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Media Coverage
Richmond's High-Tech Hope
August 13, 1998



Thursday, August 13, 1998
Section: news
Page: A03
John Simerman

RICHMOND Scrapped by Ford and smacked by Loma Prieta, the historic auto plant by the waterfront is a step closer to rolling out a cherry new, cyber-age enclave.

The City Council on Tuesday night agreed to work with Ohio-based Forest City Development Co. to build a series of live-work lofts, high-tech offices and shops in the massive plant where Ford workers once built 500 cars a day.

The plan: Convert a dormant, city-owned building that bleeds red ink into an entrepreneurial mecca. City officials also hope the $83 million project will buoy a revitalized waterfront with a bustling commercial link to shoreline parks, marina development and possibly a ferry stop by the Ford plant.

"We're putting it all together, piece by piece," said Councilman Richard Griffin. "It's a grand opportunity for clean kinds of businesses high tech, biotech to move into Richmond while the time is right."

Over the next few months, the developer and the city will negotiate a deal to build more than 200 live-work rental units, garden courtyards, a retail esplanade and office space at the 23-acre site.

The council loved the design and approved Forest City 8-1, but harbored deep concerns over the firm's financial proposal, which appears riskier than the three other bids. The rejected firms, which offered variations on the live-work theme, offered more up-front cash for the land from $4.7 million to $9.7 million.

Forest City's offer is $1.8 million, plus a portion of cash flow once the company reaches its target profit. The company would also withhold real estate taxes for 25 years, a term that rankled several council members.

"Their proposal is very strong, but they're basically saying, Just give us the property' and whatever we're going to get out of it is the value of the jobs it brings to Richmond," said Councilman Tom Butt, the lone dissenter.

The firm was by far the largest of the four bidders, having won several urban projects that include a revamped downtown San Francisco Emporium building. David Thompson, city redevelopment agency director, said the other three bids were less conservative and not totally reliable.

"These are all best guesses," said Thompson. "If you have a downturn in the economy during this project, is the developer going to turn belly up? We know (Forest City) can weather the normal bad turns."

The council, though, insisted that Thompson negotiate a better deal with Forest City for a higher purchase price and property tax dollars.

"I have mortgage costs, security costs. I have a symbol of the city's great past and a symbol of its troubled past," said Councilman Alex Evans. "I will approve a project as designed by Forest City. I will not approve this deal under any circumstances."

Built in 1931, the plant ceased production in 1955. UC-Berkeley bought the building a few years later, using it for space science labs, a bookbinding operation and other operations. Richmond bought it for $7.7 million in 1979 and it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. The city, which pays $486,000 in annual debt for the building, was close to a development deal before the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake stymied plans.

If it flies, the project will be aided by $12 million in federal emergency earthquake funds and around $13 million in historic tax credits not to mention a boom in high-tech hotspots around the Bay that has city officials and developers lusting for a taste of the hot, 21st century action.