November 29, 2010
Mayor’s green dream not yet reality
Inside a former warehouse on South 27th Street near Cutting
Boulevard, thirty students, mostly in their twenties, are gathered
around the skeleton of a small house that’s
all exposed beams, plywood, and electrical wiring.
The students are bundled up in coats and hooded sweatshirts,
arms pulled in and hoods up. Despite the cold, they are engaged—sometimes
laughing and joking, but focused. They’re getting ready to
climb a ladder to the roof of the house for their first lesson
in installing solar panels.
Mitchell Smith, training and placement manager for Solar
Richmond, stands in the middle of the group, assessing
a student’s demonstration of harness fitting. He peppers
his talk with small maxims that speak to being a good employee.
“You’ve got to be what?” he asks the class. “You’ve always
got to be professional and teachable.”
With just over 40 percent of the vote, Gayle McLaughlin
won a second term as Richmond's mayor, beating out Nat Bates
and John Ziesenhenne.
This is the RichmondBUILD
Green Jobs Training Academy, a program that trains low-income,
unemployed residents for jobs in green technology and construction.
It’s a point of pride for newly
re-elected mayor Gayle
McLaughlin, who sees green jobs and green businesses
as the key to a more prosperous Richmond.
With a council dominated
by her allies set to take office in January, the mayor
is free to pursue her vision of a green future for the city.
She wants to bring in environmentally friendly businesses,
train people for jobs in green technology and construction,
restyle the city’s image and make sustainability a central
requirement in city planning and development.
It’s a tall order. Obstacles include the city’s stubbornly
high unemployment rate, now at 18 percent; a less-educated
workforce than in surrounding cities; and Richmond’s reputation
as a polluted and dangerous place to do business. But Richmond
also has some advantages, including large amounts of affordable
office and manufacturing space, and proximity to the research
labs in Berkeley.
When James Sheppard was looking for office and manufacturing
space for his green company, he found a competitive edge in
Richmond. The city’s efforts to build a green hub attracted
him. But more important, Richmond was the only Bay Area city
where the company could afford the 40,000 square feet of manufacturing
space needed to expand production for Vetrazzo,
which makes countertops from recycled glass.
“Do not underestimate the import of having a real estate base,”
he said, “Oakland’s got some decent options, Berkeley has none,
San Francisco is too expensive and too onerous. Richmond has
a major differentiator in its available real estate.”
There are 64 green businesses in Richmond, according to a recent
study commissioned by the city and paid for by federal
grant money. In all, such businesses account for 1,837 Richmond
Erica Lindsey and Carleen Fuller say that
each cohort of RichmondBUILD students construct the skeleton
of a small house, then wire and roof it. It's torn down at
the end of the 17 week course, to be rebuilt by the next
A third of green jobs in Richmond are in renewable energy,
mostly solar. Nearly a quarter are in transportation, with
the rest in recycling, environmental services and remediation,
and green building materials, construction and landscaping.
The four largest employers—SunPower, BART Richmond Repair Shop,
Sim’s Metal Recycling and Chevron’s biofuels research division—make
up more than half of those.
But according to the study, only 14% of the green jobs in
Richmond are held by city residents.
The problem with green jobs, says Joe Fisher, a realtor and
treasurer for the Black
American Political Action Committee, is that they often
require more training or education than many of the city’s
“There’s a lot of unemployed here, and there’s also a lot
of undereducated,” he said, “A lot of green jobs take a higher
level of education.”
Some green fields, like solar installation or energy efficiency
auditing, do not require a lot of education or training, but
even those jobs are inaccessible to many residents, said Don
Gosney, a political activist who supported John
Ziesenhenne for mayor.
“Some of our elected officials do not want to take a look
at the workforce that we have here in Richmond,” he said, “and
ask, ‘Can they get these jobs with the little bit of education
they may have, with the limited language that they may have,
with the criminal and drug records that they have?’”
Carleen Fuller believes the answer is yes— with the right
Carleen Fuller and Erica Lindsey point out friends and instructors
on the RichmondBUILD wall of fame, which documents the successes
of the program: the graduates.
Sitting at one of the long tables at the Richmond BUILD training
facility while Smith instructs the class behind her, Fuller
says she has been sober two years.
“I spent many, many years addicted to drugs and alcohol,”
she says, “I wanted to do something different with my life.”
Fuller is now an intern with Solar
Richmond, which partners with the city’s RichmondBUILD
program to teach solar installation. Her fellow intern, Erica
Lindsey, says that she has seen many similar transformations.
Lindsey points to a young student on the roof, hair buzzed
short and lined up clean. “He cut off his dreadlocks just last
week,” she says. “He’s trying to change. A lot of them are.
