RICHMOND While cities on the fringes of Contra Costa County are eating up their open space with new development, Richmondis banking its future on redevelopment.
“By the year 2020, Richmond might look more different than any city in the county,” said Donna Uriyu McCain, Richmondeconomic development marketing director. “A piece of land that has something on it now is very likely to have something else on it.”
Those who predict a rosy future for this city one that has spent the latter half of the 20th century battling poverty, crime, unemployment and substandard housing base their optimism primarily on geography.
“We’re in a perfect location,” said Mayor Rosemary Corbin. “We’re on I-80 and 580, so we have wonderful freeway access. We’re the western terminus for the Santa Fe Railroad. With AC Transit, BART and Amtrak, we’re the only intermodal transit point in the Bay Area.”
Richmondis near the brainpower of UC-Berkeley and has the space and reasonable property values to accommodate start-up businesses.
With 32 miles of coastline, it offers spectacular views of the San Francisco Bay and skyline, the San Pablo Bay and Marin coast, and marina slips.
It is one of the Bay’s three deep-water ports. Covering 55 square miles more territory than San Francisco Richmondhas so much room to grow that land values should remain stable.
Furthermore, said Kevin Hufferd, senior campus planner at UC-Berkeley and candidate for the university’s city and regional planning program, Richmondbenefits from the overall economic vitality of the Bay Area.
In other regions of the country, Hufferd said, Richmond‘s problems of crime, an underachieving education system and unemployment might prove intractable.
“Richmondis a size where it really can take a cut at those problems, while larger communities are hampered with a larger array of constituencies,” said Hufferd, who has studied the city’s prospects as a member of the Economic Development Commission. “There is a cohesive self-governance the leaders are pretty pragmatic about what they’re grappling with.”
“The city government is friendly to business,” Corbin said. “You have to comply with regulations, but you won’t get harassed.”
The city’s attitude has helped attract the likes of Pixar Animation Studios, Berlex Biosciences and Bio-Rad Laboratories and has helped them expand within the city, rather than relocate. Richmond began courting the biotech industry in the 1980s, when other communities were nervous about environmental implications. As a result, biotech firms account for about 1,200 jobs, and most of the companies have doubled in space and employees during their time in Richmond.
The leaders of Richmond are working to turn some of the city’s historical problems into assets. During World War II, when Richmond was a ship-building center, the population swelled from about 23,000 to 120,000. By 1960, with the shipyard closed and the Ford manufacturing moved away, the population had dropped to about 71,000. Richmondnow has about 93,000 residents.
Those massive population shifts left Richmondwith an oversupply of dilapidated housing, because houses were built so quickly and shoddily in the 1940s, and with “brownfields,” empty lots and abandoned commercial or industrial sites that once served the people who lived there. The Ford plant, for example, is a 500,000-square-foot industrial space, architecturally interesting but seismically unsafe.
Brownfields have infrastructure in place and are near workers and customers, Corbin said. Returning these properties to productive use can save cities such as Richmond the expense and environmental loss of developing previously unspoiled open space. Last June, Richmondreceived a $200,000 federal Environmental Protection Agency grant to help clean up the brownfields.
The newly opened Richmond Parkway, which connects Interstates 580 and 80, is expected to open to development vast areas of North Richmond, including the closed Navy fuel depot at Point Molate. The access provided by the parkway is an incentive for property owners to remove contaminants and prepare to market their land. Developers of Hilltop Plaza, a new shopping center featuring Circuit City, Barnes & Noble and OfficeMax, cited RichmondParkway access as one of the assets of the location.
Pointing at an overhead photograph of the city, Redevelopment Director Dave Thompson identifies handfuls of properties primed for new construction: the Pacific Asian Mall in Richmond Annex, the Department of Health Services laboratory on the site of the fire-ravaged Safeway distribution facility, 51 acres of light industrial and office space near Marina Bay, 644 homes off RichmondParkway.
“We’re working both with developers and with end-users,” Thompson said. “The investment money is there, to build even without a (commercial) tenant under contract.”
Richmond‘s political leaders, businesses and residents seem to agree that the city’s future rests on the success of sustainable development. There is relatively less conflict between environmentalists and developers, since much of the new development actually improves contaminated or decaying sites or replaces heavy industry with lighter, cleaner industry.
The goal of all this economic activity, said Economic Development Director Isiah Turner, is to improve Richmond‘s quality of life. While Turner and his staff are aggressive in attracting business, they are not shy about demanding community involvement from prospective corporate residents. The city expects local companies to offer entry-level jobs and internships to Richmondresidents; longtime corporate citizen Chevron and relative newcomer Berlex have signed alliance agreements with the city to maximize job opportunities for local workers.
Unemployment which was as high was 14 percent within the past decade is down at 7.6 percent, the lowest since the early 1970s. Just last month, Turner traveled to Washington, D.C., to present Richmond‘s blueprint for linking economic development and work force preparation to the National Association of Private Industry Councils.
“Richmonddoesn’t always give itself credit,” said McCain, the marketing director. “After all, this is the city that converted all those Kaiser shipyards into Marina Bay a very exciting area with housing and commercial development and parks and trails.
“The closing of the shipyards and Ford, the fire that destroyed the Safeway warehouse these were the kinds of events that caused Richmond to reckon with its economic development. Because of our challenges, we have tended to be out in front of others.”