Tom Butt for Richmond City Council The Tom Butt E-Forum About Tom Butt Platform Endorsements of Richmond Councilmember Tom Butt Accomplishments Contribute to Tom Butt for Richmond City Council Contact Tom Butt Tom Butt Archives
E-Mail Forum
Practical Preservation - Miraflores FEIR Certified

The Contra Costa Times noted my vote on one of the less controversial issues at last week’s marathon final City Council meeting of the year (I got home at 3:00 AM). See story below “The eye: Greenhouses going; going green.”

This was certification of the EIR for the Miraflores project, a property now owned by the City of Richmond across I-80 from The Home Depot. It is the last vestige of a once sprawling flower growing industry started in the early 20th Century by Japanese immigrants that spanned the Richmond-El Cerrito border along San Pablo Avenue.

The historic preservation aspects of this project have actually come a long way, and City of Richmond staff as well as the City’s non-profit development partner, Eden Housing, have grown in the process.

There are two important characteristics of the Miraflores site: it’s cultural history and the mostly undergrounded Baxter Creek that runs through it. The historical significance of the previously obscure site probably would have slipped under everyone’s radar if it were not for Donna Graves, a consultant working for Eden Housing who is an expert on Japanese immigration and culture in California. Graves quietly shared information developed by a historic preservation consultant for Eden Housing, raising consciousness about the site’s history.

Initially, neither the City (Richmond Community Redevelopment Agency staff) nor Eden Housing was enthusiastic about the historic significance or the presence of Baxter Creek, viewing both as a potential impediment to development of the site. The Japanese-American previous owners who had inherited the land also muddied the water by playing down the historic significance and advocating that everything be torn down and memorialized only by a plaque in some museum. They were concerned that the history and the creek would get in the way of a lucrative sale. In 2007, everyone associated with the project would have been happy to see the site razed.

The original historic preservation report recommended, at most, preserving a house, a water tower and one greenhouse, but even this was too much for project proponents. In 2007, Eden Housing Project Manager Katy Lamont was suspicious of saving even one greenhouse:

"The site does have an interesting history; what we're struggling with now is, what's the best way to honor that? ... It has been somewhat contentious," said Katie Lamont, a senior project developer with Eden Housing. "With the greenhouse, we're having a hard time committing. ... We want to be sure that someone is the steward of it. I'd be most comfortable if some community garden group would come forward and say, 'This is how you can do it and we can help.' "

Eventually, however, they were enlightened and came around. The final plan in the certified EIR included not only preservation of the Sakai House, water tower and Greenhouse 20 but also preservation and rehabilitation of the Oishi House and at least three other greenhouses located in a greenbelt along the east side of I-80. The greenbelt, which could feature a significant urban agriculture element, was a surprise bonus because of a requirement by the Air Quality Management District to restrict housing too near the freeway due to concerns about air quality. The greenbelt also provides space for a “daylighted” and restored Baxter Creek it natural meanders.

In my book, this is win-win historic preservation. Unless there are deep pockets such as a government agency or a philanthropist, in order to preserve the past, you almost always need to find a contemporary use for it. In most cases, this is easy, because historic buildings have cachet and benefits like tax credits that actually make them more valuable than new buildings. Local economically successful examples include the Ford Assembly Building, Mechanics Bank in Point Richmond and the Hotel Mac.

Greenhouses, however, are a tough sell. There are a lot of them at Miraflores, and the demand for commercial greenhouses is just about non-existent. The nurseries went out of business because of foreign import competition, and that hasn’t changed. You can’t remodel a greenhouse into a dwelling or a police station. Some have suggested the greenhouses might be a lucrative location for Richmond’s burgeoning cannabis industry, but that’s a subject for another time.

The E-FORUM has covered this project regularly  since 2007.

·         Ghost Roses of the Former Sakai Nursery in Richmond, September 13, 2009

·         EIR Available on Miraflores Housing Development, June 20, 2009

·         SF Chronicle Profiles Miraflores Site, November 25, 2007

·         Richmond Seeks Developer for Miraflores, November 8, 2007

·         Reminder of Miraflores Scoping, September 25, 2007

·         Miraflores EIR Scoping Meeting September 26, 2007, September 13, 2007

·         Miraflores Charrette Next Wednesday, April 21, 2007

The eye: Greenhouses going; going green

Contra Costa Times

Posted: 12/24/2009 08:11:04 PM PST

Updated: 12/24/2009 08:11:04 PM PST

The Eye figures that, usually, you have to tear down something to make room to build something.

