|Rehabilitated Ford Building Ready To Go
March 26, 2006
The following articles appeared in the March 25, 2006, San Francisco Chronicle and the February 27, 2006, East Bay Business Times. After years of false starts, the magnificent former Ford Assembly Building, called “Ford Point” by its developer, Eddie Orton, at the end of Harbour Way South has been fully rehabilitated, including repairing damage from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
There aren't too many buildings in which Tiger Woods could blast a ball from one end and not hit the far wall. There is such a building right here in the Bay Area, a 1,000-foot-long former factory set on the edge of the bay in a little-visited dockside area of Richmond.
Long boarded up, it's now being rehabbed into a mixed-use building. While many such makeovers of industrial dinosaurs stick to either light industrial or live-work lofts, this 517,000-square-foot behemoth includes flexible spaces for live-work, offices and maybe even people making things -- a living factory of sorts for a postindustrial age.
Not many old factories have bayside views, either; and bayside doesn't mean a view from a quarter mile away. It means dockside, as in toss a pebble in the bay. Or as project architect Marcy Wong summarizes the site: "Magnificent location on the water, panoramic views from the building, and stunning historic architecture and spaces."
Unlike other factory strongholds, such as Emeryville, this old Ford plant sits in rather splendid isolation. A Michelle Wie-driven golf ball would splash into the bay to the west and into a ship channel to the north and bounce off asphalt to the east; to the south, a 300-yard arc would plunk the ball down in a remote stretch of the adjoining Rosie the Riveter National Park, near a mostly empty office park.
Eddie Orton of Orton Development Inc. was drawn to the old factory for several reasons: "The location halfway between Berkeley and Marin, the historicity of the site and the beauty of the building design."
Rehabbing surplus properties is old hat to Orton, who has developed nearly 50 commercial properties, mostly in Northern California, over the past two decades. Orton acquired the 26-acre site in late 2004 from the city of Richmond Redevelopment Agency, and began the seismic retrofitting and other improvements in 2005. The imposing brick structure was designed by architect Albert Kahn in 1930 for Ford, and entered the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. Once the rehab is complete, the site will also house the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front Historic Park facilities.
Another old factory is retrofitted and put to other uses; nice, but yawningly routine in the Bay Area. So what's the story? The story is you could live there. Not in a cute little yuppified loft but in a huge, wide-open space right above your cabinet shop or your microbrewery or some other business that makes something customers can actually hold.
In other words, it could still be an honest-to-goodness factory, and the proprietors could live there, too -- rather like the old days when shops had apartments above them.
But aren't all "live-work" lofts about combining your work with your living quarters? Yes, but a very qualified "yes" -- as long as your work can be done in a thousand square feet of dry-walled office, no problem. But how about welding, planing hardwood or grinding coffee? You're mostly out of luck, especially if you're buying into an ersatz "loft," which isn't a rehabbed old industrial building at all but a new condo labeled "loft" for marketing purposes.
The vast majority of live-work lofts are designed for "new economy" types typing on keyboards for their living. And while it may seem as if that's all the economy we have locally, there are plenty of "old economy" small businesses around, and finding a space that's big enough for the shop -- and one that legally lets you live there -- is not easy.
There have been some not-quite-legal places like this, such as the Drayage Warehouse in west Berkeley; but the quasi-legal status eventually catches up to the residents. Long a haven for industrial-arts-type artists, the building was red-tagged last year as a fire hazard; tenants fought eviction, but the building was recently sold to a developer.
Few large buildings have the Ford site's flexibility in size and usage. The vast interior could hold businesses leasing 100,000-square-foot live-work spaces of 1,500 and 5,000 square feet, and anything in between. There's even room for small-office tenants, as the old wood-paneled factory offices upstairs have been restored.
Similar structures being closed in the consolidation of the auto industry in the Midwest will probably be torn down; the demand for space isn't high enough in Flint, Mich., to justify the high cost of retrofitting them for the area's severe winters. Even here, the Ford plant has required extensive earthquake retrofitting as well as more energy-efficient skylights and windows.
Given the high costs of renovation, vast buildings like this will increasingly become rarities.
