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By Jonathan Haeber
Editor’s Note: What follows is a retrospective of the controversy surrounding an abandoned site in a secluded spot near the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California. Since I moved to the small city in the East Bay, the site has been on my list of places to photograph. But Point Molate also represents a darker side of city politics that few are willing to talk about. Interspersed with photos of the abandoned “castle,” I’ll tell you about the very prescient influence of Indian Gaming on city politics in California. I hope you enjoy.
Plagued with the highest homicide rate on the West Coast, Richmond, California often gets the brunt of bad media attention. The East Bay city of 100,000 is gripped by the problems of urban blight and industrial legacy. On the North side of town is the Chevron oil refinery. Since 1902, its effluence has seeped into the surrounding air. The winds from the San Francisco Bay sweep across the former Bay island of Potrero (now a peninsula) and carry refinery pollutants towards the impoverished neighborhoods to the East. But on the West Side of the Chevron refinery is the city’s best kept secret – a small, little-developed waterfront stretch of 423 acres that reached the BRAC cutting room floor during Clinton-era military cutbacks. As a result, a former military fuel depot has fortuitously landed on the City of Richmond’s doorstep. This gift – sold to Richmond for $1 in 2003 – has quickly become a veritable ‘toxic asset’ for the city, which now finds itself at the center of controversy and competing interests.
The 423-acre plot at Point Molate represents the very distillation of the struggle between Use Value and Exchange Value in local land use politics. At stake is a billion-dollar Native American gaming project; the interests of a coalition of environmentalists, municipal parks, and biking groups; the third most profitable corporation in the U.S.; and a slice of the $5.1 billion Native American gaming industry in California. Few other examples in California development history portray the intricacies of local land conflict as much as the conflict over Point Molate; knowing that, this paper will assert that Native American gaming compacts present some of the most controversial and challenging problems of modern urban planning history, and their implementation lacks the consensus that serves the best interest of most communities. Ultimately, Point Molate represents the continuing struggle between community autonomy, Federal law, and big business.
Brief History & Background
Point Molate began its life of land use over 5,000 years ago, as a home to the Ohlone tribe. The Native inhabitants left behind shell mounds (heaps of discarded shells) as evidence of their presence. The Guidiville Rancheria band of Pomo Indians say this is definitive justification for the land’s designation as federally recognized reservation; however, opponents – including Randall Milliken, Ph D. of Davis, California – claim that the same justification refutes the claim made for the Point Molate casino. “Pomo Indians have no traditional cultural connection with lands on the east side of the San Francisco Bay,” writes Milliken in his letter, which is included in the draft EIR. “It was the homeland of the Chochenyo Ohlone speaking people and remains the homeland of their descendants today.”
Richmond’s industrial base was born when Standard Oil Company moved into the East Side of what was then Potrero Island. The surrounding hills served as a perfect, terraced holding-place for a large tank farm, which was continuously replenished through oil tanker arrivals at the nearby pier in the San Francisco Bay. Prior to 1900, the unique geographic assets of Potrero Island (which had become a peninsula in the early 1900s) led to its formation as a Chinese shrimp camp; after 1906, Point Molate was further exploited by the growing shipping needs of the California Wine Association, whose headquarters in San Francisco was devastated by the Great Quake. The California Wine Association – once the “world’s largest winery” – had gone largely out of use during Prohibition. By 1941, the United States Navy entered the fray. War-time demand for petroleum meant that Point Molate would be ground zero to store and distribute oil for the Pacific Ocean theater of operations at Iwo Jima, Marshall, American Samoa, Bikini, and beyond.
Since 1902, oil has played a major role in the development of the Point Molate area. As one of the earliest industrial heavyweights in California, Standard Oil’s Richmond Refinery used the promontory of Potrero Island to their advantage, eventually becoming “one of the world’s largest refineries.” Today, Chevron produces 243,000 barrels a day from its Richmond facility; the company boasts of contributing $61 million to community development in the city of Richmond.
Chevron is just as vehement as the Guidiville Rancheria tribe in establishing their interest in Point Molate. In fact, the company hired former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown to lobby for them with the Richmond City Council. Community leaders contend that Chevron’s interests in the land are to provide a “buffer” of security between their refinery and any further human habitation.
