Environmental Review Details Richmond Casino Alternatives

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday July 16, 2009 - 10:57:00 AM

The long-delayed environmental impact report on the proposed Point Molate $1.5 billion casino resort complex is finally finished, four years after the first public meeting to gather public comment. 

This is the first of three articles on the Richmond shoreline project. This article focuses on the project itself, looking at the range of alternatives presented in the environmental impact report. Subsequent articles in the coming weeks will look at environmental impacts and community—and official—reactions to the proposal. 

The site of the project is the former naval refueling station at Point Molate, one of the last remaining relatively undeveloped areas of the San Francisco Bay coastline available for development. 

After the base was closed in 1998, under terms of the 1990 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Act, the property was transferred to the city in 2003 for a dollar, conditional on an environmental cleanup, which is still underway. 

The city commissioned a study by Canadian economists, who concluded that a casino might generate the most revenue for the city. Richmond then began seeking a partner. 



Berkeley environmental cleanup specialist James D. Levine won the right to develop the property. He has teamed with two partners to form Upstream Investments, LLC: former Secretary of Defense and Maine Sen. William Cohen, and Napa developer John Salmon, former director of the Governor’s Office of Asset Management and, previously, vice president for property development and sales of Santa Fe Pacific Realty Corp., now known as Catellus Development.  

They, in turn, recruited the Guidiville Rancheria Pomos, a Native American tribal group that the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (Bureau of Indian Affairs) has determined was wrongly deprived of its federal reservation. 

After winning initial backing from Harrah’s Entertainment, a global casino industry operator, Upstream later teamed with the Rumsey Band of Wintuns, operators of the highly successful Cache Creek Casino resort in Yolo County, when Harrah’s began to sink under a sea of red ink.  

The developers created another entity, Winehaven Partners, to solidify the partnership. Winehaven Partners is a limited liability corporation formed in Delaware on Dec. 20, 2007, registered to do business in California on April 21, 2008, from an address that traces back to Levine’s Emeryville office.  

In 2004, the city projected that payments and benefits to the city for the project would total more than $350 million. 

The project faces a variety of hurdles before development can commence, including the critical decision by the Bureau of Indian Affairs about whether to allow the site to be created as a Guidiville reservation. Without reservation status, the massive casino could not be built, since full-blown casinos aren’t allowed in California on non-reservation land.  

Other obstacles in the path of development include resolution of any lawsuits challenging the project and negotiation of a tribal gambling compact with the state. 

The Point Molate project is one of two pending Richmond casino projects. The environmental impact report on the second project, the Sugar Bowl, a no-frills casino planned for North Richmond by the Scotts Valley Pomos and a Florida developer, has been overturned after a court win by opponents.  

The Sugar Bowl would be a $200 million casino with 1,940 slot machines and a parking structure and lots to hold 3,500 cars.  

The Point Molate site includes the Winehaven National Historic District, which includes 34 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

The most notable of the structures is the Winehaven building, which housed the country’s largest winery until Prohibition forced its closure. Also of note are cottages built by the Navy when the site housed a naval refueling station. 

Both the city and the Bureau of Indian Affairs must approve the environmental review, which was conducted jointly under terms of the federal National Environmental Protection Act and the California Environmental Quality Act.  


Project alternatives 

The environmental impact report lists six project alternatives, including one that reflects leaving the site as it currently exists and another that projects the 413-acre site as a city park developed with city funds. 

About 140 of the acres of the site are located under the waters of San Francisco Bay, and the city would retain the right-of-way for Western Drive which goes through the site, as well as the title to a 50-foot-wide shoreline strip, which would be leased to the tribe under the first four alternatives. 

In all versions, the existing historic structures would remain. 

The four projects that call for development include: 

• Development solely as a casino resort, including two hotels with a total of 1,075 rooms, 54 luxury guest cottages and a 240,000-square-foot casino including 124,000 square feet of gambling area, a 300,000-square-foot shopping center, two parking garages, a ferry terminal and a public transit hub. 

• An otherwise identical gambling, entertainment and shopping complex plus the addition of 340 attached housing units, including three- and four-bedroom townhouses ranging from 1,700 to 2,600 square feet on 32 acres. 

