|Rising Costs Idle Ford
April 1, 2001
Richmond tells the developer to come up with acceptable revisions or back out of the deal
By Shawn Masten
RICHMOND -- The rising cost of construction in the Bay Area and the dot-com meltdown has developer Forest City rethinking its plan to make a "cybervillage" of the former Ford plant on Richmond's southern shoreline.
Faced with spending as much as $130 million on the project, the Cleveland-based developer wants to scale back its vision of a bustling shoreline center with offices, shops, live-work lofts and a visitor center for the city's planned World War II national historical park.
But an alternative proposed earlier this month -- to turn the half-mile plant into a temporary parking lot for apartments to be built around it -- was flatly rejected by the City Council, which long has seen the plant's renovation as the linchpin in remaking the waterfront.
"It was like a bombshell," Councilman Tom Butt said of the proposal, presented to the council in executive session March 20. "They didn't even come to us and say, 'We're having a problem with the project.' They just decided to redesign it."
"I can't see using that building as a parking lot," Councilman John Marquez said. "It makes me sick just to think about it."
Still, the city is open to the need to scale back the plans, given the climbing costs for construction, said City Manager Isiah Turner.
The council's four-member Ford plant subcommittee on Wednesdaygave Forest City until April 17 to come up with a better plan or back out of the deal altogether.
Forest City executives in Los Angeles did not return calls for comment Friday.
The developer has had the exclusive right to negotiate development of its proposed Ford Point project since 1998.
It has been granted several extensions as the city and the developer have lined up funding, rounded up state and federal approvals, and conducted an environmental impact report.
With the latest extension set to expire at the end of April, the city could opt out, and it wouldn't have to go begging to find another partner, council members said.
"If Forest City's not able to come up with something good, I'm ready to open it up," said Marquez, a member of the subcommittee.
Also driving the council is a need for the project to break ground by the end of the year or lose the hard-fought $15.5 million in seismic retrofit funding the city received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to correct damage to the historic building from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
At least one developer has expressed interest in taking over the project.
San Jose-based Stan Davis, developer of the 36-acre Edgewater Technology Park planned along Richmond's north shoreline, is pushing plans for a hotel, restaurants and shops at the waterfront site.
He has the backing of several interested parties, including Richmond real estate broker John Troughton and Susan Howe, owner of the old Rheem plant in North Richmond and a member of the North Richmond Municipal Advisory Council.
"Forest City has taken far too long to get started on this project," Howe wrote in a March 28 letter to the City Council. "It is my opinion that they do not take it seriously."
The city and Forest City have been trying for more than a month to find more revenue for the project or reduce costs, which originally were estimated at $100 million.
Driving up the price is the glut of vacant office and commercial space in the Bay Area and higher than expected building costs, said David Thompson, director of the city's Redevelopment Agency.
The developer also may be looking to streamline the project because it has other massive Bay Area developments in the works.
Its Bloomingdale's-anchored retail and hotel development planned for the old Emporium on Market Street in San Francisco and its Uptown project, a residential and retail development planned for downtown Oakland, carry a combined priced tag of nearly $1 billion.
Whatever happens, city officials insist that the 561,000-square-foot historic Ford plant, which churned out Army tanks during World War II, will contain the visitor center for the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park.
Transformation of the brick building designed by architect Albert Kahn has been more than 20 years in the making.
The federal grant came in 1998 after years of appeals from the city for an amount sufficient to cover the cost of fixing the building's buckled steel columns, broken windows and skylights and its cracked and crumbled walls.