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February 20, 2004
  On the waterfront
Richmond looks to make old Ford plant a tourist draw
Daniel Moulthrop, Special to The Chronicle
Friday, February 20, 2004
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Richmond is trying to make a destination out of desolation.

Officials here have long watched with envy at how Oakland and San Francisco were able to turn empty waterfronts into money-making tourist attractions.

Now, after years of hesitation, the city has spent almost $20 million preparing an abandoned Ford Motor Co. assembly plant to become the centerpiece of a shoreline development planners hope will rival Oakland's Jack London Square.

The city has chosen Eddie Orton, a local developer, to build out the project. Orton will throw in $60 million to build retail stores, restaurants and other tourist attractions in and around the plant that housed auto assembly lines from 1931 to 1955 and has the same square footage as a 20-story office building.

The restored and refitted building will also house the tourist office for the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historic Park, which has been under development since 2000 along the Richmond shoreline. The park honors the workers, many of them women, who built Liberty ships, the cargo carriers that were key to moving supplies to Europe and the South Pacific during World War II. The amount of public investment means the stakes are high for Richmond, a city that went into a precipitous decline as an employment center after the war when the need for Liberty ships ended.

"This project has to be successful," said City Councilman Gary Bell. "It will be a catalyst for what we hope to see on the shoreline. We want to get people down there and bring synergy down there to that area. We want a Jack London Square or Fishermen's Wharf kind of product, but we haven't been able to get that kind of thing to happen."

City Councilman Tom Butt, a prominent architect in Point Richmond, a more upscale enclave near the plant, is also one of the project's most-enthusiastic backers.

"The city missed a lot of opportunities to move this ahead. It should have happened eight or nine years ago," Butt said. "It's going to be wildly successful, but it's going to take a lot of work and a lot of money."

The Ford plant, as it's called, sits a mile from Interstate 580 and the closest residential areas. It is surrounded by undeveloped lots on three sides and water on the fourth. It remains an empty shell more than a quarter-mile long, flooded with light from windows in the ceiling and some 4,000 feet of windows 10 feet high.

In 1955, Ford shut down the plant and moved operations to a larger site in Milpitas. The building was used as a storage and research facility until the Loma Prieta earthquake rendered it unusable in 1989.

The building that had held one of the most productive assembly lines in California sat vacant for 15 years while Richmond officials argued whether to ignore it, tear it down or turn it into a parking garage.

After a seismic face-lift paid for with a $14.2 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and more than $5 million from Richmond's own coffers, the Richmond Redevelopment Agency turned it over to Orton for $5. 4 million -- virtually the price the city paid when it acquired the property in 1979.

The city also negotiated with Orton an opportunity to share in future rent revenues that exceed projections.

Orton's plans include a Rosie the Riveter cafe, a jazz club, a culinary school and various retail outlets, among other ideas, in the building that offers a view stretching from Oakland to San Francisco.

Plans also call for ample space for light-industrial manufacturing and research-and-development uses on the ground floor, in addition to 120 live- work units on the upper floor.

Orton has said he will build a "working wharf" that he hopes eventually will include ferry service to bring consumers from across the bay. There is an unused ferry terminal near the building, built in 2000 for the Red and White fleet's short-lived connection to San Francisco.

If Orton is successful, city officials hope the project will net the Redevelopment Agency as much as $8 million in property-tax revenue over the next 20 years.

Richmond Mayor Irma Anderson envisions a bustling corridor along Harbour Way, the street that leads into the development from I-580. Calling it "an unfolding of the jewel that our city is," Anderson quipped: "We're going to put a 'there' there."

"Basically, the building represents the City Council's desire to maintain a wonderful historical asset and use it as a tool for the economic revitalization of the Ford peninsula area," said Richmond Redevelopment Agency Director Steve Duran. "It's a very optimistic and forward-looking policy."

Duran said the Ford building "won't be surrounded by nothing for very long."

City staffers are preparing a plan for development of the area that will probably include office, research and development, and industrial uses accompanying high-density housing along Harbour Way between the building and the freeway. They will also probably site high-end condominiums to the east, along the shoreline.

