Aug 042012
 

By Paul Mindus, from the August 2012 Issue of The Monthly

Say “Richmond” and many Bay Area residents think of crime, poverty, and the Iron Triangle—and maybe, on the upside, Rosie the Riveter. But the thousands of commuters who speed through Richmond daily on inter-states 580 or 80 may be unaware of some impressive developments over the past several years in this industrial city. For example, in January Richmond beat out neighbors Oakland, Berkeley, Albany, Emeryville, and Alameda as the preferred site for the newest campus of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL).

“When LBNL first chose us, everyone wanted to say Richmond was a vast wasteland which LBNL will turn around,” says Richmond City Councilmember Tom Butt, who calls his hometown one of the Bay Area’s best-kept secrets. “Not true. Richmond is already on a trajectory to being a really cool place.” And while the urban core of the city has been plagued by blight and violent crime for decades, statistics show that many neighborhoods are no more dangerous than others in the East Bay. The gritty stereotype, locals say, is just part of the story.

The planned new campus—an outpost of the Nobel Prize–winning national lab above Berkeley’s U.C. campus—offers Richmond what Butt calls “a rock star attraction” that will draw in ancillary business, spinoffs, and startups. Located at Richmond Field Station, a 100-acre shoreline site just east of Marina Bay and south of I-580 on South 47th Street, the land is already owned by the University of California. Construction is anticipated to begin at the end of 2013, pending final approval of the site by the U.C. Regents and environmental analysis by the U.S. Department of Energy. Assuming all goes as planned—competing sites are still being evaluated—the campus will open its doors sometime in 2017.

The site—which will be called the Bay Campus (in contrast to the Hill Campus in Berkeley)—will provide workspace for more than 800 scientists currently doing research in top 21st-century biological fields at other East Bay locations including the Joint BioEnergy Institute (now in Emeryville), the Joint Genome Institute (Walnut Creek), and the Life Sciences Division (Berkeley). Other institutes are likely to join the initial group over time, depending on federal funding opportunities and research priorities. With this consolidation, scientists will be able to pop down the hall at the new Bay Campus to share information, instead of communicating remotely.

As an extension of the existing Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the new lab will similarly be owned by the Department of Energy and managed by U.C. Berkeley. (The federal energy department also owns two other national labs in Livermore and Los Alamos, N.M.)

Working at the Lab has long been considered scientifically prestigious—former director Steven Chu, for example, currently serves as President Obama’s secretary of energy. Thirteen scientists or groups associated with LBNL have won Nobel Prizes, including Chu (1997); Lab founder Ernest Lawrence (1939); the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change with former Vice President Al Gore (2007); and, most recently, physicist Saul Perlmutter (2011). (See “Lord of the Dark,” December 2011.)

“With the addition of the Lawrence Berkeley Lab to the site, we will certainly achieve a critical mass that will make us one of the premier research centers—not just in this county nor in this state but in this country as a whole,” said U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau at the January press conference announcing the decision to locate the Bay Campus in Richmond.

With construction plans still in the works, and final approval still pending, it’s too early to estimate hard numbers of jobs—either permanent or construction, says Jon Weiner, the Lab’s communications manager.

However, the new campus could generate as many as 2,700 construction jobs and 1,400 payroll jobs, according to a 2011 U.C. Berkeley city planning department study. The study also projects that cluster development nearby—businesses attracted to the area because of the Lab’s location—would add thousands of positions in related and complementary firms. And of course, locals hope that all those Lab workers will need lunch spots, gyms, car mechanics, and other amenities close by, generating hundreds of new jobs.

While the actual arrival of the new Lab is still at least five years off, it’s clear the Richmond community is excited and energized by the prospect of such a high-profile employer in their midst. Before Richmond was chosen as the new site, the city put up a billboard on Interstate 580 reading “Richmond ? LBNL” and more than I-500 residents wrote friendly notes to lab employees.

“Berkeley is built out, Emeryville is built out. Richmond has capacity. We have potential that LBNL can work with,” says City Councilmember Jeff Ritterman. “You realize if you don’t take steps to capture economic benefits, they will go elsewhere.”

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This latest success crowns an up, down, and up again story of a city that shot from 25,000 to 120,000 residents during World War II, when Kaiser Shipyards built 747 Victory and Liberty ships at its Richmond location. Decades of economic decline followed, during which the population shrank to 71,000 and unemployment and crime rates soared. Today, though, the population is a robust 104,000, and, despite its negative reputation, many believe the city has been on an upswing for some time.

In fact, according to a preliminary FBI report released in June, violent crime in the city decreased significantly between 2010 and 2011. Contrary to its stereotype, right now Richmond does not even rank in the top 10 most violent cities nationwide.

Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, a Green Party member, has worked to promote Richmond worker-owned cooperatives to create jobs. An innovative program run by DeVone Boggan of the Office of Neighborhood Safety targets the city’s toughest gang members for one-on-one guidance programs.

Richmond is also finding ways to capitalize on its colorful industrial history. The Craneway Pavilion, a soaring 45,000-square-foot culture hall built at the historic Ford Assembly Plant, brings concerts and expositions to an East Bay waterfront setting. Just last month, the Oakland East Bay Symphony performed its second Independence Day concert at the Craneway, with thousands of people showing up to applaud the annual Richmond fireworks—and the stirring marches of John Philip Sousa—from the building’s deck.

The ornate 1925 Municipal Natatorium in historic Point Richmond, a massive swimming pool known as the Plunge, closed in 1997 due to seismic issues but reopened with much fanfare in 2010. This spring, a new visitor education center in a renovated oil house on Harbour Way South revitalized interest in the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park. (Established in 2000, the park is dedicated to preserving and interpreting stories and sites from the Richmond area during World War II.)

Another retro attraction, the SS Red Oak Victory—a restored 1944 Liberty ship that saw service in World War II, as well as the Korean and Vietnam wars—is owned and maintained as a floating museum by the Richmond Museum Association.

But today, the city isn’t focusing only on the glories of the past. Recently, Ritterman—a retired cardiologist—persuaded his fellow city councilmembers to approve a ballot initiative to tax businesses selling sugared beverages one cent per ounce. This November, the measure goes before Richmond voters; if it passes, it will be the nation’s first such city tax. (Meanwhile, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed an outright ban—not a tax—on sales of large-size sweetened drinks at restaurants, street carts, and theaters, a controversial campaign that has irked many, and inspired one of the most amusing New Yorker covers in recent memory.)

Richmond isn’t the kind of city that gets much play in national magazines, but the pony-tailed Ritterman made quite a stir on the local scene when he started pulling a sugar-filled wagon around town to attract attention to his pet peeve. Not all the attention has been positive; opponents of the measure describe it as discriminatory to low-income and minority residents (according to the 2010 census, African-Americans make up 27 percent of the city’s population; Latinos account for 40 percent).

Outside Butt’s architecture office on Park Place in Point Richmond—one of the city’s more upscale areas, with many businesses housed in revamped Victorians—families with children enjoy the Wednesday afternoon farmers’ market taking shape. Two women sipping coffee at tables in the sunshine offer unsolicited confirmation that Richmond is already on the positive upswing Butt describes. “Have you seen our Natatorium?” asks one woman, referring to the mammoth indoor pool a block away.

“Have you driven out past Ferry Point? Some of the most beautiful views of the Bay are just down the street,” offers her companion. Both acknowledge, though, that it’s still hard to persuade friends who don’t live in Richmond that it’s safe enough to visit.

But there’s no question that the Lab will give a much-needed financial boost to the long-struggling city. “We need 10,000 more jobs to have full employment in Richmond,” says Ritterman. “That’s huge—a $1 billion economy. LBNL won’t do that alone, but it will help.”

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The Lab’s anticipated arrival in Richmond could cement an already growing effort to lure high-tech entrepreneurs and companies north from Silicon Valley and east from San Francisco. Tech superstars who already live in the East Bay could look forward to short commutes, with easy access to the thriving urban centers of places like Albany, Berkeley, Oakland, and Alameda.

“Most new jobs come from small businesses and startup companies,” Butt says, “and in Richmond, people first move here, and then they start up new companies. Most have their businesses and homes here because they can buy or rent inexpensively, and they’re strategically located in the Bay Area.”

The blooming of LBNL-connected startups in Richmond would mirror a trend already blossoming in Berkeley, says Michael Alvarez Cohen, director of innovation ecosystem development at U.C. Berkeley’s technology licensing office.

Three of Cohen’s pet projects are Berkeley Startup Cluster, Berkeley Skydeck, and QB3 East Bay Innovation Center, groups that bring together entrepreneurs, tech veterans, mentors, and investors. Cohen has even coined a new word—clusterator—to describe an incubator of small startups near a research institution that can grow into a much larger group of green, synthetic, and biological tech companies.

Cohen co-founded the Berkeley Startup Cluster in 2009 to stem an “innovation drain” of startups to Silicon Valley, San Francisco, and elsewhere in the Bay Area. The cluster now has a growing community of some 50 young, innovative technology firms, including C12 Energy (clean energy), O.N. Diagnostics (software-based diagnostics for bone imaging), Captricity (converts paper-based data to electronic data), Starkey Research (hearing impairment technology), and many others located around downtown Berkeley.

