By John Ramos

RICHMOND (CBS SF) – Despite heavy criticism from opponents of large-scale residential development along the city’s northern shoreline, the Richmond City Council on Tuesday night approved a large residential, commercial and recreational development on Point Molate, 23 years after the first post-military plans for that scenic spot were proposed.

By a 4-2 vote, the council approved a development agreement, environmental report and related agreements to allow the controversial Point Molate Mixed Development Project to move ahead.

“I do not want to see Point Molate fenced off for another 10 years,” Mayor Tom Burr said before the final vote. “I want to see a project with something for everybody.”

Butt joined Vice Mayor Nat Bates and council members Ben Choi and Demnlus Johnson III in supporting the development, while council members Eduardo Martinez and Melvin Willis opposed it. Councilman Jael Myrick was absent.

Point Molate in Richmond (CBS)

It’s been a struggle to pass the project that’s taken decades and most believe it’s not over yet.

The Point Molate Mixed Development Project, as proposed by Winehaven Legacy LLC (a subsidiary of Irvine-based developer SunCal), will include 1,450 new residential units (mostly condominiums), about 375,000 square feet of rehabilitated existing structures and 250,000 square feet of new construction.

The mixed-use development could include restaurant, retail, commercial and residential uses, plus the Winehaven Historical District on the north end of the project, with large buildings and about existing 30 cottages, part of which is touted as a prospective “live-work village.”

Some 70 percent of the site, about 193 acres, would remain as open space, including recreational areas, parks, trails (including a 1.5-mile portion of the San Francisco Bay Trail along the shoreline), vista overlooks and other similar amenities. A terminal on the existing pier may be accessible to water transit options, such as ferries, water shuttles, and/or water taxis.

There would be a historic district, a waterfront park and hillside open spaces on the east side.

A lawsuit settlement stemming from an attempt to build a tribal casino on the land is forcing the city to develop the property as a large housing project. And at Tuesday night’s meeting, the city council cast a pivotal vote to grant a new developer, SunCal, the right to move ahead with the project.

“For some reason, people just climb the walls over housing,” Butt said. “Some people do not want housing out there. And that’s really what this is all about.”

At an Aug. 6 Planning Commission meeting, commissioners had several concerns about the Point Molate project, centering on emergency egress, conflicts with Richmond’s general plan, open space preservation and traffic mitigation, among other things. But the Planning Commission on Aug. 20 certified the environmental report.

Willis said he wasn’t convinced the development’s homes would be affordable by Richmond standards.

“I’m concerned we might unintentionally be creating a gated community out there,” he said.

David Shiver, a consultant with Urban Economics, had said earlier in the meeting the project figures to bring in about $6.8 million to the city annually, far more than the city’s support costs, and that the developer would be stuck with paying tax assessments on unsold homes.

Nonetheless, Martinez wanted to delay an approval vote to study the issues further. That idea was voted down 4-2.

During about two hours of public comment Tuesday night, several union representatives touted the jobs that will come with this development.

But dozens of others repeated oft-heard criticisms of the construction project related to safety, environmental, cultural and design issues.

Martinez said Tuesday night he thought Richmond could lose money on the Point Molate development if not enough parcels — and by extension, homes — aren’t sold.

Some said the Point Molate development would result in gentrification of land sacred to the Ohlone tribe; others said building a residential community of that size with one access road in and out could be disastrous in the event of a vegetation fire or a problem at the nearby Chevron refinery. One commenter said the housing plan “represents the worst kind of racial segregation and sprawl.”

“Many of us have been saying for years that we don’t want the project out there,” said Richmond resident Kim Park. “We want a park, a beautiful park.”

Courtney Cummings, a member of the Point Molate Alliance and a Native American activist, said, “We’re forgetting the original people of the land; this is a sacred site. There are still remains on that land, and it’s being desecrated.”

Many public commenters Tuesday, as at past public hearings, said they favor, instead of the SunCal plan, an alternate plan supported by the citizen group Point Molate Alliance that calls for some development in the Winehaven Historical District on Point Molate’s north end, but no homes.

Jonathan Livingston, a Richmond architect and member of the city’s Design Review Board, praised the SunCal project and the process by which it got to the edge of approval.

“It’s a fine example of the public and private sector working together,” said Livingston, adding that the developers were consistently pushed to “do better” with their project.

But local attorney Norman La Force said it’s about a lot of things. He and other opponents of the project maintain the entire settlement deal was done in an underhanded way to build on land that, in wealthier communities, would likely be preserved as parkland.

“…but because it’s here in Richmond, it’s eyed as a something to be developed,” La Force said. “And this shouldn’t be developed. It should be saved as a great park and open space resource.”

La Force also believes the costs to replace the crumbling infrastructure — roads, sewers, water and power lines — will ultimately be borne by the city and will exceed the amount the city will make on the deal.

“What happened last night is the city…the four people on the council…approved a project that’s going to bankrupt the city,” he said.

Mayor Butt disagrees and says in 1995 his first vote as a new councilmember was about Pt. Molate and he never would have believed they would still be fighting about it.

“I thought it was a great idea,” he said. “And here we are 25 years later and absolutely nothing has happened there.”

The mayor says the next step in the process is for the city to officially sell the land to the developer. But there are other lawsuits brewing and no one believes anything will happen very quickly.

From 1942 until 1995, Point Molate hosted a U.S. Navy fuel storage and transfer facility. It was closed in September 1995 as part of the Department of Defense’s Base Closure Act, and a Point Molate Reuse Plan was approved by the Richmond Local Reuse Authority in 1997.

A lawsuit was filed in 2011 by Upstream Point Molate, LLC and the Guidiville Rancheria, a Pomo tribe based in Mendocino County, after Richmond voters rejected a proposed casino at Point Molate. A federal judge also said no to the casino, but required that any profits from eventual development there be split between the city and the casino developers. The suit was settled in April 2018.

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