E-Mail Forum
  Saving the Northshore
March 12, 2010

After providing Councilmembers Viramontes and Rogers an opportunity to use the E-FORUM to present their vision of the future of the Northshore, now it’s my turn.


For years, community activists, supported by some elected officials including me, have advocated for preservation of the undeveloped shoreline west of the Richmond Parkway, roughly between Parr Boulevard and Point Pinole Regional Park. A website www.northrichmondshoreline.org, maintained by the North Richmond Shoreline Open Space Alliance (NRSOSA) has an amazing collection of maps, studies, photos, and history that  provide a good background.

The area includes three parcels:

  • The “Brunner Property,” named after a former owner, consist of 238 acres, all but 20 of which have been acquired by the East Bay Regional Park District in an eminent domain action, the purchase price of which is still being litigated. The parcel is currently vacant.
  • JHS Properties, 26 acres which is vacant. The adjoining Richmond Rod and Gun Club poses a major challenge for any future residential development.
  • Murray property, 55 acres which is vacant. The property has a deed restriction that prohibits residential use due to contamination levels.


All three are designated “920 – Industrial/Office Flex” in the current General Plan. Thinking that residential use might be more profitable in the foreseeable future, owners of the Brunner and JHS properties began efforts to change the land use to include residential. Both have tried to “greenwash” their proposals, with the Brunner plan being called a “transit village” (wildly anticipating a train station on the UP line for Capital Corridor and AMTRAK) and the JHS plan being called “live work,” because it is the only way, with a conditional use permit, to build housing in an industrial zone without a General Plan and Zoning change.

On March 9, the City Council held a study session to provide direction to staff about how to designate several shoreline areas in the new Draft General Plan, including the “Northshore” area described above. All of the shoreline areas have generated controversy over future uses for a long time, and the Planning Department intended, unless direction was otherwise provided by the City Council, to defer a land use decision in these controversial areas so that the rest of the General Plan could be adopted on a reasonable schedule.

For the Northshore, I moved to designate the three North Shoreline properties for a mixed land use to be called “Community Low Intensity Commerce and Recreation,” using a combination of four already proposed classifications in the Draft Plan (1) Open Space, (2) Parks and Recreation, (3) Public, Cultural and Institutional and (4) Agriculture. The vote failed with three ayes (Butt, Ritterman and McLaughlin), one no (Bates) and two abstentions (Rogers and Viramontes). Lopez was absent. The proposed designation would provide legally defensible economic uses for the properties while ensuring that they will not be developed with isolated ticky-tacky homes or tilt-up warehouses. The four allowable uses would include:

  • Open Space - Includes wetlands, mudflats, creek corridors and other natural preservation areas, as well as private lands deeded to public or private agencies for open space preservation; public access should be allowed where appropriate.
  • Parks and Recreation - Includes publicly owned local and regional parks as well as privately owned recreational facilities such as golf courses; small-scale recreation-supporting uses such as rental shops, bike repair facilities, small restaurants, interpretation centers and museums are permitted.
  • Public, Cultural and Institutional - Includes public, semi-public and educational uses such as civic facilities, community centers, libraries, museums, national park facilities, hospitals and schools.
  • Agriculture - Includes uses such as grazing, crop production, small-scale farming and community gardens with some residential development.


The dissenters generally argued that:

  • We need development that generates jobs and taxes more than we need open space.
  • Changing the designation would lower the value of the property, which would be unfair to the owners.
  • There may be some compromise that results in both development and shoreline preservation. For example, development of the JHS parcel for housing might generate enough money for the developer to purchase and relocate the  Richmond Rod and Gun Club, thus removing an aggravation to future potential shoreline visitors.


My response is:

