By Brian Donahue
No one is saying Emeryville City Hall necessarily breaks the law in furtherance of its pro-development policies. But it sure does game the legal process assuring certain projects surmount any obstacles. The recent 'transit center' approval on Horton Street is an excellent case in point. The legally mandated environmental and planning documents associated with the project were manipulated to discount, ignore or omit information showing any of the negative impacts the massive project would bring. Consequently, decision-makers were unable to have information necessary for an informed vote. But vote they did...for the project.
The Planning Department went to great lengths to make sure the planning commission and city council could not accurately gauge the deleterious effect on the Horton Street Bicycle Boulevard, even going so far as to issue a gag order on the traffic engineering firm, Berkeley-based LSA Associates, that compiled the traffic study.
In their preliminary report, LSA Associates denied the existence of a Bicycle Boulevard on Horton Street, which passes in front of the proposed "Transit Center" office building and parking garage. But sharp eyed Emeryville citizens reviewing the documents spotted the omission. Horton Street was designated a Bicycle Boulevard by the city council several years ago. The concept was pitched by a Berkeley resident sitting on Emeryville's Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee, who insisted that a defined and codified non-busy route better serves cyclists than bicycle lanes. The bicycle lanes were largely removed from the street.
After the omission was brought to the attention of Planning Director Charlie Bryant, himself a regular bicycle commuter, he asserted that Bike Boulevards have no value. Because they lack value, he reasoned, the massive traffic generated by the office tower and garage known as the "Transit Center" cannot be considered detrimental.
Using the standard calculation of one employee per 250 square feet of office space, about 800 people will work in the 200,000 square foot building. Assuming that each of those people drives to work alone voluntary alternative transit options notwithstanding, that's 1,600 vehicular trips a day---each thrust onto a street city officials designated for cyclists because traffic volumes on Emeryville's other north-south roads such as San Pablo Avenue, Hollis and Shellmound streets are so high as to make them unsafe. Some employees may commute by other means, but stores in the building, visitors and delivery trucks will likely make up for the reduction.
When asked to elaborate on how such a counter intuitive claim---that the addition of 1,600 motor vehicles a day to Horton Street won't change conditions for cyclists--- Senior City Planner, Miroo Desai refused. Ms. Desai was unmoved when it was pointed out that other Bay Area cities with designated bike boulevards have ascribed them value. The traffic study, which excluded mention of those impacts enabled the council to vote for a proposal that, on paper at least, has no ill effects.
LSA's study stated categorically that NO car traffic would travel north along Horton and Overland Streets to reach the Ashby Avenue freeway entrance in Aquatic Park. This outlandish and unsubstantiated claim was enough for Planning Commissioner Jim Martin to question the study's credibility to such an extent, he voted against the project in its entirety. In his testimony, Mr. Martin showed how the route is a preferred shortcut even now for commuters heading north. Quoting from LSA's own study, Mr. Martin said that 25 percent of the traffic would arrive from and depart to the north. Mr. Martin dismissed as "ridiculous" the study's claim that all of the traffic heading for the project would use already congested Hollis street with its numerous traffic lights. Mr. Martin further stated that the document's claim was not supported by any evidence. He concluded that he had no choice but to assume that LSA and the Planning Department made a spurious claim just to show that the project would have no impact on the Horton Street Bike Boulevard. Again, the document went forward, providing cover for the city council members to prove they were not harming bicycling.
In the midst of these legitimate questions raised by both commissioners and the public, Mr. Bryant took the unprecedented step of forbidding LSA Associates from communicating with any members of the public about the project. Emeryville Senior Planner Miroo Desai was surprised at the level of secrecy surrounding the document, stating "If it were up to me, I would not forbid LSA to speak with anybody on this document".
It is hoped Emeryville can enter a new era where the approval process is more transparent and more democratic. The city council needs to have supportive staff documents that are not biased and politicized as this Transit Center has been. The citizens need to have confidence that the approval process is fair and above board, lest cynicism take hold. We hope for a better process next time.
The council members were willing to sign their names to this highly politicized and fraudulent environmental document are: