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The historical uniqueness of a city in transformation

on December 11, 2015

Richmond is a record breaker. Known for many years to host the largest oil refinery in the country and as the most productive World War II shipyard, Richmond also once hosted the biggest winery in the world.

The city’s historical legacy has been recognized in some respects. The transformation of a 1930s Ford assembly plant, a beacon of the industrial age, into a conference center and museum complex is one example. However, there are still some major historic assets in Richmond standing idle — or even crumbling into disrepair.

Winehaven, a onetime winery and later a navy fuel depot is now an empty relic on the San Pablo Peninsula. Local officials hope it will be rescued by a commercial partner, but so far none has stepped forward with a viable plan. Many buildings in the historic downtown district are also waiting for major players to make a move.

Historical assets have been identified as one of the main propellers of economic development for cities. The Economics of Uniqueness, a 2012 report published by the World Bank, reports that the cities most successful at attracting investment “are those that are able to harness all of their resources — including the heritage in their historic cores.”

Revival of local history will play a major role in a new rebranding strategy that Richmond has begun this year through a contract with North Star, a Tennessee-based marketing firm.

“Local history is important because it shows young people that ordinary people can do extraordinary things — right here where they live,” said Melinda McCrary, director of the Richmond Museum of History, which itself is housed in a historic library built by Andrew Carnegie.

Although many historic buildings in Richmond appear sorely in need of attention, a few other examples underscore the potential.

The 85-year old Ford Motor Co. Assembly Plant at the Richmond Marina built Ford cars until World War II, when authorities halted production of civilian automobiles and the plant switched to build jeeps for the war. The building was abandoned at the end of the war. The Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 caused so much damage, the building was slated for demolition.

In 1998 the plant was put on the National Register of Historic Places and essentially saved. After that the city prepared the building for rehabilitation and brought in a developer. Work by Orton Development was completed in 2008.

“I don’t know if the public-private partnership model is the most successful, but there is a record of success when it comes to renovating historic buildings with a combination of public and private money,” McCrary said.

Public-private partnerships have not worked for every building, however. Winehaven, for instance, is still waiting for a good project to bring it back to its old glory.

Despite appearances today, the winery grounds, which housed the headquarters of the California Wine Association, were once regarded as the crown jewel of the state’s wine industry.

Prohibition in 1919 shut down winemaking operations just when Winehaven was at the peak of its success. Old photos show winery workers carrying out some of their last duties — dumping remaining inventory into the bay.

After having been abandoned for 20 years, the property was repurposed for World War II by the Navy and converted into a fuel depot. The Navy left in 1995 and the city acquired it 10 years later. Today the place, vacant for 30 years, has become the home of owls and seagulls.

During the first few years of city ownership a development partnership that included the Guidiville Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, campaigned to convert Winehaven into a Vegas-style casino. After the city rejected the proposal, the developer sued. Litigations are still ongoing.

Many different proposals have surfaced over the years, involving everything from restaurants to artist quarters to camping grounds. At the moment the city cashes out upwards of $75,000 a year out of the general fund just for security and maintenance costs. An initial estimate to bring utilities to the area would round $30 million.

“It’s important to go through a process to reuse all of these locations and generate revenue,” said Craig Murray, lead project manager for Winehaven at the City of Richmond. “In areas like this we’d like to shift to more of an enterprise fund — funds that can be generated by the property itself.”

Other buildings, such as the East Brother Light Station, a historic Victorian structure on an island now serving as a bed & breakfast in the San Pablo Bay, and the historic Carnegie Library, housing the Richmond history museum, are both publicly owned but today are managed by a private non profit.

Places like this have incalculable importance. The East Brother Light Station was also slated for demolition in 1971. It’s registration in the National Register of Historic Places saved it. The form reads as follows: “It is one of the last remaining examples of the ‘family’ or ‘housekeeping’ lighthouse station in the great San Francisco Bay. [This] is a plus factor worthy of consideration in a busy, depersonalized world which desperately needs the reminder that beauty and usefulness are not irreconcilable.”

East Brother Light Station is only accessible on boat. The current innkeepers drive back and forth every day from the San Pablo harbor with the bed & breakfast guests.
East Brother Light Station is only accessible by boat. The current innkeepers drive back and forth every day from the San Pablo harbor with the guests from the bed & breakfast. (Photo by Robin Simmonds)

These have not been the only buildings saved and repurposed, however. Another historic site, known as the Winters Building is one of the few sites in the downtown area that has been rehabilitated and adapted for a new use. The large grey building, a former flower and music shop, now houses the East Bay Center for Performing Arts.

“A city’s downtown can differentiate that city from competing locations, branding it nationally and internationally and helping it attract investment and talented people,” the World Bank notes in its 2012 report.

Once a bustling corridor, Richmond’s downtown is mostly quiet today due to the impact of competition from the Hilltop Mall along Interstate 80. The trend nowadays suggests it might be time for a commercial renaissance in the urban core of Richmond. The troubled Hilltop Mall is hardly the draw it used to be. But even though some of Richmond’s downtown has begun renovation, historic buildings on Macdonald Avenue continue to stand vacant.

Rosemary Corbin, former mayor of Richmond and chair of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission says that these buildings could play a major role in the city’s revitalization. Although, she says, due to the fact that Richmond is in an earthquake area, the cost to retrofit these buildings is sky high. Corbin says the best way to get these sites rehabilitated is it to have banks give low-interest long-term loans for commercial development. But these are not currently available.

“There are a lot of bank buildings on Macdonald Avenue that would benefit from rehabilitation,” said. “At this point it would cost too much to retrofit them and remodel them for modern use. They couldn’t make money off the deal.”

This year, the preservation of historic buildings came last on a long list of priorities, according to survey results gathered from Richmond residents.

The most recent National Citizen Survey—a service for cities that gathers opinion across a range of community issues—showed only 42 percent of Richmond residents considered preservation of historic buildings essential or very important. Reduction of crime came first.

“I don’t expect anyone to say it’s the most important thing,” said Corbin. “But everybody wants economic development and historic preservation helps economic development so it should be part of the mix.”


  1. Don Gosney on December 12, 2015 at 12:12 pm

    Developers are shy about coming forward with development plans for Point Molate for a myriad of reasons.

    Although the extreme cost of a decent infrastructure (roads, water, sewage, electricity and such) can cost upwards of $60 million, the history of a city Council that solicited developers requiring a specific development plan, and then have the Council change their mind and keep the $24+ million in deposits, would scare away many developers.

    If the City wants to change their minds, that’s okay but they need to refund the money.

    You simply can’t mistreat developers like that and expect others to take the bait and throw good money down the drain.

  2. Richard on January 17, 2016 at 10:39 pm

    Why do you not talk about the Back historical site in Richmond CA

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