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  Richmond Nurseries Make Way for Housing
April 2, 2011

Richmond nurseries make way for housing

Carolyn Jones, Chronicle Staff Writer
Patt Curia and David Winslow watch the groundbreaking at ...Patt Curia and David Winslow watch the groundbreaking at ...
Richmond's nurseries once filled the Bay Area with roses and carnations. Now they're sprouting something a little less romantic, but maybe more practical: houses.
The city broke ground Wednesday on a 230-unit housing development at the site of three former flower nurseries that date back to 1906, part of the city's once-thriving Japanese American-owned nursery business.
"It's a bittersweet day," said Steve Oishi, whose family owned one of the nurseries. "It's the demolition of a community, but the fact is, the nursery business wasn't going to survive."
The Sakai, Endo and Oishi families sold their properties - a combined 14 acres just off Interstate 80 - for $7.6 million to Richmond's redevelopment agency in 2006, after the flower-growing business withered and died.
The city then teamed with three housing developers to build 80 units of affordable senior apartments and 150 market-rate single-family homes.
The project, called Miraflores, will also include 4 acres of parks, 300 trees and restoration, and daylighting of Baxter Creek.
Two of the historic farmhouses will be preserved and used for community meetings and storage. Two or three of the greenhouses will be preserved and possibly leased to urban gardeners, said Richmond's senior development project manager, Natalia Lawrence.
But perhaps the city's biggest coup was obtaining state and federal grants to clean up the contamination left from a century of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.
"We're absolutely not going to let anyone move in here until it's safe," said Stewart Black, deputy director of the California Environmental Protection Agency's brownfields division.
Cleanup will last about a year. Crews will remove soil tainted with DDT, lead, benzene, solvents and other toxics.
But for generations of the Sakai, Endo and Oishi families, the land will always be home.
About a dozen descendants of the original owners were at the site Wednesday, watching demolition machinery claw through their childhood homes.
"It's sad to see it all go," said Jeannie Kashima, who came from San Diego for the event. "This was the center place for our family. All our holidays were here - so many memories."
The nurseries started with Tetsuma Sakai, who immigrated with his brothers to California in the early 1900s. The three operated nurseries in Richmond and Hayward, specializing in long-stemmed roses and carnations of every hue.
During World War II, the families were interned in Arkansas, while colleagues kept the nurseries alive. When the war ended, they resumed work.
The flower business began to fade around 2000, when cheaper flowers from South America flooded the market and energy costs began to steeply cut into nursery profits.
In 2006, the nurseries closed.
But for a century, the families were devoted to the floral business.
"When real estate started getting big, my dad said, 'You can offer me $1 million, but I'm not going to sell. This is what I do,' " said Robert Sakai of Hayward. "He said he would keep doing it if he only made $1 a year."
Steve Oishi remembers long summer days clipping carnations, nicking his thumb so often it's permanently scarred.
"That was hard work," he said. "I never even looked at the colors of the flowers. I just knew I had to cut the darn things."
Robert Sakai has such vivid memories of trucking fragrant roses from the nursery, he winces when reminded of the scent.
"To be honest, it's a relief to see this change hands," he said. "It's sad that it's no longer a profitable business, but now it can be something else."
This article appeared on page C - 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Historic Japanese-American nurseries in Richmond give way to new housing

Richmond cheers work on long-abandoned nursery site
By Katherine Tam
Contra Costa Times

Posted: 03/30/2011 03:34:59 PM PDT
Updated: 03/31/2011 11:16:50 AM PDT

Workers prepare an area for demolition during a ceremony celebrating the start of demolition and...
The greenhouses and buildings that housed a once-flourishing trio of prewar, family-run Japanese-American flower nurseries in Richmond began coming down Wednesday to make way for housing that locals hope will breathe new life to this shuttered area.
Federal, state and city officials as well as locals cheered as a bulldozer razed a house where one of the nursery owners lived, signaling the start to a new beginning.
The collection of greenhouses and homes at South 47th and Florida Avenue are all that's left of the Sakai, Oishi and Maida-Endo nurseries. Many windows are missing or broken, but the sheer size and number of structures covering 14 acres speaks to its glory days. Colorful flowers still bloom inside.
In its place will come Miraflores, an estimated $20 million development of 150 market-rate homes for sale and 80 affordable apartments for seniors. Baxter Creek, which is partially hidden in a culvert, will be brought to the surface and a 4-acre greenbelt created, said Natalia Lawrence, city project manager. The project is expected to create more than 300 jobs.
"This will show what a model, smart-growth project looks like," Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said.
To honor the past, two greenhouses, two homes and a water tower will be preserved. An interpretive exhibit will tell the history.
It has taken eight years, a public-private partnership, and the cobbling together of city redevelopment dollars along with a $1.6 million state grant and up to $2.1 million in federal grants and loans to reach this point. There is still more work ahead.
Eagle Environmental Construction will rid the land of pesticides, lead, petroleum hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds that remain in the soil and groundwater. Cleanup is expected to be completed by fall.
Exactly when new housing will rise is less definite. Eden Housing and the Community Development Housing Corporation are seeking funds in a tough economy, said Eleanor Piez, CDHC resource development director.
"Nonprofit and for-profit developments are at the mercy of the economy and the availability of funding," Lawrence said, adding officials hope to see some construction in 2013.
Robert Sakai, whose family grew roses here and in Hayward for decades, said he is pleased that the transition from nursery to a new housing community has renewed interest in the history.
The Sakai, Oishi and Maida-Endo families built a flower-growing business here in the early 1900s and were among a number of such operations that flourished in the Bay Area. Many families bought land before the 1913 Alien Land Law barred Japanese immigrants from owning property, according to local historian Donna Graves.
During World War II, Japanese-Americans were forced into internment camps. Some were able to keep and revive their nurseries after the war, such as by having caretakers look after the land.
"So when we came back, we had something to come back to," said Tom Oishi, 89. In its heyday, flowers were flown to markets across the country and in Canada, he said.
These were family operations, with everyone playing a role. Robert Sakai's father and uncles managed the operations. His mother and aunts checked the roses before they went to market. It was the quality of the roses that set them apart, he said.
Sakai, 66 and now an attorney, remembers pulling weeds in the greenhouses on his hands and knees, and scraping off old paint atop the greenhouses and applying a fresh coat. The fun part, he said, was driving the caterpillar tractor on the land.
South American growers found a way to grow and ship flowers cheaply, spelling the end of the nurseries here. Operations at the Sakai, Oishi and Maida-Endo nurseries stopped around 2003.