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Agency Seeks Proposals to Replace Greenhouses with Homes

By Geneviève Duboscq
Tuesday November 06, 2007

The Richmond Community Redevelopment Agency (RCRA) is proposing to build a new housing development called Miraflores on the site of three Japanese American nurseries that date from the early 20th century. The greenhouse roofs are visible from west Interstate 80 near the Cutting Boulevard exit. 

Richmond bought the nearly 14-acre site for $7.6 million in June 2006 from the Sakai, Oishi, and Endo families, according to RCRA housing director Patrick Lynch and development program manager Natalia Lawrence, speaking in a joint interview last Friday. RCRA will establish a mix of single-family homes and rental apartments on the site. 

The two other partners in the Miraflores project are nonprofit developers of affordable housing: Eden Housing and the Community Housing Development Corporation of North Richmond. They will build 80 to 90 affordable-housing rental units on four acres of the site, said Lawrence. 

The city will choose a developer to build between 85 and 120 single-family homes for sale, most at market rate and at least 15 percent as affordable housing. The site will be a “parklike setting,” said Lynch, with open space, walkable areas, and the daylighting (or uncovering) of Baxter Creek, which flows partly under the site. 

In late October, Richmond published a request for proposals (RFP) from developers to build the single-family homes. A pre-submittal meeting and site tour will take place on Friday, Nov. 9, at 1 p.m. in the city council chambers. Proposals are due on Dec. 19. 

RCRA has met with a residents’ advisory committee and held a September meeting to get public input on the scope of the required environmental impact report (EIR). With preparation of the EIR, remediation of the site, and construction, Lynch and Lawrence estimate that the project will be complete in about 36 months. 

According to Donna Graves, who wrote the historical component of the 2004 “Historic Architecture Evaluation: The Oishi, Sakai and Maida-Endo Nurseries,” the site contains “the only extant cut-flower nurseries begun by Japanese Americans before World War II in the entire Bay Area, and [is] the last remaining of Richmond’s community of Japanese American flower growers.” 

Parts of the site may be eligible for placement on the National Register of Historical Places as well as the California Register of Historic Places. The city has identified the Sakai home, an adjacent water tower, and one greenhouse as structures to preserve, and plans either to keep them where they stand or to move them to new locations. 

California was once home to many farms and nurseries established by Japanese, or Issei, men who immigrated to the United States around the turn of the 20th century. 

A sizable Japanese American community grew up around the Bay Area, wrote Graves, as Japanese laborers who had found work with the Domoto brothers’ nursery in Oakland or laying railroad tracks in Richmond moved to the outskirts of established towns to start businesses. They bought or leased land and often used family labor to grow the carnations, chrysanthemums, and roses they would sell in San Francisco. 

The Alien Land Law of 1913 and similar laws forbade “aliens ineligible to citizenship,” Chinese and Japanese aliens, from owning property. Issei nurserymen and farmers transferred ownership to their U.S.-born children, or Nisei, or into corporations formed with non-Asian U.S. citizens. 

But this strategy proved no help after Japan’s Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.  

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, authorizing the military to evacuate the 120,000 people of Japanese descent who lived on the West Coast into internment or concentration camps, often with only a few days’ notice. Most Japanese Americans complied, in the belief that this was the best way to show their loyalty. 

Japanese American families scrambled to store or sell most of their belongings, usually at a loss. Nursery owners hastily made arrangements for non-Japanese friends or colleagues to lease or maintain their businesses. In North Richmond, wrote Graves, nursery owners Frederick and Carrie Aebi took care of three Japanese American families’ nurseries in their absence. 

Some unscrupulous caretakers didn’t pay rent to interned owners, causing them to default on their mortgages. In Across Two Worlds: Memoirs of a Nisei Flower Grower, Yoshimi Shibata describes the caretaker’s white workers threatening him with a knife when he returned to check on his family’s property in 1944. 

Some nursery families that returned to the Bay Area in 1945 and 1946, like the Adachis, found their properties vandalized, their greenhouses shattered. In Richmond, some found their homes subdivided into rental units to house the shipyard and defense workers who had caused the city’s population to grow from 23,000 before the war to more than 100,000. 

Don Delcollo, president of the Contra Costa county chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, would like the Miraflores site to contain a memorial “to not only honor the flower-growing families but also all those interned” during World War II.  

Sixty-five years after the internment began, “we’re beginning to lose the vast majority of people who lived through the internment experience,” Delcollo said. He would like to see Richmond host “not just a memorial but something more on a national scale,” with the help of the National Park Service. 

Richmond is home to Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park, a collection of sites throughout the city, such as a Kaiser shipyard, two child-care centers, and the Ford assembly plant, that highlight Richmond’s industrial past and commemorate the lives of ordinary Americans during the war. Including some nursery structures in the national park might just work. 

Richmond Councilmember Tom Butt said in a recent interview that the National Park Service originally suggested that the nursery properties were part of the homefront story: “Richmond is rich in historic resources and properly used, these can add a lot of value.”  

He gave two recent examples of historic structures that have been saved. A 104-year-old building from Point Richmond’s Santa Fe train yard was rehabilitated and reopened this week as a Mechanics Bank branch. And a private developer bought the Ford assembly plant on the waterfront, rehabilitated the property, and fully leased the space. The Ford building is the future home of the national park visitors’ center. 

“All of these projects started out with a large number of naysayers, people saying, ‘That old piece of garbage? We’ve got to tear it down.’ ” Butt said. “But now they’re showplaces, they’re unique. They’re something that brings people to Richmond and adds value to the businesses that are in them and adds value to the community.” 

He sees the same thing happening at the Miraflores site. “What’s there will add value and will make that development distinctive and more desirable than it would be if all that stuff was just bulldozed and forgotten.” 

Historian Graves agrees: “There really needs to be a more systematic and inclusive conversation about what’s most significant here, what’s a way to tell the story that allows the housing to happen but doesn’t erase this really critical portion of the past. 

“Many communities have been able to achieve that balancing act, and now that Richmond has the honor of being the only place in the United States where the homefront story is being told, it seems to me that with some energy and creativity, people could find partners and resources to assist with this.” 





City of Richmond Community Redevelopment Agency 


Eden Housing (non profit) 


Community Housing Development Corporation of North Richmond (CHDC) 


Donna Graves (historian), Ward Hill (architectural historian), and Woodruff Minor (architectural historian), “Historic Architecture Evaluation: The Oishi, Sakai and Maida-Endo Nurseries” (October 2004) 


Councilmember Tom Butt, EForum Newsletter: 


City of Richmond Miraflores RFP and Related Documents 


Yoshimi Shibata, Across Two Worlds: Memoirs of a Nisei Flower Grower