Land Battle Stirs Richmond

By David Ferry, The Wall Street Journal
June 16, 2011

Dan Murray, above, stands in a 55-acre property near Richmond’s northern shoreline that he hopes to sell to a developer.

RICHMOND – A proposal to preserve a small stretch of shoreline in this East Bay city has divided the community, pitting developers and Richmond’s growing Hispanic population against conservationists and the city council.

The conflict involves a privately owned parcel of largely vacant marshland on the edge of the working-class city. Earlier this year, a new draft of Richmond’s general plan moved to designate the land as open space to protect wildlife and prevent degradation. The property’s owners balked at the open-space plan, but it wasn’t until a developer teamed up with one land holder in a proposal to build 19 soccer fields and a “Latino-oriented shopping mall” that tensions arose.

“I’m always looking for a niche market, and I feel the Latino community is overlooked,” said Terry Kwong, the developer.

Mr. Kwong, who built Richmond’s Pacific East Mall across town to cater to Asian shoppers in the 1990s, said he came up with the idea to integrate a soccer complex with a shopping center to attract Latinos. He approached Dan Murray, who owns 55 of the 100 acres slated to be rezoned from light industry to open space, and made plans to build a 200,000-square-foot commercial-sporting complex, with indoor and outdoor fields, shops, a supermarket and a hotel for tournament-goers. Once the zoning issue is settled, Mr. Murray said, Mr. Kwong plans to purchase the land.

The remaining 45 acres are owned by a trio of property owners who all oppose rezoning the land as open space. The city council plans to vote on rezoning the area early next month.

Mr. Kwong’s proposal seems to have struck a chord with many people within the city’s large Hispanic population. Though Richmond was long a predominately African-American city, Hispanics now make up 39.5% of the population, while blacks account for 26.5%, according to 2010 census figures. About 19% of the population lives below the poverty line, according to census data.

With no Hispanics left on the city council after last year’s election, the city’s largest Hispanic merchant association began rallying Richmond’s Latinos. Through shop owners in the city’s predominantly Latino shopping district and talks at Catholic churches, they say they have garnered the support of a large portion of the Hispanic community for the project.

Robert Cheasty, above, heads an environmental group that opposes the plan.

But environmentalists and the liberal wing of the city council have questioned the motives behind the development proposal. Council member Tom Butt, who has sought to preserve Richmond’s northern shoreline as open space for the last decade, said the proposed development was likely a “ploy.”

“The soccer fields are just the bait,” Mr. Butt said. “They’re the bait that has brought in the support from that community and what they’re really selling is a shopping center.”

Rafael Madrigal, president of the city’s largest Hispanic merchants association, said he thinks the development could be a hub for the community and might help keep young Hispanic men off the streets. He said the project’s opponents, which include the local chapter of the Sierra Club and Citizens for East Shore Parks, a group that seeks to protect the East Bay’s shoreline, were out of touch with the city’s residents.

“The Sierra Club, they’re nice people, but they’re neglecting the needs of poor urban youths and families in Richmond,” Mr. Madrigal said.

Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, a member of the Green Party and head of the council’s liberals, agreed that there is a need for additional recreational space in Richmond, but argued that the proposed development is simply in the wrong place. The shoreline area is about five miles from the center of Richmond, and accessible only by car. The city, the mayor said, is focused on “smart growth,” and should expand near public transit and where infrastructure already exists.

Robert Cheasty, the president of Citizens for East Shore Parks, which has led the push to get the shoreline zoned for open space, said the proposed complex would damage the ecologically sensitive land. Mr. Cheasty pointed to studies by the city of Richmond and the East Bay Regional Park District that suggest 16 endangered or threatened species have been observed or could exist in the north shoreline, a broader area that includes Mr. Murray’s parcel.

“I think that it’s an atrocious use of a shoreline space to build a mall out there,” said Mr. Cheasty, a former mayor of Albany. Mr. Cheasty’s group hopes to see the bay’s entire east shore connected by a greenbelt of open space.

The site of the proposed development, which is owned by Mr. Murray and his family through a limited liability corporation, housed a phosphoric acid production facility until the late 1980s.

According to documents Mr. Murray filed with the city, less than five acres of the property are wetland. A survey commissioned by Mr. Murray found no endangered or threatened species on his parcel. He said he fears Citizens for East Shore Parks is seeking to devalue his land through rezoning, then purchase it for a low price.

“The biggest thing is the chilling effect that this sort of precedent would show to the investment community around the area,” Mr. Murray said. “People who believe in Richmond and who have invested in Richmond are going to have their property’s value stripped away from them.”

Mr. Cheasty said his organization is prepared to negotiate with Mr. Murray and pay a “reasonable market price” for the land. “Let us take the property, if they want, and we’ll be happy to produce soccer fields and playing fields as well as open space protection—and we’ll give it back to the city of Richmond for free,” Mr. Cheasty said.

Mr. Murray responded that Mr. Cheasty and Citizens for East Shore Parks had expressed interest in buying the land but that no formal offer had been made.

Corrections & Amplifications

The Citizens for East Shore Parks approached a Richmond, Calif., property owner to purchase a parcel of land in the city but didn’t offer formal prices for the property. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the group had offered prices for the land.

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