After 14 years of ballot-box battles, lawsuits and political fights, Richmond’s Point Molate continues to stir drama at City Hall.
Earlier this year, Mayor Tom Butt quietly disbanded an important city committee that advises on plans for the 290-acre, undeveloped “jewel” on the bay.
His move ruffled Richmond’s progressive majority, however, who responded with political maneuvering of its own.
In July, the Point Molate Citizens Advisory Committee was disbanded after the mayor neglected to reappoint any of its members.
The committee met monthly and consisted of Richmond residents particularly knowledgeable about the Point. They made recommendations to city council, and provided a forum for other residents to learn and give input about the activities.
Former chairperson Jim Hanson explained that often the committee would pick up the city’s slack. “The city has limited staffing, so it’s difficult for staff to keep on top of everything,” Hanson said. He said members, all Richmond residents, would review city contracts, explore ways to generate revenue for Point Molate, and work with city staff.
But at city council on October 24, former committee member Connie Portero revealed that the Point Molate committee was no longer operating. Members who had become “experts in their fields,” according to Portero, were suddenly deprived of their ability to serve.
“Gayle McLaughlin was our council liaison, and shortly after her leaving, the committee doesn’t exist anymore. There is no community oversight regarding Point Molate. It is gone,” Portero said.
At the subsequent meeting, on November 7, city council responded to Butt’s move to disband the committee by refusing to approve the entirety of the week’s consent calendar — a list of items that require action, but are considered uncontroversial and can be voted on all at once.
The sticking point was one of the very last consent items, a seemingly innocuous push to start conducting public meetings concerning Point Molate’s future.
Councilmember Jovanka Beckles asked to strike said item from the calendar, only to receive push back from the mayor. What followed was an argument over protocol that ended with Councilmember Eduardo Martinez asking Butt why he was so “hell-bent” on pursuing the matter.
After denying requests during and before the meeting, according to Beckles, the mayor relented and offered to remove item I-29 from the consent calendar. But the six remaining council members still refused to vote on the calendar or discuss the item further.
“This has never happened before in Richmond history,” Butt wrote about the RPA’s failure to approve the consent-calendar in his email newsletter later that night after the meeting.
Point Molate’s legacy is contentious. Once in the hands of the Navy, it was offered to the city of Richmond in 1995 for a $1 price tag. In 2003, Richmond finally acquired the property, and within that year entertained a proposal for a $1.2 billion casino.
Voters ultimately rejected the casino plan in 2010, which led developer Jim Levine and his company Upstream Investments to sue the city, claiming that it interfered with the development’s federal approval process.
Seven years have passed, yet the litigation continues, effectively placing the brakes on any new development until resolved, a process that could drag on for several more years, according to the mayor.
Butt has been vocal about his dissatisfaction with Point Molate’s slow slog toward development. A condition of Point Molate’s sale was that the area be used for economic development.
At a Point Molate Community Advisory Committee meeting in September 2016, for instance, the mayor presented an update on litigation and pieces of his vision. During the meeting, Butt vented about a lack of progress and development at the point.
“I’ve been at this for 20 years at Point Molate, and I’m really getting to the point that I want to get something done. I want to stop talking about it and I want to make it happen, and if it’s going to happen, it’s going to have to be something that’s practical. That can be done. That’s going to attract developers,” Butt said in his address to the committee.
His vision: The development of 600 to 1,800 housing units, which he believes will “generate the money that’s needed to build the infrastructure that’s needed, so that the rest of [Point Molate] can be built out,” according to a transcript of his comments from the September meeting.
Altogether, there are 12 different plans for the development of Point Molate, varying from high-density housing and a shopping district to strict conservation and the development of a public park.
Currently, the city of Richmond makes roughly $7,300 in rent per month from the property, while security and landscaping cost more than $30,000 a month. According to City Attorney Bruce Goodmiller, more than $2 million has been paid by the city in attorney fees for ongoing litigation with Upstream Investments.
At a November 21 council meeting, former committee members and concerned citizens showed up in force to call for broader public engagement in the Point Molate planning process.
Councilmembers Melvin Willis and Benjamin Choi authored a directive to give the public a role in organizing public meetings and workshops concerning the bayside property.
Butt’s consent-calendar item would have provided for these meetings, but according to former PMCAC members, with a key exception: there wouldn’t be public and stakeholder input on the organization of the meetings, which would fail to uphold the intent of the original initiative. As proposed by former Councilmember Gayle McLaughlin, her goal was to give the public and stakeholders, like the advisory committee, an opportunity to educate themselves about the property and give informed suggestions, backed by actual leverage.
The concern is that the public won’t have this much input if city staff alone is in charge of outreach.
The mayor, however, says that city staff is well-equipped to handle the design of these public meetings.
“Our city staff has been doing this kind of thing successfully for a long time,” the mayor wrote in an email to Richmond Confidential. “There is no reason to believe anyone’s input would be excluded.”
“Many residents in the city of Richmond recognize that with comprehensive community input, the development of Point Molate can have the greatest economic and social impact on the city of Richmond since World War II,” former committee member Portero said last Tuesday.
Former Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean, now board president of Citizens for East Shore Parks, urged that future plans for Point Molate be “open, transparent and all inclusive.”
Willis and Choi’s directive passed on November 21. Now, former Point Molate advisory committee members can have a seat at the table in an unofficial capacity, and with the Richmond public, will plan three public workshops to take place between now and late spring 2018.
Correction: The original version of this article stated that the mayor had allowed the resolution forming the PMCAC to expire. This was incorrect. Resolution No. 51-16, an amended version of the establishing resolution (Res. No. 8-11), does not have an expiration date, and can only be officially dissolved through a majority vote by the city council.
This story has been updated since its original publication.