While the project has no shortage of boosters throughout Richmond, there are also a lot of skeptics.

"It's not doomed to fail, but there's nothing to suggest it will succeed, " said John Landis, chairman of the City and Regional Planning department at UC Berkeley.

Citing its distance from the freeway, Landis said, "The accessibility challenge is substantive, and there's no neighborhood around it, no context from which to build off these uses."

Orton's 517,000-square-foot project will be in competition with tenant- seeking decommissioned military facilities in Alameda, on Treasure Island near San Francisco and Mare Island near Vallejo, Landis said.

"Orton Development obviously has a unique vision, and visions are wonderful," he said, "but you either have to compete or appeal to a market niche that's not being met. That doesn't seem to be in these plans. They're appealing to a market for which there is plenty of demand and plenty of competing space."

Landis said the last time a local old assembly plant was redeveloped was when the plant Ford moved to in Milpitas was turned into the Great Mall of the Bay Area in 1994. Since then, the Great Mall has had three owners. The newest, the Mills Corp., hopes to make it profitable finally.

Some Richmond residents also think the proposal is fraught with problems.

Calling the project and the city's expenditures a boondoggle, Jack Ponting doesn't expect to see a payoff very soon. "You have to wait 20 to 30 years, and I don't think the city can afford that," said the Point Richmond retiree.

Local businessman Derrick Beaudreaux said he hears a lot of his customers at Caffe Teatro talking about the Ford plant rehab. He said the plan is probably good for the city, but he has some doubts, too.

"Growth brings change, and with it, civic adversities," Beaudreaux said. "There will be more traffic and people coming in from other areas -- to them, Richmond is a foreign place."

Eleanor Loynd, president of the Richmond Neighborhoods Coordinating Council, an advocacy group, says that while redeveloping the plant is worth doing, it's good the city is no longer in charge.

"I have every confidence Orton will do the job right," she said, "certainly better than would have happened under the direction of the City Council."

City Council members say they aren't not blind to the obstacles the project faces.

"With any historic building, the challenge is to find an economically feasible use," Butt said. "No one knows what the use is going to be. He's got a very handsome building in a world-class location. Now he's got space for sale."

Orton, however, is taking a "build it and they will come" stance and said he already has tenants eager to move in.

"We're trying to provide the right product at the right price," he said, adding that much of what will be there depends on the consumer market in a year-and-a-half, when he expects the building to open.

"The craneway is going to be the coolest place on the planet," he said in reference to the mall he plans to build at the south end of the building, where two 14-ton cranes once loaded cars onto boats and trains.

Butt knows the building and its surroundings better than almost anyone. He can see it from his front yard in Point Richmond, where he has lived for 30 years, and he has worked extensively on the building as an architect.

It was built in 1931 and designed by Albert Kahn, a renowned industrial architect whose efficient and stylish designs are still heralded today.

"It's 70 years old and still classy," said Butt, who worked to have the building included on the National Register of Historical Places in 1984.

There are windows throughout the building, including a series of north- facing bay windows in the sawtooth roof. Butt said Kahn's use of natural, indirect light is one of the most remarkable characteristics of the building.

"If it was built today, it would probably be an award-winning building for its use of sustainable design," he said.

In 1989, Butt's firm, Interactive Resources, was hired by the city to do the first evaluation of damage to the building by the Loma Prieta earthquake.

Since joining the City Council in 1995, Butt hasn't been able to work on the building, but he has watched it with an avid interest. He hadn't been this supportive of previous plans.

"I have cringed in the past; it's been a rocky road. In the late '80s, a number of people in the City Council were clamoring for it to be torn down so they could provide a clean site to some developer. There were some very close calls. Even recently, some of the proposals for the building have been just to use it as a place to park cars," Butt said.

Starting in 1998, the Redevelopment Agency spent three years fruitlessly negotiating with Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises about the plant. Eager to move ahead for fear of losing the $14.2 million in FEMA money, the agency dropped Forest City and opened up bidding, looking for a developer that would share its urgency.

