The Battle for Point Molate

Richmond Mayor Tom Butt and a developer want a large-scale development at the former Navy site, while opponents push for open space and low density.



Councilmember Gayle McLaughlin disagrees with Mayor Tom Butt on plans for Point Molate.

Photo by Mike Rosati

When first-time visitors arrive at Point Molate, it can seem like they’ve discovered a hidden stronghold for Barbary pirates. On its west side, San Pablo Bay isolates coastal inlets. To the east, the Potrero Hills shelter coastal prairie from Richmond’s noisy hinterlands. And for nautical atmospherics, the rusted hull of a sunken ship juts up from the bay just off the rugged coastline as the fortress-like Winehaven building, a century-old brick structure with turrets and parapets, stands guard over the bay like the Castle of Djerba.

The calm bay waters and geographical isolation give Point Molate an air of tranquility, which is in stark contrast to the pitched battles over development of the former Navy fueling station that rage just over the hill at Richmond City Hall. Heated public debate over Point Molate has been going on in since 1995 when the U.S. Navy began turning the 413-acre property over to the city as part of the Defense Realignment and Closure Act of 1990. For 20 years, Point Molate has been the subject of raucous city council battles, rulings by two federal agencies, multimillion-dollar lawsuits, and a contentious ballot measure.

Most recently, advocates for open space and small-scale development at Point Molate have grown furious because city officials have been holding closed-door discussions with Jim Levine, a controversial developer, about his proposed large-scale multiuse project at the site. According to plans quietly submitted to the city, Levine wants to build a 150-room hotel with an additional 29 hotel cottages, 400 units of senior housing, 1,100 residential units, a 5,000-square-foot ferry terminal, and 100,000 square feet of office space. City officials claim that discussions are preliminary, but according to Planning Department emails, Levine has paid the city $24,520 for a biological resource survey and traffic studies at the site.

Low-density advocates claim the normal public process for publicly owned land is being sidestepped in a rush to generate revenue for the city’s depleted coffers. Instead of Levine’s large-scale proposal, they would like to see a much smaller development at Point Molate—a project that would encourage public access, open space, and preservation of natural resources. The site is rich in historical resources as well. Of the 65 standing buildings at Point Molate, 35 are on the National Register of Historical Places.

City officials say they are simply trying to reach a settlement with Levine, who has repeatedly sued the city for the right to build on the property or to retrieve the $17 million he paid to the city as a nonrefundable deposit toward a $50 million purchase price.

City officials also insist the secret discussions with Levine and his company, Upstream Point Molate LLC, are required under a pending lawsuit and not an attempt to thwart public participation.

Mayor Tom Butt, who has been a proponent of large-scale development at Point Molate, claims the city has a responsibility to listen to Levine because there’s no telling how his legal actions will ultimately fare in federal court. “We have a responsibility to try and reach a settlement,” he said. “That lawsuit is not going away.”

But low-density advocates say Levine’s lawsuits have little if any merit and are simply a pretense to hold the city and Point Molate hostage. They note that Levine not only lost his initial lawsuit and subsequent appeals, but a federal court judge ordered him to pay the city $2 million for its legal costs. Levine and his attorney did not return calls to Oakland Magazine to discuss the lawsuits or the proposed development.

Norman La Force, an attorney and chair of the San Francisco Bay chapter of the Sierra Club, said the right thing to do would be to let Levine’s court options peter out. “The case is very strong for the city and very weak for Jim Levine,” La Force said. “There is something to the idea that you never know how litigation will turn out, but you don’t just roll over.”

Adding to the civic discord and mistrust over the closed-door discussions is Levine’s controversial history with Point Molate. Levine reached an agreement with the city in 2004 to purchase the property and build a Las Vegas-style casino and hotel on the site under a dodgy claim that Point Molate was once inhabited by the Guidiville Band of the Pomo Indians. At the time, Richmond was in the midst of financial crisis brought on by years of mismanagement and corruption. To contend with a huge budget shortfall, hundreds of city employees were laid off and fire stations, library branches, and senior centers were shuttered. So the idea of a casino generating millions in tax revenue and creating thousands of jobs seemed like a viable solution.

But as the casino proposal took shape, so did a tenacious opposition. Then a councilman, Butt first supported the casino, but later opposed it. Councilwoman Gayle McLaughlin was perhaps the most vocal opponent to the casino and one of Levine’s sharpest critics. Ultimately, the casino plan was rejected by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which determined that the Guidiville Band of the Pomo Indians, who were historically based in Mendocino County, had no claim whatsoever to Point Molate. In addition, the Richmond City Council denied approval of the project’s environmental impact report, and city residents voted down the casino at the polls.

By 2011, when the casino proposal was finally dead, Levine had gone from being Richmond’s economic savior to persona non grata. “The public perception of Mr. Levine is one of someone who operates without scruples in order to gain opportunities for his projects,” McLaughlin said. “He is a shrewd political player known to donate tens of thousands of dollars to candidates at all levels of government on both sides of the political spectrum, both left and right. He is an example of the corruption and influence-buying that pollutes our political system.”

Butt said one of the chief aims of his mayoral term is to settle on a plan to develop Point Molate. “I want to see this thing resolved,” Butt said. “I don’t care if he’s a nice person or not, if he’s got a good plan, I’m going to go with it.”

At a recent city council meeting, some speakers accused Butt and city administrators of using the same kind of underhanded tactics that were common in Richmond’s bad old days of backroom deals for publicly owned land.

The characterization angered Butt, and he insisted that the public would have a say in any plan that may or may not be agreed upon during the private discussions. “The city council is not in the process of cutting a deal with Jim Levine, Upstream, or anyone else,” Butt said. “And no decision has been made by the Richmond City Council other than to simply hear what Levine has to say.”

McLaughlin said that Butt, City Manager Bill Lindsay, and Director of Planning and Building Richard Mitchell continue to meet in private with Levine and argued any deal they make will violate the normal process of public participation in the development of public land. “I won’t vote for any modified proposal because there has been no public process,” McLaughlin said. “The public first has to have an opportunity to say what they would like to see done with the property. Then that goes into the General Plan. And based on the General Plan, we make zoning policy, and then we send out requests for proposals and vet the developers. If Jim Levine wants to be part of that process, he’s more than welcome to participate.”

The city council, which has held four closed session meetings on the settlement discussions, is not expected to make a decision on Point Molate until at least mid-September.

Published online on Sept. 6, 2016 at 8 a.m.

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