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David Helvarg

David Helvarg

Posted: January 14, 2010 11:05 AM

Gambling on a Bay Treasure

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After more than 30 years as a journalist and activist I'm finely getting to fight City Hall. As a resident of Richmond California I only became aware of one of my city's treasures in recent weeks: 422 acres of spectacular San Francisco Bay-facing green space and submerged eel grass meadows that my city council wants to sell off for a gambling casino. Point Molate contains a historic wine port (with a brick castle) that later became part of a Navy fuel oil depot before the Navy sold it to the city for a dollar in 2003. I guess after alcohol and petroleum you could argue that a gambling casino could be an example of historic continuity in terms of human addictions.

But the Point Molate headland is really an example of the resiliency of nature left unpaved, rapidly reclaiming its terrestrial area as hilly coastal grassland, range-managed by mule deer with colossal Toyons -- Christmas Berry shrubs -- the size of live oaks, also live oaks, federally protected Suisun Marsh Aster, native Molate Blue Fescue, a unique local bunchgrass horticulturists have bred for landscaping, coyote brush, wild mint, Dutchman's pipe vine and its rarely seen companion, the pipe vine swallowtail butterfly. "This is the most beautiful area imaginable for grassland geeks," Botonist Lech Naumovich who's showing me around, grins happily. I'm hoping a marine biologist might soon show me the 50 acres of submerged plant habitat just beyond the beach that acts as a nursery and sanctuary for marine wildlife.
After hiking around the headlands I'm thinking this could be the third emerald jewel of Bayside green parks along with the Presidio of San Francisco and Fort Baker in Marin county.

Unfortunately with its million dollar views of the bay and Mount Tamalpais Point Molate has generated a more predictable plan. Within 60 days, despite opposition from the Mayor, the Governor, the State's two U.S. Senators and what seems to be a lot of Richmond residents, the city could vote to transfer the land's title to Upstream LLD, a private consortium put together by a Berkeley developer that represents a small band of Pomo Indians he hopes will become California's next gaming tribe. Upland has already paid the city fifteen million non-refundable dollars towards a possible $50 million purchase price, promising to build the greenest most eco-sustainable Gambling Casino resort, retail shopping, hotel and housing complex this side of Las Vegas. They've promising tens of millions more dollars from imagined future gambling revenues to the city, county, environmental critics and others. Along with the city land transfer Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar would have to agree to convert Point Molate into reservation land for urban gaming. If Salazar doesn't but the city has already sold the land the developer could then sell it to a third party like Chevron that has a huge production facility just over the ridgeline. I think I've seen this movie before.

Some on the city council seem to believe the promise of Casino jobs for maids and security guards is the best they can hope to provide their low-income constituents, even though I see no indication that this is what the people of Richmond support.

A far better model exists in the job-generating capacity of working parks like the Presidio and Fort Baker. In Fort Baker, along with a Coast Guard Station, marina and Bay Area Discovery Museum you have Cavallo Point Lodge, a destination luxury resort that was built on an existing historic site within the park but that didn't require loss of public ownership, damaging offshore living resources, paving over a major watershed, installing thousands of slot machines or generating wall-to-wall traffic to achieve success.

While our recession and addiction-plagued city and state already have dozens of casinos, there's only one undeveloped headland left on the West Coast's largest estuary that could be a local and world center for natural ecosystem services, youth recreation, education, jobs and opportunities if we reject the reckless development patterns of the past and work to create a Point Molate Park on San Francisco Bay.