The 17-week program is free for students, but costs between
four and five thousand dollars for one person to complete,
says Sal Vaca, head of the city’s employment and training department.
It’s paid for by a mix of federal, state, city and private
funds, but the majority comes from stimulus funds. As those
dwindle, Vaca said the program will have to find other sources
to continue at its current level. And with only 30 slots in
each class, RichmondBUILD gets hundreds of applications for
“They have a waiting list that is huge,” said Pastor Henry
Washington of Garden of Peace Ministries, “and unemployment
among some ethnicities is up around 30 or 40 percent.”
Against such a backdrop, some critics of the mayor say that
her green focus is myopic. Although there is growth in green
industries, says Gosney, the numbers are still quite small.
“There needs to be a balance between green industry and the
real world,” Gosney said. “It would be great if we could just
pass an edict and say everything’s got to be clean and it’s
got to be green. But it’s not financially sustainable sometimes.”
At the Port of Richmond, a Honda truck is ready to deliver
new honda vehicles to Northern California dealerships. (Photo
by Christina Lopez)
Gosney points to the mayor’s vote against a deal
to bring Honda vehicles through the port of Richmond,
expected to bring 200 jobs and upwards of $60 million in
revenue to the city, as indication that the focus on green
may actually keep businesses out of Richmond. And he said
he’s worried the new council will only make it harder for
businesses that aren’t explicitly green to come to town.
McLaughlin said she opposed the Honda project only because
she wanted tighter regulations on air pollution at the port.
After local environmentalists filed a lawsuit, that regulation
has been put in place, which satisfied the mayor’s original
“It is not correct, as some have said, that I only support
green businesses, and green jobs,” she said. “Clean-tech jobs
are the jobs of the 21st century, and it’s important we draw
from this sector.”
The mayor said when the economy bounces back, it will bring
new employment opportunities for Richmond’s small but growing
pool of green workers. Until then, she sees the city as a primary
driver of green work.
Over the past few years, the city has put several policy changes
in place. Richmond’s green building ordinance requires environmentally
sustainable practices and energy efficiency in all new buildings.
The council banned Styrofoam food containers, built up the
city’s bike paths, and encouraged community gardens.
Solar panel installation permitting fees have been waived,
and the city helps low-income homeowners pay for energy efficiency
audits. The Civic Center complex has been solarized, and the
city now produces the highest solar energy per capita in the
Solar panels at the Richmond Civic Center roof installed
in 2009. Their combined output provides 131 kilowatts of
power or about 15% of the Civic Center's electricity.
McLaughlin is set to bring an initiative to City Council to
solarize all Richmond city buildings. This, she said, would
put some of RichmondBUILD’s graduates to work, because of a
policy she helped put in place that requires companies with
city contracts to designate at least a quarter of their hours
for Richmond residents. She’d also like to see more city-sponsored
work to revamp the downtown area.
Riding Berkeley’s coattails
The next step, says Thomas Mills, head of Richmond’s Office
of Economic Development, is leveraging the city’s geography
to tap into the green-tech and clean-tech startups spinning
off from research facilities in Berkeley as well as the network
of venture capitalists scouting for new businesses there.
“We see ourselves as the next step after Berkeley. Companies
can come here to expand,” he said.
The city is planning a green business ‘welcome center’ that
would showcase what Richmond has to offer and provide information
for business owners thinking of setting up shop.
It’s the first of nearly two dozen recommendations in the
green jobs study. Others include increasing networking between
existing green businesses, expanding RichmondBUILD training
programs, and developing amenities to make Richmond appealing
to relocating businesses.
Part of the city’s green dream is to bring the planned Lawrence
Berkeley National Laboratory expansion to Richmond. The lab
is seeking space to expand its solar energy and energy-efficient
building research. Although the lab has not yet called for
bids, the city’s redevelopment agency is working with the Chamber
of Commerce and the Council of Industries to mobilize its efforts
to make Richmond as appealing as possible.
The city has also been working on streamlining the permitting
process for green businesses and making it easier to get inspections
by city officers. That’s welcome news for James Sheppard, who
said that red tape was a key frustration when Vetrazzo set
Most of the manufacturing space available in Richmond is
south of Interstate 580. Ford Point, above, is the home of
SunPower Corporation, the largest green business in Richmond.
Vetrazzo was bought by a company in Georgia over the summer,
which moved its manufacturing out of state. He said the company
left because it was bought out, not because Richmond was a
bad place to do business.
The mayor’s vision of a thriving green economy in Richmond
is still a way off, but she said the changes are underway,
and it will take time.
“Richmond’s image has been shaped in many ways by having polluting
industry in our city,” she said, “It’s important to realize
just how far we’ve come. We have a long way to go but we’ll