It settled on designer Ethan Silva's Assembly Plant Partners. Best known for the giant baseball glove and Coke bottle at San Francisco's SBC Park, the designer and his team were unable to secure the agreed-upon financing. The city terminated the contract last spring.

Feeling they'd already sunk enough money into the project and neglected other redevelopment efforts in the process, agency officials issued a new request for proposals. This time, they required that interested developers provide the lion's share of funding. In a fractious vote, Orton's group beat two other finalists, one of which was a more financially sound reconstitution of Silva's Assembly Plant Partners.

E-mail comments to ebayfriday@sfchronicle.com.


Budget Woes Hit Fire Protection

Despite the risks, cash-strapped Richmond lays off firefighters and tries rotating closures of fire stations to save money. It is not alone.

By Robert Hollis
Special to The Times

February 17, 2004

RICHMOND, Calif. By most accounts, the predawn three-alarm blaze that destroyed a home under construction and damaged dwellings on both sides could have been even worse.

Fortunately, when the suspected arson fire erupted about 2:40 a.m. that Saturday last month, three firefighters at the nearest fire station had just returned from a medical emergency. It took them four minutes to arrive at the blaze after the alarm was sounded, according to fire officials.

But as the trio struggled to keep it from spreading to two neighboring dwellings, another nine minutes passed before a second engine with three more firefighters arrived from a station across town, according to Richmond firefighters.

The second-closest station was closed that morning of Jan. 17, one of three stations in the city's core "Iron Triangle" that, since the first of the year, have been deactivated every third day on a rotating basis to save the city money.

"It's like Russian roulette," said Dan Colvig, a Richmond fire captain. "You never know if the station closest to you will be closed when you need it."

The fire station closures in this gritty industrial city of 107,000, northeast across the bay from San Francisco, have triggered the criticism of the City Council and staff. Firefighters, also angered by the layoff of 18 of their colleagues, last month brought a badly disfigured fire victim to a council meeting to underscore what they said was a fundamental threat to the lives and health of Richmond residents.

Richmond officials have said they faced a $9.5-million budget shortfall this fiscal year, which ends in June. The layoffs and station closures may save $1.2 million.

City Councilman Thomas Butt called the firefighters' tactics distasteful and low, but he said they have a point.

"All that has to happen is for some child or someone to be killed in a fire because of these closures, and the City Council will have blood on its hands," Butt said. "It's not that farfetched. Under normal circumstances, [a fire death] would be a tragedy. But if it happened under these circumstances, then people start looking to blame someone."

California State Firefighters Assn. officials in Sacramento said that cities and counties across the state were closing stations and laying off firefighters in often desperate attempts to deal with severe budget gaps.

"Richmond certainly isn't unusual," said Carroll Wills, a spokesman for the group, which represents 30,000 firefighters in 150 local unions across the state. But in terms of the depth of its fire protection cuts, he said, "it's probably the most severe in the state."

Aside from the obvious increased risks to life and property implicit in decisions to cut fire protection services, homeowners and renters in those cities face the likelihood of increased fire insurance premiums and rent increases as insurers reassess their risk.

Firefighters and other critics of the closures and layoffs acknowledge that cities and counties are facing tough economic times, exacerbated by the state budget deficit. They nevertheless fault elected officials for their failure to protect communities' fire safety nets while allowing less critical municipal services to avoid equally deep cuts.

"Any proposal to close a fire station or lay off firefighters at this point is going to hurt public safety. It'll mean longer response times and fewer people at the scene," Wills said.

Richmond Mayor Irma Anderson, acting City Manager Jay Corey and city Finance Director Pat Samsell did not return calls seeking comment. The city laid off its public relations staff last year in a budget-cutting move and recently replaced it with a San Francisco-based public relations agency to issue statements on the city's financial health.

In Southern California, such cities as Burbank and Long Beach are joining San Bernardino County's Hesperia and Colton in considering cuts to fire and emergency medical services, according to the state firefighters group. Colton voters, for example, are being asked to pass a utility tax measure next month or face the closure of one of the city's four fire stations, the association said.

