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Richmond Plans Massive Casino on the Bay

Friday June 11, 2004

A well-connected Berkeley toxics consultant and developer has teamed with Donald Rumsfeld’s predecessor as secretary of defense and a landless Native American tribe to float a proposal to build a casino and 1000-room four-hotel complex on Point Molate in Richmond. 

James Levine, the Berkeley resident and driving force behind the Emeryville-based powerhouse firm of LFR Levine-Fricke, has been meeting with politicians and community and special interest groups to round up support for what could become one of California’s largest casinos. 

Levine heads a consortium which last December acquired exclusive rights to develop the site from the Richmond City Council. 

When contacted, Levine decline to offer specifics and asked the Daily Planet to hold off on the story in exchange for an exclusive when the final plans are unveiled in early July. 

“Otherwise, all I can tell you is that we are discussing ideas with folks. We’ve been meeting with environmental groups and the community, and it’s better for everyone if we can hold off on the story,” Levine said. 

“We’re doing something developers usually don’t do. We’re trying to collaborate with the community. We’re sharing confidential information with folks up front so we can receive their input and incorporate it into out plans,” he said. 

The Point Molate Navy Fuel Depot, built on the site of a former winery, was marked for closure in 1995 under the Department of Defense’s Base Realignment and Closure plan and officially ended operations that Sept. 30. 

Most of the property—364 acres—was transferred to the City of Richmond in 2003 for the token payment of $1, although the Navy retains about 15 percent of the property until environmental cleanup is finished. 

Of the site’s 415 acres—including those that have yet to pass to the city—290 are above the mean high tide line, and 90 are fully developable.  

Faced with a $7 million budget deficit this year and an expected $21 million funding gap in the upcoming year, Richmond City Councilmembers have been casting increasingly desperate eyes on the property as a source of revenue.  

For centuries home to the indigenous Ohlone people, the land was later included in a Spanish land grant. Chinese shrimpers built a camp on the point in the early 1870s and fished steadily for the next four decades. 

Among the most prominent features remaining on the property is the 20,000-square-foot Winehaven, a crenelated mock-Rhineland castle opened in 1908 by the California Wine Association. The winery—once California’s largest—produced five dozen varietals as well as brandy until 1920, when Prohibition forced a shutdown. 

The property passed briefly to Santa Cruz Oil in early 1941, but with the approach of war, the Navy took over the site later that year, constructing massive above- and underground storage tanks for both marine fuel oil and high octane aviation fuel. 

The site was criss-crossed with eight miles of fuel lines, which have been removed as part of the federal cleanup operations prior to handover to the city. The 22 massive underground fuel tanks are being cleaned up and will remain in place. 

Point Molate is surrounded on three sides by land owned by Chevron, which operates the nearby refinery and has considerable input on site uses, thanks to post 9/11 security regulations designed to protect major energy facilities located on or near public waterways. 

The 71-acre Village of Point Molate listed 39 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places in October, 1978, including the winery and 29 housing units. 

Development of the site itself is in the hands of the Local Reuse Authority—a mantle the Richmond City Council conferred on itself to become the official agency responsible for development of the property. 

A 45-member Blue Ribbon Advisory Committee appointed by the Richmond City Council in 1995 developed a 20-year reuse plan for the site, which called for a mixed-used historical village centering on the winery featuring a retreat center, educational and job training facilities, light industrial uses and residential development. 

City councilmembers first indicated serious interest in a casino early last year, when they commissioned a $100,000 feasibility study from the Colorado-based Innovations Group. 

That study, unveiled late last July, predicted that a tribal casino would generate a yearly economic impact of a half-billion dollars, creating 4,462 more local jobs and adding $1.9 million to city sales tax revenues. 

The report listed four possible sites, including Point Molate and the Stauffer Chemical site now proposed for the high rise Campus Bay waterfront residential complex (see the Daily Planet’s May 28 edition). 

On Dec. 16, the city handed an exclusive six-month negotiation rights agreement to Upstream Investments, LLC, formed to develop the Point Molate site. The group includes Levine’s LFR Levine-Fricke (toxic clean up and development specialists), Legacy Partners (a real estate developer), the Odermatt Group (a Berkeley-based urban design firm headed by architect Richard A. Odermatt) and Lowe Enterprises—one of the country’s premier hotel firms. 

Levine said other possible participants include the International Risk Group (underwriters), Cherokee Investment Partners (a principal in the Campus Bay development) and Shell Global Solutions (a toxic cleanup firm affiliated with the Dutch oil company). 

Two other tribal casino projects are already proposed for areas near Richmond—an expansion of the San Pablo Casino and a planned casino by the Scott’s Valley Band of Pomos on the Richmond Parkway just outside the city limits. 

The proposed Molate project would be grander than either project, a complete resort destination sited in a breathtaking location with first class accommodations, a convention center, and a spectacular waterfront view of the Bay. 

“When we gave Upstream exclusive rights on the site, they said a tribal casino was one alternative,” said Richmond City Councilmember Tom Butt, who said earlier casino proposals had been made “for places where it would’ve been a really bad idea. If there’s going to be a casino in Richmond, Point Molate’s the right place because there are no neighbors to disturb with the lights and traffic.” 

Butt said mixed-use residential proposals for the site called were torpedoed by “some very underhanded and deceitful moves by Chevron. The market’s really bad right now for commercial and light industrial.” 

Butt had met with Levine several times. 

“He seems to be a nice guy, very amiable, and he claims to be very well connected,” Butt said. “He claims to have very substantial ties to influential people.” 

Levine is a major political contributor, primarily to Democratic candidates. He gave $27,500 to former Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante’s campaign against Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 2003 recall election. He helped fund the Gore campaign in 2000 and donated to the congressional races of both Democrat Barbara Lee and Republican Jerry Lewis. 

Though he said he has no moral objections to a casino, Butt said he is worried that the promised jobs will be offset by a loss of existing jobs in the local hospitality and entertainment sectors. 

“Another huge issue is what the city gets out of it,” he said, adding that negotiating a deal to build a casino on city-owned property could yield Richmond far more than a casino outside city limits. “The worst thing for the city would be something like the project on the parkway outside city limits, where Richmond would get any money at all. If something went on Molate that was high quality, it could bring a lot more to the city—although I’m totally reserving judgment ‘til there’s something on the table to look at.” 

One thing that bothers the councilmember is the refusal of his colleagues to poll the community on their feelings about a casino project. “I’ve been asking them to do it for a long time, and they’ve consistently rejected it. It would be a lot easier to decide if we knew what the people wanted,” he said.  

Enlisting the support of former Defense Secretary William Cohen gives the project a powerful ally in with the federal government. The Interior Department must approve the creation of a reservation on the site, and Cohen’s Pentagon contacts should help resolve any issues remaining with the Navy. 

Levine said that whatever happens to the site, Upstream will be guided by a set of principles that includes protecting the existing wildlife habitat, implementing a comprehensive integrated transportation plan, and providing jobs and revenue opportunities for the citizens of Richmond. 

“Though it will take a lot of hard analysis, we’re committed to all these things,” Levine said.