Long neglected, Richmond’s downtown is being slowly reborn
on December 21, 2014
Walk down Macdonald Ave from the Civic Center toward downtown Richmond, and something will make you say, “Huh?” At the 20th Street intersection, you can buy five Christian music CDs for $20, walk four feet, and buy two cigars for 99 cents. How many cities do you know where a Bible store and a smoke shop share a wall? There’s a 100-year-old flower shop on the same block— and three Metro PCS stores within a half-mile stretch.
I’ve done the Macdonald Ave stroll a few times now: under the overpass and into the historic downtown. Beyond the charming contradictions that make Richmond so intriguing, I began to notice what’s missing.
There are only a few restaurants—La Jalisco, CJ’s Barbecue & Fish, Joy Café and a handful of fast food establishments. There’s no movie theater, no bowling alley. Rudy’s, for many years the lone bar in the area, is now shuttered. Empty storefronts pepper the main roads. The new Richmond BART parking garage has 9,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor that has sat empty since construction completed last year.
Most days, no one is having a fun night out with friends or family downtown. Where would they? At FoodsCo? Walgreens? If you have a hot date and want to stay in the downtown area, are you supposed to bring a tablecloth and candles to Burger King?
Gertrude Stein famously wrote of her hometown Oakland, “There’s no there, there.” That pithy phrase now seems a more accurate description of downtown Richmond. In a city of more than 100,000 people, mostly working families with kids, why is there so little to do downtown?
Linda Holmes remembers when things were different. She was a child in the 1950s, when the historic downtown area was rumbling with Bel Air and Thunderbird automobiles. Shops, theaters and hotels lined the streets.
Holmes led me to a window on the second floor of the Richmond Public Library where she works as a librarian, and pointed to the adjacent building. “That’s where the bowling alley used to be.”
Her grandfather worked at the Richmond shipyard, so he owned a car, and Holmes remembers driving with her mom downtown from North Richmond to shop at Macy’s or see a movie at the Fox Theater. “When I was a little girl, going downtown was a big deal,” she said.
It was a time when there were still attendants at J.C. Penney to help you shop, and folks got dressed up to go to the airport.
For most of its early history, the city of Richmond was a hub of industry. At the turn of the 20th century, Augustin S. MacDonald convinced a railroad company to build a railhead in the city, setting the stage for decades of development.
John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, which would later become Chevron Corp, built a refinery on the Bay. A couple decades later, a Ford Motor Assembly Plant moved to town.
The population bulged and the downtown emerged as a commercial and entertainment destination.
Balls were held on the top floor of the Winters building. Within the elegant brick edifice of Hotel Carquinez, important people schmoozed and made deals.
When WWII started, Richmond’s economy boomed— four shipyards went up, and people came to work at them. There were jobs and money, shops and entertainment.
Downtown was still the center of activity in the 1960s. By the 1980s it wasn’t.
So what went wrong?
The beginning of a downtown bust
In 1968 many businesses along Macdonald between 2nd Ave and 15th streets were damaged in a protest that erupted following the police shooting of a 15-year-old African-American. Coming shortly after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the event was a major setback for the downtown.
Jump to the 1970s: WWII ended long before, the shipyard jobs left and so did the buying power of many Richmond workers. The downtown never got updated. There were still theaters and shops, but they didn’t have the cachet of previous decades, nor the clientele.
A light bulb went bing at the Standard Oil Company. It had hundreds of undeveloped acres of land in the northeast Hilltop area of Richmond— rolling grasslands speckled with trees where the oil giant placed storage tanks. Why not build a 90-acre mall and hundreds of acres of commercial buildings and residential apartments?
A frantic race was already on between neighboring towns San Pablo and Pinole to build a large commercial center. Malls were all the rage, seen as a futuristic, capitalistic utopia— plus they paired sweetly with suburbs.
Richmond decision makers were optimistic.
A report on the development potential of the Hilltop site estimated that the mall would create more than 4,000 jobs and spur a population boom.
Richmond mayor in 1970, Don Wagerman, was openly excited about the estimated $2 million annual haul in sales and property taxes from project.
Chevron was giddy over the opportunity to jump into the real estate game, planning to eventually build “1,008 units of luxury living overlooking Hilltop and the Bay.”
“The idea,” Chevron spokesman Robert D. Brooks told reporters, “is to have a self-contained community where people can live work and play without leaving Hilltop.”
Almost all of the Richmond City Council members swooned. The Planning Commission unanimously voted to approve the project, and rejected competing plans from the Richmond Redevelopment Agency to renew the downtown area with a new shopping center.
“I think they kind of decided that was where the future of Richmond was,” said Jerry Rassmusen, who worked at the Richmond Planning Department for 30 years, “and the prospect of a brand new Macy’s and Penney’s and Emporium… I don’t know whether it was conscious to put all their eggs in one basket and kiss off downtown.”
Some Richmond residents at the time expressed concern in the Richmond Independent and Gazette that the real reason for wanting a regional center away from the downtown was to have it closer to the white community.