In addition to Richmond, nearly a dozen cities and counties in the Bay Area are either cutting services or considering doing so.

Last summer, Oakland closed a waterfront station near its top tourist attraction, Jack London Square, and furloughed its fireboat, Sea Wolf. Berkeley's City Council has delayed a decision to implement rotating station closures while negotiations continue with its firefighters union.

John Knowles, who lives in a three-unit condominium next to the Richmond home that burned Jan. 17, said the city's station closures are "insane."

He recalled being awakened by the sounds of breaking glass sometime after 2 a.m. and almost immediately seeing an orange glow through his windows from the flames next door.

"I came out with my pants half down around my knees and carrying my shoes," said Knowles, 58, a pharmacist for Contra Costa County. "When I opened the door, there was this huge wall of fire."

Sensing that his escape route was blocked, he used a back door and edged along a wooden walkway, facing the flames, to reach the street.

Three others in the building, including his sister on the top floor, escaped unharmed, he said. He credited the first three firefighters on the scene with saving his building, although just barely. The wooden wall of his condominium facing the fire was blackened, and in places the vinyl siding and underlying insulation were melted and twisted by the intense heat.

Meanwhile, Councilman Butt said he felt squeezed by the tactics of unionized firefighters and the specter of city bankruptcy. The City Council has considered a variety of cost-saving measures even cutting its own ranks from seven to five members. That proposal failed.

"Things look pretty bleak out there," Butt said.

Posted on Fri, Feb. 20, 2004

City settles sexual harassment suit


The city will pay $100,000 to settle a suit claiming police brass ignored sexual harassment complaints against a high-ranking department official, allowing him to supervise a woman for months after she formally complained about his conduct.

The subject of the complaint, Armand Mulder, retired from the Richmond Police Department in May during a politically charged City Council investigation of misconduct complaints and the alleged failure of former Police Chief Joseph Samuels Jr. to act on them.

Samuels, who resigned under pressure in August, brought Mulder to the department shortly after his own hiring in 1999. Mulder, now a law enforcement consultant, supervised the department's support services division and was its highest-ranking civilian employee.

Part of Mulder's duties included supervising the city jail, where jailer Shelley Tolliver worked until resigning Dec. 8. In a federal lawsuit filed in October, Tolliver claimed that department administrators allowed Mulder to harass her continuously from September to December 2002.

Tolliver claimed that she was afraid to report her supervisor's behavior before a probationary period for her job ended. But after filing an internal affairs complaint in December 2002, Samuels did not remove her from Mulder's supervision during the investigation.

"Unfortunately, police departments are paramilitary organizations, and officers take their cues from the top," said Berkeley attorney James Chanin, who represented Tolliver. "And the departed administration (Samuels) basically took a giant step backward for the city."

Tolliver claimed that Mulder repeatedly made sexually explicit comments to her and asked her out, used derogatory language to describe female employees and engaged in "unwelcome, offensive or other unwanted conversations ... of a sexual or personal nature," according to the suit.

The council approved the settlement during a closed Jan. 27 meeting. The documents were finalized Feb. 6.

The council did not publicly report the settlement because Tolliver had not yet signed it, acting city attorney Wayne Nishioka said.

Tolliver's complaints about Mulder, as well as those of other female city employees, prompted the council to independently review internal affairs and Richmond Police Commission handling of several police disciplinary cases last spring.

The council subsequently ordered Samuels to fire Mulder, but he instead allowed Mulder to retire. Samuels' actions contributed to political will on the council and within the city manager's office to pressure him from his post.

In a federal suit filed last month, the former head of the department's internal affairs unit claimed that Samuels and other upper-level administrators did not allow him "to investigate certain cases involving command-level officers and denied access to files essential to the performance of (his) duties."

Retired police Lt. Tommie Phillips claimed in his suit that Samuels froze him out of the department's political power loop in retaliation for his "repeated reports of departmental inconsistency and inaction regarding citizen complaints."

