Posted on Wed, May. 31, 2006
Along the Bay, tension develops on
waterfront: Divergent interests vie for
prime real estate
By Kiley Russell - CONTRA COSTA TIMES
The Sandpiper Spit development, at top, juts out into the water in Richmond.
For decades, the East Bay shoreline from Oakland to Antioch was known more for oil refineries
and longshoremen than quaint waterfront neighborhoods and soccer moms.
The region's growth has been dominated since the 1950s by eastward expansion as first one ring
of suburbs and then another sprung up over the hills, moving ever farther from the region's
industrial heartland and urban core.
During the past several years, however, as cities cast about for the last scraps of developable
parcels, municipalities have discovered large tracts of unoccupied industrial land at the water's
edge. This renewed interest in the waterfront has sparked some fierce debates about what kind of
development, if any, should be allowed there.
"These are ... some of the last remaining open shoreline on the Bay. From an environmental
standpoint, these areas are ones that to the maximum should be preserved as open space and
public areas," said Norman LaForce, an East Bay Sierra Club representative.
"For 25 years, what you're seeing is the privatization of the shoreline," LaForce said. "Yes, there
is maybe the Bay Trail and a few parks that enhance the value for the developers, but it's all in
the context of private development."
In Richmond, the city is planning more than 2,500 new housing units and 17,000 square feet of
commercial space along its shoreline. In Hercules, the city has built or is planning nearly 1,000
townhouses and single-family homes, up to 95,000 square feet of commercial and 60,000 square
feet of civic space and a transit hub with ferry, bus and passenger train connections on about 100
acres near the Bay.
Albany is struggling to devise workable plans for a large retail and housing complex to replace
parking lots along the city's shoreline at Golden Gate Fields racetrack. And Contra Costa County
is planning a $13 million redevelopment project for Rodeo that will include eight blocks of major
reconstruction along the main commercial boulevard.
LaForce is part of a group that opposes the Albany development and helped create the 1,800-
acre Eastshore State Park that runs along the edge of the Bay from Oakland to Richmond. He is
also critical of Richmond, which he says is "hell bent on developing the shoreline."
Richmond -- along with all of its waterfront neighbors -- is trying to find a way to balance
accessible open space, industry, retail and housing, said the city's Planning Director Richard
"It's a universal discussion," Mitchell said. "To me, there's room for all of it. ... There's a
tremendous amount of room for open space. I think we've got to look at residential and
commercial construction because that's where people want to be. We can't just close the door."
In the next three to five years, Richmond expects to see a lot more residential and commercial
"A lot of people want to move closer to the Bay and closer to the city centers," he said.
One of the latest waterfront fights has evolved over the 238-acre Breuner Marsh in North
Richmond. The developer who owns the land wants to rezone it to build homes and retail shops.
Recently, the East Bay Regional Parks District voted to acquire the land by eminent domain to
keep it open space.
"Different towns and different jurisdictions have different desires for what they want to see along
the waterfront. Some towns have very detailed policies about the waterfront and some don't," said
Bob Batha, chief of permits for the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development
"A uniform approach is not particularly desirable. Getting individuality and the desires of the local
community expressed along the Bay is a good thing."
The commission's job is to ensure the "maximum feasible public access" to the waterfront no
matter what type of development is approved by the local governments, Batha said.
"Generally, I think we're doing really well," he said. "My memory is that the commission was
created 40 years ago when there was eight miles of accessible (shoreline). Now, it's over 100."
The East Bay shoreline north of Emeryville is an incongruent but enticing mix of heavy industry,
old maritime outposts, dilapidated and forgotten pockets of development and sparkling new
neighborhoods that share expansive Bay views.
Much like the downtowns of Pittsburg and Antioch, overlooked Rodeo, ambitious Hercules and
maligned Richmond share a waterfront cut off from the rest of the region by a freeway system.
The challenge for city planners is to build something that will attract people to live and, perhaps
more importantly, shop in areas long burdened with reputations for irrelevance and shabbiness.
Hercules, for one, seems to have figured out a crowd pleasing plan.
"In the late '90s, the City Council realized there could be waterfront recreation and a ferry and a
train station," said Stave Lawton, the city's community development director. "(Hercules)
encouraged the developer of the waterfront area to come in with a plan for crafting combined
historic preservation, transportation and recreation as well as housing at the waterfront and the
The result is a neighborhood of narrow, pedestrian friendly streets lined with Craftsman and
Victorian-style homes. A new library is planned for a bluff overlooking the Bay and a little "main
street" hosts retail shops -- still empty save for a few real estate offices -- over town houses.
But controversy dogs even this near-universally applauded in-fill project built on what was once
the country's largest dynamite factory. It seems retail giant Wal-Mart wants in on the city's good
After vociferous demands from residents that it preserve the walkable, home-town character of
the waterfront neighborhoods, the City Council voted last week to take the giant retail chain's
property by eminent domain.
"The waterfront is just so cool," said Steve Kirby of the group Friends of Hercules, which has
vowed to prevent Wal-Mart's entry.
"When I think of the waterfont at Jack London Square, it's kind of in the middle of all this industry
stuff and the waterfront in San Francisco is surrounded by the downtown. I think the Hercules
waterfront can be a really unique destination."
"I think it's very important to have cities with enough autonomy that they can set a vision and
have developers come in and fulfill that vision."
Contact Kiley Russell at 925-952-5027 or firstname.lastname@example.org.