• A reduced casino and entertainment development with 400 hotel rooms, 50,000 square feet of conference space, a 30,000-square-foot entertainment venue, 20,000 square feet of retail and 236 acres of open space. 

In all three gambling alternatives, the casino would be housed in the Winehaven building. 

• A non-reservation mixed-use project with housing, a 150-room hotel, retail and offices, to be developed by the tribe and Upstream. It would include 1,100 residential units in high-, medium- and low-density structures in five sites occupying 70.5 acres. This alternative would require the tribe to sell the land to Upstream. 

The housing alternatives would be developed on the site’s southwestern shoreline segment inland from Western Drive. 

Construction would take place over 36 months for the first four alternatives and would include a range of “green” building features, including photovoltaic electrical generation and solar water heating for the residential alternatives, gray water recycling and hotel rooms with systems to automatically switch off lighting when guests leave. 

An on-site city fire station and law enforcement by the city are mandated in the agreement between the city and the tribe, at a cost to the tribe of $8 million annually for the first eight years and $10 million a year thereafter. 

The city would also receive $10 a day for each hotel room in exchange for waiving the hotel tax, and $5.25 a year per square foot of retail space in lieu of sales tax revenues on tribally operated areas of the site, plus other fees on any non-tribal areas. 

If the site remains in city hands, the environmental impact report estimates the city would have to pay $4 million to clean up toxins in the soil remaining from its use as a naval facility. 

A variety of toxic organic compounds have been found in the soil and groundwater, including trichloroethane (TCE), metals and oil-based hydrocarbons. 


Hotels, parking 

Under the first two alternatives, the project would include two hotels, the first a 160-foot-high, 800-room casino-hotel building, and the second—dubbed the Point Hotel—with 275 rooms in a 105-foot-high main structure as well as 25 detached “casitas.” 

The smaller hotel would be built on the point itself in a wide C-configuration while the larger hotel would be adjacent to the Winehaven building.  

Drawings in the environmental impact report depict stepped configurations for both structures. The buildings appear to be designed so that all of the rooms have views of the bay. 

The 29 existing cottages in the historic district would be refurbished as luxury suites that range from 700 to 1,500 square feet. 

The developed tribal alternatives would include a 7,100-square-foot office building, a 3,500-square-foot ceremonial roundhouse and three acres of dancing grounds and parklands. 

Tribal developments would include 180 acres of parklands and open space in two main parcels: 

• 145 hillside acres maintained as open space with walking trails, picnic areas and restrooms.  

• 35 shoreline acres, including the 50-foot city-owned strip.  

The Bay Trail would be extended through the area in all four developed versions in a manner similar to other sections of the existing trail. Also included in the plans is a kayaking center. 

The existing naval pier would be refurbished, reduced slightly in size and equipped with up to 5,000 square feet of covered space to accommodate offices and services for what the developers predict will be as many as 3,000 daily round-trip passengers. 

The first two projects would including a massive amount of excavation, and the environmental impact report estimates that construction of the two underground parking structures would require removal of 1.38 million cubic yards of rock and soil, which would be barged off site and marketed to construction projects around the bay. 

A 5,000-space parking structure would be constructed across Western Drive from the Winehaven building, and a second 2,500-space structure would be built near the smaller hotel. 

The smaller casino project would use only one 5,000-space parking structure.  

Full development would generate an estimated average of 567,000 gallons of wastewater daily, with a peak use estimated at 777,000 gallons, most to be handled by connection to city lines. 

Gray water from sinks, showers and laundry facilities would be treated by the tribe with a 4,000-square-foot facility located in the larger of the two parking structures. 


EIR available 

The massive environmental impact report is contained in four volumes totaling 5,284 pages. Hard copies may be perused at City Hall on the second floor at 450 Civic Center Plaza or at the Richmond Public Library, 725 Civic Center Plaza. 

The documents are also available online in PDF format at www.pointmolateeis-eir.com 

Technical experts will be available for questioning at two public workshops at 6 p.m. on Aug. 10 and Aug. 27 at the Richmond Memorial Auditorium, 403 Civic Center Plaza. 

The public may present its praise or criticism of the document and the projects it describes until Sept. 23. Two public hearings are scheduled at 6 p.m. on Aug. 12 and Sept. 17 at Richmond Memorial Auditorium.  

The public’s comments must be addressed in the final version of the document.