Conjure City

This year’s Coastal Cleanup Day is gorgeous, one of those sunny summer-into-fall treats, with clear blue skies and a breeze off the bay hinting at the change in season. Richmond City Councilmember Tom Butt, his wife Shirley, and I are combing for trash along the North Richmond shore, intent on our own mini-cleanup.

As the three of us stop to gaze west, across Wildcat Marsh, I ask Butt why, just when it seemed we had finally understood beyond a doubt that it’s best not to fill the bay or trash its wetlands, the city of Richmond wants to plop a deep container port down on top of Wildcat Marsh (and likely other marshes along the North Richmond shoreline as well).

Butt shakes his head. “You’re asking the wrong person,” he says. “It’s insane.”

Richmond boasts the longest stretch of shoreline of any East Bay city—32 miles—and an even longer history of citizen environmental activism. The north shoreline is one of the few places around the bay where you can still see expanses of untrammeled salt marsh unframed by housing or industry or watch white-tailed kites conducting aerial maneuvers. You might even catch a glimpse of an endangered California clapper rail lurking in the cordgrass.

Yet city leaders seem determined to ruin this ecological treasure. Citizen activists only recently fought off—with the help of the East Bay Regional Park District—a proposal to build a huge housing complex on Breuner Marsh, one of the bay’s most intact marshes and habitat of several endangered species (see Terrain, Fall 2005). But the “city of pride and purpose” doesn’t give up easily.

On July 25, during a city council meeting, city staff announced its intention to “study”—in partnership with Long Beach port design firm Moffat and Nichol Engineers—building a deep water container port on the north shoreline—despite the fact that Richmond already has a container port on its south shoreline. While the exact configuration of the port was left unspecified, City Manager Bill Lindsay suggested that the areas in question are parts of the Chevron refinery (south of Wildcat Marsh) and the West Contra Costa landfill to the north of the marsh. To make use of those sites, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission’s Will Travis, who met with Lindsay to discuss the port idea, concluded, “They would have to dredge two ship channels, two turning basins, two berthing areas, and build two connections to the rail and road system.” The cost of such an undertaking, says Travis, would be prohibitive.

In an August 28 letter to Lindsay, Travis suggested that the city reexamine its existing port, pointing out that the Richmond Harbor navigation channel is 45 feet deep and “requires considerably less deepening and maintenance dredging than would be required in developing access to a north Richmond port site.” Jeff Inglis, a member of the North Richmond Shoreline Open Space Alliance, agrees. “What is the current status of that port, what is its potential, and how much of that potential is being utilized?” he asks. “Rather than putting money into studying developing these protected areas, shouldn’t the city be looking what it can do to maximize existing resources?”

Another lifelong Richmond resident worries that the entire shoreline is in jeopardy—and not just from Richmond’s current development-idea-of-the-week. Environmental activist Whitney Dotson says that the port study “will cover everything from Wildcat Marsh all the way to Breuner Marsh. One of my fears is that they’re planning to take over the whole shoreline.” Dotson adds that on a recent boat tour given to local business councils, Port Director Jim Metzorkis announced that the city hopes to develop the entire shoreline. “They’re determined to make some money off of the shoreline one way or another,” says Dotson. Neither Lindsay nor Metzorkis returned my calls.

Dotson is conducting his own feasibility study—of turning the shoreline into a state park. Dotson is one of the leaders of the North Richmond Open Space Shoreline Alliance, and he has been in discussion with the California State Parks Foundation. His group recently convened a community meeting, to which it invited regulators, city staff, and anyone interested in discussing the future of the shoreline, and it is coming up with its own vision. It is in large part due to this group keeping an eye on the city and insisting on protecting the shoreline that several prominent environmental organizations weighed in on the proposed port.

One of those, 21-year-old Wildcat-San Pablo Creeks Watershed Council, which has fought for decades to restore and preserve both creeks and the marshes they flow into, points out in a letter to Lindsay that over $21 million of public money—from the State Lands Commission, the California Department of Water Resources, CALFED, the East Bay Regional Park District, Contra Costa County, the federal government, and the California Coastal Conservancy—has been funneled into an environmentally healthy flood control project for these two creeks, including restoring the marshes and floodplains, making them accessible to the public, and creating regional trails to connect regional parks with the shoreline. In its letter, the council also calls to Lindsay’s attention the fact that the original flood control project to dredge a channel through Wildcat Marsh had to be abandoned because of contamination in the marsh. Any current-day dredging would reawaken those long-buried contaminants that have leached or been drained into the marsh from the landfill, the wastewater treatment plant, and numerous nearby industries, such as the Chevron refinery.

In addition to toxics—and the question of where contaminated dredge spoils could be deposited—the Sierra Club, Save the Bay, and the San Francisco Bay Joint Venture, a voluntary coalition of 27 agencies, businesses, and private organizations whose members are working to “protect, restore, increase, and enhance” wetlands and riparian habitats throughout the Bay Area, raise the issue of impacts on endangered species like the California clapper rail, and the salt marsh harvest mouse, as well as on species of concern such as long-billed curlews and ospreys, which nest and forage in and around Wildcat Marsh and the Richmond shoreline, as well as over 100 other bird species. Dredging would also harm nearby eelgrass beds, some of the most intact and extensive subtidal habitat existing in the bay, these agencies point out.

