Bright Lights, Small City 

Richmond's latest bid for renewal rests upon a plan to become a center of Hollywood set design. But first, the finances must survive.

The vanishing of America's manufacturing base has a certain epic grandeur to it. Just as millions of bison once thundered across the plains of Kansas, imperial outposts of General Motors and US Steel once towered over broad-shouldered cities such as Flint, Michigan, and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Hard, proud men and women marched in and out of the factory gates, paying off their mortgages by the sweat of their brows. When these factories fled across the border or disappeared altogether, the Rust Belt loomed equally large in the American imagination, with haunting panoramas of entire neighborhoods slowly decaying. From Detroit to the South Bronx, the spectacle of urban blight -- the crackheads, the bonfires, the high-rise housing projects -- was so profound that even the squalor was epic.

But in Richmond, the squalor is merely squalid. Although it has the requisite history -- the Liberty ships, Rosie the Riveter mythos, and urban renewal disasters -- the city is simply too small for its poverty to convey the sweep of history. Still, the street-level despair is visceral enough to move the most jaded cynic. If you take a walk through the city center -- a center neatly bifurcated by BART and Amtrak lines -- you will see a town too poor and dangerous to even support its own panhandlers. St. Vincent de Paul outlets, weed-choked lots, and an endless string of fast-food joints mark the route to City Hall. One evening two weeks ago, dozens of cops swarmed around a ghetto bungalow, conducting a major bust just five blocks from the City Council chambers, where officials with the Redevelopment Agency pondered once again how to dig themselves out of their decades-old morass. Now they've settled on their latest dream; Hollywood, they hope, will be Richmond's ticket back to the big time.

The Ford Assembly Plant, a 560,000-square-foot-building surrounded by 23 acres of prime waterfront land, is the focus of all these hopes and dreams. Once upon a time, this factory turned out cars by the thousands; during WWII, tanks rolled out of the complex onto ships bound for the front lines. It's a beautiful, cavernous building, with light brick stretching from floor to ceiling and sunroofs bathing the interior in natural light. But time hasn't been kind to the old gal; the plant closed in 1959, and in 1979, the city of Richmond bought the property from UC Berkeley. The Loma Prieta earthquake rendered the structure too dangerous to use without millions in retrofitting upgrades, and the plant began to rot away in disrepair. In 1997, officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency finally offered the plant a new lease on life with a $15 million grant to make it habitable once again. All Richmond needed was a private developer to turn it into something fabulous.

That's where Ethan Silva came in. A set designer for movies, concerts, and sporting events, he built his business from scratch and counts among his accomplishments the Atlanta Olympics, the Rolling Stones Bridges to Babylon tour -- even the oversized Coke bottle at Pac Bell Park. In 1998, Silva and his partner Gerard Howland formed a group called Assembly Plant Partners and approached the Richmond City Council with a startling and innovative plan for the Ford plant. The Bay Area is home to a burgeoning archipelago of film production studios, animators, and set designers, but because they are scattered throughout the region, they can't easily work together, share ideas, and generate the sort of creative synergy that made Silicon Valley what it became. Silva proposed to bring all these people under one roof at the Ford plant, creating a vast complex of film production that could rival Hollywood itself. A massive set design studio would serve as the centerpiece of the plant, surrounded by almost two hundred units of live-work studios sharing a loading dock. A museum dedicated to movie production would operate at one end, where visitors could even watch set-builders in action on the main lot. As rents continued their skyward trajectory, artists from all across Northern California would flock to the plant and generate a beehive of unprecedented creative energy.

It was a remarkable notion, one that could establish a unique identity for a city struggling to distinguish itself. But this was 1998, and tech, not Hollywood magic, was the panacea for Northern California. After deliberating for a couple of months, Richmond city leaders decided instead to catch the dot-com wave and contracted with the Cleveland-based developer Forest City to build a "cybervillage" of start-up offices and geek lofts. Of course, this project collapsed along with the rest of the Bay Area's bubble, and in 2001, when Forest City abandoned Richmond after three years of jerking the city around, the entire enterprise was viewed as just another specious development fad. Never again would Richmond get suckered by a few giddy business-page headlines and commit millions in public funds on a fool's errand. When Assembly Plant Partners approached the city again in late 2001, the Redevelopment Agency green-lighted the project, and everyone agreed that the city was showing the kind of leadership that could finally remake Richmond. "It remains to be seen whether all these rosy predictions bear fruit," wrote West County Times columnist Karen Herschenson. "But for now, Richmond seems on the brink of something big."

Well, not everyone was so excited. If tech's potential was ridiculously overhyped, how likely is it that a bunch of artists and dreamers could not only pay their rent, but spark the widespread creative renaissance they promised the city? One small group of people, the city bureaucrats who work for the Redevelopment Agency, had some very specific and profound misgivings. For all the glitz and razzle-dazzle Assembly Plant Partners brought to the table, staff warned, they didn't seem to have anywhere near enough money. But no one at the agency paid attention to them -- a lapse that Richmond's leaders would soon learn to regret.

In January 2002, the Richmond City Council and Assembly Plant Partners signed on the dotted line, and the city got ready to spend the Federal Emergency Management Agency's money. It took some doing: Asbestos had to be cleaned out, the plant had to be brought up to code, and Assembly Plant Partners had to draft the specifications for the building's redesign. Silva and his partners had agreed to spend $26.5 million, matching the city's commitment almost dollar for dollar. But as the city began doling out the money, something began to bother Richmond Redevelopment staffer Rod Satre: Assembly Plant Partners promised that they had the cash lined up, but had never produced an independently verifiable list of assets. God help us, he thought, if the city dropped so much cash on this project only to have its partners bail out like last time. He began pressing Silva to show him the money.

