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History to make way for housing

on October 13, 2009

The structures comprising three historic Japanese nurseries have stood since before the Second World War, and they show their age. The lead-based paints crack and peel. Panes of glass on the greenhouses are broken, allowing wild vegetation to sprout through.

Soon, nearly all the 60-plus structures that stand as monuments to Japanese-American industriousness will likely be razed to make room for new housing developments.

The nurseries survived World War II, when the land was confiscated from its Japanese-American owners in the name of national security, but this time few doubt that the greenhouses and living quarters face certain demolition.

An environmental impact report commissioned by the city concluded that the site would require extensive cleanup before homes could be built. Pesticides, heavy metals and asbestos are among the toxins present at the site.

An environmental impact report commissioned by the city concluded that the site would require extensive cleanup before homes could be built. Pesticides, heavy metals and asbestos are among the toxins present at the site.

The city’s Redevelopment Agency bought the 14 acres of land on which these dilapidated structures rest in 2006, ending decades of ownership by three Japanese-American families. The agency has plans with private developers to build the Miraflores Housing Development, a project including 110 rental units for senior housing and 226 other single-family homes on the site.

All that remains is approval by the Planning Commission and City Council, with both votes expected in November, said Natalia Lawrence, development project manager for the Redevelopment Agency.

“Our expectation is that the proposal will go through smoothly, that we have met all the requirements,” Lawrence said. Lawrence added that extensive environmental cleanup will have to occur before residential units are built, owing to decades of usage of pesticides, petro-carbons and other toxic chemicals.

While demolition could occur late this year, “extreme deflation” in the housing market has clouded the project’s timeline, Lawrence said.

But the development proposal set to wipe away the vestiges of the past has slid by with little contention. An Environmental impact Report commissioned by the city and released last summer concluded that the project would result in the loss of unique historical resources.

The old greenhouses, living quarters, water towers and other structures may be the most complete, intact, Japanese-American flower nurseries in the nation, according to Donna Graves, a Loeb fellow at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design who has conducted state-funded historical research on the site.

“There are many layers of significance at this site, and significance at a national level,” Graves said.

Although the nurseries have been deserted since Richmond's Redevelopment Agency purchased the property early this decade, sporadic color still blooms.

Although the nurseries have been deserted since Richmond's Redevelopment Agency purchased the property early this decade, sporadic color still blooms.

Redevelopment officials concede that the old nurseries are a historical treasure, and note that the current development plans call for a few of the existing structures to be restored and moved within the current boundaries so that the new development retains a bit of past.

“There will be significant, unavoidable impact, yes,” said Lina Velasco, a senior planner at the city’s Planning Department. “But the current proposal calls for preserving an ensemble of buildings, and naming some streets after the families that owned the site along with additional signage and information.”

The site has a rich history, but now sits vacant amid a residential community, patrolled by security guards behind chain-link fencing. According to Graves’ research, nurseries like those in Richmond were mostly purchased before passage of the Alien Land Law in 1913, which barred Japanese immigrants from owning property.

During World War II, Graves said, the Japanese families who owned the Richmond nurseries were forced from their land and moved into detention camps.

After the war, the owners returned to pick up the pieces. The Oishi and Sakai family nurseries were still growing and selling flowers into the 21st century. Finally, in 2004, business slumped to an unsustainable level, Graves said.

“These nurseries are incredibly significant to Richmond’s history as a way to tell a Japanese-American story,” Graves said. “And a larger story of working-class people coming to the city and carving out a life for themselves.”

In interviews Graves conducted for her historical research, Tom Oishi, a member of one of the two families who sold their land to the city, recounted how he and his family had hand-built many of the structures now slated for demolition.

A city report states that the city purchased the land with the intent to redevelop it for residential use.
Residents in the surrounding neighborhood and an official at a nearby national historic park are also not so adamant about keeping the site largely intact.

Homeowners and renters in the adjacent working-class neighborhood don’t necessarily see irreplaceable historic value in the fenced, weathered property. Lawrence, who said she has communicated with many residents, said the site has been a “blighted anomaly” in the neighborhood and contains potentially dangerous pollutants.

One resident walked within visual distance of the fenced property, but said it’s all but a mystery to him.

“To be honest, all I know about it is that it looks terrible,” said Marvin Riggs, 23, who said he’s lived “off and on” since childhood in a home one block from the site. “They need to build something there that will make the neighborhood better.”

An environmental impact report commissioned by the city concluded that the site would require extensive cleanup before homes could be built. Pesticides, heavy metals and asbestos are among the toxins present at the site.

Overgrown vegetation and a barbed-wire perimeter now dominate the once meticulously-cultivated nurseries.

Velasco said that in the weeks leading to the Aug. 12 deadline for written public feedback on the project the city received just 10 communications via fax, email and U.S. Postal Service. The letters reflected a mix of support, concern and opposition, Velasco said.

“The project isn’t generating a high level of controversy,” Velasco said.

With the city looking to private firms to develop the land and federal money to clean it, and the site’s structures requiring extensive restoration, any hope for preserving it was largely dependent on the property being listed on the National Register and designated as a national historic park.

But the opportunity for such a designation has likely passed, said Ric Borjes, chief of cultural resources for the Richmond-based Rosie the Riveter National Historic Park.

“The decisions were made by my predecessor, but our position on this is that we support the property not being listed on the National Register but that the property should still convey the feeling and association with what occurred there,” Borjes said.


  1. Chuck on October 19, 2009 at 11:37 am

    Thank you for this story!

    Growing up across the street, I would hop the fence with my friends or enter via storm drains underneath. Most times we went to retrieve our balls, model airplanes, or whatever else landed over the fence. Oftentimes we went just for the hell of it.

    Over the years, we watched the owners — first the father and later the son — walk back and forth between the nursery and home. We went about our business (the work of play); they went about theirs. Except for the furtive glance, neither group ever spoke or made direct eye contact. The owners had no children our age (a generation older), so there was nothing to link us. Still, at a time when everyone spoke to their elders, it was a bit strange. From time to time, I would witness my father greet or hold a brief conversation with one of the owners. I was always afraid that our illegal trespassing adventures would get out and I would be in big trouble (the real kind).

    Always well maintained, the greenhouses eventually fell into disrepair following purchase by Redevelopment Agency. The nursery is currently a blight on neighborhood.

  2. Stacey on October 19, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    I grew up across the street from these greenhouses about 30 years ago. Often, I would watch the owners walk between their house and the greenhouses, but we never made eye contact for some reason. The son seemed to have a nice/friendly face, but he never looked into the eyes of a young girl curious about her “silent neighbors”. The cultural divide seemed as vast as the mighty Pacific. Will the demolition of these greenhouses be an historical loss for the community and country? I am not sure.

  3. Robert Rogers on October 21, 2009 at 2:12 pm


    Thanks so much for reading and sharing your own experiences. One can quickly see how both the nurseries and the neighborhood surrounding them have long histories, histories that were often more lively and community-oriented than the circumstances we see there today. The nurseries certainly are a blight, yet another challenge to a depressed neighborhood.


    Thank you too for reading and sharing. I can certainly see how a cultural divide would exist between the Japanese American families and the post-war imports in the surrounding community. At heart, this is a story about balancing historical preservation and new development. Clearly, the community and city are at this juncture more inclined toward development.

    I will continue to follow any new developments on this public matter through December. The Planning Commission should be voting on Nov. 5. Stay tuned …

    Thank you,
    Robert Rogers

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