E-Mail Forum
  Northshore Stew Continues to Boil
March 14, 2010

This E-FORUM continues to share disparate visions of Richmond’s controversial Northshore.

First, from a popular member of the North and East Yahoo Group, Felix Hunziker, who sees Richmond Rod and Gun Club not as an impediment to shoreline use but as an amenity:

Dear Richmond City Council,

In all the emails I've read, the Richmond Rod & Gun Club is viewed as an undesirable element that would preferably be abolished or at least relocated to some undetermined location.  I'm suggesting the opposite approach.

Why not form a partnership with the RRGC to develop a regional, even world-class shooting sports center?  Marksmanship, like bird watching and jogging, is also a recreational sport and has its place at a shoreline dedicated to those uses.  If, through city funding and grants, we could mitigate what is most unpleasant about the facility, other uses could coexist with the facility and Richmond would welcome the increased revenue.

Imagine adding state-of-the-art acoustic baffles and sound walls that greatly reduce the noise transmitted to the surrounding community.  Picture an adjacent upscale concession stand, like at Point Isabel, that serves weekend marksmen, weekday law enforcement trainees, and the daily nature loving public.  Remodel the range office and expand it to include classrooms for hunter and firearm safety courses.  Add archery and air rifle ranges that meet Olympic standards.  Relocate the RV storage area, landscape it, and turn it into a long distance range - there aren’t many of these around and this alone would be quite a draw.

Creating such a partnership would surely have some hurdles, but as long as we're talking about the big picture I think this should be seriously considered.  The RRGC has been at this location since 1953 and is a busy facility that serves many different users.  It cannot be moved without great expense, legal entanglements, and there probably isn't a site anywhere in the region that would be an acceptable alternative.


Felix Hunziker
Richmond resident

The second is from Josh Genser, Richmond attorney and board member of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce. He accuses me of a surprise proposal steal his property via a change in the General Plan Land Use designation.

Clearly, Genser should not have been surprised. Maybe he just wasn’t listening. I have been consistent since at least 2005 about my vision for the Northshore, which doesn’t jibe with that of either Genser or the Chamber of Commerce. On September,18, 2005, I wrote in Future of Richmond's Undeveloped Shoreline:
I believe that the maximum preservation of open spaces on Richmond’s 32 miles of shoreline will add sufficient value to real estate in the rest of the City that there will be a net increase of jobs and property tax revenues that will far exceed what would be produced from building  “workforce housing” on previously undeveloped shoreline. Richmond still has plenty of underdeveloped infill and brownfield land that should be a higher priority for development and to which will accrue other benefits such as becoming transit oriented communities and providing the critical mass required to bring retail services within walking distance in older established neighborhoods.

In 2007, without mentioning he had a personal interest in the property, Genser used the mantle of his Chamber of Commerce position to editorialize against General Plan changes (Richmond Chamber of Commerce Prefers Cheap Tilt-ups and Housing Sprawl Along Richmond's Last Undeveloped Shoreline, November 2, 2007):

A coalition of mostly environmental groups has been lobbying hard for the designation of all of those shoreline Change Areas as Open Space.  The Richmond Chamber of Commerce is highly concerned that such a designation would deprive the City of the economic growth opportunities, tax revenues and other advantages from the potential development of many of these sites.  This is not to say that the Chamber is against open space, but it is to say that there is plenty of land along Richmond’s shoreline, much of it unsuitable for development and much of it already dedicated to open space or parkland.  In fact, properly planned development incorporates open spaces into the development, facilitates access to nearby open spaces, and pays for development and maintenance of parks.

Apparently Genser and his Richmond Development Company share ownership with Joe Shekou of the 26 acres of what the Richmond Planning Department calls “JHS Properties”  (See TOM BUTT E-FORUM: Get to Know Your Local Northshore Land Speculators, March 13, 2010) In 2007, JHS Properties submitted a plan to construct 256 live/work units on the site but have not pursued it. According to property tax records, JHS and Richmond Development Company purchased site in 2000 at the absolute top of the dot-com bubble.

