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Developers, parks service close to deal at Ford Point

on June 22, 2010

After six years of planning, months of negotiating and a recent attempt at mediation, it appears that the Rosie the Riveter visitor’s center is now closer than ever to securing a new home at the historic Ford Assembly Plant near the Richmond Port.

Talks between the Ford Building’s developer, Orton Development, and the National Parks Service, which operates the Rosie center, have been going on for nearly a year over where, and how, to house a new Rosie the Riveter visitor’s center at the renovated factory. Under the original terms of Orton’s 2004 contract with the city, the visitor’s center was to be housed, rent-free, inside the 40,000-foot Craneway Pavilion building, although that plan was later scrapped after both sides agreed that an adjacent, stand-alone building, called the Oil House, would be a better fit.

Richmond is already home to a Rosie the Riveter memorial at Marina Bay, which includes several sculptures and informational placards about women’s contributions to the war effort. The visitor’s center at the Ford Building would be a museum of sorts dedicated to the role of women in the manufacturing industry during World War II.

The Oil House's interior is still being renovated. Photo by Ian A. Stewart.

A sticking point in the new center’s lease negotiations centered on who would have to pay for renovations to the Oil House before the National Parks Service could move in. While the building’s shell appears to be in good shape, its interior is still being worked on.

Once an important World War II-era production center for Jeeps and armored tanks, the 561,000-foot Ford Assembly plant fell into disrepair as Richmond’s postwar economy ravaged the local manufacturing industry. The building suffered further damages in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and sat vacant until 2004, when Orton agreed to purchase and redevelop the factory for mixed commercial use.

Today, the old factory houses a number of businesses, including SunPower Corp., Mountain Hardware, and the BoilerHouse Restaurant, which opened last July. Getting the Rosie center moved in remains one of the final steps of the project.

“We’ve been discussing this for a number of years now,” said Tom Leatherman, an assistant superintendent for the National Parks Service, of the move to the Ford facility. “In the last few months we’ve narrowed down exactly what we’re looking at, and in the last three or four months there’s been some more real serious negotiations of the lease.”

According to Richmond City Councilman Tom Butt, who sits on the Rosie the Riveter Trust’s board of directors, both sides have agreed in principle – through mediation – to a proposed settlement under which the developer would receive tax credits to retrofit the Oil House. He did not know whether any investors had been lined up yet to provide the tax credits, or when a deal may be officially struck.

“As far as I know, everybody’s on board, and that’s the direction they’re going,” Butt said of the proposed resolution. “The plan is to have it open sometime in 2011.”

The center should still come rent-free, Butt said, although the parks service will have to pay for some tenant improvements inside the building, as well as make some contribution to upkeep of the parking lot and utility bills.

Eddie Orton, the president of Orton Development, remained tight-lipped in an email to Richmond Confidential about the status of the negotiations. “All parties are working hard to bring Rosie to fruition,” he wrote.

Butt acknowledged that while the negotiations with the developers finally seem to be paying off, it’s been a difficult and at times nasty process. Last December, City Attorney Randy Riddle’s office sent Orton a series of letters insisting that the developer resolve the visitor’s center issue or risk losing its building permit with the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which regulates building along the coast. According to the letters, the developers were also out of compliance with their BCDC permit because a locked fence surrounding the building restricted access to the Bay Trail, which cuts through the property.

The Oil House, right, sits in the shadow of the massive Craneway Pavilion at the historic Ford Assembly Plant in Richmond. Photo by Ian A. Stewart.

“It was sort of a veiled threat that the city would take the steps it needed to ensure compliance,” Butt said of the city attorney’s letters. “Maybe it wasn’t so veiled.”

The fence has since been removed, and the developer is in the process of applying for an amended permit, Butt said.

Alan Wolken, the city’s redevelopment director, seemed convinced that the Rosie deal would be in place within the next 60 to 90 days. “We’re making headway,” he said. “That’s the best I can say.”

The Ford Assembly Building has been a central redevelopment project for the city for several years. Marcie Wong Associates, the renovated factory’s architects, were recently awarded the Merit Award for historic preservation and innovation in rehabilitation from the American Institute of Architects’ San Francisco bureau.

The Ford Point site is also a key component of the Bay Trail – an ongoing project that, once completed, will circle 500 miles around the San Francisco and San Pablo bays with a paved cycling trail. Richmond’s city limits include 32 miles of coastline, and with the Ford Point portion of the trail now finished, the trail runs, uninterrupted, from Golden Gate Fields in Albany north to Point Richmond and the Miller/Knox Regional Shoreline.


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