Toll Plaza Delays Called Main Richmond Casino Impact
By Richard Brenneman
Thursday July 23, 2009
The $1.5 billion gambling, hotel, entertainment and housing resort planned for Richmond’s Point Molate would only create three significant impacts that couldn’t be readily remedied, concludes the project’s draft environmental impact report (EIR).
For an EIR, the critical findings for developers and regulators are those which reveal significant and unavoidable adverse impacts resulting from construction. The Point Molate draft EIR finds relatively few in any of the casino-based alternatives. They would arise from:
• Cultural impacts from demolition of one of the structures in the Winehaven National Historic District.
• Socioeconomic impacts from diversion of funds from other extant tribal casinos in the great Bay Area.
• Traffic-related impacts at roadway intersections, roadway segments, and, most critically, the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge toll plaza.
The park-only alternative would eventually cause cumulative impacts at the toll plaza by 2025, and the no-construction alternative would lead to further deterioration of the historic buildings.
Any finding of significant, unavoidable impact mandates that before the project can more forward, the Richmond City Council must adopt a “State of Overriding Considerations,” declaring that project benefits outweigh the environmental costs.
In all other areas, impacts would be reduced to a less-than-significant level, the draft document concludes.
This article, the second of three, looks at the conclusions reached by the EIR, a 5,284-document prepared by Analytical Environmental Services (AES) of Sacramento, a firm that has drafted reviews for many of the state’s tribal casinos. The final article in this series will focus on community responses to the proposal.
Earthquakes shouldn’t be a problem if the buildings are well designed, the report concludes, given a repeat of a temblor of the magnitude 6.9 Loma Prieta quake along the Hayward Fault. The report also rules out the danger of soil liquefaction in such an event.
The document also concludes that the resort fits requirements by several of the agencies with oversight over projects on the San Francisco Bay Shoreline, including the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) and the California State Lands Commission, which would have to approve any changes to the pier, which extends into state waters.
From an ecological standpoint, the site contains eight types of inland habitats and five extending out from the shoreline.
The EIR states that the site potentially houses a variety of special status plant and animal species—those deemed rare, threatened, endangered, potentially endangered, or of special concern by state or federal agencies.
Included on the list are 18 special-status plant species and 23 animal species, ranging from morning glories and thistles to owls, osprey and salmon. But only one plant of special concern, the Suisun Marsh aster, has been documented, according to the EIR, along with two birds, the double-crested cormorant and the osprey.
The aster isn’t on the state or federal endangered species lists.
While AES saw no evidence of the presence of two critically endangered water fowl, the Clapper Rail and the Least Tern, they acknowledged the site as suitable habitat for the birds.
One key piece of federal legislation, the National Historic Preservation Act, will play a critical role in development, given the presence of the Winehaven National Historic District.
That site includes both the castellated winery building that gives the site its name as well as cottages built for the naval personnel who later took over Point Molate as a fuel base for ships of war.
In addition, two Native American shellmounds had been identified within the project boundaries in the early 20th century, along with a third archaeological site discovered later.
The EIR concludes that one mound was likely dumped into San Francisco Bay during site grading and that while traces of the second may remain, it would not be considered of note under either state or federal law.
The third site may contain significant prehistoric material.
Winehaven itself flourished for only 13 years, ending with the enactment of Prohibition, which came into effect in 1920. Until the end of America’s long dry spell, the winery was restricted to a thousand gallons a day of sacramental wine destined for churches.
The historic district includes the main building (formerly the cellar), an administration building, a warehouse, a power house, a shop, a fire station, the winemakers house and the naval cottages.
Starting with World War II, the wine cellar became part of a naval supply facility.
The development proposals call for demolition of the historic district’s second-largest building from the site’s winery days, the former administrative building at Winehaven (which also housed part of the cellars), to make room for the main hotel building—which the EIR calls a significant unavoidable impact in the cultural resources category.
A second building, which housed the winery’s shops, would be disassembled to make way for one of the parking structures, then rebuilt elsewhere on the site, a move the draft EIR said would reduce impacts to less than significance.