In its September 6, 2006 letter to the city, the Joint Venture offered to “work with the city of Richmond as we have done with other municipalities to help bring about the economic and recreational benefits of protected and restored natural areas.” The Venture’s coordinator, Beth Huning, says her organization worked with the city of Petaluma as it debated building a traditional sewage treatment plant that would have harmed nearby marshes. Petaluma instead created a natural treatment marsh that provided additional habitat—and earned the city good public relations. “A whole series of projects has lined up because of that one,” says Huning. Huning attended the North Richmond Shoreline Open Space Alliance’s meeting and has offered to make a presentation to the city council.

What’s with this manic energy to develop the shoreline? “There’s this mantra in Richmond that too many people buy into,” says Butt. “It’s that Richmond needs jobs and the only way to address that is to build more stuff and get more tax dollars—that that will solve all of our problems. But it won’t. The Port of Oakland hasn’t solved West Oakland’s crime problems—and it’s bigger than what’s being proposed here.”

Butt has his own vision for the shoreline. “I think that all undeveloped green space on the north shoreline should be protected. The city could bolster its image and attract visitors that way; we need to get more people to use the Bay Trail. Maybe there would be trail-related businesses, cafes, an environmental ed center. Maybe we could expand the Eastshore State Park—in the end that would have more economic value to Richmond than any type of development.” Councilmember Gayle McLaughlin, who is running for mayor this year, says she also wants to “keep Richmond’s shorelines open, accessible, clean, and public,” and would like to see restoration efforts using Richmond’s youth. “The developers, always anxious for a quick return, push irresponsible plans, and certain city staff act as if they are employed by the developers,” she says. “Before we know it, a bad project has been developed, rubber-stamped, and approved by a majority on the council. Not too long ago we had city staff promoting 1,300 housing units on the toxic Zeneca site on the South Richmond shoreline. Thankfully the people of Richmond, from the south to the north shoreline, are standing against irresponsible development.”

Mayor Irma Anderson and the other council-members were asked for their visions for the shoreline but did not respond. Councilmember Jim Rogers seems to be listening to enviros’ and citizens’ concerns. He tried to pass a resolution that would have convened a “blue-ribbon taskforce” of citizens, businesses, and environmental groups to study the shoreline in lieu of a container port study. In typical Richmond fashion, the resolution failed in a split vote.

Meanwhile, Chevron developed a case of mild schizophrenia. At the July 25 city council meeting, Chevron representative Jim Brumfield waxed eloquent about the container ship plan and lauded city staffers who were pushing the idea. Yet Chevron spokesperson Camille Priselac says Chevron supports the idea of a study but would “prefer that the port not be situated” on its property: “We believe in buffer zones around our property. The city hasn’t even talked with us or met with us about this.”

What would Chevron’s interest be? Some speculate that if a deep ship channel were dredged next to its facility, Chevron could import liquefied natural gas. When I pose this theory to Bruce Beyaert, former manager of environmental planning with Chevron, who has submitted a letter questioning the economic and regulatory hurdles of the proposed port, he confirms that Chevron has major natural gas reserves abroad—in Australia, in particular— and has expressed interest in bringing LNG into the United States. The infrastructure for a container ship port would not be suitable without major modifications, points out Beyaert. Yet, he adds, having a deep ship channel dredged right next to its refinery would overcome a major hurdle.

By mid-October, the container port idea was dead. According to the city manager’s report, “investment groups are no longer interested in pursuing the new north shore port concept.” These groups, which include J.P. Morgan, may wish to redevelop terminals along the south shore. The city manager’s report stresses that new port investment “will be related to existing land and facilities rather than to a new facility.” The demise of the north shore container port gives environmental groups a window of opportunity—before the city advances a new scheme.

Over a decade ago, the California Coastal Conservancy funded a specific plan for the north Richmond shoreline, with input from businesses, city staff, and enviros. The document tried to balance preservation of natural areas with development. There is more science just 15 years later about the bay and its wildlife, and after Katrina, a lot more understanding about why wetlands are so important ecologically and as natural flood control “sponges.”

San Francisco-based nonprofit Natural Heritage Institute’s Rich Walkling, who has been involved for several years in the North Richmond area, in particular on Rheem Creek and Breuner Marsh, has a CALFED grant (yet more state/federal money) to develop a grassroots vision. Walkling, working closely with Dotson’s shoreline alliance, hopes to hold a series of workshops in early 2007 for people to get out in the field. “At the end of all of this, when we have this core group of people informed, we’ll go through another planning and conservation process,” he says. “We need to come up with examples of where cities have integrated economic development in a sustainable way that protects their natural resources—a giant container port doesn’t do that. We’ll come up with a vision for what the shoreline should look like—maybe a North Richmond Shoreline National Park.”

Developer dollars are easier to come by than state and federal funding for parks these days. I ask Butt what he thinks it will take to save the shoreline. Shirley Butt jumps in. “Richmond always talks about being business-friendly,” she says. “We need to tell developers we are seeking environmentally friendly businesses and start from there instead of always putting the environment second.”

Tom Butt speaks of Richmond activists like Lucretia Edwards, who recently passed away in her nineties. He seems to be hoping for Edwards’ reincarnation. “They were persistent, courted public opinion, used the media, and even litigated,” he says of Edwards and her cohort of citizen activists. “They outlasted and outlived the opposition.” If that legacy persists—and it seems likely to, with folks like Dotson and the shoreline alliance, the grassroots vision may, in the long run, prevail over ports, condos—and the City of Richmond’s Development-a-Week.

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