Richmond’s ace in the hole has always been its citizen activists—and lately they’ve been holding the cards. In January, in response to a multitude of developer- and city-sponsored proposals for ports, condos, and casinos along Richmond’s marshy bayfront, the North Richmond Shoreline Open Space Alliance invited residents, new Green Party mayor Gayle McLaughlin, city councilmembers, planners, and consultants to hear their ideas. The effort couldn’t have been better timed, as the city is updating its General Plan.
Henry Clark of the West County Toxics Coalition set the tone for the evening event: “The shoreline belongs to the people, but the community has never had access,” he pointed out. “Chevron’s had access; the Rod and Gun Club has had access, but we haven’t.” Clark said if new industry comes to the area, he wants it clean and green. “We’re done with polluting smokestacks.”
The Natural Heritage Institute’s Rich Walkling celebrated Richmond’s 32-mile-long bayshore treasure. The largest eelgrass bed in the entire bay is just off the North Richmond shoreline; several endangered species, including the California clapper rail, live in the marshes. Walkling compared the marshes to lungs that filter pollutants as they produce oxygen for the community of North Richmond. And he broached an unpleasant subject: how the General Plan might address sea level rise, as some of the land along the shoreline will probably be lost.
Robin Freeman of the East Bay Watershed Center suggested that the city could purchase private properties and develop them with small, locally owned businesses rather than encouraging big-box developers; he also suggested moving polluting businesses off the shoreline and creating a shoreline protection zone. Citizens for Eastshore State Park’s Robert Cheasty urged that the North Richmond shoreline be preserved as part of the East Bay shoreline park system. Cheasty, the former mayor of Albany, spoke of the decades it took to get the land along the bay in Albany and Berkeley preserved as parkland and admitted that “there is no end to this battle.”
In Richmond that could be an understatement. While activists shot down a container port slated for Wildcat Marsh (see Fall/Winter 2006), City Councilmember Tom Butt told the crowd that a new proposal for a port has just emerged—this one would fill in the old Santa Fe Channel. “[The port proposal] is like a giant balloon that’s being squeezed,” Butt quipped. “It keeps popping up again and again.”
Other highlights of the evening were the Regional Water Quality Control Board’s Ann Riley, who described the fight in the ’80s to save Wildcat-San Pablo creeks from being imprisoned in a concrete channel as “flood control.” A group composed mostly of African-American neighbors came together and fought the Army Corps of Engineers on behalf of the creek. Riley called it “the people’s plan,” and she urged this new generation to come with its own plan to save Richmond’s bayshore.
The ever-elegant cofounder of Save the Bay, Sylvia McLoughlin, waited until the end of the evening to speak. McLoughlin, who just turned 90, suggested that now is the time to think big. “The Richmond shoreline planning process could be a model for other cities, a key component of the East Bay shoreline park system,” said McLoughlin. “Richmond’s shoreline can be an economic and aesthetic asset to the region.”
General plan consultant Daniel Iacofano pointed out that assumptions create false conflicts. “The economy and the environment do not need to be in opposition,” he said. “Businesses want to locate where there is quality of life and quality of environment. The stage is set for doing that here.” Iacofano cited studies demonstrating that property values increase near parks and open space, and said that over three quarters of a trillion dollars is spent on outdoor recreation and ecotourism each year. He suggested that Richmond tap into those dollars by “raising the identity of its shoreline, marketing and branding it as an environmental resource, a destination.”
And that was music to the new mayor’s ears. She told the crowd that she saw a “refreshing sharp difference” that tells her Richmond’s citizens want to develop in a different way. “It should say something to city staff,” she concluded.
But will it? Idealistic residents have demonstrated decades of staying power. But Richmond’s officials, elected and hired, often give a nod to impassioned speeches as they conduct business as usual. While the mayor and councilmember Butt stayed for the duration, the rest of the councilmembers bowed out early—or didn’t show up at all. The city can hire the best possible consultants to write the best possible plan, but is there a will to implement it? One thing is certain: Richmond’s citizen activists have dealt themselves into the game.