Gary Fisher, a Chevron external affairs manager noted that wildfires and security are some of Chevron’s top concerns. “The opportunity for trespassing and vandalism, including an avoidable increased risk for a potential terrorist act directed towards the refinery, increases with public access,” Fisher wrote. What Fisher doesn’t mention is perhaps the most compelling reason for Chevron’s interest in the land: Liability and the concern of class action lawsuits. According to an environmental report from the Navy, “an ammonia leak at the refinery could create a toxic cloud,” which would endanger the life of anyone who is nearby.
Chevron offered the City of Richmond $83 million for Point Molate (in addition to the ongoing property taxes assessed for the property) making it the most lucrative up-front offer for the land (the Guidiville Band offered $50 million). Chevron maintained that it intended to keep the land as a privately owned open-space preserve. This produced an unlikely partnership: Environmental groups that are generally “anti-Chevron” joined forces with the oil company to oppose the Point Molate casino project.
Development, Investment Interests and the City of Richmond
Even more powerful than Chevron were the development special interests. They were able to provide the promise of long-term revenue and infrastructure improvements for the cash-strapped city of Richmond. Point Molate development interests are largely represented by their ‘patriarch,’ Jim Levine. Levine is a successful Berkeley developer who made his riches in the toxic cleanup market. The development interests – not the Guidiville tribe – were the first to conceive of Point Molate as a casino Mecca. According to the Berkeley Daily Planet, Levine’s Upstream Development Company “went out and recruited [the Guidiville]… to take the land as a reservation and claim formal ownership of the land.”
Surely, money was a big part of the motive for all parties involved. The city of Richmond hired a consulting company to analyze the casino potential of Point Molate – most telling was that the city did this before they received ownership of the land from the Navy. What the consultants found was a gold mine for the city, but more importantly, for the developers. The report estimated $500 million in economic activity each year; Upstream signed an agreement that the city would receive $20 million annually.
Early in the process, Levine contacted the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (the “leading lender in the world of tribal casinos”); and, ultimately, Harrah’s signed on as financial partner. Thus, the world’s largest gaming corporation had come into the fray, along with Levine and other financial backers. Further cementing the backing Levine’s Upstream had in government circles (particularly in obtaining reservation status from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and approval from the State of California), the powerfully connected William Cohen, Republican from Maine who was Secretary of Defense under President Clinton, joined the team as “consultant.”
In the midst of it all, Levine sold his plan to the public through a combination of promises of largesse (3,000 onsite jobs, 3,600 offsite jobs and 1,000 construction jobs);  environmentalism (Levine greenwashed the development as the “greenest project ever erected in California”); and rehabilitation of the historic Winehaven buildings (probably to appease the Design Review Board).
Of course, along the way, there was plenty of opposition. Some opposition to the Casino Plan hailed from the County Board of Supervisors (who retracted their opposition upon learning that they – too – would receive $12 million a year from the casino). Later, the State of California filed a lawsuit against Upstream; Governor Schwarzenegger’s office penned a letter to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Richmond’s mayor, saying the project “undermined the constitutionality of California’s Indian gaming regime.” The state cited Proposition 1A as reasoning for their opposition, and Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer wrote to the Secretary of Interior that they had “serious concerns about the recent practice of tribes and municipalities seeking advantageous gaming opportunities on lands that are not traditionally tribal lands.” It all culminated in April of 2005, when the State Attorney General’s Office joined a lawsuit with Bay Area park agencies against Levine’s Upstream and the city. The suit claimed that that the sale of the land failed to adhere to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). An Environmental Attorney for the Attorney General’s Office, Janill L. Richards spoke for the Attorney General’s office, saying that there was not adequate review “before a decision [was] made on an important piece of public property with significant public interests.”
For a while, it looked like the project was dead in the water, but City Council member Gayle McLaughlin (who opposed the project) said that the city – perhaps a bit too giddy with their newfound wealth – had already spent some of the $15 million in deposit money that Levine and his partners paid early in the process. Upstream simply restarted from scratch, hiring consultants to draft a behemoth 3000-page Environmental Impact Report. Perhaps most telling about the project, however, came through silence that followed. There was relative lack of large-scale community involvement in opposition to its plan. Perhaps the Environmental Impact Report was just too long?