Richmond Councilman Tom Butt, a champion of all things historic, usually has an aversion to old buildings coming down. But he surprised his colleagues this month when he backed a plan to demolish dozens of prewar greenhouses and other structures in town to make way for housing.

Butt initiated a motion to grant a series of approvals for the 230-unit Miraflores development, a mix of affordable and market-rate housing, to be built where the Sakai, Oishi and Maida-Endo nurseries survived after Japanese-Americans were forced into internment camps during World War II. The approvals included adopting a formal statement saying the project's benefits outweigh the loss of cultural resources.

"I would like for a couple of my colleagues, particularly Councilmember (Nat) Bates and Councilmember (Maria) Viramontes, to note I am going to vote for an overriding consideration to take down literally dozens of historic structures," Butt said. "You've never seen it before, you may never see this again. This may be a rare opportunity to see how reasonable this council member can be in the right circumstances."

Butt is well-known for his passion for the historic. In the late 1970s, he founded a nonprofit corporation that restored the 1874 lighthouse known as the East Brother Light Station and operates it as a bed-and-breakfast. He helped spare a century-old Santa Fe Railway building from the wrecking ball. The refurbished building now houses Mechanics Bank in Point Richmond. His architectural firm has worked on restoring or rehabilitating many historic structures.

So it was a bit unusual for Butt to approve the razing of the old greenhouses and other structures.

"I'm passing out," Viramontes said, joking.

Five of the historic buildings will be saved in the Miraflores project and an interpretive exhibit will be created.

Richmond nurseries will make way for housing, shops

By Katherine Tam
Contra Costa Times

Posted: 12/25/2009 06:49:57 PM PST

Updated: 12/25/2009 06:49:57 PM PST

Dozens of greenhouses where three Japanese families built a flower-growing business in Richmond starting in the early 1910s that continued after World War II are slated for demolition in March or April.

In their place will rise a mix of affordable and market-rate housing with shops and greenery on 14 acres. Five buildings, including two greenhouses and houses belonging to two of the families, will be preserved.

"When this project first started out, I was very concerned about the restoration of Baxter Creek and the retention of a reasonable vestige of the historic structures," Councilman Tom Butt said. "In the beginning, staff was not very sympathetic to any of that, but they came around."

Six years in the making, the Miraflores development will carry 80 senior housing units and 150 market-rate units. That's 100 fewer units than what was pitched earlier. In addition, 3,600 square feet of retail will provide shopping, and a 4-acre greenbelt will offer recreation and plots for farming. Part of Baxter Creek that's hidden in an underground culvert will be uncovered.

The site is bounded by BART tracks to the north, South 45th Street to the west, Interstate 80 to the east and Wall Avenue to the south.

Demolishing most of the 38 greenhouses and other structures from the Sakai, Oishi and Maida-Endo nurseries would be a "significant" impact and a loss of cultural resources, an environmental impact report found.

The trade-off is worth it, city officials say. The City Council this month certified the environmental report and granted approvals that move Miraflores forward. Council members adopted a formal statement concluding the benefits outweigh the impacts.

The Sakai, Oishi and Maida-Endo nurseries ceased operations around 2003. The trio were among a number of flower-growing businesses in the Bay Area in the early 20th century. Many families bought land before the 1913 Alien Land Law barred Japanese immigrants from owning property, according to local historian Donna Graves. Japanese-Americans were forced into internment camps during World War II. Some were able to keep their nurseries after the war.

An interpretive exhibit at Miraflores will tell the history of the Japanese-American flower-growing community.

The preserved greenhouses won't sit idle. Patrick Lynch, housing director for the city's redevelopment agency, said flowers as well as vegetables will be grown.

Years of pesticides and other substances contaminated the soil and groundwater. A remedial action plan calls for excavating soil, removing underground storage tanks and monitoring groundwater. Abatement begins next month, Lynch said.

Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, who dissented on an otherwise unanimous council vote, disagrees with burying contaminated soil under the street and prefers that it be trucked to a specialized hazardous materials site.

"Richmond is pockmarked with buried toxins," she said, "and sooner or later we have to stop doing that in our community."

Katherine Tam covers Richmond. Follow her at Twitter.com/katherinetam.