Another significant, unavoidable impact would come from the presence of several large, modern buildings and associated infrastructure, changes the document declares can be partially mitigated but that would remain significant and unavoidable nonetheless.
Money and justice
One of the most controversial sections of the document is certain to be the section covering economics and environmental justice.
One concern frequently voiced during the public scoping meetings conducted four years ago involved the potential impacts of close proximity to a Las Vegas-style resort in one of the Bay Area’s poorest communities.
The section on socioeconomic conditions and environmental justice begins with a note that federal law requires an analysis of the project area to determine the presence of minority groups, the poor and Native American tribes, with a minority community defined as one in which more than half the community belongs to minority groups or where minorities comprise a meaningfully greater percentage than found in the surrounding area.
Richmond, with a 78.9 percent minority population identified in the 2000 census, qualifies under both criteria, with a poverty rate of 16.8 percent—more than twice the county average.
The City of Richmond, with a 2006 population of 102,120, reported a significantly lower median household income compared with Contra Costa County as a whole—$49,358 versus $74,241. Crime rates are much higher than for unincorporated areas of the county, with more five times as many robberies and murders.
The Guidiville band of Pomos, who would be the legal recipients of the proposed federal reservation, certainly meet the federal criteria, with four fifths employed at wages below the poverty level and a 13 percent unemployment rate, according to 2003 figures from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Significant socioeconomic impacts, according to the EIR, are those that adversely impact the housing market or the local economy. An environmental justice impact disproportionately and adversely affects an identified minority or low-income community, or Indian tribe.
“Because construction and operation of the complex would generate substantial economic activity in the regional economy from expenditures on goods and services. . .[t]his would be a beneficial impact,” declares the EIR.
Construction impacts from the casino and housing-only alternatives would generation between $869 million and $1.68 billion dollars in direct impacts, the document states, which would be more than doubled by so-called indirect and induced impacts.
Once built, revenues generated by the ongoing project, including profits for the tribe, developers and operators, would run between $32 million for the housing-only alternative to $804 million for the casino complex plus housing alternatives, with the sums doubled when indirect and induced impacts are calculated.
Direct wages paid during construction are estimated to range between $272 million and $550 million, with annual wages during operation estimated to run between $11 million for the housing-only alternative to $283 million for maximum development.
As for tax revenues lost to the state and local governments, the draft EIR declares that they would be more than offset by a payment agreement with the city and other taxes, such as those on worker incomes and supplies sold for construction and operation of the resort.
The city agreement provides for $8 million a year for the first eight years and $10 million annually thereafter. Other annual payments to the city in lieu of taxes include $10 a day for each hotel room, $5 a year for each square foot of retail space and .285 percent of construction costs for the area operated by the tribal or casino manager and other payments for other areas.
The document also assumes the state will receive payments of 20 percent of the gross gambling revenues.
But problem gambling of the addictive sort remains an issue, and the study, while minimizing the issue, acknowledges that Las Vegas reports a significantly higher percentage of addicted gamblers that the general population, even with lotteries in 48 states and illegal forms of gambling everywhere.
The report also doesn’t note that the Las Vegas percentage would be considerably higher if members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were excluded, given that both drinking and gambling—the two major activities in a casino—are forbidden them and that Mormons constitute a major segment of the Las Vegas population.
One study cited in the draft EIR reports that addictive gambling is higher where slot machines, the mainstay of casinos, are present. Richmond will be the capital of Bay Area gambling, with slots already available at Casino San Pablo (in the guise of fast-playing bingo machines) and thousands more planned for the projected Sugar Bowl two miles from Point Molate.
Thus, one of the Bay Area’s poorest communities will be surrounded by slots, with a population least able to afford the losses.
But the draft EIR declares that proposed mitigations, including confidential referrals to an organization that provides services for problem and pathological gamblers within 10 miles of the casino and support for hiring two licensed counselors. The tribe also offers to create a voluntary exclusion for gambling addicts.
Such measures would reduce the issue to a less than significant impact, according to the document, which doesn’t note that many such organizations exist in Las Vegas, previously cited as the nexus for slot and table-game addicts.