An issue of Freedom News from January 1973 stated, “Many people think this is the culmination of a long series of moves to turn central Richmond into another Emeryville, while at the same time doing a favor for Standard Oil.”
The comment about Emeryville may seem surprising now that the old industrial buildings have been converted to expensive condos and the city is now home to entertainment behemoth Pixar, but in the 1960s companies began abandoning the former industrial town, leaving vacant buildings and a busted economy in its wake.
And that’s what happened to Richmond, too. Standard Oil and the Chevron Land unit built their $60 million, 1,000 square foot mall, miles away from downtown. Macy’s and JC Penney moved to Hilltop, leaving huge commercial holes in central Richmond. The movie theaters also moved or went out of business.
In March, 1976, a few months before then Mayor Nat Bates cut the ribbon at Hilltop Mall’s unveiling, chief architect Amer Nagger gushed about his latest project. “It’s going to be a very sensuous center,” he told the press, describing the railing paint as “velvet.”
Linda Holmes remembers seeing the ads for Hilltop Mall when it first opened. It was a big deal. “Everyone wanted to go,” she said.
Hindsight is 20/20
Now, of course, we know that Hilltop Mall hasn’t been quite the beacon of commercial success its supporters had hoped for. One-third of the commercial spaces are now vacant, the bank foreclosed on the mall, and it will soon be up for sale.
Meanwhile, renewed efforts to revitalize the downtown area have begun again. Over the last decade, the Richmond Redevelopment Agency had spearheaded a multitude of projects, including the BART redesign, new sidewalks and the Nevin Park renewal.
“The city had a really clear policy focus for redeveloping downtown, and it was 15 years old,” said Chad Smalley, a Richmond Development Project Manager. “They had a clear and purposeful plan for revitalizing downtown, and the money to back it up.”
The recession hit and everything went awry. A public-private partnership to build 236 units of living spaces at 12th and Macdonald— two empty blocks across from the Winters building— fell through because the developer went bankrupt.
Then, in a momentous moment of bureaucratic gobbledygook, in 2012 the California State Government dissolved all 400-plus redevelopment agencies in the state and then ruled they could remain in operation only if they paid a fee. A judge called foul, but the redevelopment agencies were dissolved.
The two blocks of undeveloped land in the heart of Richmond’s historic downtown now sit in limbo, waiting to pass many stages of state approval before it can be transferred to the City of Richmond.
Despite recent setbacks, other organizations have stepped in to fill the void left by the redevelopment agency’s closure. The Richmond Main Street Initiative, a non-profit dedicated to restoring the historic downtown, has been organizing music events in the area, running a farmer’s market every Wednesday, and providing guidance to small business owners.
“There’s a perception that the area is kind of stuck in the 1970s,” said Alicia Gallo, Richmond Main Street Outreach Coordinator. “I think not uncommonly my perception of Richmond used to be different that it actually is. I found the downtown to be more inviting, more pedestrians.”
Richmond Main Street has been pushing hard to fill the vacant retail spaces in the BART parking structure, and this year they were successful: Derreck Johnson, the owner of the Home of Chicken and Waffles, has signed on to open one of his popular southern-style restaurants in the space next fall.
Much like his flagship restaurant near Jack London Square in Oakland, the restaurant in Richmond will be open late: until 10:00 pm on weekdays, and 4:00 am on the weekends. Johnson has noted that there aren’t many sit down restaurants in the area, and that none are open late. He hopes that the Home of Chicken and Waffles can help change that.
“I hope that with us opening it will prove that you can run a viable business in this neighborhood,” Johnson said. “We want to prove that there is a consumer, there is a market, and that it can work.
Johnson also plans to hire all his staff from Richmond, including people with an arrest record. “Hiring from the area helps reduce the threat,” he said. “I’m not worried at all.”
Ultimately, Richmond is grappling with a public relations problem. For decades the city was associated mainly with crime and Chevron refinery explosions. Not the most attractive qualities for potential businesses looking to open restaurants, cafes, and shops.
There’s always more to the story than attention grabbing headlines, however, and Richmond residents have been working to change their city’s reputation and develop new community spaces.
Momentum is starting to build.
Police Chief Chris Magnus is credited with reducing crime by 30 percent and improving police-community relations since he took over the department eight years ago.
Non-profit organizations like Rich City Rides, Urban Tilth and the Ryse Center provide safe and progressive community spaces for families and youth in Richmond.
If the new Home of Chicken and Waffles on Macdonald and 16th is successful next year, it may act as an anchor for other businesses considering investing in the area.
Richmond residents are hoping that local commercial interests will soon catch up and help make the downtown lively again.
“What do we buy outside of the City?” Doria Robinson, a Richmond native and executive director of Urban Tilth asked on a Facebook feed. “Entertainment. After 8pm— gathering spaces with interesting music, food/groceries, energy, culture, festivals… What’s frustrating is that folks here do not realize there is a whole generation of young and extremely capable youth and young adults who were born and raised here who are thinking and dreaming of a nightlife here in Richmond.”
The rebirth of Richmond downtown has been a long time coming, but if momentum continues, its time might be now.
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