Shouts of "lies!" rang out in Richmond's city council chambers on the night of Nov. 5. Councilmember and former mayor Nat Bates had characterized people opposing the city's current plan to develop Point Molate as non-residents who "don't care about Richmond." Yet almost every one of more than 20 people commenting publicly at the meeting identified themselves as Richmond residents. Mayor Tom Butt called for order several times, then threatened to empty the chamber, calling in Richmond police. As at least five squad cars pulled up and uniformed police entered the chamber, the council took a break.
The agenda item noisily being debated concerned amendments to the city's plan to develop Point Molate. And the racket generated by the years-long battle resonates far beyond Richmond. In his book, The Golden Shore, David Helvarg of the Save Point Molate Alliance recounts a friend calling it, "The most beautiful part of the bay no one ever heard of."
Point Molate is a 413-acre headland facing north toward San Francisco Bay and Mount Tamalpais. Part of the San Pablo Peninsula, it is accessible by land solely via Stenmark Drive, the last exit from Interstate 580 before the Richmond/San Rafael Bridge. The narrow, bumpy road winds through coastal grasslands, with sheltered inlets along 1.4 miles of shoreline to the west. Mule deer and wild turkey roam the grasslands among live oak, coyote brush, wild mint, huge toyons, and other native plants. More than 160 species of birds are found on the shoreline and surrounding acreage. The small Point Molate Beach Park, reopened in 2014 after extensive toxic clean-up, attracts dog owners and osprey watchers. The peninsula also is home to Winehaven, formerly the world's largest winery, a giant red "castle" complete with parapet and turrets and surrounded by the remnants of the "village" once inhabited by winery workers. To the east rise the Potrero Hills and a 400-foot ridge that hides Point Molate's immediate neighbor — the enormous Chevron Richmond refinery.
The site's beauty, isolation, and million-dollar views isolation have led to the two competing visions for its future, either as preserved primarily for public access and parkland, or redeveloped into a residential community with waterfront homes.
The raging fight over Point Molate's development involves a complex stew of issues being debated not just locally, but also statewide and globally. Gentrification, environmental preservation, wildfire prevention, planning for climate change, and preserving public land vs. economic development for cities in financial crisis are all parts of a complex equation, the solution to which hasn't yet been found.
Point Molate's adjacency to the Chevron Corporation's refinery and tank farm, which experienced major explosions and fires in 1989, 1999, and 2012, and continues to be plagued by flaring and emissions, is further complicated by the site's lack of access and egress. Stenmark Drive, directly next to the bridge tollbooths, is often heavily congested, creating possible nightmare scenarios for potential residents in the case of a wildfire or refinery accident.
Yet as many as 4,000 residents could be living at Point Molate in a few years under the plan approved in April by the Richmond City Council. Developer SunCal's plan calls for approximately 1,500 units outside the historic area and 624,572 square feet of commercial space or 1,080 residential units, or a mix of the two, in the historic area. SunCal Senior Vice President David Soyka said in an email that the project will offer "market-rate townhomes" on 3,000-4,000 square-foot lots. "We will also be committed to building affordable housing to provide quality of life for working families." At least 70 percent of the 270 dry land acres would remain as open space, Soyka added, with an enhanced shoreline park and Bay Trail improvement and a "rehabilitated and energized Winehaven historic district with commercial amenities."
The appeal of such a development to cash-strapped Richmond is obvious. "This development will generate a new ongoing source of revenues to the city's general fund derived from property taxes, and sales taxes collected from new commercial uses at Point Molate," Soyka noted. Those revenues, he added, could then be used to pay for public services, city equipment, and public works anywhere throughout the City of Richmond, with the revenue stream helping alleviate the city's budget deficit. The city's financial pressures are very real. California State Auditor Elaine Howe recently released data showing that Richmond is high on a list of cities most at risk for financial distress, due to debt burdens, low level of general funds, and high risk for current and future pension obligations.
Meanwhile, a reopened Winehaven would attract visitors from all over the Bay Area and potentially all over the world. Richmond currently spends approximately $500,000 annually to maintain the Winehaven buildings and security for the site.
But members of the Save Point Molate Alliance have major objections to SunCal's proposal. "Point Molate should be a model of what we should see in the future, not a throwback to the 1970s," Alliance cofounder Pam Stello said. An alternate "Community Plan" put forward in 2018 by the alliance calls for restoration of Winehaven and its village, including a hotel and conference center, restaurants, an education facility, and "other business and job generators." It also calls for a park, playing fields and other recreational opportunities, the public beach to be fully restored, and preservation of the area's natural habitat including its offshore eelgrass beds.
"This concept can work for Richmond," said Richmond City Councilmember Eduardo Martinez, pointing to the success of San Francisco's Presidio and Crissy Field projects. "We can have Point Molate in a public land trust."