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Builders, Environmentalists Spar Over Toxic Richmond Site

Friday May 28, 2004

A major residential and biotech research complex proposed for the Richmond waterfront has pitted a coalition of activists and neighbors against a developer who offers a healthy boost to the city’s stricken tax base. 

Throw in chemically contaminated soil, rumors of radioactivity and view-threatening high-rise condo towers, and a classic confrontation shapes up. 

On one side are Russ Pitto (a Marin County developer whose Simeon Residential Properties and Simeon Commercial Properties development firms are major players in the Bay Area and Colorado real estate markets) and Cherokee Investment Partners (specialists in cleaning up and developing “brownfield”—contaminated—property). 

On the other side are a collection of East Bay activists and neighborhood groups worried about pollution, radiation, and high-rise development. 

“There’s a lot of contentiousness going back and forth between the developer and some of the neighborhood groups,” said Caron Parker, the Richmond Planning Department associate planner charged with conducting the project’s environmental review. 

The review under the California Environmental Quality Act is only the first stage toward approval of what Pitto hopes will be a 1,330-unit complex of owner-occupied high-rises, mid-rises, and townhouses and rental loft apartments to be constructed on a 40-acre site west of I-580 southwest of Meade Street at the Bayview Avenue exit. 

The site earlier housed the Stauffer Chemical and Zeneca Inc. manufacturing sites. Stauffer refined sulfur from iron pyrites on the site, the source of the major soil contaminants. Among the other confections whipped up on-site by Stauffer were nitric acid, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and a potpourri of other industrial compounds. Zeneca brewed up pharmaceuticals. 

Zeneca, the last owner before Cherokee Simeon, spent $20 million on site restoration, neutralizing acidic chemicals in the soil, capping the site with uncontaminated soil, and building an underground barrier to block contaminants from leaking to the bay. 

With the UC Berkeley Richmond Research Station its neighbor to the northwest, Pitto had initially obtained clearances to build a biotech research park on the site, but his plans changed with the post-9/11 market collapse, when the need for space evaporated. 

“Phase one of the project includes a 16-acre life sciences research center, and we’ve already put $16 million into that,” Pitto said. The project includes a pair of nicely landscaped buildings, and “we already have approval to two more 90,000-square foot buildings.”  

With the switch to residential use, a whole new set of concerns surfaced, based on round-the-clock occupancy as opposed to the typical, 40-hour-a-week presence of workers. 

“Everything’s on hold right now,” Parker said. “The Regional Water Quality Control Board has the final say on whether the site is suitable for residential use, and nothing can move forward till they make their ruling.” 

An earlier water board approval had been torpedoed by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), which issued a stinging letter April 6 citing 10 “fatal flaws” in Pitto’s proposal. 

Barbara J. Cook, DTSC’s Berkeley-based chief of Northern California coastal cleanup operations, told a reporter she had retracted the letter, which had been written after Cherokee Simeon had submitted the wrong document. 

“We have the latest document now, and are conducting a joint review with the Regional Water Quality Control Board and we will make our recommendation based on that,” Cook said. 

Worries about on-site radiation surfaced after January, 2001, when the U.S. Department of Energy released a five-page list of sites covered by the Energy Employees Occupational Illnesses Compensation Act of 2000. 

That law provides funds to people who contracted illnesses working at sites where radioactive substances were produced or treated. There, next to last among the California entries, was Stauffer Metals, Inc., of Richmond—listed as both an “atomic weapons employer” and a Department of Energy Site. 

Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), a politically potent statewide coalition with offices in Oakland and Huntington Park, based their opposition to Pitto’s research park plan on the federal listing. 

Pitto then hired MACTEC Development Corporation to conduct a radiological survey of surface soils at the site, which turned up gamma radiation levels no higher than typical background counts. CBE withdrew their opposition, but concerns still remain in the community—and CBE has taken renewed interest in the site now that residential use is planned. 

If the DTSC and the water board approve on-site housing, the project must then complete Parker’s environmental review and obtain clearances from the city Design Review Board, Planning Commission and the City Council before Pitto can start preparing the site. 

