When Joshua Genser purchased 10 acres of industrial land on Richmond’s north shore in 1999, he had a vision: A Silicon-Valley-like park, complete with palm trees, gleaming glass, and a shoreline where employees and the public would take in views of the San Pablo Bay.
Genser wasn’t alone. Other parties bought land in the area that year, too. Joe and Heidi Shekou (JHS) purchased 14 acres on the same industrial subdivision. The Murray family bought 55 acres next door. Some had plans to develop – a plan they say was encouraged by the city – while others didn’t. The Murrays, for example, aren’t developers themselves and figured someone else would want to develop the prime real estate.
But the economy didn’t cooperate.
“Before we actually did a deal, the dot-com bust came along,” Genser said while standing on his property west of Goodrick Avenue. “You could buy buildings for less than you could build.”
The future of the north shore – and the people who own the land – now remains uncertain thanks to competing public and private visions for how the land should be used.
The Planning Commission met Thursday night to debate its final recommendations for the City Council, which will soon update the city’s major planning document -— its General Plan. But commissioners deadlocked on how to zone the North Shore Change Area 12, a 100-acre chunk of land that’s owned in part by Genser’s Richmond Development Company, JHS Properties, the Murray family and another party, Don and Lonne Carr. The most recent draft of the General Plan proposes rezoning the area as open space, a move that would limit landowners to developing for recreational use only.
The debate over how to zone the north shore has been simmering between Bay Area conservationists and Richmond property owners for decades. This General Plan update represents an opportunity for both sides.
Conservationists see it as a chance to ensure long-overdue protection to an ecosystem that’s been abused in the past. Landowners, on the other hand, see the rezoning effort as a ploy to depreciate their property so open-space organizations can purchase it at an extreme discount.
“They don’t want to pay fair market value for the land,” said JHS Properties owner Bob Herbst, noting that the Citizens for East Shore Parks and the East Bay Regional Parks District have approached the land owners over the years about potential sales. “Whether they even have the funds to buy the land, I don’t know, but it’s illegal for the government to down-zone someone’s land to take away their economic use of the land —- it’s called a taking.”
Over the last decade, there have been glimmers of hope for the landowners. They entered into negotiations about a few projects – a live-work community and a Latino soccer mall are just a couple of the ideas they pursued that never got the OK from the city. Most recently, the RDC and JHS Properties have been in negotiations regarding an artisan collaborative and a Salvation Army complex.
But all that hangs in the balance. If the City Council passes the General Plan in its current form, there’s a chance property owners will never get to develop.
“I think it’s completely unfair,” said Dan Murray. “If they want the property for the reasons they state – the ecological values – then they should approach us and purchase the property for how its zoned, not go through this charade of downzoning the property and then taking it from us.”
The Commission was split on the issue Thursday night. Commissioner Jeff Lee kicked off the discussion by saying he’d like to zone the area as industrial, a move he says will cause less of a hit to property owners, as well as align with the General Plan Advisory Committee’s recommendation that the land be used for development. Lee questioned the motives of conservationists who want to restrict development.
“The big thing to me is, I just don’t think it’s right to just arbitrarily redefine land values for an ulterior motive,” he said. “We are all trying to mold Richmond into a fresh and idealistic city, and to me, this approach is just not consistent with that value set.”
Commissioner Andres Soto disagreed.
“Certainly for those who are investors, it’s about the degree or return rate on their property,” he said. “I guess I’m looking at this document in total as a legacy of our vision, and I do believe it is the right of the city to rezone as they feel its appropriate. And of course, it has to be done through due process, and I think that’s what we’re doing.”
Commissioners who oppose the property owners’ plans also said the land is unlikely to be developed due to its track record and the dismal state of the economy. Others maintained that taking away the landowners’ ability to develop as they had planned just doesn’t seem fair.
One commissioner, Roberto Reyes, declined to give his opinion, saying only that he believed the issue will have to be resolved through litigation.
Commissioner Carol Teltschick-Fall suggested a compromise of recommending the area be zoned as industrial, with stipulations attached regarding the density and height of buildings there. But Assistant Planner Hector Rojas and other city planners reminded the commission that specific zoning regulations aren’t part of the General Plan process.
Motions were proposed to recommend the land as industrial and to recommend the General Plan as is (with the land zoned as open space), but neither could get the four votes required for passage.
By the meeting’s end, the commission had recommended the first four parts of the General Plan – including the land use element – for adoption by the city council. They will reconvene Nov. 5 to continue combing through the plan element-by-element, and when they’re done, they’ll meet to discuss recommending the document in its entirety to the City Council, Rojas said. As it stands, the north shore is zoned as open space.
Genser said the commission’s decision is neither a setback nor a victory for property owners, since the City Council maintains the power to veto or accept any decision made by the commission.
“It’s always been up to the City Council,” he said. “It would have been nice for the planning commission to recommend us as industrial, but now we’ll just have to wait and see.”
For more background on this issue, see North-shore zoning dispute hits crux at Planning Commission meeting.