"They essentially said, 'When it's appropriate, we'll show you where the money is,'" Satre says. "They said, 'We can take on this project, and we have the resources to do it. Don't worry, we've got it.' We didn't see a letter of credit, we didn't see a cashier's check. Somebody showed us an uncertified list of assets."

But by now, federal officials had grown tired of Richmond. For five years, the city had sat on the $15 million retrofit fund, dithering about how to spend it. Unless the redevelopment agency spent the cash by March 31, 2003, the feds would take it back. Richmond had no choice but to run with the project and gave Assembly Plant Partners a deadline of September 5 -- nine months after the contract had been signed -- to produce an independently verified document detailing how much money they had at their disposal and what form the assets took.

The elusive figure at the center of this controversy was Gerald Shmavonian, an old friend of Silva's and scion of a Fresno family real-estate empire. Shmavonian was supposed to be the money behind Assembly Plant Partners, but while he assured the city that he was worth $31 million, he never produced any proof. When September 5 came and went, with no word from Assembly Plant Partners, Redevelopment staffers decided to investigate Shmavonian's assets on their own. Not only did they conclude that he didn't have the money Assembly Plant Partners agreed to invest in the project, he may have been worth as little as $2.2 million. (Shmavonian could not be reached for comment.) "Let's just say the values that we thought they had fell well behind the $26.5 million that was their full obligation," Satre says. "I liken it to you claiming you had a $50,000 car, and everyone else says, 'You've got a Hyundai. '"

Silva's response to this claim is certainly original. While it's true that he and his partners didn't submit independently verified financial information, he says, the letter of agreement with the city never stipulated that they had to in the first place. "It wasn't our job to verify these assets," he says. "He made a declaration of what it was worth, and it's up to them to verify it. That was the agreement." Silva may have spoken out of pique; after all, he was frantically trying to put together a new roster of investors when I called for an interview. After the Richmond Redevelopment staff began investigating Shmavonian -- which, among other things, uncovered an 1998 arrest for shoplifting -- the real-estate magnate abandoned the project. Silva still resents the way his friend was treated. Not only did city staff lowball the value of some of Shmavonian's properties, he says, but digging up his arrest record was simply gratuitous and rude.

"They found stuff on the Internet that was the result of accusations that turned out to be false," Silva says. "Isn't this America, where you're innocent till proven guilty? He just got tired of it, he said, 'You know, I can't deal with this. '" At one point, an exasperated Silva went so far as to claim that redevelopment bureaucrats are killing his dream by attrition, simply because they're too unimaginative to appreciate its elegance. "They're trying to defend themselves for shitcanning a wonderful and powerful project," he says. "It's just not their kind of project. They have narrow minds about what makes a good project."

After Shmavonian dropped out, Silva found another investor to pony up $10 million and was granted a December 31 deadline to find a bank to lend him the remaining $16 million. Once again, the deadline came and went, but the Redevelopment Agency gave him one more month to find a bank. On January 31, a triumphant Silva returned with a letter of credit. To everyone's relief, the project seemed ready to proceed. "It was a jubilant day for everyone involved," Satre says.

Two weeks later, another bomb dropped. This time Silva's backup investor, whose name remains confidential, got cold feet and pulled out of the deal. Once again, the city gave Silva more time. Now, he had what Satre calls a "drop-dead date" of May 7 to find new investors. But once again, the city found Silva's assets inadequate. "They had a circular logic in their guarantee," Satre says. "It was like being self-insured but having only ten dollars in the bank. You can't drive a car that way."

Of course, the city once again gave Silva more time. And on May 17, he pulled off a miracle. The San Francisco-based development group Simeon Commercial Properties, which boasts an impressive portfolio of high-profile real-estate assets, agreed to bankroll every dime of Silva's $26.5 million commitment. At last, the project seems ready to move forward. But by now, the city of Richmond has spent $18 million renovating the assembly plant to Silva's specifications. Meanwhile, it's taken him seventeen months to produce the financing he promised when he signed a contract with Richmond -- seventeen months in which the city spent millions in public funds and gave him every possible chance to clean up his mess. That he pulled it off at the eleventh hour is not exactly the most ringing endorsement in history. At last week's Redevelopment Agency meeting, city officials reportedly warned Silva and Simeon representatives that they wouldn't tolerate any more of these Keystone Kops antics.

Still, everyone in Richmond wants this project to work. It's a quantum leap above the usual crop of bland office parks and big-box stores, and while it won't generate much revenue for the city, the sheer dynamism of Silva's concept bespeaks a bold foray into the world of the arts that most cities are too timid to even contemplate. But development projects always carry risk, especially in blighted urban centers where so many things can go wrong. If Assembly Plant Partners succeed in putting Richmond on the map, everyone will applaud the foresight of its city fathers. But if the project fails -- and it's already come perilously close to disaster -- everyone will marvel at how Richmond could have been so stupid. This is the dilemma that confronts all American industrial ghost towns that struggle to remake themselves in a globalized world that stripped them of their blue-collar pride.

A veteran Oakland politico once told me that when it comes to developers, Oakland is the ugly girl at the prom. She'll dance with any slick hustler who asks, and never mind the liquor on his breath or the rubber in his pocket. If Oakland has to go begging for a date, little Richmond is even lonelier. Only time will tell Richmond what kind of suitor Ethan Silva turns out to be.

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