  • These same arguments were used over 40 years ago by advocates for filling San Francisco Bay. in 1961 citizens in the Bay Area formed the Save San Francisco Bay Association, now called Save the Bay. At the urging of this organization, state legislation--the McAteer-Petris Act--was passed in 1965 to establish the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC). The Commission was charged with preparing a plan for the long-term use of the Bay and regulating development in and around the Bay. We saved the Bay; now we need to save the shoreline.
  • Changing the designation is legal as long as it allows some economic use of the land, which this does. The city attorney confirmed this.
  • The land has been vacant and undeveloped for years, indicating that development has never been economically attractive. There are horses grazing on the Murray property right now. Designating it as Community Low Intensity Commerce and Recreation would be consistent with its existing use, which is open space.
  • Purchasing raw land and holding it until some future time until its value rises is not an investment the public has an obligation to protect. It is pure speculation. Real estate land speculators feed off investments of others, including the public, while contributing little. While the public invests in infrastructure, and private investors improve the community to make it more desirable, the speculator just sits tight and waits for his property values to increase, eventually cashing in to reap what is called the “unearned increment.” Real estate speculation is as much a gamble as rolling the dice at a craps table, and the public has no obligation to guarantee a win.
  • Particularly in these tough economic times, jobs and taxes are a compelling issue, but we have nearly 2,000 foreclosed homes that need to be rehabilitated, sold and occupied before we start creating new subdivisions on our pristine shoreline. Richmond is full of vacant lots that need to be improved and vacant commercial buildings that need to be occupied before we start looking at our shoreline to solve our unemployment challenge and increase our tax base. It simply makes no sense to expand Richmond’s supply of residential and industrial property to fragile shoreline locations without infrastructure while the heart of our City lies substantially vacant, fostering blight and crime. Finally, preserving the shoreline will make inland property more valuable and desirable, more than offsetting any potential value from developing the shoreline.
  • There is only about 100 acres total in the three parcels, much of which is undevelopable because it is too near the shoreline or has wetland and riparian areas. The Murray property is restricted to non-residential development. What remains is so small and has so little value that it cannot generate the funding needed to buy and move the Richmond Rod and Gun Club.


On March 9, we came tantalizingly close, only one vote short, of preserving the Northshore forever.

Viramontes, who abstained on the Northshore vote, has argued that changing the land use would be equivalent to using eminent domain to take the land but without paying for it. She characterized Northshore preservation as part of a manifest destiny policy by some councilmembers and derided focusing growth into already developed areas of Richmond with existing infrastructure as a “…few small boutique developments on a few blocks” that will not “make up for the lost jobs to the community and the lost tax base for the city which is always challenged to pay for services for our residents.”

Rogers, who also abstained, has argued for a “coastal cooperation agreement” among landowners and the City that would incorporate both development and recreation on shoreline property. I supported Rogers in this concept for the much larger and more urban Southshore area, and the Council agreed, voting to pursue a Southshore Special Area Plan with all property owners and other stakeholders. The Northshore, however, is simply too small, too isolated and too economically challenged for this to work. In 2009, there was a series of meetings involving the Northshore landowners and the community to consider such a plan, and there was absolutely no progress made.

What can I say about Bates? He continues to maintain that Richmond has too many parks and too much open space. Bates never met a land speculator or a project he didn’t like. Although the Northshore land use change proposal doesn’t necessarily involve converting these parcels to parkland, it is not true that Richmond has excess parkland compared to other cities. Technically, Richmond has 4,287 acres of municipal and regional park, but that includes the 2,430-acre Wildcat Canyon Regional Park, which extends all the way to the Tilden Nature Area in Berkeley and accounts for more than half of the park land in Richmond. This is very misleading because residential areas of Richmond do not border this park.  Rather, the bordering residences are located in Berkeley, Kensington, El Cerrito, San Pablo and unincorporated Contra Costa County. Excluding Wildcat Canyon, Richmond's 1,857 acres of parkland represents 8.6% of the City's 21,568 acres of dry land.  According to the Center for City Park Excellence, Richmond's 8.6% park land acreage is substantially less than San Francisco's 19.3%, Oakland's 10.7% and San Jose's 10.6%.

All three have also argued that existing parks are not being maintained as a reason not to preserve open space. Bates questioned why Brooks Island was not accessible to the public, and Rogers pointed out that the former shoreline park at Point Molate had been closed for years due to lack of money to maintain it. However, with the Northshore, we are not talking about expanding Richmond’s parks, although the East Bay Regional Park District has already expanded Point Pinole Regional Park through the purchase of Brunner Marsh. What we are talking about is preserving shoreline open space, a precious and priceless commodity that has value for everyone, including both the property owners and the public. There simply is no such thing as too much open space, just as there is no such thing as too much air, too much water or too much love.

I hope that we can find that one other vote and give a gift of shoreline open space to future generations while allowing the property owners to pick from among many options of low impact development. Under the proposed General Plan change, this area could include urban agriculture, golf courses, recreation oriented rental shops such as bike repair facilities, small restaurants, interpretation centers and museums, schools, soccer fields or even a velodrome.

You can hit “reply to all” and let your City Council members know you support preserving the Northshore.