Affable yet determined, Whitney Dotson stands in one of the few remaining marshes along the North Richmond shoreline. On a warm August afternoon, the expanse of grassy open space seems far removed from the industrial hum going on all around. Dotson points out a couple of shorebirds—the marsh provides hunting grounds for egrets, rails, and others that wade through the reeds or dive-bomb in the deeper waters offshore. The higher ground gives a necessary haven to the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse, which retreats to the grassy slopes during high tide. As we walk towards the water, Dotson notes that the marsh is also a refuge for human residents who need a break from the urban landscape that dominates San Pablo Bay. “This is a very special place,” he concludes, one that he believes should remain open space. Dotson’s sentiment is not shared by the developer who owns the property.
The marsh is already surrounded by development on the south and east, but it seems a logical extension to the East Bay Regional Park District’s Point Pinole Regional Shoreline on the north. Just on the other side of the Union Pacific railroad tracks that define the eastern boundary is Parchester Village, a housing community built in the late 1940s for African-Americans who had worked in the nearby shipyards during World War II. The village was the first place they could buy homes in the Bay Area.
Although the land—called Breuner Marsh after prior owner Gerald Breuner, of the furniture stores—has always been privately owned, residents from Parchester Village and others from throughout the Bay Area have used it for generations. People fish from the pier, which is leased by the East Bay Regional Park District, and walk or ride bikes on the single dirt road that winds through the property. The only way to get to the marsh is to park near the Rod and Gun Club on Goodrick Avenue, pass the locked gate and No Trespassing sign at the entrance, and cross channelized Rheem Creek. The marsh is one of the last gaps in the Bay Trail, a network of bicycle and hiking trails that the Association of Bay Area Governments hopes will one day encircle all of San Francisco and San Pablo bays.
Residents of Parchester Village have long believed the marsh would be made into a park for their use, says Dotson. In the late 1940s, his father, a minister, was asked by one of the community’s developers to recruit church members to buy homes in the village. Before agreeing to buy into the new development, the church members asked the developer, Fred Parr, to set aside the land for open space. Parr and the area’s future residents also approached the Richmond City Council with their request to preserve the land. While a park was not created at the time, Dotson says the community came away with the promise that the city would one day zone the area as open space. Dotson’s family moved into the development in 1950, when he was five years old, and he has lived there ever since. “As kids, we thought of all of this as ours,” he says.
So far, residents of Parchester Village have successfully fought several proposals made by the property’s past and current owners to build on the land. But a new bid to develop it has heated up the debate again, and this time the dispute is likely the definitive showdown on the marsh’s future. Parchester Village residents and environmental activists, concerned about endangered species living in the marsh and the future of Rheem Creek, are involved in a complicated political wrangle with property owners Don Carr and Bay Area Wetlands LLC, which is lobbying the Richmond City Council to approve a mixed-use development project. Carr and company are fighting on another front: the East Bay Regional Park District is considering obtaining the property through eminent domain.
The owners propose building roughly 1,050 houses on 45 upland acres in the southeastern corner of the 240-acre parcel—119 acres of which are submerged under the bay. The plans include retail shops and a transit station. The developers have set aside 58 acres of conservation and wetland restoration land and 19 acres of parks and trails with a connection to the Bay Trail. “We’ve held back our project from all the highly valuable wetlands—the mitigation area and the tidal wetlands and the majority of the seasonal wetlands,” says Bryan Grunwald, the project’s architect and land planner. The public could approach the marsh by the Bay Trail which, according to Grunwald’s plans, would run along the shoreline, connect to the pier, and then skirt the proposed wetlands restoration area.
Approval of the development requires changing the zoning to residential—in 1993, with much community input, the land was designated part open space, part light industrial in the North Richmond Shoreline Specific Plan. To change the zoning, the City Council must approve an Environmental Impact Report for the property. The city planning department has chosen a planning firm in Berkeley to conduct the study, which will be paid for by the property owners. Grunwald estimates that the report will be finished in six to eight months.
