On the waterfront
Richmond looks to make old Ford plant a tourist draw
Daniel Moulthrop, Special to The Chronicle
Friday, February 20, 2004
©2004 San Francisco Chronicle |
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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
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
"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
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
Duran said the Ford building "won't be surrounded by nothing for very
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
"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
Some Richmond residents also think the proposal is fraught with
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
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 members say they aren't not blind to the obstacles the
"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
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
It was built in 1931 and designed by Albert Kahn, a renowned
industrial architect whose efficient and stylish designs are still
"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
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
"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
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
E-mail comments to
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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)
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
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
"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
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
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
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
Police have not determined Carson-Thrower's association to
criminal activity at the house or to the brandishing incident,
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