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  San Francisco Business Times - Can Richmond overcome "typecasting" and lure developer to build 670 waterfront homes?
July 31, 2018

Can Richmond overcome "typecasting" and lure developer to build 670 waterfront homes? 

The 271-acre Point Molate site was once a fuel depot for the Navy.

By Fiona Kelliher  – Editorial Intern, San Francisco Business Times

Jul 31, 2018, 12:51pm PDT Updated 2 hours ago

The City of Richmond is looking for a developer to build at least 670 homes at Point Molate, a challenging waterfront site studded with historic buildings. The property has been unused for more than two decades.

“It’s kind of like a ruin now, and we have an opportunity to bring it back to life and make it a vibrant, functioning community,” said Richard Mitchell, the city’s director of planning and building.

In April, Richmond reached a settlement with a Northern California Native American tribe and a developer that wanted to build a casino on the 271-acre site — plans the city rejected in 2010. The litigants sued two years later on the grounds that they had wasted $30 million on useless deposits and entitlements.

Now Richmond has released a request for qualifications to draw a fresh pack of developers to the property, which served as a Navy fuel depot between 1942 and 1995. Aside from housing, a developer will be required to set aside 70 percent of the land for open space and preserve the buildings at the 41-acre Winehaven Historic District, where a 400-worker winery once existed before Prohibition.

The city has agreed to vote on a developer's proposal before April 2020. That might be tough to pull off, especially if the local community doesn’t have a firm grasp of the speedy timeframe, said James Madsen, partner at Orton Development, Inc. Orton redeveloped the 26-acre Ford Point in Richmond.

“The site has had a really long history of controversy, and so one challenge is going to be coming up with a plan that has a lot of buy-in from the community,” Madsen said.

To win that support and hear what people want, the city has held a series of site tours and two community meetings this summer, with a third planned for August. Mayor Tom Butt said that a small group of people who don’t want any development on the site whatsoever have tried to “dominate the discussion” at the meetings.

Another potential hurdle for developers is that Point Molate has neither water nor electricity, meaning that a developer would have to start from scratch to build infrastructure. It’s hard to predict what construction costs could be once that work is finished, Madsen said, meaning that whoever signs on needs to take a “long-term” view of the site.

Still, he said, it’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to develop the land. The city envisions a multi-income, sustainable community surrounded by open space, and Butt said that he’d like to see a restoration of the historic wine district by way of a wine museum or tasting rooms.

The redevelopment comes at a moment when Richmond is trying to refashion itself as an attractive place to live for young people and professionals. In September, a new ferry service to San Francisco will open, and the city is also in the process of adding over 1,000 new housing units near the Richmond BART station as part of a long-envisioned transit village.

But Richmond has long been “typecast” as unattractive by developers due to its historically low rents and reputation for financial struggle, Mitchell said. The city has also struggled with high crime rates in the past. The median rent price in Richmond is $2,650 as compared to the San Francisco Metro’s $3,450, according to real estate information company Zillow.

That hesitance has slowly begun to thaw with the addition of over 2 million square feet of industrial development in the last four years. Mitchell and Butt hope that enthusiasm will spill over into other kinds of development, particularly on vacant and underutilized sites.

Point Molate qualification submissions from developers are due on Aug. 17, from which two or three finalists will be selected.
“It’s just a really interesting moment, and Point Molate is an amazing opportunity if we can get people to liberate from their limiting beliefs,” Mitchell said.