Battle for the Century: A fight for sacred land
on November 12, 2020
In the early morning of Sept. 9, 2020, David Helvarg was leaving his house to write about the North Complex wildfires for National Geographic when the effects of climate change greeted him on his stoop.
“Looking up and seeing a jack-o’-lantern orange sky over the Bay Area because of climate change, it felt like I was in Blade Runner or Apocalypse Now,” said the 69-year-old author of eight books on the environment and justice.
The degradation of the environment is the greatest threat we face today,” says Helvarg, who lives in the Richmond Marina. “Depending on the election results … If we begin the transition from celebrity fascism to social democracy the issue that needs to be addressed immediately is climate change.”
Helvarg, alongside his organization, The Blue Frontier Foundation, is now fighting to protect Point Molate from impending development. In one of his books, The War against the Greens, Helvarg takes an in-depth look at how opposition to environmental movements from anti-conservation groups has contributed to the sale of public lands to private corporations. But Helvarg’s activism started long before.
Helvarg’s fight for justice and care for the environment have a lot to do with his parents. They were Holocaust refugees who instilled in him a compassion for life and fight for justice after taking him to his first protest at age 13. That radicalizing moment sent him on an unwavering mission to end the exploitation of land and sea.
In 1999, he started The Blue Frontier Foundation to work with communities to create solution-oriented citizen engagement needed to address environmental issues.
In 2010, the foundation partnered with Richmond residents to create the Point Molate Alliance. That year, the alliance fought the construction of a casino on a 422-acre natural headland – and won.
In its latest battle, the Point Molate Alliance is now fighting to save Point Molate from a luxury housing development. The alliance would like the land turned into a beach park and regional park.
Helvarg says there are several reasons why Point Molate’s pristine landscape should not be sullied by another luxury housing development, but the clearest example is this current fire season.
“To think that we’d tear down the last natural unprotected headland on the bay in order to put up more luxury housing in a high fire risk hazard zone is insane,” he said.
The fight to keep Point Molate a natural landscape is just one way that Helvarg is doing his part to save the environment.
Pam Sello, a resident of Richmond and member of Point Molate Alliance has worked with Helvarg for years. She describes him as a “high-energy, an environmentalist committed to the public” and commends him for his fight to keep Point Molate out of the hands of developers.
“It’s rare that a community has an asset like that in 2020 to decide what they want to do with it,” Sello said. She envisions the land being used to benefit all residents of Richmond by creating an outdoor education center, soccer field and possibly a commercial district for non-profits.
“It would be a terrible loss to Richmond residents to build a luxury housing development only created for a few,” Sello said.
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Thanks to David and all the tireless warriors who continue the fight against the entrenched ignorance and greed that has plagued the city of Richmond. Thanks to these folks and all of Richmond’s grassroots organizations that recognize the need to form coalitions that defend the city against the insatiable lust for power and money that runs deep in the veins of our our local power elite.
It’s really interesting to see how the day of the orange sky affected people. For me, the takeaway was precisely the opposite of the one presented in this article – we need to build much more densely along the cool areas of the coast, set up robust public transportation networks to reduce car dependency, and bring people in from the fire zones of Sonoma, Humboldt, Solano, and elsewhere. The desire to preserve particular patches of land that happen to be close to us shouldn’t stand in the way of a broader regional approach to climate mitigation.
Point Molate, in particular, seems like a location that should be easy and uncontroversial to develop. It’s a former oil refinery and naval base, not pristine wilderness. It’s part of a region that’s experiencing a massive housing crisis. There are no people currently living at Point Molate who might experience inconvenience or displacement as a result of adding housing. There are significant legal restrictions preventing Richmond from doing anything ~other~ than developing Point Molate, and a real risk that if the land isn’t used for housing, it will become the site of a casino instead. The planned development would maintain a great deal of open space, provide areas for recreation, and protect shellmound and historical sites. Yet nevertheless, costly political and legal battles have kept Point Molate in limbo.
I don’t think that whether development happens at Point Molate is hugely important in and of itself. Letting those units go unbuilt won’t be the determining factor in whether the Bay Area’s housing crisis gets solved. Letting the project go forward won’t prevent Richmond residents from enjoying the shoreline, as they can enjoy the trails at Marina Bay and Miller/Knox now. But the intensity of the struggle to keep Point Molate undeveloped (and thereby keep the supply of shoreline housing constrained, in a manner that benefits incumbent property owners in Point Richmond and the Marina) seems like a marker for how challenging it will be to move towards dense, low-emission communities.
Wow! I’ve only been involved with the closure, the environmental restoration and development of Point Molate since 1994 and I had no idea that there was only one side to this story. But now I’ve read the RC perspective and know better. This seems to be a familiar pattern with RC articles about Richmond, Point Molate and Chevron.
Everyone seems to forget that this land was trusted to Richmond for the purpose of housing. Ron Dellums was behind this major move to allot the base land to cities for “economic development and housing”. That’s how this all started. If Richmond doesn’t follow through on this building contract before the time is up, it goes back to the developer entirely who can do whatever they want with it. Including a casino.
All three of the newly elected seats were won by candidates opposed to this development. The current Richmond City Council is pushing as fast as possible to get the development at Point Molate signed off on, permitted, and started before the new Council is installed. Very much like Trump hurrying to do as much damage as he can before being perped walked out of the White House.