Point of Contention: Despite approved housing plan, the fight over Point Molate rages on
on November 23, 2020
On a mid-October Sunday morning, family and friends dot the Point Molate Beach Park barbecuing, kayaking and searching for sea glass.
The slender roadside park, tucked between San Pablo Bay and Stenmark Drive, looks out onto the San Rafael bridge. To its North, East, and South, large swaths of the San Pablo Peninsula are spotted with industrial oil tanks as if they were their own landform.
Just up Stenmark Drive, a dash of history and a heap of controversy: Jutting out from the water is the historic Point Molate bluff, the last undeveloped headlands on the San Francisco Bay. Once home to a Chinese shrimp camp, the largest winery in the world, a failed casino project, a Naval fuel depot and still home to sacred Ohlone shell mounds, a large portion of the point is now slated to be developed into luxury housing.
Richmond resident Antoine Odom visits the beach park every other week. Odom appreciates the solitude and peace he finds here, but he’s worried what will become of this private getaway once a neighborhood of high priced homes is built up the road.
“People just want to be able to come out and enjoy themselves, go fishing,” he said. “This place is real quiet, real pristine. Once the gentrification happens over here, the real residents of Richmond wouldn’t be able to come out here like that.”
For more than 20 years, environmentalists, politicians and Richmond citizens have fought over development at Point Molate, but in early September the City of Richmond approved a deal with Winehaven Legacy LLC, a subsidiary of the developer, SunCal, to build 1,452 million-dollar homes on the historic bluff that overlooks San Pablo Bay — a deal that was recently upheld in district court — leaving the largely working class city wondering how a luxury housing development isolated from the urban core will benefit them or their community.
Supporters of the development argue that there are no environmental risks to building on the site, that the new residences will bring much-needed housing to the Bay Area, and that its revenues will boost cash-strapped Richmond. Opponents say the project puts precious natural resources at risk, does nothing to tackle the affordable housing crisis in the region, and presents a gigantic financial risk for the city.
Preparing for a rising bay
But developing the shore at all is antithetical to climate resilience, says Katharyn Boyer, professor of biology at San Francisco State University.
“It’s not very forward thinking to be putting any kind of development along the Bay shores anymore,” Boyer said. “We’re going to have to in the future be thinking about moving development away from shores.”
Data from the National Land Cover Database show that as of 2016, nearly the entirety of East Bay coastal land, from the Carquinez Strait down to San Jose, is developed.
Boyer monitors eelgrass beds throughout San Francisco Bay. These patches of leafy green underwater tendrils purify water, slow sea level rise, and offer crucial habitat for many aquatic species and those that prey on them, like diving birds.
Boyer says the stand of eelgrass just off of Point Molate is one of the most pristine in the region — likely because of low human impact from the lack of development in the area. The bed is so healthy that Boyer sources eelgrass from it to establish beds elsewhere in the bay.
Boyer says that supporters of the development project are “quick to dismiss” the risks to this crucial ecosystem “because they’re not talking about building right in the eelgrass bed.”
“At this point, I’m very concerned,” she said.
The city’s Environmental Impact Report mandates an “eelgrass monitoring plan” that will track the health of the eelgrass bed before, during, and after construction on the site. Several environmental groups are suing the city over their certification of the report and subsequent approval of the deal, alleging that both actions violate the California Environmental Quality Act and California Planning and Zoning Law.
This isn’t just about eelgrass, either. In order to maintain coastal environments like beaches, wetlands and eelgrass beds, ecosystems need space to move inland or upland as sea levels rise, said Boyer.
The largely undisturbed transition from the shallow waters of the bay to the uplands of Point Molate offers that unique potential.
“There’s very few other places where we haven’t done so much already to the shoreline that that connectivity is no longer possible,” Boyer said.
Stuart Siegel, a coastal resilience specialist for the San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, says that once the development is in place, protecting property will become the city and residents’ number one concern, and that will cost far more money down the line.
“The more you put a development in harm’s way, the more you raise the demand to protect that development,” Siegel said. “There’s no easy way to protect it without more investment.”
