Two top Marin County political leaders, backed by local real estate agents, are waging a battle to tear down San Quentin State Prison -- a landmark here for 151 years.
They want to replace the state’s oldest prison, which sits on prime property next to San Francisco Bay, with high-density housing, shops, a transit hub and ferry terminal.
The county’s four largest environmental groups, however, oppose the large-scale urban development envisioned for the site.
Against this backdrop of contrasting views, the California Department of Corrections is forging ahead with a $220-million death row expansion plan. State officials contend that facilities for condemned inmates are overcrowded and unsafe for prisoners and guards.
Last week, the state held a hearing to determine the issues to include in an environmental analysis -- the first step in expanding death row to 1,024 cells.
During the sparsely attended three-hour hearing at Corte Madera Town Hall, speakers expressed differing opinions on the proposed project.
“The original condemned row was built to house 68 inmates,” said George Sifuentes, assistant deputy director for project planning, finance and management for the Department of Corrections. “We have over 600 inmates there now. We have been growing at 25 a year since 1978. We have outgrown the available space.”
The 610 inmates on death row at San Quentin are in three facilities: the original housing unit, known as North Segregation, which was built in 1934; East Block, built in 1927; and the Adjustment Center, built in 1960.
The state plans to replace the death row facilities with a pair of two-story buildings on a 20-acre part of the prison known as “The Ranch,” where 250 minimum-security inmates live in dormitories.
Earlier this year, the state Legislature considered moving death row to Folsom, but after a community outcry decided to expand the facilities at San Quentin.
The decision, however, doesn’t sit well with some Marin County officials, including incoming Board of Supervisors President Steve Kinsey and state Assemblyman Joe Nation (D-San Rafael).
“Here on this hulk of a rotting prison, they’re planning a quarter-billion-dollar expansion that will be at capacity within 10 to 15 years,” Kinsey said. “And that obligation to maintain that investment will go on for decades.”
Sifuentes, however, disputes that the prison will be overcrowded in a dozen years, saying he believes it will reach capacity in 24 to 25 years if some inmates are placed two to a cell.
Kinsey, meanwhile, pointed to a state Department of General Services report, conducted for the Legislature in 2001, showing how much money the prison property would be worth if it were sold. A development with 500 housing units would bring $129 million to $205 million; 2,000 units would generate $364 million to $567 million; and 3,500 units would bring $421 million to $664 million.
Kinsey, who headed the San Quentin Reuse Committee, said that although the group didn’t recommend a specific density for the transit village concept, most of its members supported a significantly lower number of units than the maximum.
“The key to a new use for San Quentin is a new location for death row,” Kinsey said.
But no other community in the state appears to want death row.
“I think the Legislature and the governor recognized the reality that death row is not going to move,” said Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections.
Still, Nation, who is leading the charge against the expansion at the state level, is not giving up. He has been trying to get the ear of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. But so far, two meetings scheduled with the governor’s legislative director, including one last week, have been canceled.
“The $220-million expansion of death row is a significant amount for a state that, frankly, is broke today,” Nation said.
At his urging, Nation said, lawmakers asked the state auditor to conduct a report on the fiscal impact of the project. The audit report is due April 1, he said.
“I said, ‘Let’s look at the total cost of the expansion of San Quentin,’ ” Nation said. “I’ve asked for some overview of how this fits into the system. We shouldn’t make a decision on one prison at one location.”
Heimerich said, however, that the $220 million needed to expand death row would be provided through bonds and not the state’s general fund.
Nation said the prison would be a good site for desperately needed affordable housing and a transit hub with commuter rail service connecting to a new ferry terminal to take people to San Francisco.
No commuter rail system exists, however, and some question whether it ever will be built. Also, a ferry terminal already exists at nearby Larkspur Landing. But proponents of moving the ferry terminal to San Quentin say the deeper-water site would cut 15 minutes off the trip to San Francisco.
Not everyone wants San Quentin to leave.
James Holmes, a Larkspur resident, told prison officials at last week’s hearing that he strongly supported upgrading death row.
He said if the prison closed and high-density housing came in, there would be “disastrous consequences for Larkspur.”
Don Dickenson, a Marin County planning commissioner and former Mill Valley planning director, also opposes a county proposal that would put up to 3,500 housing units at the prison site.
“I think when you do the analysis, large-scale urban development will probably have more impacts on Marin County than the expanded death row,” he said.
Dickenson, who also heads the land use committee of the Marin Conservation League, a major county environmental group, questioned why the county is planning new uses for the prison property at this time.
“The state has not talked about shutting down San Quentin,” he said.
“What I believe is driving this is efforts by some county leaders to have a connection for rail to a ferry connecting to San Francisco. In a lot of ways, I think people are coveting state property.”
Stan Dawson, a senior planner for Marin County, said the county convened a citizens committee to review the property in case the state decides to close the prison. The group, which completed its work in September, recommended a mixed-use transit village on the site.
Dawson, who attended last week’s state hearing, said the county has not adopted the transit village concept as part of updating its general plan, and won’t consider doing so until the end of next year.
He said community reaction to potential uses for the prison property is mixed.
“There definitely was strong support for reusing it,” Dawson said. “Surprisingly, most people picked the European village feel with buildings three-, four- and five-stories tall, which for Marin is a very surprising outcome.”
He said some people wanted to retain some of the prison operation there, saying, “A lot of their thinking is, a rehabilitation model could be incorporated into the community.”
As Nation put it: “We have to look at what benefit it could bring to the region. It’s not just about Marin County, it’s about the entire region.”