From San Francisco Chronicle November 13, 2010
Carolyn Said, Chronicle Staff Writer
The historic Ford Assembly Building in Richmond, designed in 1930 by renowned architect Albert Kahn, is now fully reborn as a mixed-use property called Ford Point, housing businesses, a restaurant, light industrial and an entertainment space called the Craneway Pavilion.
With its combination of green businesses and a glittering events venue set against the backdrop of stunning waterfront views, Ford Point is offering Richmond a chance to burnish a reputation often marred by association with crime and blight.
Inside the imposing brick building, SunPower assembles rooftop solar racks near the spot where World War II-era workers tested and outfitted armored tanks. Down the hall, Mountain Hardwear sells and designs outdoor gear where Ford autoworkers used to build Model A cars.
The Craneway Pavilion - a huge, glass-enclosed space where cranes once hoisted completed vehicles onto train cars - now hosts a diverse range of cultural and entertainment events. Barefoot Merce Cunningham dancers have twirled and leaped in performance there; thousands of silent meditators spent two days sitting with Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron; and raucous women's roller derby skaters regularly explode into action on the floor.
Ford Point's final piece, a permanent home for the visitor center of the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park, is being negotiated and an agreement should be inked this year.
$40 million renovation
Developer Eddie Orton, a down-to-earth, gregarious man whose Orton Development Inc. of Emeryville has developed about 16 million square feet of space nationwide, spent two years and $40 million renovating Ford Point, paid for by tax credits and money from GE Capital.
"There are a lot of historic buildings that don't deserve being saved," he said, leading a tour of the gargantuan two-story space. A bit over half a million square feet in size, it sits on a 25-acre waterfront site that commands stunning views of the bay and city skyline. "This is actually one that does. It is truly one of the masterpieces of the greatest industrial architect in American history."
Orton long felt drawn to the Ford plant; in fact he tried to buy it three times before the Richmond Redevelopment Agency finally accepted his $5.4 million offer in 2004.
"Eddie had always been the bridesmaid," said Steve Duran, director of community and economic development for Richmond. "But he was the one who finally got it done."
Ford closed the plant in 1956. The University of California used it for book storage for some years, then sold it to Richmond in 1975. In 1988, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places, but the earthquake a year later left it dilapidated and seismically unsound.
"Loma Prieta pretty much put that building out of business; it was uninhabitable," Duran said.
Kahn's "daylight factory" design, groundbreaking for its time, employed extensive window openings and skylights to maintain natural light. That proved one of many renovation challenges: There were 40,000 broken windows and 6,000 broken skylights, Orton said ruefully.
The building's distinctive sawtooth roof now holds a 1-megawatt solar array that provides half of its power.
The soaring Craneway Pavilion is the property's jewel, with floor-to-ceiling windows showcasing majestic views and an array of sophisticated sound, lighting and video equipment. At 45,000 square feet, it can host 2,250 seated people or about 6,000 standing. Richmond now holds its annual Fourth of July celebration there. A private wharf can accommodate ferries from San Francisco or Marin.
The Craneway hosts 75 to 100 events a year.
Orton said a "Richmond stigma" has made it challenging to promote the space.
"It's unfair, but Richmond is a punching bag," he said. "We are the prow of the ice-breaking ship to free it from this ridiculous reputation."
Duran agreed that Craneway helps Richmond's image.
"A lot more people are coming; this gives them a larger vision of Richmond," he said. Even more visitors should be flocking there once the National Park Service completes the visitor center for the Rosie the Riveter park ( www.nps.gov/rori/index.htm).
Tom Leatherman, acting superintendent for the park, said he thinks the center may draw as many as 300,000 visitors a year.
A small brick building adjacent to the former assembly plant is envisioned as the site for the visitor center. It's called the Oil House, because it held 80,000-gallon oil tanks that fueled the electricity, steam and compressed air for the Ford plant. The park service, Orton and Richmond are in the final phase of working out a lease agreement.
"The visitor center will give us a starting point, a place to orient people," Leatherman said. "It will be where we'll tell the story about the home-front efforts, including ship building, mass migrations of people, women and minorities in the workforce, changes in health and child care."
E-mail Carolyn Said at email@example.com.
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