While the proposed Point Molate housing units themselves will be safe from rising waters, inundation and flood events elsewhere could endanger access to the development by submerging critical infrastructure, based on projections from the Adapting to Rising Tides program of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission.
Opponents ask: Housing for whom?
Antoine Odom lives in Parchester Village, one of the first neighborhoods in Richmond where working class Black residents could buy homes in the 1950s.
Now, the majority of Richmond’s Black and Latino residents are renters.
Days before the Richmond City Council approved the SunCal deal with a 4-2 vote, Bay Area real estate data showed that median home prices in Contra Costa County had jumped by nearly 17 percent from July 2019 to July 2020, the highest increase of all Bay Area counties.
The median single family home in Richmond now costs $735,000, well out of reach for the city’s median household income of $65,000. Developers project the average home at Point Molate to sell for $1.26 million.
Richmond has a plan to address the housing difficulties. The Richmond General 2030 Plan, passed by city council in 2012, called for housing developments built near the city’s core downtown infrastructure to avoid urban sprawl. It also encouraged new housing with a healthy mixture of affordable and market-rate units.
With just 67 affordable units in the 1,452-home, Andres Soto, a Richmond organizer for Citizens for a Better Environment, says the project is “completely contrary to the values that were embedded in the general plan.”
Mayor Tom Butt, who supports the development, says the city is not “abandoning its priorities.”
“The city’s priority, among other things, is to create housing at all market levels,” Butt said.
When the city issued its request for proposal in 2018, it stressed the importance of affordable housing. But the response from developers, Butt said, was that building substantial affordable units “would make the project economically unfeasible.”
Council Member Nathaniel Bates, who also supports the development, said the entire affordability argument is absurd.
“You don’t put low-income housing on the shoreline,” Bates said. “The demand for that kind of property is expensive. I think common sense would tell you, you maximize your property value as much as you can.”
Juliana Gonzalez, executive director of the Watershed Project, says that for a city whose citizens are majority working class and people of color, a luxury neighborhood on the hill will drive current Richmonders away from one of its few parks.
“It will not be as useful for the general population if it feels like it’s going to become more like a boutique Cavallo Point-type place where people go and have wine,” Gonzalez said. “Right now, the park is more like the family picnic and barbecue type.”
Mayor Butt said such concerns are “deluded.”
“There’s a park there and they can use it. Why should they care what the homes are worth that are up the hill from it?”
A bet on the city’s budget
For both opponents and supporters of the project, the city’s precarious budget weighs heavy on their stance.
“We struggle with our budget,” Butt said. “We can’t provide the level of services that people want because of lack of funding, and Point Molate will ultimately have a positive effect on city revenue.”
But the peer review points to a potential gap in the developer’s “critical assumption” on sale prices for the homes. The project’s financial promise for the city depends on a steady flow of property taxes from homes that SunCal believes will sell for $1.26 million.
But authors of the peer review note that there is no analysis to support the expected $1.26 million price. “Winehaven has not provided a market study to substantiate these values,” they wrote.
Jeff Kilbreth, a former Richmond Planning Commissioner, says this is very worrisome.
“The city is insisting on a really rosy and overly optimistic view,” he said.
Kilbreth raised concerns about the economic viability of the project in April, and he said “none of the questions regarding financial risks were answered or responded to in any way.”
Staff from the Community Development Office did not respond to a request for comment on the project’s financial impact analysis.
For Andres Soto of Citizens for a Better Environment, the entire project is too risky. Soto says that the project’s isolation from the city and neighboring Chevron could scare away potential buyers, regardless of home price.
And in the event that the project craters, “the people of Richmond will be on the hook for unmet financial obligations,” Soto says. “So, once again, white people being insured by people of color for their speculation.”
Back at the beach park, facing the San Rafael Bridge, Odom says the shadow of a changing Bay Area is creeping into his “Sunday Funday.”
His friends are scattered about the grilling area while others lounge in the bay on inflatable rafts, floating above the eelgrass teeming with life beneath them.
“You look at Oakland and San Francisco, and it’s like, the souls of those areas are changed,” he said.
“We don’t need no luxury houses over here.”
Additional reporting for this story conducted by Isabella Bloom and Isabella Fertel
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