Part 10: A hopeful vision for the future

ervin coley memorial north richmond

Ervin Coley III, left, and the memorial garden that bears his name. (photo illustration by Robert Rogers)

North Richmond’s wartime rebirth and post-war decline is not unique in the Bay Area.

Perhaps the most apt comparison – and indication of the perils and potential of future development – sits just across the bay in Marin City. And it’s a comparison that yields clues about the looming challenges.

Marin City’s modern history, like North Richmond’s, essentially begins with the start of World War II, when cheap housing was erected to shelter the African Americans who had streamed in to work the shipyards.

Like North Richmond, Marin City is not a city at all, but is an unincorporated area isolated in part by transportation corridors, in this case demarcated from the affluent city of Sausalito by Highway 101.

And like North Richmond, the separation isn’t just physical or geographic. Marin City was for decades the only community in its county that was primarily poor and African American. While North Richmond is not as starkly different racially or economically from its neighbors as is Marin City, the stigma of living in the tiny, tightly-connected projects of North Richmond has evolved into its own kind of identifier. Both communities comprise just over 2,000 residents.

Marin City dealt with political isolation as well, sharing some services with Sausalito but finding politicians there reluctant to campaign in Marin City or reach out to its constituents.

But by the mid-1990s, Marin City was on the verge of a major transformation.

Enter “Marin City U.S.A.,” a consortium of developers who came together to launch a more than $100 million plus project, which included retail space, townhouses and apartments. Flea markets were out, and new construction was in.

More than a decade later, the results are mixed, and could portend what the future holds for North Richmond.

Marin City has become more ethnically diverse, particularly with white residents moving back in to take advantage of new condominium and housing developments at much lower prices than surrounding communities.

The African American share of the population is down from more than 80 percent to less than 40 percent, much of which is still concentrated in Golden Gate Village, the 300-unit public housing complex that is comparable to North Richmond’s Las Deltas.

The Gateway Shopping Center, a centerpiece of the new development, has been a moderate success. There are several major retailers and chain restaurants, but no grocery store.

According to a a study produced by the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, the project was a net success for Marin City, helping to reduce crime, boost tax revenues, diversify the community and dilute the poverty that had become so concentrated. It also provided much needed employment opportunities in the community.

But there were also areas where the development left something to be desired. Fewer than two dozen public housing tenants were able to make a move into the new affordable housing developments, the report found. Also, the retail center’s revenues fell far short of projections.

Still, the report concluded: “The experiences and accomplishments of Marin City U.S.A. provide an excellent case study for how to create a successful mixed-income, multi-use development. The lessons from Marin City U.S.A. are that a strong local partner, effective leadership, an efficient partnership structure and the availability of funding sources are essential to success.”

Enter North Richmond, which may become the site of its own major redevelopment plan, but may have steeper challenges than Marin City in terms of industrial pollutants, a substandard infrastructure and a physical isolation. The community has long had the feel of a territory of exile for a few thousand residents.

Levees prevent the area from flooding as it did regularly through the 1940s and 1950s. The streets are paved, and no longer melt into muddy rivers during storms. Regulations and advances in technology mean that Chevron’s refinery emits far lower emissions than it did just 10 years ago.

But as of 2011, North Richmond has not a single restaurant or grocery store. There is a liquor store and a small general market. But neither provides fresh fruits or vegetables, and the prices run high, thanks to neither store being able to benefit from economies of scale.

There is no post office or high school. One bus line runs through the area, and as recently as January 2011 AC Transit drivers threatened to refuse to drive the North Richmond route after several shootings left buses riddled with holes.

There has never been a streetlight in unincorporated North Richmond.

Fred Jackson, the longtime local civil rights activist
after whom a local street was named this year described the bleakness during an interview in April: “What happened to North Richmond didn’t just happen yesterday when the rooster crowed. It has been evolutionary. To say it’s the county’s fault, without looking at the city, the city’s fault, without looking at the state, the state’s fault without looking at Congress, Congress’ fault without looking at ourselves, all of that fails to understand how we got here, and how we can rectify this.”

While Jackson stares at his own mortality – he vows to survive his battle with cancer – and ponders the tragic history of his own community, he remains hopeful.

He is not alone.

Even during the darkest moments, like the deaths on consecutive nights of Ervin Coley III and Jerry Owens, hope remains, and for good reason.

Situated in one of the most vibrant metropolitan areas in the world, the Bay Area, and near an untapped waterfront, major highways, and the San Rafael Bridge, North Richmond’s eventual turn for the better seems inevitable.

To some, gentrification seems equally certain, but planners and other observers insist that development does not have to come at the expense of the present inhabitants.

Today, because of the perception and reality of crime, pollution and poor services, prices of old homes here can be well under $100,000. This is the Bay Area’s cheapest coastal real estate, a fact that pro-development leaders think serves North Richmond well, and may compensate for another area where the community is less favorably positioned than Marin City: The “spillover effect” that Marin City has, thanks to being situated adjacent to affluent areas like Sausalito.