If the city certifies the EIR, it must then decide to amend its shoreline specific plan—a move opposed by community members who never approved housing on the site. The request to rezone the property comes at the same time the City Council is reviewing and revising its General Plan, a process likely to take almost two years. If zoning changes are approved, the developer still must get permits from government agencies such as the US Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over projects involving construction in creeks or wetland areas, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Dotson sums it up: “Almost everybody that I’ve talked to wants this whole area to remain exactly how it is. All of the development that’s happened all around—enough is enough. Basically what we’re doing is drawing a line in the sand.”
This isn’t the first time the property’s owner has attempted to build on the site. In the 1970s, Breuner proposed constructing a private airport. Strong community opposition shot that down, and instead, Breuner built the model airplane landing strip that is still the only structure on the property. After Don Carr and Bay Area Wetlands, LLC, a “wetlands bank developer”—an entity that creates restoration sites where developers can purchase mitigation credits when they fill in wetlands elsewhere—purchased the property in 2001, several different development plans were suggested. The first was to build Edgewater Technology Park. That proposal prompted Dotson to form the North Richmond Shoreline Open Space Alliance, a group of residents, environmental groups, and nonprofits including the Parchester Village Neighborhood Council, the Sierra Club, the Urban Creeks Council, and others. The group still meets twice a month. “We’re just making sure that through some direct efforts people know what’s going on and know how critical this is,” Dotson says.
At the time the technology park was proposed, the nonprofit Urban Creeks Council and Rich Walkling of the Natural Heritage Institute began developing a Coastal Conservancy-funded restoration plan for Rheem Creek, which runs along the southern end of the property. NHI received a grant from the CALFED Watershed Program to do a full restoration. As part of that process, Walkling is hosting community outings to envision how people would like to see the watershed restored. Two trips—a tour of the watershed and a visit to China Camp State Park in Marin County—were held earlier in the year.
“Rheem Creek’s watershed is really interesting,” Walkling says. “One, because it’s tiny, and two, because life travels north to south on that part of the bay along San Pablo and the I-80 corridor. Rheem Creek transects that perpendicularly because it travels east-west. It connects a lot of disparate communities that have no other connection.” Walkling says salmon and steelhead still travel the small creek, which used to meander throughout the Breuner property until flood control projects in the ’50s and ’60s redirected it. “It’s an ecological jewel,” he says, “and its potential is to be as significant as the wetlands of the other side of the bay, either in China Camp or San Pablo Bay Wildlife Refuge, except much closer to large human populations that can benefit from it.”
The industrial park would have been built on 20 acres, leaving nearly 200 acres for tidal marsh restoration. The City Council rejected the initial impact report, and the developer decided not to revise it because the market had changed, explains Richmond city planner Morty Prisament. Later, developers met with Prisament and others in the planning department to determine if the zoning could be changed to residential. With the future of development still up in the air, Walkling says the Heritage Institute will wait to see what plans are approved before the nonprofit determines whether it wants to partner with the developer to restore Rheem Creek.
Residents of Parchester Village and members of the North Richmond Shoreline Open Space Alliance would like the East Bay Regional Park District to buy the property. The park district first expressed interest in buying the land after Breuner died in the late 1980s, but a bond measure that would have raised the funds failed, and so it was sold to a private party. In May of this year, the district offered to buy the land. The offer was rejected, prompting the district’s land acquisition manager Nancy Wenninger to recommend in late August that the district’s Board of Directors exercise its power of eminent domain. “It was time to save this property while it was still possible to do so,” she says.
Eminent domain gives government agencies the power to condemn a property and acquire it without the owner’s consent. “It is always our method of last resort,” Wenninger says. To invoke eminent domain, the board must find that it is in the public interest to acquire the land and that the public good outweighs the property owners’ loss. If the board chooses to go forward, it begins negotiating a fair price with the owner. If negotiations fail, the deal is brought to court and a jury decides how much the agency pays for the property. “It’s not unusual for property owners and public agencies to disagree about a purchase price,” Wenninger says. “But the eminent domain process is actually set up for the property owner, to make sure they have plenty of opportunities to be represented.”
