing to pay more than the $17.1 billion offered Dec. 19 by two private equity firms.