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Casinos, Malls and Politics Mix at East Bay Meetings: By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Tuesday August 17, 2004

In the realm of strange political bedfellows, pairing off a massive petroleum firm with a gaggle of environmental activists has to rank as one of the oddest couplings ever. 

But that’s precisely what’s happening in Richmond, where Chevron and four East Bay environmentalists shared a wind-swept podium on Point Orient on Saturday, when the petro producer rolled out its offer to buy the adjacent Point Molate. 

Also on hand, though not on the platform, was James Levine, the Berkeley developer who hopes to thwart the oil giant and erect an enormous four-hotel gambling resort and shopping center on the Richmond site.  

Neither Chevron nor Levine were in attendance 24 hours later when most of the same environmentalists addressed a standing room only crowd that filled the Albany Community Center Saturday for the second of two East Bay casino-related meetings held within a 27-hour stretch. 

The Albany session focused on another prime piece of East Bay waterfront, Golden Gate Fields, where Magna Corporation wants to erect its own gigantic shopping complex and hopes to install a 3,000-slot-machine “racino” should California voters approve measures on the November ballot. 

While only one political figure—Richmond City Councilmember Tom Butt—attended the Point Molate Session, the Albany meeting featured Assemblymember Loni Hancock along with five of that city’s six City Council candidates, with Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and City Councilmember Kriss Worthington watching from the audience. 

The proposal for the big retail complex and casino just across from city limits is grounds for concern in a Berkeley where vacant storefronts line the main thoroughfares. 

Of the two issues, the struggle over the fate of the former Navy fuel depot on Point Molate promises to generate the most immediate heat. 

While representatives of the Sierra Club, Golden Gate Audubon Society, Save the Bay and Citizens for the East Bay State Park didn’t give formal endorsements to Chevron’s Point Molate proposal, they made no secret that they much preferred it to Levine’s grander schemes. 

Bob Doyle, assistant regional manager for the East Bay Regional Parks District, urged the city to give “due consideration” to Chevron’s proposal for the site. 

Robert Cheasty, a leader of Citizens for the Eastshore State Park, echoed Doyle’s plea, urging the city to adopt a course that would give Richmond “the kind of world class park this community deserves.” 

“Point Molate. . .should not be sold to a private developer without” adequate review, said the Sierra Club’s Norman LaForce, urging the city to “stop this fire sale of public land.” 

Arthur Feinstein of the Audubon Society urged the city “to step back and take a look” at both offers before approving the casino option. 

Rounding out the environmental slate was Berkeley’s Sylvia McLaughlin, who co-founded Save the Bay four decades ago. 

Chevron’s proposal calls for extending the Bay Trail hiking and biking path along the waterfront and the eventual transfer of most of the site to the East Bay Regional Park District for a shoreline park. 

“At the refinery, we call it a buffer,” said Dean O’Hair, external affairs manager for the Richmond refinery. “We want to keep the refinery secure as a vital part of the nation’s energy system in the West.” 

But for cash-strapped Richmond city officials, the Levine plan has to look a lot more interesting than Chevron’s. 

The reason: While Chevron promises $34 million over a couple of decades, Levine is dangling a carrot he says will give the city over $400 million in the same period. 

While Chevron’s proposal offers a $5 million down payment with the balance to be paid out over the years, Levine is offering a $30 million down payment, with another $20 million paid over 10 to 20 years.  

The Guidiville Rancheria band of Pomo Indians, selected to run the site, would also pay the city between $10 million to $20 million a year in lieu of taxes that would otherwise be lost to the municipality because the site would become sovereign tribal land. 

Levine’s Emeryville-based Upstream Investments has already shelled out $750,000 for exclusive negotiating rights on the parcel, and until those expire at the end of September, the Richmond City Council is legally barred from considering Chevron’s offer, said Councilmember Tom Butt after the press conference. 

Upstream plans to invest $500 million on the site itself, which would feature four hotels, a 200,000-square-foot casino in the old Winehaven winery, a Las Vegas-style showroom, a 300,000-square-foot retail mall with 85 stores and eateries, with promises of on-site jobs for 2,000 workers and 3,000 additional secondary jobs for workers in local businesses supplying the project. 

“We’ll be meeting with local churches to form linkages for hiring from within the community. They will be sending us people they believe will make good, reliable workers,” Levine said. 

Levine said his plans would include an extension of the Bay Trail through the property, and said construction would be limited to the 100 acres of the site which have already been developed. 

Levine’s is one of two casinos currently in the early stages of development for Richmond. The second proposal, sited on unincorporated land in North Richmond, calls for another 3,000-slot-machine gambling palace. 

Both developers have targeted their pitches to the city’s African American population, gaining considerable support by doing so. 

