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A happy ending as urban farmers beat a mega-warehouse development in North Richmond

Doria Robinson holds a sunflower bloom.
Doria Robinson, executive director of Urban Tilth, a community farm in North Richmond, raised millions in donations to skirt development of a massive distribution center that would have cut off sunlight to her farm.
(Paul Kuroda / For The Times)
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The real estate standoff on a windswept spit of land in industrial North Richmond, Calif., had the makings of one of those bitter and protracted battles in which community well-being was once again at risk of being squashed by the rapacious might of big business.

On one side was Urban Tilth, a community farm in Contra Costa County that grows and distributes fresh produce to hundreds of needy families, employs dozens of young people, and operates school and community gardens throughout the region.

Next door, in a tidy little house on a 7-acre parcel, lived a Japanese American widow in her 90s, Satoko Nabeta, who after an adolescence locked in a World War II incarceration camp followed by decades of back-breaking labor growing cut flowers, finally wanted to cash in and retire.

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A plum opportunity came in the form of a mega-warehouse developer who was willing to pay big money for Nabeta’s land with the aim of building a retail distribution center — one so large that it would blot out the sun shining down on the urban farm, stunting its plantings and its future plans as a cultural hub.

In a community plagued by environmental injustice and all manner of economic and political oppression, one group’s battle for empowerment, it seemed, was blocking the dreams of a humble neighbor with a well-earned right to prosperity.

And then, quite suddenly, a happy ending for everyone.

After The Times wrote about the dispute last year, Urban Tilth was able to raise millions of dollars — enough to buy Nabeta’s land, enable her to retire and save her faded flower nursery from becoming yet another mega-warehouse development in a community already overwhelmed by them.

“An amazing end to the story,” said Doria Robinson, Urban Tilth’s executive director. “In the end, everyone was happy.”

“It all worked out,” echoed Akemi Brodsky, Nabeta’s granddaughter. “My grandmother was able to move into another house, where honestly she’s much more comfortable. She’s very happy.”

Underlying the dispute in North Richmond, a community tucked at the northern edge of the San Francisco Bay and ringed by oil refineries, are America’s changing shopping habits. Namely: our embrace of click-and-ship online shopping. To meet that need, distribution centers have marched into communities around the Bay Area. North Richmond, with its relatively cheap vacant land near freeways, has been ground zero.

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Warehouses are rising in rhythmic succession across what were once acres of farmland near Urban Tilth. Each brings with it pollution in the form of a day-and-night barrage of trucks laden with merchandise.

Nabeta’s nursery was spared after donors, including several anonymous contributors, read about the situation and helped Robinson raise enough money to counter the warehouse developer’s offer.

“We are now the proud owners of the Nabeta farm,” Robinson said.

An aerial view of Sotoko Nabeta's flower nursery in North Richmond.
Satoko Nabeta’s flower nursery sits at the northwest end of North Richmond.
(Paul Kuroda / For The Times)

The purchase price was a bit more than $5 million. Members of the Nabeta family said the land was appraised at more than $7.5 million, but that the nursery agreed to a lower price as a way of making its own donation to the farm.

The managers at Urban Tilth have not mapped all their plans for the new land; that will be decided after consultation with the community. But one thing is certain: there will be an exhibit on the rich history of the Bay Area’s Japanese American flower industry.

A century ago, North Richmond was mostly agricultural land, farmed by Italian, Asian and Portuguese immigrants. During World War II, the area became a shipbuilding mecca, and drew thousands of Black workers from Louisiana and other parts of the South.

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The Nabeta family arrived just after the war, in 1950. The family earlier had lived in nearby El Cerrito, part of a wave of Japanese American farmers who helped the region’s flower industry flourish in the early-20th century. The flowers were grown in glass greenhouses, their panes painted white to filter the light. Their interiors were famously haunting — white light, bursting with colorful blooms, suffused with floral scents.

Satoko Nabeta met her husband, Toshiro, in Illinois, after both were released from the incarceration camps. Toshiro’s grandfather had founded a flower business in the Bay Area at the turn of the 19th century, and the family returned after the war. But shortly after, their land was seized by the government for what became Interstate 80. They moved the business to North Richmond, building a modest home and numerous greenhouses on the land.

Satoko Nabeta, in her 90s, needs to sell her family’s nursery. A plan to turn it into a warehouse is a threat to a neighboring community garden.

May 6, 2022

Over time, the labor-intensive industry faltered. The children of the nursery owners had more lucrative career options. They could go to college and become professionals, as did many in the Nabeta family. Labor and environmental laws raised production costs, and cheap flowers from South America — subsidized by the U.S. government — undercut prices.

At the same time, the value of land climbed alongside Bay Area housing demands, and developers dangled buyouts to farmers who would make way for planned neighborhoods and condominium complexes. By the time the warehouse boom began, Satoko Nabeta was among the last of the Japanese families still living on flower farms in the area.

“She ran the nursery by herself — she ran that whole business by herself for decades,” her granddaughter Lauren Brodksy recalled.

Growing up, Lauren, 41, and her sister Akemi , 37, said they would visit their grandmother every week. And no matter how busy she was trying to manage it all, “she always cooked for us, every Sunday,” Akemi said.

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The sisters said the family is happy that Urban Tilth plans to commemorate the Japanese flower industry and the people who worked so hard to make it thrive. It’s a promise Robinson said she will be happy to keep.

“This place is always going to be open to you all,” she told the family during the sales process. “Please come back.”

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