A Beautiful Beach


I wander alone along the grassy tree-lined bluff, long abandoned railroad track and quarter mile of bay facing crescent strand that make up the Point Molate Beach Park in my hometown of Richmond, California. Offshore pelicans, buzzards and a couple oystercatchers work the shifting tide line. Earlier a few harbor seals were checking out the scene.  A few days later I return to find a young couple and their baby making use of one of the new picnic tables while an older couple walks the beach and a landscape photographer stakes out the far end of the bluff, the beginnings of a popular rediscovery of our city’s finest waterfront.

October 14 marked the first time in nine years this beach, with its spectacular views of the Richmond Bridge, Mount Tamalpais and the Marin bay shore had been open to the public.  In the last month the people of Richmond have been finding their way back to what one coastal ecologist calls, “the best place on San Francisco Bay no one’s ever heard of.”

For years a local group of residents, Citizens for a Sustanable Point Molate (CFSPM), a project of Blue Frontier (www.bluefront.org), led a successful battle to stop plans for a mega-casino development on this 422-acre site that includes the last undeveloped headland and intact offshore eel grass beds on San Francisco Bay. Upstream LLC, the consortium put together by a Berkeley developer to build the Casino promised to build the most “eco-sustainable destination resort” this side of Las Vegas, while also pledging untold (and largely undefined) riches and jobs for the low-income city of mostly poor people of color.

At one point, with 5 of 7 city council members supporting the scheme, it seemed all but unstoppable.  Some of the casino promoters talked disparagingly about Point Molate as a polluted derelict site, a virtual wasteland in need of restoration that only they could afford to provide along with service jobs for hotel maids and security guards.  In fact the headland is an example of the resiliency of nature left largely unpaved, rapidly reclaiming its terrestrial areas as hilly coastal grassland and range managed by mule deer and wild turkey with colossal toyons – Christmas berry shrubs – the size of live oaks.  There are also live oaks, federally protected Suisun Marsh aster, native Molate blue fescue – a unique local bunchgrass popular with landscapers – coyote brush, wild mint, Dutchman’s pipe vine, and its rarely seen companion, the pipevine swallowtail butterfly.

Point Molate also contains a historic wine port (with a brick castle) that later became a navy fuel oil depot before the navy sold it to the city for a dollar in 2003.  Moving from alcohol to petroleum to gambling might make sense in terms of a continuity of human addictions, but otherwise I didn’t get it.

Nor, it turned out, did most citizens of Richmond despite repeated promises of gambling riches for all.  Most people in this city of 100,000 whose major employer is a Chevron refinery (that’s caught fire twice in the last 7 years) were more fearful of additional traffic, crime and addiction that the resort’s 4,000 slot machines were likely to attract.

After years of delays, the council finally agreed to let the citizens of Richmond vote on the casino plan. With allies including Green Party Mayor Gail McLaughlin, the Richmond Progressive Alliance and 20 Bay Area blue groups Citizens for a Sustainable Point Molate were able to help turn the tide of public opinion.  The Casino plan was defeated in a 58-42 percent vote in a 2010 election that also elected a progressive city council slate that agreed to abide by the will of the people and has since helped in the clean-up and restoration of the beach park.

Part of the restoration funding came from fines levied against the owners of the ‘Cosco Busan,’ a container ship that hit the San Francisco Bay Bridge in 2007 spilling over 50,000 gallons of bunker fuel into the water, some of which fouled Richmond’s waterfront including the marina where I live and where I helped collect oil-covered shorebirds, a small silver lining to a toxic rainbow sheen.

The reopening of the beach at Point Molate is the first step in turning the headland into one of the bay’s jewels, a world-class natural destination like San Francisco’s Presidio and Marin’s Fort Baker waterfront parks that can provide recreation and opportunity for the residents and youth of Richmond, the Bay Area and the world.

Of course the casino developer doesn’t see it that way.  He is now suing the city for millions of dollars failing to understand the logic of his own original business plan: when you gamble you usually lose.  Only this time the activists and people of Richmond won big by betting on bottom-up citizen action. For a more detailed telling of this tale of coastal restoration and public engagement read the final chapter of my latest book, ‘The Golden Shore – California’s Love Affair with the Sea.’