An avid fan of both projects who testified in favor of the North Richmond project at a Bureau of Indian Affairs-sponsored meeting on Aug. 4 offered pointed questions to Chevron’s representative at Friday’s press conference. 

“Once the city put out the property for development, why didn’t you step up?” he asked Chevron’s O’Hair. “I’m interested in people who don’t have access to the park, people who look like me.” 

Asked his name by a reporter after the meeting, he said, “My name in Mud, M-U-D. That’s all I mean to these people.” But at the meeting on the North Richmond casino, he identified himself as Ted Stevens. 

Also on hand for the press conference was Sallie Melendez, a lobbyist and public relations manager for Zell & Associates—which reportedly represents Levine’s project. In questions she posed to O’Hair, she managed to tout the casino project as a source of jobs for the city. 

The rival firm of Singer Associates, which staged the Point Molate gathering, also represents the North Richmond casino as well as the consortium planning to build a high density Richmond waterfront Campus Bay residential complex—which has drawn considerable heat from some of the same groups who shared the platform with Chevron Friday. 

Richmond Councilmember Butt said after the press conference that his biggest concern with Chevron’s proposal was its lack of specificity. 

He also faulted the company’s failure to respond when the city issued a request for plans for the site last year. “We got six credible proposals, but Chevron neglected to respond. We selected Upstream, and about the same time Chevron suggested ‘We might give you a couple of million.’ 

“Right now, all we have is a proposal to make a proposal.” 

The other potential monkey wrench in Levine’s plans was raised by O’Hair, who said “the Department of Homeland Security is concerned about large numbers of people having access to buffer areas near strategic facilities” and suggested that casinos were a particular cause for concern. 

Levine—who has retained former Clinton administration Secretary of Defense Richard Cohen to assist with the project—said “DHS has indicated it’s not their intent to impose a buffer.” 

But with a White House known for inseparable ties with the oil industry, the question remains open. 

The big variable in Albany is the November ballot, which will determine whether or not the state allows “racinos,” as the gambling trade dubs race tracks with slot machines on site. 

While early polling shows California voters strongly opposed to the notion of track casinos, the fate of an 800,000-square-foot waterfront mega-mall proposal for a little used race track on the site may ultimately hinge on the vote of Albany residents. 

Magna Entertainment Corp., the Canadian firm which owns the racing concessions at tracks across the country, including Golden Gate and Bay Meadows in Northern California and Santa Anita in Southern California, operates its own racino division and would be ready to jump if California voters approved Proposition 68 in November. 

That measure offers Indian casinos a simple choice: either all 53 gambling tribes agree to pay 2.5 percent of their casino revenues to the state or race tracks and card rooms would be allowed to install a total of 30,000 slot machines statewide. 

As the operator of three major tracks, Magna would be one of the biggest beneficiaries. 

“Given the number of proposals for enacting gambling, we could become the most heavily impacted region in the West other than Las Vegas,” Loni Hancock told the Albany gathering Saturday. “This is probably not a place we want to go.” 

The good news for Albany, she said, “is that the race track is a private entity, not a sovereign nation,” as are the tribes developing the other three casinos in the immediate area, two in Richmond and one in San Pablo. 

Hancock also expressed concern that the shopping malls planned for Point Molate and Gold Gate Fields “could do great damage” to merchants along Solano Avenue and Fourth Street in Berkeley. “I was sorry to hear that we have impact already from the El Cerrito Mall,” she said. 

Robert Cheasty opened Saturday’s packed meeting in the Community Center with a Power Point presentation of alternatives for the site. Then the Sierra Club’s Norman LaForce floated the organization’s own plans for the race track site, contrasting Magna’s proposal with the club’s proposal for a much smaller 325,000-square-foot hotel and shopping area—which would also include ball fields at the base of Gilman Street. 

The race track complex was notably absent from the rendering that flashed on the screen, replaced by restored marshland. 

James Carter, executive director of the Albany Chamber of Commerce, said both he and the chamber’s president are opposed to the mall, and said he expects the chamber will vote formal opposition at its meeting Wednesday. 

“There’s already too many malls, and they hurt small businesses,” he said. 

Five of the six candidates running for City Council seats in November appeared near the end of the session, when they were asked to state their positions on the Sierra Club proposal. 

While Richard Cross, Farid Javandel, Robert Lieber and Brian Parker all offered endorsements of the plan, Alan Riffer charged that the plan included development on wetlands, “and I find it hard to believe that even with the Bush administration the Army Corps of Engineers would approve it.” 

LaForce vigorously denied Riffer’s claim. 

After the meeting ended, Riffer said he remained open to the Magna plan. “We’ve got to think about what’s best for Albany and the region,” he said. “Fortunately, the final decision will be up to the city.” 

The missing candidate, Jewel Okawashi, is favorably disposed to Magna’s plan, Parker said.›