At Berkeley Skydeck, which Cohen went on to launch in 2011, 14 teams of current and recent Cal graduates and LBNL researchers help to create companies (aiming for 10 to 20 per year) with strong links to Cal and LBNL. So far, they’ve crafted information technology–based businesses, whose focuses range from Internet services to mobile applications to health care.

Cohen says that the success of these university-linked startup models in Berkeley could pave the way for similar LBNL-related initiatives in Richmond. “I think there is great potential to catalyze and accelerate spinout companies from the LBNL Bay Campus,” he says, “but the challenge for Richmond and LBNL is to localize those companies in Richmond so that they can drive local economic vitality—and equally important, bolster the LBNL research enterprise.”

In fact, Richmond already has some startup momentum from companies like SunPower, which in February moved its solar power headquarters from Berkeley to the Ford Assembly building (where the manufacture of tanks replaced that of cars during World War II). Other fledgling green-tech businesses in Richmond include Pax Water Technologies, which makes mixers for potable water tanks; MBA Polymers, the recycled plastics firm; Intellergy, which makes green products from organic material; and CyberTran International, a mass transit design firm.

Already well-established in Richmond Field Station, CyberTran is now creating the prototype for an ultra-light, solar-powered rail system that costs a quarter of the price of BART to build and uses a fraction of the electricity to run. Automated rail cars, like those in use at dozens of airports around the country, offer shorter waiting times, higher average speeds, and consume far less energy, says Neil Sinclair, chairman of CyberTran. “We’re actually creating zero carbon-footprint transportation,” says Sinclair, who is proposing a connection between the Bay Campus site and BART.

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Despite widespread jubilation, though, not everyone in Richmond is welcoming the Bay Campus with open arms. In a city physically and fiscally dominated for over a century by the Chevron Richmond Refinery—Richmond is also home to four other refineries and three chemical plants—some environmentalists cast a wary eye on the impending development.

“Richmond jumped the gun,” says resident Henry Clark, executive director of the West County Toxics Coalition. One of several plaintiffs in a successful 2009 environmental lawsuit against Chevron, Clark believes that the city should have taken more time to study potential hazards the Lab might pose to Richmond residents. He’s not alone—this March, opponents to proposed synthetic biology research on the site presented a conference called “Unmasking the Bay Area Biolab.” Speakers expressed concerns about health, safety, environmental, and global risks tied to work that may be carried out at the Bay Campus.

Now, Clark says, “we also want some transparency in terms of specific type of research the Lab will be doing, and what will be the environmental impact.”

But it’s not just the Lab that has some Richmond residents worried. The 50 acres of land adjoining the new Bay Campus has long been recognized by the federal government as an environmental hazard. Occupied for a century by the Stauffer Chemical Company and the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, both of which conducted chemical and manufacturing operations there, the site was shut down by AstraZeneca in 1997. It’s now one of eight Richmond areas designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as a Superfund site, putting it in the same category as the infamous Love Canal in New York—an area so contaminated by toxic waste that the federal government steps in to enforce a cleanup.

“We still have concerns about the toxic chemicals on Zeneca,” says Clark. “We want the site cleaned up and we don’t want the site recontaminated.”

But in a community bedeviled not only by industry-related health issues, but also by a long history of economic malaise, the issues are complex and multilayered. “That site went from being [perceived as] a polluted spot of land on the Bay to very valuable real estate once the LBNL site was announced,” City Manager Bill Lindsay says of the AstraZeneca acreage.

Meanwhile, LBNL has named John D. Elliott as its first chief sustainability officer, a new position that, according to the Lab, will bring organizational and technical leadership to environmental procedures.

“Doing the science that improves the way the world harnesses, stores, and uses energy is an incredibly important part of the Berkeley Lab mission,” says Lab Director Paul Alivisatos. “To walk the talk we must use our own facilities to show the world what can be achieved. I am hopeful that this will be a way for us to take much of what our own researchers are discovering and put it into practice both in new buildings as well as our existing infrastructure.”

Forward thinkers like Alivisatos, Butt, and Ritterman join a strong group of Richmond supporters already working to secure a bright future for the historic city. As the planned Bay Campus rises at Richmond Field Station over the next few years—bringing an influx of employees and, hopefully, spinoff businesses—Richmond will step even more surely into the modern world.

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A former reporter for East Coast dailies and Reuters, Paul Mindus is director of business development for the Saint Consulting Group, a land use consultancy. He wrote about West Oakland in the April issue of The Monthly and lives in Oakland.

ETC_EDITOR