Before he gets there, Pitto will have to overcome formidable opposition, judging by the turnout at a preliminary organizing meeting held Sunday in the Richmond Annex home of Patricia Leslie and Karl Smith. 

Among those on hand were City Council candidate Gayle McLaughlin, Mary Selva (Vice Chair of the Richmond Annex Neighborhood Coalition and chair of the groups Planning and Zoning Committee), Athena Honore of the North Richmond Shoreline Alliance, Dr. Henry Clark of the West County Toxics Coalition, Kaiser Permanente cardiologists Dr. Jeff Ritterman, and representatives of the Sierra Club and Greenpeace. 

Selva said the Panhandle Annex Neighborhood Council and Citizens for the East Shore State Park have also declared their opposition to the development project. 

Another well-organized foe, Bay Area Residents for Responsible Development, has been taking a leading role in efforts to mobilize opposition, said Norman LaForce, chair of the East Bay Public Lands Committee of the San Francisco Bay Sierra Club chapter. 

LaForce says that among other concerns, he is worried about the pets of project residents—cats and especially dogs are very hard on wildlife—and the addition of 3,000 or so frequent visitors to the sensitive Bay Trail environment.  

Pitto’s plans include restoration of Stege Marsh between the residential development and the Bay Trail hiking and biking path. Pitto said that his company is “spending $5 million on a two-year clean-up that will start in September and then break for the nesting season of the Clapper Rail,” an endangered bird that nests in the march. “The East Bay Regional Parks District has already signed off on the cleanup, and when its completed, they’ll manage the marsh, with the costs of management and maintenance paid by us.” 

Preliminary plans call for three 18-story high-rises at the northeast corner of the site, adjacent to the existing life sciences buildings, with the remainder of the project consisting of buildings of three to seven or eight stories. 

Projected prices for the owner-occupied units range from $260,000 for entry-level units to $650,000 for the townhouses closest to the shoreline, Pitto said. 

While the Sierra Club is waiting until after Parker’s draft Environmental Impact Report is ready before commenting on the project as a whole, “we’re definitely opposed to 18-story buildings right on the waterfront,” said Jonna Papalefthimiou, conservation manager for the Sierra Club’s San Francisco Bay Chapter. 

“There’s definitely room for 3,000 more residents in Richmond, but that site may not be appropriate,” she said, noting that besides impacting sensitive waterfront, “the history of the site is long and toxic.” 

Robert Cheasty, chair of Citizens for the East Bay Shore Park, an alliance of concerned citizens, the Sierra Club, the Audobon Society and Citizens for the Albany shore, said “We want a state park along the bay shoreline, a pearl necklace of open spaces to preserve for the generations to come. We’d like to see a 500-foot swath that’s free of development.” 

Cheasty’s group opposes the residential project both for its impact on sensitive shoreline and for its impact of the viewlines of other area residents. “We’ve had shoreline fights in Albany, Emeryville, Richmond and Berkeley, both to preserve the shoreline and to protect public access,” he said. 

Another source of opposition cited by Selva and other project foes is the project’s separation from BART and other mass transit services. Pitto counters by offering to provide regular shuttle service to BART similar to the shuttle UC Berkeley now provides between their nearby research and the downtown Berkeley BART station.  

“We’re also talking about park-and-ride in conjunction with bus service,” the developer said. 

Asked about concerns his high-rises might block the views of residents to the east of the site, Pitto concedes that his current plans for the site may undergo alteration after the city begins its review process. 

Cherokee Simeon Ventures won’t be constructing the actual housing units. “We’re getting the entitlement for the 1,330 residential units. We’ll develop streets, infrastructure, parks, utilities—everything but the buildings,” Pitto said. “We’ll sell the neighborhoods, segmented by product types, so we can get five or six builders working at one time. We’ll be spending about $40 million for infrastructure, and we’ll very tightly control the architecture. We have our own design review process builders must follow before they can ever take their plans to the city.” 

Planner Parker expects a lot more sturm und drang before the final curtain falls. 

“There were more than 30 speakers at first planning commission study session March 30, and it lasted over four hours,” Parker said. “There’s a lot of contentiousness, and its a very complicated project.” ô