A vote on the recommendation was scheduled for the board’s meeting on September 20, but it was postponed until November 1 to give the developer more time to prepare a presentation. Grunwald says the park district notified Carr and Bay Area Wetlands of its intention to exercise eminent domain on only 38 acres; they didn’t know it planned on acquiring the entire property until a few days before the meeting. “It caught us totally out of the blue,” says Grunwald. “We believe there is no reason to condemn it because we’re willing to give away three-quarters of our land for the Bay Trail, which is their goal and their plan. Our presentation before the board on November 1 is essentially going to say ‘Isn’t this a misuse of public funds?'” He says there is “no question” that the owners will sue the park district if it goes ahead with eminent domain.
The developers will argue that the district does not need to use eminent domain to meet the public interest of habitat protection and trails at the site. Grunwald says the developer had already offered to give the district nearly 170 acres—60 upland acres and the rest either on the shoreline or submerged—for trails and open space. He says they also offered the district a stipend to maintain the area. “We’re all for parks and everybody will benefit from a balance of habitat, trails, and economic development,” he says. “There’s a win-win situation out there.”
Jim Townsend, who used to work in the district’s land acquisition department and attended the meeting where Grunwald outlined the proposed development, says, “I don’t recall an offer of land, and that’s something I’d usually remember.” He directed further questions about the property to Wenninger. She did not attend the meeting with Grunwald and says the only conversations she’s had with him have taken place since she recommended eminent domain. When asked about the offer to give the district land, she says, “That’s absolutely not true.”
Negotiations for the purchase price will be based on the property’s fair market value, which the park district assessors have determined to be about $4.9 million. The land’s value would go up if the city approves the zoning change. Opponents speculate that the price hike is the purpose of the development proposal—meant to up the price the park district eventually will pay.
Jonna Papaefthimiou, who was conservation manager at the Sierra Club’s San Francisco chapter until late September, says that obtaining zoning changes and subdivision entitlements on properties, like those Carr has proposed, are common ways developers increase the value of property. “It’s obvious that their intention is to make money on the property, but the contingency is whether they plan to build the development,” she says. “It seems possible to me that [Carr] could be doing it to get more money from the park district.”
Grunwald denies such speculation, arguing “We wouldn’t be going through this whole process if we weren’t serious about it. At least, that’s my understanding.”
The City of Richmond reacted strongly to the idea that the district may invoke eminent domain, passing 5-3 a resolution to oppose the action at its September 13 meeting. While the council has an admittedly rocky relationship with the park district, several councilmembers made it clear they were more insulted that the district did not notify them about its plan than opposed to its use of eminent domain. Nathaniel Bates, who voted for the resolution, said that his vote was about “respect, respect, respect.” Councilmembers were also insulted by the district’s decision not to send a representative to the meeting. The resolution authorized the city to sue the district if it decides to use eminent domain, and included a reference to $4 million in property tax revenue the project would generate.
Steve Duran, director of Richmond Community & Economic Development Director, says the $4 million property tax figure comes from the property’s designation as a redevelopment zone. In such zones, nearly 100 percent of increases in property taxes goes to the redevelopment agency for use in other areas. The $4 million estimate is a best-case scenario, contingent on the project’s being approved exactly as proposed.
Although Richmond needs to increase its tax base to prevent shortfalls like the $35 million general fund deficit it faced last year, City Councilmember Maria Viramontes says that it is more beneficial to the city to keep the zoning light industrial or commercial. If housing is built, she says, Richmond “will get a small percentage of that tax base, but we are the ones that must provide fire, police, sewer, flood control, street sweeping, library services, and park and recreation services to each of those houses. The state’s not going to come here and provide those services. There’s no way on this side of the planet that anybody’s tax base from a house—even if we could get 100 percent of it—would cover the cost of services. It’s never intelligent for a city councilmember to base their general fund tax base on property taxes from houses.”
The city solved last year’s deficit by cutting more than 300 city jobs and paring back services. To restore services, Viramontes says, the city needs to bring in roughly $30 million more each year. “How can we even talk about building those houses unless part of the discussion is how we’re going to pay for long-term services for the new group of people we’re going to bring to this neighborhood?” she asks. Viramontes was not present at the September 13 meeting.