Though local demand for this kind of wide-open space is certainly present, such a building isn't for everyone. Unlike many live-work buildings that are zoned and built for one kind of work -- the digital or paper-pushing variety -- there is a certain kind of unpredictability inherent in such flexible leased space. The uses may change over the years and decades; a wood shop could be replaced by a bakery, or vice versa. The future mix is outside your control, and that uncertainty will excite some and dissuade others.
The isolation could be a boon or liability as well; though Orton reports that a cafe is in the works, it will still require a bike ride down the adjacent Bay Trail or car trip to reach restaurants and stores. Furthermore, since the property adjoins the Rosie the Riveter National Park, the area will remain much as it is today. Unlike other transformed industrial pockets in the Bay Area, residents cannot count on an array of shopping centers and restaurants to pop up around them over the next decade.
Yet the isolation is also somewhat illusory. Is a vast old factory adjoining a park an urban neighborhood? If you consider that Interstate 80 is five minutes away and Richmond, El Cerrito and Berkeley are 10 minutes away, you have to concede that, despite its visible isolation, it is certainly not rural or suburban.
If all you're looking for is cubicles for digital desktop work or a faux loft, there is no shortage of such spaces in the Bay Area. Downtown San Jose has vacancy rates of close to 20 percent, and the office park just south of the old Ford plant is so empty that it appears sepulchral. Yet space that enables a melding of actual production and proprietor's living quarters -- once common -- is now a newfangled idea found in few places.
One telling feature of urban planning is that everyone knows what a successful urban neighborhood is -- for example, Fourth Street in Berkeley -- but efforts to create such diversity out of whole cloth -- Santana Row in San Jose, for example -- tend to garner criticism that they're imitations rather than the real thing. We all know that real neighborhoods accrete over the years, but developers can't afford to wait 15 years for things to percolate.
Even with the inevitable pressure of time and money to lease out spaces to whatever businesses and residents line up first and put cash on the barrelhead, there is one great difference between other vacant buildings and the old Ford factory: This is a real building, a grand building, one with a history worth pondering.
It's not news that there is something inherently inauthentic about faux lofts and cookie-cutter low-rise office buildings, something lacking that isn't hard to identify. If we set out to describe the difference between the standard simulated loft building and the old Ford plant, we might start with the presence of history, of an era of bigness and raw size, and a visibly authentic strength of materials embodying a simple guiding philosophy: "Make no small plans."
Marcy Wong & Donn Logan Architects, 816 Bancroft Way, Berkeley 94710; (510) 843-0916; www.mlwarch.com
Orton Development, 1475 Powell St., Suite 101, Emeryville 94608; (510) 428-0800; www.ortondevelopment.com
Charles Smith is a Berkeley writer with more than 25 years of experience in building and remodeling. E-mail him at email@example.com.
Ford Point corks may pop
East Bay Business Times - February 24, 2006
Rumors are swirling around Ford Point once again, as the massive redevelopment project perched on the Richmond shore and owned by Eddie Orton shows signs of life.
Wine.com, the online wine retail enterprise, apparently has all but inked a deal to expand into the former Ford assembly plant. Company spokesman Tom Traverso confirmed that the company's distribution facilities, now based at the Oakland Army Base, are moving to Richmond. When or why, he did not know. But he suspects the retailer has run out of room.
"We're up north of 30 percent from last year's sales," said Traverso.
NAI BT Commercial broker Gary Fracchia would neither confirm nor deny who is about to sign. But he did say, "A very large transaction is about to close - over 20 percent of the building."
Also, word is that Donsuemor, makers of Madeleine cookies, will not be heading out to the Point. Brokers appeared all but ready to name the cookie company as a tenant last fall. But CEO Susan Davis said she was considering all options, including staying put in Emeryville, the company's home for 22 years. Apparently, the infrastructure at the Point doesn't work for the company.
And a final piece of Point news: Feb. 24 is Judith Rodier's last day in Richmond. For the past three years, Project Manager Rodier has worked for owner Eddie Orton, handling entitlement, as well as environmental and historical reviews for the massive 517,000-square-foot assembly plant.
Rodier is joining Jason Crouch at his All Emeryville Properties, which he launched last fall.