To Richmond officials, it looked like a much-needed boost to an ailing city and a major source of new city revenues.
To a Marin County developer and a pension fund investment firm, it looked like a cash cow, the site for a 1,330-unit high-rise shoreline condominium complex.
But to a growing number of South Richmond residents, it looks like a toxic menace, a threat to the health of themselves, their friends and families.
For 100 years, industrial plants at the site of what is know today as Campus Bay churned out an array of chemicals ranging from sulfuric acid to potent pesticides.
To the north, another plant had produced blasting caps while polluting the soil with toxic mercury compounds and to the south an recycling center laced the ground with a noxious brew of PCBs, PCEs and other compounds.
Here developers plan to build a high-density, high-rise residential development.
AstraZeneca, the British firm which last produced chemicals on the site, was legally responsible for the cleanup after their last plant on the property closed in 1997.
Because of an accidental chemical discharge more than a decade earlier, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board already held jurisdiction over the site when it came time for the cleanup, and Zeneca picked an Emeryville-based LFR (Levine-Fricke Recon) to design and implement a hazardous substances cleanup.
The “Levine” in the corporate name was Berkeley resident James D. Levine, a former water board employee who went on to build a sizable fortune plying his craft in the corporate sector.
Zeneca had allotted $100 million for the cleanup, but Levine came up with a plan that promised to handle the task for 20 percent of that by burying a mountain of iron pyrite ash, the residue of nearly a century of acid-making, on the site itself, rather than trucking it away to a landfill.
Levine had sold his share of the company by the time work commenced, carried out by another firm, IRG Environmental, under the supervision of Levine’s former company.
Between 1999 and 2002, three dozen buildings were demolished with little public fanfare.
The turning point for many came in 2002, after the last of the structures had been demolished, when heavy equipment generated blizzards of dust that blanketed surrounding businesses, homes and streets as the refuse of a century of manufacturing was excavated and then buried in a 40-acre pit on the site.
Just what was in the dust remains a partial mystery, because little if any monitoring was conducted by the water board, but subsequent tests have also identified more than 20 other noxious compounds in the mix.
Contra Costa County Public Health Director Dr. Wendel Brunner would later say that those dusty days shattered public confidence both in the developer and with the regulatory oversight.
As a result, a coalition of concerned residents and the men and women who worked in the light industries immediately to the south of the site began to organize with the help of Claudia Carr, a UC Berkeley professor of environmental science, policy and management who lives in Marina Bay, a housing development built on another contaminated site to the northwest of Campus Bay.
The new group styled itself Bay Area Residents for Responsible Development—BARRD—and its creation would prove momentous in the drama that unfolded.
Among the members is Peter Weiner, an old friend of Carr’s. As a highly respected—and costly—attorney with Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, one of San Francisco’s leading law firms, Weiner’s pro bono presence added a voice no corporate officer could afford to ignore.
Another is Sherry Padgett, a corporate finance officer who works nearby, whose own battles with a series of life-threatening, environmentally-caused illnesses adds an eloquent human voice to the risks posed by the chemicals on the site.
Zeneca sold the site to Cherokee Simeon Ventures, a special purpose joint venture company.
The Simeon part of the equation are Russ Pitto’s Simeon Residential and Commercial development firms, which own extensive holdings in California and Colorado.
Cherokee is Cherokee Investment Partners, a North Carolina-based multinational which invests pension fund moneys in developments on cleaned-up toxic sites, dubbed “brownfields.”
Their plans for the site didn’t call for a 1,330-unit high-density, high- and mid-rise condo project. Instead, they wanted to build a biotechnology research park.
In 1950, on the site of the former blasting cap plant bordering Campus Bay to the north, the University of California had located its Richmond Field Station, a collection of research facilities which would offer a logical complement to the corporate facilities on Pitto’s property.
There was a second, equally logical tie as well: In 2000, Zeneca—the last owner—had merged its agricultural chemicals subsidiary with that of Novartis, the Swiss-based pharmaceutical and chemical giant that was then involved in a controversial corporate/academic partnership with UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources.
Pitto had already started building on the 16 acres closest to I-580, erecting the first two of four planned buildings when Sept. 11, 2001 arrived.
The economic uncertainty that followed the deadliest single terrorist attack on American soil devastated the biotech industry, leaving Cherokee-Simeon with vacant space in the existing buildings and no clients in sight for the two other unbuilt 90,000-square-foot structures city officials had already authorized.
Under the original plan already approved by Richmond officials and the water board, the site had been deemed suitable for shift workers who would spend only a lesser portion of their days at the site.
With the biotech crash, Cherokee-Simeon needed to do something different with the land, so they filed preliminary plans with the city to build housing atop what Padgett would later describe as a “35,000-cubic-yard, 30-acre, eight-foot-tall table top mountain with a concrete cap”—actually, a mixture of cement and papier mache.
Richmond officials jumped at the plan, with Steve Duran, director of the city’s Community and Economic Development Department, signing on as the project’s most outspoken booster.
For a city mired in an eight-figure swamp of debt, Duran touted the project as the source of cash to fund redevelopment in the city’s high-crime, low-income minority neighborhoods.
A Cherokee Simeon handout posted on the city’s web site promised $7 million in annual revenues for Duran’s agency, $7.3 million in impact fees for the city, $6.8 million in impact funds for the West Contra Costa County Unified School District, $40 million in spending on site infrastructure improvement and 500 temporary construction jobs.
The only project potentially more lucrative in Richmond was the nine-figure promises from James D. Levine in his subsequent incarnation as promoter of a gambling super-resort to the north at Point Molate.
