Developer Madison Marquette wants to build on this parcel of land just north of the Bay Street mall
Emeryville is known for Best Buy, Ikea and the Bay Street shopping mall — not so much for organized political dissent.
But next week, a group of residents will challenge plans to build a hotel and a Macy’s on an empty lot adjacent to the outdoor mall that brings shoppers from around the Bay Area to the 1.2-square-mile city.
The group, which calls itself Residents United for a Livable Emeryville, or RULE, wants developer Madison Marquette to pay for community benefits such as affordable housing, parks and living-wage jobs.
In San Francisco and Oakland, developers often pony up. Homebuilder Lennar, which is embarking on a 10,000-home project in San Francisco’s Bayview district, agreed to a community benefits package including job training and affordable housing that is worth $1 billion.
But in Emeryville, where two decades of rapid development have transformed an industrial wasteland into a retail center to the envy of many surrounding cities, there has never been such an agreement.
“There’s an attitude in Emeryville of development and business at all costs that’s really transformed the town in a short period of time,” said Jennifer West, a City Council member who ran successfully as a member of RULE in the last election.
“We feel it's time to slow it down and be a little bit more careful about what we do,” she said.
But West isn’t necessarily in the majority on the five-member City Council. The others say that developers like Madison Marquette are already doing a lot for the city just by building and bringing in tax revenue.
“If you want a city and [you want to] be able to pay your bills, you need a commercial section of town,” said Ken Bukowski, who’s been on the City Council for a quarter of a century. “A lot of these folks don't see the benefit the business community brings.”
On Dec. 7, Madison Marquette — which developed the Bay Street mall — will be asking the city to extend its exclusive negotiating rights to develop a 5-acre parcel of land just to the north. Although no plans are final, one scenario envisions a Macy’s as a bookend to the existing mall along with space for a hotel.
The down economy makes the extension necessary, according to Eric Hohmann, a managing director for Madison Marquette.
“The city owns one of the best commercial properties in the entire East Bay, and interest is strong,” Hohmann said. “It’s just that we need more time to strike a deal.”
Madison Marquette has promised the city that “Macy’s is interested in opening a store at the Bay Street Site B,” but offers no other details or assurances.
In an e-mail, Macy’s spokesman Jim Sluzewski said the company doesn’t disclose “where we are or are not looking for new store locations,” adding that “as of this time, we have no announced plans for any future new Macy's stores.”
The city’s redevelopment agency has spent $30 million to clean up contamination from the site, where the Sherwin-Williams paint company and Union Oil once made their homes, said Patrick O’Keefe, Emeryville’s city manager. The city is also considering building a parking garage at a cost of $17 million as part of the deal.
“To bring in a large anchor tenant who doesn't and can’t pay the rent of small shops does require this investment from the city to make it happen, but the city gets financial benefits in terms of revenues,” said Hohmann of Madison Marquette.
Members of RULE — a group of artists, professionals and longtime residents that formed a few years back — say it’s precisely because of the $47 million subsidy that Madison Marquette should be paying for community benefits. Faye Prince, an Emeryville resident for decades and a RULE member, said Emeryville doesn’t have to give away as much to developers as it used to.
“Umpteen years ago when you had to walk across the railroad tracks and there was nothing here, sure,” said Prince. “But that’s old news.”
RULE has also suggested that the city open up the project to other bidders who might be more open to the group's demands.
Madison Marquette is looking to the City Council to give the word on community benefits. And if council member Ruth Atkin has her way, the word will be no, at least for this project.
“The goals of RULE and the goals of the city are not contrary to each other,” said Atkin. “The question is, they think they’re going to get more by pursuing another approach, and I’m skeptical.”
Atkin said that businesses benefit Emeryville — for example, the free Emery Go Round transportation service is paid for by businesses, she said.
Part of the battle with Madison Marquette is also over labor, with unions who are working with RULE looking for concessions from the developer and eventual hotel owner.