Local Environmental Groups/Citizen Groups/Historic Preservation Groups
If one were to read the news reports of the project, one would get the sense that the project was a well-conceived plan with little public opposition – if a bit susceptible to the whims of bureaucratic rigamarole. Of the dozens of newspaper articles that describe the controversy, very few – if any – include comments from actual community members. In the case that community concerns are cited in stories, it’s usually in the form of concerns that the project won’t go through. And even in the rare case that community opposition is cited it’s actually community members from communities other than Richmond. It appeared that Richmond wasn’t the developers’ only target – it was simply the most convenient. Napa resident John Salmon, who is a partner with Levine in the project, originally was strongly against casinos in a talk in 2005 to Napa Rotarians. Apparently, Salmon said that the Richmond casino was a good deal for the Napa Valley, because it would relieve pressure that might otherwise lead to a gambling in the middle of Wine Country (where the Guidiville Pomo actually did originate from). The March 5, Napa Rotagram quoted Salmon as saying, “Molate will bear a likeness to Ghirardelli Square, and with its high-end qualities, will take the pressure off Napa and other North Bay locations that may face future casino proposals.” Additionally, The Guidiville had originally proposed a casino in nearby Solano county, but the Board of Supervisors were adamantly against it – along with all community members in attendance at the meeting.
However, the absence of community involvement portrayed in the media isn’t the entire story. When one looks at the appendix of the Environmental Impact Report – nearly 2000 pages by itself – the true community opposition reveals itself fully. In Section 4 of Vol. 2, starting at page 74, the public review documents are displayed – over 400 pages in all; many of them state ardent opposition to the plan. Members of the community cited crime, traffic, gambling problems and the need for open space. But towards the end of Section 4, is the impassioned transcript of James Easter, who has lived in Richmond for 57 years. His words sum up – I think – the very real issue of Indian Gaming, and ultimately it arrives at the crux of my thesis and the true reason why communities are most often affected negatively due to Indian gaming, despite their presumed tax bounty.
“So what – I’m against Point Molate. I have been to a casino six or seven times in my life. I don’t consider myself a gambler, but I go through. I do know that there’s a time and place for all things. It’s hard for us on the South Side. We can’t even get a decent shopping center down there… I’ll donate a little bit of money to the Indian Affairs. And I’m not against Indian gambling, but it seems strange to me that Indians got[sic] so much money to do all of this all of a sudden… I’m against a casino here, because it won’t bring no dollars. We lost Safeway. We lost Ford Motor Company. We lost all the big jobs. And now we’re broke and going to bring a CASINO? I’m against it.”
 “Richmond leads per-capital murder rate in California.”
 BRAC – which stands for “Base Realignment and Closure,” was an Act of Congress in 1988. The Act helps return former military bases to public and community use.
 “BRAC – US Gov,” para. 3.
 Korosec, “Exxon, Chevron Win in a Loser Year for Top 500 Companies | BNET Energy Blog | BNET”; “Indian Gaming in California.”
 Santiago, “Betting on Point Molate.”
 “Draft Environmental Impact Statement / Environmental Impact Report,” 138-139.
 Weinstein, “Storming the Castle,” para. 10.
 Fronistas, “Before Napa, there was Winehaven,” para. 3.
 “Chevron Energy and Hydrogen Renewal Project,” para. 6.
 Vega, “Point Molate Casino On Track After City Council OKs Proposal,” para. 3.
 Williams, “Point Molate: Waterfront Dream or Terrorist Nightmare?,” para. 6.
 Rosen Lum, “ChevronTexaco Hires Willie Brown to Undo the Deal,” 10.
 Brenneman, “Berkeley Developer’s Big Dreams Dominate Richmond Landscape,” para. 16.
 Simerman, “County ready to back Point Molate casino plan – ContraCostaTimes.com,” para. 8.
 Brenneman, “Berkeley Developer’s Big Dreams Dominate Richmond Landscape.”
 “Richmond OKs Point Molate casino project,” para. 6.
 Brenneman, “Point Molate Casino Gets Fast-Track Status,” para. 4.
 Simerman, “County ready to back Point Molate casino plan – ContraCostaTimes.com,” para. 1.
 Hoch, “Governor Letter Against Pt Molate,” 1.
 Tam, “Sides still divided over Richmond casino-hotel plan’s potential impact – Inside Bay Area,” para. 17.
 Brenneman, “State Attorney General Joins Point Molate Casino Fight,” para. 5.
 Ibid., para. 19-20.
 Brenneman, “Lawsuit Challenges Point Molate Casino. Category: News from The Berkeley Daily Planet – Thursday January 29, 2009,” para. 31.
 “Draft Environmental Impact Statement / Environmental Impact Report.”
“BRAC – US Gov.” Government. http://www.bracpmo.navy.mil/basepage.aspx?baseid=50.
Brenneman, Richard. “Berkeley Developer’s Big Dreams Dominate Richmond Landscape.” Berkeley Daily Planet, April 26, 2005. http://www.berkeleydaily.org/issue/2005-04-26/article/21243?headline=Berkeley-Developer-s-Big-Dreams-Dominate-Richmond-Landscape-By-RICHARD-BRENNEMAN.
———. “Lawsuit Challenges Point Molate Casino. Category: News from The Berkeley Daily Planet – Thursday January 29, 2009,” January 28, 2009. http://www.berkeleydailyplanet.com/issue/2009-01-29/article/32111?headline=Lawsuit-Challenges-Point-Molate-Casino.
———. “Point Molate Casino Gets Fast-Track Status. Category: Front Page News from The Berkeley Daily Planet – Thursday June 12, 2008.” Newspaper, June 12, 2009. http://www.berkeleydaily.org/issue/2008-06-12/article/30235?headline=Point-Molate-Casino-Gets-Fast-Track-Status.
———. “State Attorney General Joins Point Molate Casino Fight.” Berkeley Daily Planet, April 22, 2009. http://www.berkeleydailyplanet.com/issue/2005-04-22/article/21212?headline=State-Attorney-General-Joins-Point-Molate-Casino-Fight-By-RICHARD-BRENNEMAN&status=301.
“Chevron Energy and Hydrogen Renewal Project.” Corporation. Chevron, Spring 2009. http://www.chevron.com/products/sitelets/richmond/renewal/.
“Draft Environmental Impact Statement / Environmental Impact Report.” http://www.pointmolateeis-eir.com/documents/draft_eis-eir/report.htm.
Fronistas, Phoebe. “Before Napa, there was Winehaven.” Blog. Richmond Confidential, October 13, 2009. http://richmondconfidential.org/2009/10/13/before-napa-there-was-winehaven/.
Hoch, Andrea Lynn. Letter. “Governor Letter Against Pt Molate,” October 12, 2009. http://docs.google.com/fileview?id=0B2Vh92XtfvhnNWRkYjNmMTktMjFkYS00NDVlLTk4NjItYTdhNTU3OTA0NTU4&hl=en.
“Indian Gaming in California.” http://igs.berkeley.edu/library/htIndianGaming.htm#Topic1.
Korosec, Kristen. “Exxon, Chevron Win in a Loser Year for Top 500 Companies | BNET Energy Blog | BNET.” News. BNET, April 20, 2009. http://industry.bnet.com/energy/10001114/exxon-chevron-win-in-a-loser-year-for-top-500-companies/.
“Richmond leads per-capital murder rate in California.” San Francisco Chronicle, June 10, 2008. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/n/a/2008/06/10/state/n103604D95.DTL.
“Richmond OKs Point Molate casino project.” Contra Costa Times, November 10, 2004. http://www.tombutt.com/forum/2004/041111.htm.
Rosen Lum, Rebecca. “ChevronTexaco Hires Willie Brown to Undo the Deal.” Contra Costa Times, November 11, 2004.
Santiago, Chiori. “Betting on Point Molate.” Bay Nature, 2005. http://www.baynature.org/articles/jul-sep-2005/betting-on-point-molate.
Simerman, John. “County ready to back Point Molate casino plan – ContraCostaTimes.com,” October 31, 2009. http://www.contracostatimes.com/ci_13685421?source=most_emailed.
Tam, Katherine. “Sides still divided over Richmond casino-hotel plan’s potential impact – Inside Bay Area.” Oakland Tribune, September 19, 2009. http://www.insidebayarea.com/news/ci_13368891.
Vega, Cecilia. “Point Molate Casino On Track After City Council OKs Proposal.” http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2004/11/11/BAG869PFRE1.DTL.
Weinstein, David. “Storming the Castle.” Preservation Magazine, July 25, 2009. http://www.preservationnation.org/magazine/story-of-the-week/2003/Storming-the-Castle.html.
Williams, Susan. “Point Molate: Waterfront Dream or Terrorist Nightmare?,” October 9, 2009. http://www.baycrossings.com/Archives/2003/09_October/point_molate_waterfront_dream_or_terrorist_nightmare.htm.