This property was originally subdivided by the late Elmer Freethy decades ago as an industrial park, but it never took off. Ten years after JHS and Richmond Development Corporation bought it on speculation, still nothing has been built on the property, and the County has appraised it at less than the purchase price. Land speculation is just that, a gamble. Good public policy does not necessarily include protecting those who engage in land speculation.

I found a good explanation of the difference between investment and speculation:

It’s a very simple but profound difference.  Investors buy businesses or assets with earnings and the expectation that over time those earnings will increase.  Speculators, on the other hand, trade only price movements in hopes of selling at a higher price to other speculators in a short period of time. To be successful in the long-run you need to be an investor.  Speculators sometime win big, yet they lose often and often lose big.  Investors however, have a much higher probability of success over the long run…

Buying raw land with the expectation that its value will increase as a function of future demand is speculation.

A General Plan is supposed to be a vision of the future, looking ahead 20-50 years, not a look back the past. If all a General Plan did was to memorialize existing land uses, it wouldn’t be a plan; it would be a history book. I sincerely hope that the owners of the “JHS Property” will find a suitable buyer and recoup their losses. Such a buyer might include some foundation or public agency that intends to use it for a park, or it might be someone who knows how to make a go of one of the less intensive uses the North Richmond Shoreline Open Space Alliance envisions, or it might be some combination of the two. The Draft General Plan does, in fact, include substantial increases in land use density and flexibility in many parts of Richmond, but in more central areas close to infrastructure and services, rather than on the undeveloped shoreline.

Here is Josh’s email, written to members of the Richmond Rotary Club. Incidentally, I did not tell Jose I loved the design; I told him that it made a mockery of sustainability.

I suppose some of you are wondering at the reason for my abrupt departure from Friday's meeting of the Richmond Rotary Club.  I apologize if it disrupted the meeting, but I did it to avoid a more serious disruption that would have occurred had I stayed and reacted to Tom Butt's "Happy Dollar."

For those who were not at the meeting, Tom stood up and gave some happy dollars for the rehabilitation of the historic child care center that is getting underway, and then he said something like, "It's an election year, and there are people in this room who are on the opposite side from me on certain issues, and I just want to say that it's nothing personal."

I have never in my life before seen red.  I always thought that seeing red was merely a metaphor for anger, but I can now report that it is possible to be sufficiently angry to truly see nothing but a field of red.

Here was Tom Butt, only three days after trying to use his power as an elected official to take away my life's savings, and only three days after denigrating my life's work, trying to tell me not to take it personally because it's just election-year politics.

In the late 1990's, Stoney Stonework, Jerry Overaa and I got together in defense of our poor beleaguered town of Richmond, California.  Jerry and I were both born and raised here, and Stoney was a relative newcomer but had his entire life tied up in businesses located here.  We feared that economic development was going to leave Richmond behind, because developers were afraid to bring quality projects to Richmond, perhaps because of Richmond's reputation as a hotbed of crime, perhaps because of Richmond's reputation for NIMBYism, perhaps because of Richmond's reputation for dysfunctional City government.  But we knew better.  We knew that Richmond could be home to beautiful new buildings housing businesses bringing jobs, tax revenues and an entirely new image.  So, we formed the Richmond Development Company and pursued opportunities for economic development here in Richmond.

Were our motives entirely altruistic?  Of course not; we expected to make a profit, but we knew even then that it would have been much easier to make a profit from real estate development in other cities, and it has turned out that our faith in our City was much misplaced.

Among the projects we undertook was the purchase of an industrial subdivision on Richmond's northern shoreline that had been subdivided in the 1970's by Elmar Freethy.  Even before Elmar subdivided it, much of the land in the area had been home to a thriving industrial community.  By the 1980's, however, many of those industrial businesses had departed, taking with them a lot of jobs and tax revenues.

The late 1990's was an exciting time, because the dot-com boom was driving up rents, driving many established businesses out of Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley, and those businesses were giving serious consideration to locating in Richmond.  For a few months, I was fielding several calls per week from businesses and real estate brokers who were interesting in locating to Richmond and who were soliciting proposals for us to build buildings for them on our land.  Unfortunately, construction costs were also high, then, so there was some sticker shock even though Richmond was, in other respects, less expensive.  Before we could actually close any deals, though, the dot-com boom became the dot-bomb, and demand for industrial real estate fell through the floor.

