Hockey N The Hood: Last year, when the city of Richmond decided the perfect tenant for its decaying old Ford Assembly Plant would be a bunch of movie set designers with more moxie than money, a few people on the city staff quietly wondered how this project would pay for itself. But the city council, entranced by the boldness and originality of the proposal (Artist's lofts! Movie museums! A loading dock!), signed on the bottom line and committed $18 million in public funds to renovate the plant and wait for Hollywood to save Richmond. As the months went by, it became increasingly clear that Ethan Silva, the set designer who put the deal together, didn't have the money he said he had; his financial partner bailed out after the city staff had the temerity to investigate whether he could really invest the promised $26.5 million, and Silva spent months frantically looking for new investors. But at the eleventh hour, he found a partner in local developer Simeon Properties, and city councilmembers agreed to put the last seventeen months of ineptitude behind them. (See "Bright Lights, Small City," City of Warts, May 28)
Looks like Silva still had a few more weeks of ineptitude left in him. Last month, after he was forced to admit that Simeon Properties had bailed out of the project, the city council finally killed the deal for good. After a year and a half of work and $18 million in government-funded renovations, Richmond is now back to square one, asking businesspeople around the state if anyone could use an old car manufacturing plant, slightly used but with plenty of charm.
Silva was even invited to submit a new bid with more-reliable financial backers, but he didn't return a phone call inquiring whether he was still interested in the project. Meanwhile, another interesting prospective tenant has stepped forward: According to a city official and a report in the Contra Costa Times, a Boise, Idaho-based hockey team -- yes, hockey -- has expressed interest in moving to Richmond. Boise's only professional hockey team is the Idaho Steelheads, and Steelheads co-owner Bill Waller said in an interview this week that this is the first he's heard anything about moving to Richmond. On the other hand, his partner Larry Leisure has been known to shop hockey expansion plans to Las Vegas and other cities. Are promoters of the whitest sport in one of the whitest towns in America really serious about hanging their hats in Richmond? That would be a hat trick, indeed. -- Chris Thompson
UC Theatre, they see more: The grand old dame of East Bay cinema, the UC Theatre, may finally get a new lease on life. Ever since the 1,300-seat theater closed in 2001, everyone from the owners to arts patrons and city officials have been wracking their brains trying to figure out how to preserve it as a venue for the arts and save it from conversion into apartments. Now, the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra is making a major push to reopen the theater for both live and cinematic performances.
According to its executive director Catherine Barker Henwood, the ever-homeless Berkeley Symphony has partnered with theater impresario Jonathan Reinis, and together they are trying to cobble together a consortium of arts groups that would either buy the UC outright or secure a long-term lease. The groups would share the theater and use it for a variety of functions, from music performance to live theater and even as a venue for the Jewish Film Festival. "We've already had an acoustics study of the hall, which sounds really great," Henwood says. "And we've spoken with other arts groups such as the Cal Performances chamber orchestra series and the Kronos Quartet. We would not want to buy the place; we would look to be an anchor tenant."
There are still a number of key barriers: The theater needs a host of upgrades, from bathroom renovation to an overhaul of the seats -- one too many Rocky Horror shows will do that to a place -- and the venue would also require an orchestra shell. With an annual budget of just $1.5 million, the Berkeley Symphony can't possibly finance the reopening without the help of other local arts groups.
Reinis was unavailable for comment at press time, but according to Henwood, the theater maven is committed to making this project work, and he's got just enough credentials to give her cause for hope. "Jonathan is committed to doing the refurbishment and managing it," she says. "But he doesn't want to do that while the owners are in the building, he wants to come to some long-term lease agreement. It comes down to the ownership of the building." -- Chris Thompson
Catching a Ride: As one installment of the Riders saga nears its conclusion, with a jury deliberating the fate of the three Oakland cops, another chapter is quietly being written in another Alameda County courtroom. Former Oakland police officer-turned-convict Charles E. Roberson is petitioning Judge Ken Kingsbury to clear from his record a 1996 narcotics bust by Rider Chuck Mabanag. The arrest seems typical of the kind of bogus busts Mabanag and his cohorts are accused of. The ousted OPD officer claimed in his report that he'd ordered Roberson -- who'd retired from the force due to an unspecified medical condition -- to spit out a crack rock wrapped in a plastic twist. In any event, like so many other alleged Riders victims, Roberson agreed to a plea bargain. The judge sentenced him to 72 days in jail and three years' probation, court records show.
What makes Roberson's case unique isn't his arrest, but his effort to clear his name. This is the first time someone has asked a judge to overturn a Riders-related conviction without the blessing of the district attorney -- or at least the office of Public Defender Diane Bellas, who represented nearly all the perps the Riders busted, but who has never gone to a judge to get a client's conviction reversed. Her team relied on the generosity of DA Tom Orloff, who agreed to dismiss those suspicious busts made after January 1, 1999.
In February, after civil rights lawyers Jim Chanin and John Burris settled their huge Riders class-action suit against the OPD and the city, they asked Orloff to dismiss Roberson's case, but the DA refused, Chanin says. Thus, Roberson is appealing directly to the judge who originally sentenced him. "This case represents my only felony conviction," he says in his court declaration, "and this conviction has hindered my ability to obtain employment."
What's truly puzzling is that Roberson, who apparently still lives in the Bay Area, claims he didn't hear anything about Mabanag being one of the Riders until five months ago. It seems odd for a former cop -- a former Oakland cop, no less -- not to have been following the ubiquitous news stories on what has turned out to be the most costly scandal in the department's history. Roberson made his discovery around the time the city announced its $11 million settlement in the civil case. The big question, then, is whether Roberson could sue the city if he gets his conviction overturned. The usually quotable Chanin and Burris opted to keep mum on that subject. -- Will Harper
Firing folks is hard work: Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown has really stepped up and shown exactly what sort of hands-on mayor he's going to be. Days after declaring that in the wake of City Manager Robert Bobb's firing, Oakland's fearless leader declared that from now on, he's gonna be the guy who handles the day-to-day business of running city government. And how better to start this brave new era than to take a ten-day vacation to Europe. Guess he's gotta muster his energy, because rumor has it a new crop of department heads will roll upon his return. But a note to Jerry: If the Riders jury, currently in extended deliberations, deadlocks or acquits the defendants, and there's mayhem in the streets of Oaktown, you will be picking up your cell phone messages, right? -- Chris Thompson