Since leaving Richmond, Tolliver has taken a new job outside city government, Chanin said. She declined a city exit interview and was not available for comment Thursday.

Mulder, head of The Mulder Group Inc. in San Francisco, would not comment about Tolliver's allegations Thursday and said he was unaware of both the suit and the settlement.

"It was an unfortunate situation. But it's been a year, and I've moved on," Mulder said. "Unfortunately, it's just a sign of the times. It seems like if you don't like certain people, you've just got to do what you've got to do."

Acting Police Chief Charles Bennett, who refocused internal affairs as the "Professional Standards Unit" and placed it directly under his supervision, said Thursday the Mulder case was "old stuff" as is the controversy surrounding his predecessor's handling of internal discipline.

Bennett said he moved swiftly to address internal issues after becoming chief.

The City Council approved a $20,000 contract in December for a search firm to find permanent police chief candidates. Bennett, who formally retired last summer, will remain chief in the interim.

"An effective chief must be fair and consistent with discipline, back officers when appropriate and not back them when not appropriate," Chanin said. "This will significantly reduce the exposure of the city to lawsuits and scandals like this one ... it is so important to have the right people at the top."

Reach Karl Fischer at 510-262-2728 or kfischer@cctimes.com

Posted on Fri, Feb. 20, 2004

Richmond staffer, spouse held in drug-house probe


Police arrested a city recreation and parks employee and her husband Wednesday night in connection with the discovery of a large quantity of drugs in a Sanford Avenue house.

Detectives found about one pound of tar heroin and half a pound of marijuana, along with packaging materials, in the 300-block house Tuesday while searching for a man they say pointed an assault rifle at an officer earlier that day.

The house is rented to Kymberlyn Carson-Thrower, police Detective Mitch Peixoto said. Police arrested Carson-Thrower and her husband, Ronnie Thrower Jr., near a relative's home in Hercules about 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Carson-Thrower works as the recreation and program coordinator at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center on Harbor Way South, a city spokeswoman confirmed.

"She was placed on immediate administrative leave until the investigation is completed," said Darolyn Davis, a public relations consultant hired by the city.

Police say Thrower Jr., 30, drove a silver Volkswagen Bug that crossed paths with a patrol officer at Sanford and Filbert Street about 10 a.m. Tuesday, as the officer drove to investigate the sound of gunfire down the block.

As the Bug drove through the intersection on Sanford, police say 28-year-old Carlos Robinson leaned out the passenger-side window and pointed a long-barreled assault weapon at the officer.

Neither party fired shots, Peixoto said. The officer chased the car about half a block before its two occupants jumped out and ran.

The car is registered to Carson-Thrower, Peixoto said. Inside officers found about $19,000 in cash.

Detectives issued an arrest warrant Tuesday for Robinson, who remained out of custody Thursday evening, Peixoto said. They also obtained a search warrant for the house where they found the drugs, Peixoto said.

Detectives found numerous shell casings in front of the house, which police described as a locally notorious drug-dealing spot. Witnesses said several drug dealers briefly squabbled over the right to sell heroin to a customer, Peixoto said, resulting in the gunfire.

Davis said the city hired Carson-Thrower in 1990.

According to the city's Web site, recreation coordinators plan and implement recreation and cultural programs, and supervise part-time and volunteer workers at city facilities. The salary range is $45,276 to $53,736.

Court records show Robinson has a prior felony conviction for fleeing police. Neither Carson-Thrower nor Thrower Jr. had felony convictions.

Police have not determined Carson-Thrower's association to criminal activity at the house or to the brandishing incident, Peixoto said.

Thrower Jr. was being held in County Jail in lieu of $250,000 bail on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon against a police officer and possession of drugs for sale.

Carson-Thrower was held in lieu of $60,000 bail on suspicion of possessing drugs for sale and conspiracy.

Police ask anyone with information about Carlos Robinson to call Peixoto at 510-620-6614.

Reach Karl Fischer at 510-262-2728 or kfischer@cctimes.com.