Well, changes in market conditions is the risk one takes when one invests in real estate, and we knew that someday demand would return, so we settled down to wait. 

Then, along came the boom in demand for residential real estate.  We still would have preferred to develop industrial or commercial projects that would generate more jobs and tax revenues, but it would also help Richmond to bring in more tax-paying residents, so we began to consider developing a residential subdivision on our property.  We knew from the beginning that we didn't want just to plop a bunch of houses on our property, because that wouldn't due the property justice.  The property is quite beautiful, right next to a salt-water marsh with views of Mount Tamalpais, but it is also not close to any other residential properties, nor to amenities such as grocery stores.  We, therefore, designed a self-contained live-work community, where every residential unit was designed to accommodate someone working at home, and where the entire village was designed to overcome the disadvantages of working at home: isolation and lack of resources.  The design was intended to be one of the first to receive LEED certification as an environmentally sensitive community.  Even Tom Butt told us he loved the design.

Before we could actually develop this project, we would have had to change the zoning.  We had started the application process, which takes many times as long in Richmond as in other communities, but it soon became clear that Richmond's new General Plan would be ready for approval at about the same time our application for re-zoning would be ready for approval, and it seemed silly not to merely wait for the new General Plan.

Now, we knew going into the General Plan process that there were people in Richmond who believe that all of the land on the northern shoreline ought to be retained as open space and not developed.  We disagree with them.  We believe that responsible development of some of the shoreline has many benefits for all of the shoreline, such as opening up public access, creating gateways to adjacent parks, and generating the tax revenues to pay for the adjacent parks.  Also, if Richmond is ever going to attract the kinds of business that have historically avoided Richmond, it would have to be because of the opportunity to locate at an extraordinary location, like on the shoreline,.

We respect that there are those who have different priorities and disagree with us, but we always expected that, if, indeed, the City Council were to decide that our land should be open space, then the City would exercise its power of eminent domain and buy it from us.  If the City were not willing to do that, then we expected that the City would at least work with us to determine what sort of development might best meet everyone's needs.

Then along came Tom Butt.  On March 9, 2010, the City Council held a study session on the land use designations of shoreline properties under the new General Plan.  Other property owners stood before the City Council and asked that the land on the northern shoreline retain the land use designation it has now under the existing General Plan.  Citizens for East Shore Parks, one of the groups that favors open space on the north shoreline, stood up and asked that the existing land use designation remain the same.  I stood up and, looking right at the Mayor and Tom Butt, said that, if you want our land for a park, buy it, but don't try to take it from us by down-zoning it to the extent we cannot develop it.

Tom Butt then made a motion to do exactly that: to down-zone our property and that of others on the north shore so that, as a practical matter, the properties could never be developed.  The exact land use designation chosen was carefully crafted to leave enough theoretical uses (recreation and cultural uses) that, in the opinion of the City Attorney, such down-zoning would not be an unconstitutional taking.

When other City Councilpersons questioned whether it was fair to deprive us of our investments, Tom sneered, saying that we weren't investors, we were speculators, and that we deserved to lose our money.

The motion failed, barely, but you'll forgive us if we're not reassured about the future.

Where did this come from?  I though I was a hero, not a criminal.  If Jerry and Stoney and I had invested our money in Hercules instead of in Richmond, we'd have made a substantial profit long ago, and would have contributed to bringing jobs and tax revenues there, instead.  But no, we chose to take the more difficult path for the sake of our beloved City.  I have devoted half of my professional time to these ventures for more than ten years, much to the detriment of my law practice.

I don't care whether the City could get away legally with down-zoning our property so that we can't develop it, it's wrong to do it.  It's morally wrong, no better than outright theft.  It's stupid public policy, for it would discourage anyone else from even investing in Richmond.  And it violates Rotary's Four-Way Test.

Joshua G. Genser
Genser & Watkins LLP
125 Park Place, Suite 210
Point Richmond, CA 94801
Phone: 510 237-6916
Fax: 925 885-0335