Opposition to the Campus Bay proposal surfaced early and often.
When the proposal was aired before the Richmond Planning Commission last March, more than 30 speakers—many from neighborhood councils—raised their concerns during a four-hour study session.
While some homeowners worried that the high-rise condo towers would block treasured views of the Bay and beyond, and others worried about increased traffic and congestion, health concerns dominated the letters and e-mails that poured in early in the year when the city called a scoping session in order to prepare an environmental impact report (EIR).
On the city’s notice of preparation, a preliminary report outlining areas of concern to be addressed in the final EIR, the project was judged as having potentially significant impacts—the highest of four ratings—in 72 of 90 potential areas of concern.
The scoping session for the EIR drew letters of concern from environmental groups, neighborhood councils, attorneys—including BARRD’s Peter Weiner—and local residents.
Building trades unions endorsed the plan, but most responses either posed serious questions or registered outright objections.
For the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), the key issue was the health and safety of those who’d be living at the site, especially children, victims of chronic ailments and the elderly.
Public Health Director Brunner would add his own voice, echoing the DTSC’s concerns.
The LFR Levine-Fricke plan for the housing project prohibits any ground floor residential units. Instead, sunken parking levels would feature fans to blow out volatile organic compounds that would inevitably escape from the cap.
Residents would be barred from planting vegetable gardens and grassy areas would be off-limits to children.
Site cleanup efforts were still incomplete, with another round of excavations slated to begin in the autumn on the coastal marshland to the west of the building site. Timing was critical, because the marsh also serves as the nesting ground for the clapper rail, a shorebird on the federal Endangered Species list.
Compounds from the manufacturing process that had leached into the shoreline muck posed serious dangers to wildlife, and plans called for their removal and replacement by uncontaminated soil.
Water board officials repeatedly assured critics that all was well, but Carr, Padgett and others weren’t buying.
Critics, fearing that the excavation process would release still more hazardous compounds into the environment, began calling for a handover of project supervision to the DTSC, which is well-staffed with toxicologists and other experts.
Barbara J. Cook, DTSC Northern California coastal cleanup chief, intervened on Aug. 30, calling a halt to the start of the marsh cleanup, pending a closer examination and possible revisions of key plan elements, including issues raised by the housing project proposal.
East Bay State Assemblymember Loni Hancock endorsed Cook’s action in a Sept. 1 letter to the water board, asking the agency to halt work until Cook’s questions were answered.
The water board was ready to resume work by late September, though Stephen J. Morse, the agency’s assistant executive officer told concerned citizens on Sept. 28 that “We’re not anywhere near to discussing homes on the site.”
“My understanding is that there are arsenic concentrations on this site,” said Brunner.
“This site’s got everything,” Morse replied.
On Oct. 5, the day excavations were scheduled to commence, Assemblymember Hancock issued a scathing condemnation of the housing proposal and vowed to hold a legislative hearing to address the concerns of project critics.
Temperatures reached the boiling point on Oct. 27, at a water board public information at Richmond’s Booker T. Anderson Community Center.
Jeff Hohenstein, a martial arts instructor who teaches young students at a studio not far from the site, said he was worried about the possible dangers of toxin exposures to his school age students.
Meg Rosegay, a San Francisco lawyer/lobbyist representing the developer, fired back, “I’m worried about a meteor falling out of the sky, too.”
The audience gasped at the remark.
The critical moment came on Nov. 6, when Hancock and Cindy Montanez, a San Fernando Valley Democrat who chairs the Assembly’s powerful Rules Committee as well as the Select Environmental Justice Committee, held their hearing at UC Berkeley’s Richmond Field Station.
A powerful address from Padgett drew a standing ovation, and by the time the hearing ended, both lawmakers said that site jurisdiction needed to go to the DTSC.
But critics won only half a victory. After protracted negotiations in Sacramento, DTSC took control of the upland portion of the site, but the water board retained jurisdiction over the marshland.
Excavations began, with the muck stored in an opened area of the upland waste site, drawing more fire from critics.
Cherokee Simeon then agreed to truck the muck off to a landfill near Pittsburgh, which began over the last week.
For Padgett and Carr, the changes represent only a limited victory.
“It’s not what we asked for or what we expected,” Padgett said Thursday. “We wanted work to stop, followed by a complete reevaluation of the site and the plan.”
“DTSC isn’t working with us,” Carr said.
“They have a very close relationship to the company and a very distant relationship with us,” Padgett said. “We never got a plan, nor did we ever receive a clear statement of what the risks are to people who live and work near the site.”
“Everything we get is filtered and sanitized,” Carr added.
“Levine-Fricke identified over 150 different toxins in the marsh, yet they are currently monitoring for less than one in seven. They’re still not testing for PCBs,” Padgett said.
With Weiner’s assistance, the BARRD activists are planning their next move, and as the year ends, the battle over Campus Bay is far from over.
And, as the new year begins, yet another element of uncertainty clouds the future, thanks to the recent promotion of California Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Terry Tamminen to the position of chief of staff in the governor’s office.
With no leader at the top and the appointment in the hands of a governor who is decidedly pro-developer, the fate of Campus Bay remains very much an open question.
Meanwhile, the developer has brought in a new representative to handle negotiations, former Assembly Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.
Adding still another element to the equation, UC Berkeley has floated plans to tranform the Richmond Field Station into a corporate/academic research park, and is currently engaged in talks with a private developer.
Calls to Karen Stern, spokesperson for Cherokee Simeon, were not returned by deadline.?