The EIR also contends crime is not a problem associated with the presence of casinos, citing a single study which reported that insufficient evidence exists to draw a firm conclusion about law-and-order impacts.
The report also says that gambling addiction would not result in disproportionately adverse impacts to any minority or low-income communities.
The project would also bring economic benefits to one specific impoverished community, the document states—the Guidiville Band—as well as thousands of jobs to Richmond and other nearby communities.
Without mitigation, the casino resort project would create major traffic problems on both sides of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, the EIR concludes.
The maximum project, including the housing, would generate 736 new peak-hour cars trips on weekday morning, 1,534 peak-hour weekday afternoon trips and 2,000 during Saturday’s peak hour.
In Richmond, the greatest impacts would hit northbound Richmond Parkway to Interstate I-80 at Blume Drive, where resort traffic would account for 27 percent of the weekday peak-hour traffic.
The mitigation for this literal roadblock would be a restriping of the northbound approach on Richmond Parkway, paid for by the tribe, to raise the level of service from a level E to a D on an A-F rating system.
The casino would pay only a portion of the cost of fixing the other troubled intersection, Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and Anderson Drive in San Rafael on the other side of the bridge, already at traffic level F. A wider roadway and improved traffic signals are would be constructed, as already planned by that city.
The EIR proposes that the tribe will cover between 9 and 15 percent of project costs there, depending on which version of the resort is eventually built.
Western Drive, the roadway leading to and through the site, including signals or a traffic roundabout at the access to Chevron’s hillside quarry.
Even with the improvements, travel through some Richmond intersections would be slower, with slowdowns from levels C to D at three interchanges during the peak weekday afternoon hour:
• Richmond Parkway/San Pablo Avenue.
• Eastbound I-80 on and off ramps at Marine Street.
• Westbound I-80 on and off ramps at Richmond Parkway/Redwood Way.
As for the other significant impact increased delays at the bridge toll plaza, the report offers no guaranteed remedies, since jurisdiction for the bridge is under a separate agency that is not part of the casino development agreement.
Delays at the tool booths would hit level F stalls during both the morning and afternoon peak hours, the EIR states.
While the project would be incompatible with existing General Plan policies for the site, the EIR states that the shift from city to tribal jurisdiction means the prior inconsistency would be rendered insignificant.
Construction of the Bay Trail extension through the 50-foot city-owned shoreline strip would be consistent with the plan, as would refurbishing the pier as a ferry terminal.
The project is also consistent with the BCDC plan, according to the report.
With planned water conservation measures, the resort would not tax the East Bay Municipal Utility District’s water allocation, nor, with tribal fair-share payments, would it’s peak daily wastewater generation of nearly a million gallons adversely impact the Richmond Municipal Sewer District. Similarly, the report says no untoward impacts would be generated by the project’s anticipated 4,925 tons of solid waste annually.
The previously negotiated city-tribe agreement would ensure no adverse impacts on the city’s emergency services, the EIR states.
Traffic noise would also increase significantly on Western Drive, rising by 18.5 decibels at two locations. Setbacks, berms and building designs would reduce noise to residents of the housing projected for the third and most intense alternative, the EIR states.
Because soils were in some areas were contaminated with chemicals and hazardous metals during the site’s use as a naval base, plans will be developed for handling any unanticipated contaminants discovered during construction and site preparation.
Access to sites where toxins are known to be present after the final phases of the navy cleanup would be barred, and ongoing monitoring of groundwater would be conducted.
The EIR specifies that sheltering-in-place and evacuation plans will be prepared in the event of any anhydrous ammonia, oleum or flammable chemical releases from the Chevron refinery and General Chemical plants located on the other side of Portrero ridge from the rear of the complex.
The most likely catastrophe, failure of a chemical tank bleeder valve, is considered likely only once every 725 years, the document states.
The report also concludes that cumulative impacts, except for traffic at the toll plaza and those cited in the need for a city finding of overriding considerations, would be reduced to less than significant levels.