The county is busily preparing a development plan that officials hope will trigger inflows of new homebuyers and renters and improve the area’s image. Hopes are high that Las Deltas will be razed and replaced with a mixture of affordable housing and Section 8 vouchers, scattering the residents now concentrated in the public housing projects.

Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, who since 1998 has been unincorporated North Richmond’s de facto elected leader, is bullish on North Richmond’s prospects.

“The future here, I think, is more housing,” Gioia said. “If you look at North Richmond, it’s well-placed. There’s not a lot of vacant land available anymore in the urban areas of the Bay Area. North Richmond is one of those last areas where there is a sizable amount of undeveloped land that is near good transportation infrastructure. The future is moderate priced housing.”

In early 2010, county officials gave a presentation to Richmond city planners outlining what the future could look like.

As of Spring 2011, county Redevelopment Director James Kennedy said a draft of a specific plan and environmental impact report (EIR) would be unveiled later this year.

“The draft EIR and draft Specific Plan will be in circulation for public comment over the summer, and initial hearings on the draft Specific Plan late in the Fall,” Kennedy said.

Billed as a “comprehensive vision and strategy for promoting new development” in North Richmond, the presentation given to the city called for 2,100 residential dwellings, and 11-acre retail center and 30 acres of “employment land,” which would presumably be attractive and low-cost office space.

The plan also calls for improving many of the conditions that have plagued North Richmond since WWII, including bolstering the flood control system, creating truck routes that steer heavy industrial uses and waste disposal out of the community, adding an off-ramp to the Richmond Parkway and increasing bus services to the area.

The goal, as stated in the plan, is to “transform a former industrial area in North Richmond into an attractive, safe, healthy and vibrant new neighborhood with residential, commercial, public, park, and open space uses.”

The keystone of the whole project, of any possibility of breathing new life and investment into the community, is a 200-acre patch of land bounded by San Pablo Creek, the Union Pacific Railroad track, Wildcat Creek and Richmond Parkway.

The area, formerly industrial land, is occupied mostly by dormant nurseries and junkyards. The county analysis says that there are more than two dozen property owners within the area.

But there is no doubt that the analysts see long-term development potential here.

“The residential development in the planning area could tap into a significant market of potential homebuyers seeking affordable ownership in West County specifically and relatively central areas in the San Francisco Bay Area more generally,” according to a 2008 real estate market analysis commissioned by the county.

The report also makes clear that North Richmond’s chief draw will be its Bay Area location at a price well below the area average, a price that will face further downward pressure due to its historical reputation.

“The urban location,” the report states, “ … means new housing developments must offer lower prices relative to many other housing developments in the West County.”

The report also suggests that the community would be able to support a medium-sized grocery, 20,000 to 40,000 square feet, which would play a key role in drawing residents from outside the neighborhood, marking a key break in the isolation from which the community has suffered for years.

So the plan is clear. North Richmond has the potential to be a place booming with affordable housing in Bay Area. But when the investment will come is not so clear, nor is the political future set.

On the score of what will happen to the current residents, many of whom have been in North Richmond for generations, Gioia said that the idea is to integrate the new with the old, with the exception of the moribund Las Deltas.

“The challenge will be to make sure that the older parts of North Richmond are integrated with the new housing,” Gioia said. “You don’t want two communities to develop, and that’s always a risk. It has to be built in a way that ensures that the areas are integrated.”

Gioia added that in addition to streets that link the old housing stock in the south to new developments to the north, the substantial number of vacant lots in old North Richmond may have potential as in-fill development and community resources, like parks and walkways.

While he has said that it “makes sense” for North Richmond to be annexed into the city of Richmond, Gioia and other county officials think North Richmond could become a hotbed of development and investment, which could benefit the county’s coffers.

But Kenneth Davis and Saleem Bey, two of the more aggressive local activists, and others are gaining influence among residents and pushing the city for support. The city’s new leadership seems amenable to the idea of annexation once again.

The long unwanted patch of real estate in the Bay Area is slowly becoming more desirable.

And, as they always have, the people of North Richmond go about their lives. They face pollution and gunfire, isolation and stigma, and most of all an uncertain future.

Perhaps the person who saw the future best is one of those who is no longer here. Before he was one of the dozens of young black men who died violently in this neighborhood, Coley was becoming a perceptive, self-aware young man.

More than 500 people, mostly from that one mile square area of North Richmond that has seen all too much since the World War wound down, turned out at Hilltop Community Church April 14 to lay Coley to rest.

In several conversations during what would be his last weeks of life, Coley didn’t talk about the county or the city or a development plan.

But in his own way, Coley had become optimistic about his future in North Richmond. Right before he was shot and died on that street corner, Coley had taken an interest in building new life in the same soil that had seen so much death and decay.

“We called Ervin the ‘Worm Man,’” said Iyalode Kinney, Coley’s manager and mentor on the urban gardening project, “because when he first came out, and I taught him about what purpose the worms served, he just loved that philosophy of enriching the ground so more life would come out of it.”

On April 23, just as North Richmond seems poised to enter a new era, the garden where he worked his last days was dedicated to Coley. It was a vacant lot, and now it’s being developed for a new use. The garden was dedicated with a rectangular wooden plaque with Coley’s name carved in it.

And a peace symbol.

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