Senior planner Prisament has requested an independent economic analysis of the fiscal impact of the project to the city, and interim planning director Richard Mitchell says it’s possible that his department could recommend a zoning change, although it is rumored that he has suggested to Grunwald that he scale down the project. There are between 1,000 and 3,500 units of waterfront housing in Richmond either being built or in the application process, including the proposed development at Breuner Marsh. “We’re going to have to look openly and willingly at housing because the demand is there,” Mitchell says, pointing out that houses in the city sell almost as soon as they’re available. According to a source familiar with the project, the owners insist they already have the votes on the council to have the project approved as-is. Regarding the city’s recent resolution, Grunwald says it puts him and the property owners “somewhat on the sidelines in what is a dispute between the city and the park district.”
The Sierra Club’s Papaefthimiou says that several years ago, few people expected the North Richmond shoreline would be developed for housing. “They just kind of stuck things out here that nobody wanted,” she says. “It sounds horrible, but in a certain way, that’s how Parchester Village ended up there. It got sent out there because it was an African-American community. But now, we’ve realized that things out there are tremendously valuable. Parchester Village is this really neat, vibrant community and the shoreline is habitat and great recreation.”
Jay Reynolds Fenton, a real estate investor in Richmond, says that 12 years ago, houses in Parchester Village were selling for approximately $40,000. Now, they go for around $400,000. But, he says, they may lose value if the new development is approved because it would block their views of the bay.
Still, Richmond is under pressure to grow. Under the urban limit line approved by voters in Contra Costa County, new housing must be concentrated in urban centers like Richmond. But demand for housing can be met without developing open spaces like Breuner Marsh, says Fenton, who owns Collins Industrial Park, next door to Parchester Village, and sits on the Parchester Village Neighborhood Council. He’s lived in Richmond for 37 years, watching North Richmond change from an almost exclusively industrial area with toxic dumps and brownfields to hosting light industrial and wholesale distribution businesses and, increasingly, residential communities. As heavy industrial operations have moved out of the city, they have left a lot of waste—and land—behind.
“There are plenty of marginal, unproductive sites all throughout the North Richmond flatlands that can be developed comfortably,” he says. “They don’t have to develop the Breuner site. And if all these other sites were developed, you’re going to need that much open space to complement the development.
“You really have to look at the whole picture of how much mix of open space and development you’re going to have,” Fenton says. “Don’t develop premium open space and leave the ragged looking properties. Go remediate the brownfields first. If you want to develop, develop there, but leave that [marsh], because once it’s gone, you can’t just build out into the bay.”
Tidal marshlands are increasingly endangered ecosystems. San Francisco Bay once supported 190,000 acres of highly productive tidal marsh; now only 16,000 acres remain. With 32 acres of marsh, Richmond has more than any other city on the San Francisco Bay, but highly developed North Richmond has only a third as much open space per capita as the rest of Contra Costa County, according to Oakland-based Pacific Institute.
Although the public will still have access to the remaining marsh through the proposed Bay Trail connection if the development is approved, many feel development will effectively privatize the shoreline. Papaefthimiou also argues that the proposed development threatens wildlife on the marsh, especially the salt marsh harvest mouse. The mouse, found only along the San Francisco, San Pablo, and Suisun bays, was listed as an endangered species in 1970. It lives mostly in the marsh flats but retreats to the uplands during high tides. The marsh is also habitat for the California clapper rail, another endangered species that nests on upland slopes.
Grunwald says enough land, including upland area, will be preserved to protect the mouse, and that fences will protect wildlife from household pets, often a problem when housing is built so close to wildlife habitat. Yet fences have been shown repeatedly not to provide effective buffers between housing and sensitive habitat. Grunwald says the developers will also restore Rheem Creek regardless of whether the Natural Heritage Institute participates. However, opponents of the proposal fear the developers won’t give the creek enough room to meander across the flood plain, an essential part of creating a fully functioning tidal waterway, says Josh Bradt of the Urban Creeks Council. “They want to basically cannibalize a plan we first created,” he says. Whatever restoration plan the developers propose will have to be approved by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Grunwald admits there are a lot of steps to take before the proposed development is built. In his best-case scenario, it would be eight years before the project is complete. During that time, Dotson and the North Richmond Shoreline Open Space Alliance will continue to use every tactic they know to stop development on the marsh. “The whole thing is berserk& It’s an absurd use of this land,” Dotson says. “It should not be developed for just a few people to enjoy. This is for the public and I think [we should do] whatever we need to do as a progressive community to make sure it stays public.”