Jutting out into the Bay just north of the San Rafael Bridge is a stretch of barren, unused land. The area wasn’t always like this. Point Molate was a shrimp fishing camp for Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century, spent the early part of the 20th century as the home of the largest winery in the United States, and was converted into a Navy fuel depot in the 1940’s. Marks of these past iterations persist: most notably, the remnants of oil contamination from Point Molate’s Navy days pollutes some of the soil, making the prospect of future development very expensive.
For the past 20 years, community groups, the Navy, and investors have worked to restore the 412 acres of Point Molate. Their hope is to make a profitable development out of the land. Throughout this time, however, continual roadblocks have stalled progress. Steep startup costs, half-baked ideas, ever-accumulating red tape, and changes in city leadership have created a cycle of false starts at Point Molate.
Breaking through this dysfunction won’t be easy. Generous investors will have to step forward with a feasible plan, and the city will have to be committed to the project. To succeed, any serious engagement between the city and investors will require a mutual understanding of Point Molate as an imperfect, bureaucratically stifled area. It will take determination from all parties involved to work through this. Only when Point Molate’s past is reconciled will genuine discussion of its future begin.
The present era for Point Molate began with the end of the Cold War. The land had been used as a Naval fuel depot from 1942 until the station was deactivated in 1995 through the Base Realignment and Closure Act. This act set the stage for the transition of Point Molate from Navy fuel depot to Richmond city property. Closing the fuel depot was the first time that the Navy had to reckon with 50 years of lax environmental practices, which led to widespread contamination of the area’s soil. The residue of the Navy’s haphazard treatment of oil still sticks to all proceedings around Point Molate and continues to impede progress.
In the wake of this challenge, the Blue Ribbon Advisory Committee (BRAC) was formed in 1994 to make a plan of action for the development of Point Molate. This group of 45 representatives of local organizations was charged with the task of reimagining Point Molate as an engine for economic vitality.
The Base Realignment and Closure Act required that the closed bases become economically self-sustaining and even profitable for the local community. It was up to the BRAC to make sure this happened. As a sister organization to the BRAC, the Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) was formed in 1996 to ensure that the Navy was living up to its environmental responsibilities. Between these two organizations, conversations on plans for Point Molate eventually got out of touch with the realistic potential of the land. The twisted, crumbled path of Point Molate’s dashed developments was first laid here.
Regardless, it was with the formation of the BRAC and the RAB that the first conversations around future development at Point Molate began in earnest. To formalize these ideas, the BRAC and the RAB worked with consultants to draft a Reuse Plan for Point Molate. Once the Reuse Plan was approved by the Department of Defense (DoD), the land could be transferred to Richmond and development would ensue.
In 1997, two years into clean up, the 334-page Reuse Plan was printed out and presented to the Navy. Its content made it devastatingly clear that many of the consultants and members of the BRAC had dreams far wilder than the land at Point Molate could accommodate. Don Gosney was involved in Point Molate’s restoration for 15 years. Gosney served as part of the BRAC representing a local union, and he was elected as an expert community member to be the Community Co-Chair of the RAB. He understood first-hand the infeasibility of many parts of the plan. The original Reuse Plan included such amenities as a shopping center, a formal promenade, and a mega hotel.
“It was amazing to see some of the things that were included in the Reuse Plan —the consultants added in things that the Blue Ribbon Advisory Committee had never even talked about,”says Gosney. “Their drawings had sail boats and water skiers right in the water in front of Point Molate. I had to point out to the consultants that the water there is only three to six feet deep. They had no idea.”
There was a proposed 600-seat amphitheater were the Rolling Stones would perform. The idea of golf course was tossed around. “None of this was going to happen,”explains Gosney. “Of the 412 acres, 90 are underwater, and many of the hillsides have a 35% slope to them.”Despite these facts, the potential for development at Point Molate appeared limitless.
Regardless of the grandeur of these visions, the DoD approved the Reuse Plan in 1997. Construction of the mega hotel had to wait, however. There was still the issue of the contaminated soil from the Navy fuel depot days. In order for be fit for development, the land had to be cleared of toxins and approved by the Bay Area Water Quality Control Board (BAWQB), the lead regulatory agency involved in Point Molate’s restoration. The intersection between BAWQB and the Reuse Plan was the main point where dreams crumbled in the wake of reality. The primary issue was that land wasn’t ready for development yet.
The next six years following the approval of the Reuse Plan were dedicated to cleaning the contaminated soil. Finally, in September 2003, 85% of the 412 acres has been restored, and Richmond purchased the land for $1. The Navy retained the remaining 15% to finish cleaning. While this small area was not the most polluted, it was the most costly to clean and required substantial work to restore.
With 350 new acres on their hands, Richmond again had development fever. In December of 2003, just three months after purchasing the land, the city entered a $50 million Land Disposition Agreement with a developer, UpStream Investments, LLC. Memories of the 1990’s and the great potential of Point Molate flooded back into the city’s consciousness. To start, UpStream promised to bring in $18 million per year for 20 years to the city in lieu of paying taxes for its mega-hotel complex; restore the Winehaven Building, which is federally protected; and create local construction jobs. It looked like the sky was the limit. Point Molate was going to be transformed into a glamorous and prosperous shoreline. But, just like in the 1990’s, the dreams of big development would prove premature.
The ambition that guided the Richmond City Council and UpStream was also their unraveling. In 2004 City Council approved an expansive proposal to build new tribal lands for the Guidiville Band of the Pomo Native Americans in order to construct a casino. The Guidville Band of the Pomo Native Americans wanted to reclaim Point Molate as their native land, but they had difficulty attaining the property since they were not federally recognized. Through partnering with UpStream, the Guidville Band would get their land, and the city would have their Point Molate development.
The City Council initially championed the idea, but this proposal devolved into another exercise in indecisiveness around Point Molate. On one side of the debate were the card clubs who wanted to block development of the casino over fear of competition. Opposing the card clubs were the Guidiville Band and UpStream who partnered with environmental groups like the Sierra Club who thought that development would help preserve native plant species.
The two sides came to a head in the 2010 election, which proved to be a referendum on Point Molate development. The key item was Measure U, a ballot measure which asked voters whether they would like to see a casino built at Point Molate. The item was non-binding and served as a symbolic gesture more than anything else. On election day, 58% of voters rejected the measure.
Amid a heated campaign season, the candidates who rejected the measure — current Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, Vice Mayor Jovanka Beckles, and Councilmember Corky Boozé — were all voted into office. Two pro-development incumbents were kicked off the Council, and the most concrete development idea at Point Molate was on its way out.
The newly-elected City Council officially shut out the project five months later. Citing connections between casinos and drug use, increased crime, and traffic congestion, the plan was rejected in a 5-2 vote from the Council in April 2011. Relations between UpStream and the city quickly deteriorated after that. By August 2011, their partnership had broken, costing UpStream more than $38 million, and yet another grand dream for Point Molate was quashed.
In part 2 of “Point Without a Purpose,” Radio Free Richmond dives into the current state of the standstill at Point Molate. With the prospect of a casino long gone, what looks to be Point Molate’s most likely prospect for reinvention?
By: Sean Pyles, Staff Reporter
Photos courtesy of:
Arial photo courtesy of Don Gosney