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Yeas Outnumber Nays at Point Molate Casino Hearing

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday August 20, 2009 - 11:19:00 AM

One after another, impassioned speakers from Richmond’s African-American community rose Wednesday night to heap praises on a Berkeley developer’s shoreline casino resort plans. 

The reasons were clear, and cited repeatedly: a plague of violence, soaring unemployment and a foreclosure rate several said included one in every four homes in the city. 

With the promise of abundant jobs backed by a well-organized and tightly on-point community campaign, developer James D. Levine and his Napa partner John Salmon sat smiling during the session, formally a public hearing to take comments on the environmental review document for the Point Molate casino resort. 

Few of the proponents, who accounted for the vast majority of the speakers, had anything to say about the document itself, prepared as a dual-purpose review under the federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). 

Their focus was instead to praise the project to the Richmond Design Review Board, under whose auspices the hearing was conducted. 

The campaign, a well-organized effort, which featured several speakers with name tags identifying themselves as “Point Molate Community Liaison,” unites unions, business interests and several members of the African-American clergy to whom the developers have promised a jackpot of riches, jobs and new business. 

Levine and his partners say their $1.5 billion project will restore dignity and prosperity both to Richmond’s poorest and to the Guidiville Rancheria Band of Pomos, who would have one of the San Francisco Bay’s choicest sites awarded them as a reservation if the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) agrees to the proposal. 

The hearing, held at Richmond’s civic auditorium in the city hall complex, ran 80 minutes longer than the scheduled two hours. 

The public testimony session was run by Larry Blevins, a BIA environmental protection specialist from Sacramento, who also heard from Design Review Board members at the end. 

On hand to give an introduction to the massive environmental review document was Mike Taggart of Analytical Environmental Services (AES), a Sacramento firm with a long record of preparing successful reviews for tribal casino projects.  

Their 5,284-page draft environmental impact report (EIR) was finally released July 10, three years after the initially planned release date. The release triggered a 75-day public comment period during which individuals and public agency can make comments to be considered in the final EIR. 

Taggart said the report represents the work of 20 AES technical experts and 14 sub-consultants. 

First to speak was Richmond resident Laura Graham. “I just wish there were a land trust in Contra Costa County that could preserve that land,” she said, and urged that the project be moved to another site, while Bruce Beyaert of the Trails for Richmond Action Committee spoke on behalf of creating safe bicycle access to and through the site and making sure the Bay Trail was developed along the shoreline. 

Leslie May was the first speaker to praise the project, which in its “preferred alternative” mode would include 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. 

While Levine had told audiences at public meetings last year that the project would include a housing component, that element—340 attached housing units, including three- and four-bedroom townhouses ranging from 1,700 to 2,600 square feet on 32 acres—was demoted to an alternative by the time the EIR had been printed. 

May said the project would provide good construction jobs and provide an afflicted community “with an opportunity for people to uplift themselves.”  

While it won’t stop Richmond residents from gambling, she said, “you can bet it will stop them from spending money in places like Plymouth, California,” the proposed site of another casino.  

Jean Womack, a 40-year resident, scoffed at the notion of “trying to put a tourist industry into a town that doesn’t like strangers and actually attacks strangers,” instead suggesting sale of the site to Chevron, which had earlier tried to buy the land from the city. 

But Chris Serrano, an unemployed iron worker and another 40-year resident, said, “This would be a golden opportunity for me. You’ve had your chance, why can’t our kids have this chance?” 

Greg Feere, CEO of Contra Costa Building Trades Council, which represents labor unions, called the resort “the largest economic stimulus project for jobs in the entire Bay Area,” offering hard-pressed workers 17,000 construction jobs. “The only problem I have with this project is that it isn’t starting today.” 

At least three ministers spoke in favor of the project. Rev. Mitch Robinson, who was also wearing a “liaison” name tag, said that bringing 17,000 jobs to the city would provide “17,000 ways to support my family without picking up a gun and killing someone.” 

Rev. Andre Shumake Sr. of the Richmond Improvement Association, citing Richmond’s 70 murders in 2008 and responding to a critic who had termed the promised economic benefits “pipe dreams,” said that “If I have a choice between a nightmare and a pipe dream, I’ll take the pipe dream.” 

“Everything the developer has said he would do, they’re in the process of doing,” he said. Porfiria Garcia of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a Catholic charity, said that while “a casino may create a diversity of reactions, to the people of the Richmond community, it provides hope and an answered prayers . . .every day we wait is a wasted day.” 

Several residents of the Point San Pablo Yacht Harbor sad they worried about traffic congestion, and especially access to their shipboard homes during construction. 

Tarnel Abbott, reference librarian at the city’s public library, said the EIR’s provisions for two counselors to treat gambling addiction wouldn’t counter the impacts posed by studies showing that problem gambling rates double within 10 miles of a casino, accompanied by increases in violent crime, child abuse and neglect, mental health problems and other issues. 

While the casino promised jobs, she said, “the social costs are very high.” 

Andres Soto, Richmond Progressive Alliance activist and one-time city council candidate, called the EIR deficient for failing to include the option favored by the General Plan Advisory Committee for the site. He called the proposed casino project “a pit of unhealthiness.” 

But Dr. Henry Clarke of the West County Toxics Coalition, said, “I am convinced the project supports public health and safety,” adding that “these developers should be given a reward for the great work they’re doing.”  

Former City Councilmember John Marquez praised the project for which he had voted during his time on the city’s legislative body. “The major emphasis in my opinion is on jobs. I hear this every day in the community,” he said. 

Susan Cerny, a Berkeley architectural historian and author, was one of the few speakers who actually spoke about the EIR itself, addressing issues of aesthetics and historic preservation. 

Cerny said the presence of 160-foot and 120-foot hotel buildings would have significant impacts on “a very unusual spot with a very unusual impact” that is already designated a national historic district. She said she was also concerned about the impacts of reflections from the high-rises’ windows on commuters crossing the Richmond San Rafael Bridge and on homeowners and others in Marin County. 

But when the public comment session ended, supporters had outnumbered critics. 

When it came time for Design Review Board members to offer their input, criticism outweighed favorable comments. 

“I do have concerns about the economics of the project in terms of sustainability,” said Raymond Welter. 

“From a design standpoint, it’s a massive undertaking in a natural area and I couldn’t approve it from an aesthetic standpoint,” said Diane Bloom, who also said she couldn’t imagine that the project’s economic feasibility is solid.” 

Member Andrew Butt said he would like to see more mitigations for developer plans to demolish a large historic building at the site. 

Donald Woodward rattled off a list of criticisms, starting with his inability to see a real economic need for a casino at the site, given the presence of many others within 100 miles. He also wanted to see drawings of how proposed traffic improvements would be built, how the project could accommodate an existing quarry on the road into the site, and called the EIR’s coverage of earthquake risks “real.” 

Only Otheree Christian, the board’s only African-American member, expressed unqualified support for the project. 

Ellen Whitty said none of the development proposals offered “the highest and best possible use for the site.” 

Chair Michael Wolderman was more reserved in his comments, saying that while the EIR was “an amazingly complete document,” he still wanted to see more about how the project would be reviewed by other agencies.