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Sunday, February 28, 2010

City to Toddlers: Go To Hell

Hidden Agenda Revealed

By Brian Donahue

City officials plan on privatizing the city's public preschool---regardless of what parents say or do.

Top city officials outlined why the school must be turned over to private operators in a memo sent out hours before the same officials met with parents at a workshop billed as a venue for parents to "provide input."

The meeting was held last week at the Child Development Center.

An excerpt from the memo, between city finance chief Edmond Suen and City Manager Patrick O'Keeffe, leaps from an otherwise banal list of fiduciary proposals.

"At the December 15 meeting, the City Council authorized staff to issue Request for Qualifications to Providers of Infant and Preschool Child Care Services for the Emeryville Child Development Center (ECDC). This RFQ is an example of staff’s quest to identify alternative delivery mechanisms to provide equal or better services in the most cost effective manner. Obviously, there may be other considerations in pursuing the outsourcing option, but outsourcing and resource sharing is gaining traction in the face of unsustainable Agency cost structures."

The Tattler obtained this memo Friday.

A translation of the legalese reveals that behind closed doors, officials are hurrying to privatize the center along with other government functions.

Pressed for an explanation Monday, Suen sought to qualify the memo's wording, saying the idea for privatization didn't start with him, and isn't his decision. "Many agencies in these challenging economic conditions are looking at outsourcing as an option," Suen said. "We take our direction from the city council, and they have authorized an RFQ at ECDC but the decision has not been made to move forward necessarily with outsourcing at this time." An RFQ, or Request for Qualifications, is an initial step in identifying private companies to bid on a project.

Parents are nevertheless crying foul. Last week city officials were busy assuring parents that two avenues for keeping the center public were being pursued. Many parents argued that a third 'fund raising option' be considered, a concept Mr. O'Keeffe embraced at Tuesday's forum. Yet, the memo had already been written.

Emeryville resident Jaquiline Asher, activist and mother of two students at ECDC was chagrined at the revelation that the meeting was nothing more than a dog-and-pony show. "In the wake of hearing uniformly from over 60 parents that they wanted options outside the Request For Qualification options, this memo indicates they are not listening to the parents," she said. She pointed to a damning sentence that states that privatizing is "gaining traction" and this sentiment relayed by the staff shows the true agenda regardless of any public statements made by the politicians or other government officials.

Mr. Suen disputed Ms. Asher's interpretation of the memo. A "different interpretation of the staff report and specifically a different interpretation of the ECDC statement within. The outsourcing reference in the report was meant in a general way".

The Emeryville City Council is scheduled to address the issue of the Child Development Center at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday March 2nd at Emeryville City Hall.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Analysis: Special Election or Appointment

Will voters get shortchanged?

By Brian Donahue

Ken Bukowski, a councilman for almost 25 years, may soon resign or be forced from office, according to rumors swirling around Emeryville.

Emeryville police called to the dilapidated Bukowski compound while responding to a domestic violence incident on the property, in this 2009 file photo.

While the Tattler is busy ferreting out the fact and fiction, a nearly as pressing question also deserves an answer: How would a successor emerge? According to the city charter, which governs such things, a special election may be held or the city council can simply appoint a replacement.

Perhaps best known as a political weather vane, Mr. Bukowski has shifted his leanings from populist champion to Chamber of Commerce lap dog and back throughout his career. Lately though repeated scandals have emerged, tarnishing Mr. Bukowski's reputation and turning a man once sought after to break tied votes into a political pariah.

Mr. Bukowski has also run into serious financial problems. According to sources, all of the buildings in his infamous Doyle Street compound are in various stages of foreclosure. If this is indeed the case, it will be revealed publicly soon.

Mr. Bukowski's last re-election effort relied on the Chamber of Commerce's considerable financial resources. A good investment if dollars can be measured in votes. Since his re-election in 2007 he has voted in lock step both with the wishes of the Chamber and with deep pocketed developers.

But now Mr. Bukowski is an embarrassment to the Chamber. Their association with him has harmed the chamber's reputation and may prove an impediment to its future political clout as Emeryville's lead power broker.

Realizing the danger of allowing Mr. Bukowski to run in November 2011 and fearing an upset win by another pro-resident candidate, the chamber is in a tough spot. From a Machiavellian worldview the chamber would benefit greatly from orchestrating the appointment of a replacement of Mr. Bukowski with a pro-chamber successor with a less sullied record. This person could then run as an incumbent in 2011. Sitting council members enjoy a large electoral advantage, a fact not lost on the chamber.

Precedent for this undemocratic transition occurred in 1996 when then council member Bob Savage resigned due to illness. The council, with the chamber's blessing, opted to forgo a special election and replaced Savage with the appointment of Gary Caffey. Mr. Caffey proved the most pro-chamber council member Emeryville has ever seen. Mr. Caffey was repeatedly re-elected until he declined to run for re-election in 2003.

It would not serve the interests of the Chamber of Commerce or the 'Nora Davis faction' on the council, to allow the democratic process of a special election to replace Mr Bukowski. They would not allow a council seat to be placed at risk if they don't have to. Emeryville citizens should prepare themselves for an undemocratic bloodless coup if Mr Bukowski goes down. The Chamber may decide to wait until close to the election to remove council member Bukowski to make it seem more reasonable to appoint a successor rather than hold a 'costly' special election. Then of course there is the possibility that Ken Bukowski may rebuff any resignation overtures from the Chamber of Commerce and their developer proxies and run for re-election as a 'wildcatter' with no support from anyone promising a hugely contested 2011 election.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Parents Decry Cuts, Privatization Scheme at Child Center

Parents Angered By Choices Offered

By Brian Donahue

Faced down by some 75 angry parents and community members, city officials last night delayed making steep cuts and privatizing the city's public pre-school.

Boisterous parents booed City Manager Patrick O'Keeffe after he chided parents for being 'too emotional.' "You need to be realistic here," Mr. O'Keeffe said.

The outbursts followed an official presentation from city officials explaining that the city's pre-school on 53rd Street, officially called the Emeryville Child Development Center, must be turned over to a private operator to cut costs.

Officials have been slashing budgets and trimming services from the center for many years. Several years ago, funding was cut and the most experienced, and consequently highest paid, 'Master Teachers' were let go. In 2005, the city council terminated the infant program at the center. Councilwomen Nora Davis and Ruth Atkin said the city could "no longer afford" day-care services for infants. The ensuing controversy led Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis to replace some of the funding, with the stipulation that the children of the company's employees get priority for any open spaces. The Novartis campus, formerly Chiron, is just down the block from the center.

To quiet Tuesday's crowd, which appeared to be growing volatile, Councilwoman Nora Davis rose to praise the center, after spending years trying to bury it. The performance, according to one observer, was worthy of Shakespeare.

Ms. Davis, who Tuesday called the center one of Emeryville's "jewels" has voted against it at every opportunity.

Omitted from the official presentation of stark budget realities, tied financial hands and heavy hearts, was any mention of plans to construct a $125 million super-building to house a new high school, junior high school, elementary school, senior center and recreation center. Plans for the so-called Center of Community Life are moving ahead despite the city and school district's financial problems.

Parents received no answer from Ms. Davis, Ms. Atkin or Mr. O'Keeffe as to why their oft stated commitment to the education of all children excludes the city's youngest learners. Mr. O'Keeffe, however did say that the city is forbidden from using any of the Redevelopment Agency's copious cash for actual human needs. Those millions and millions can apparently only be used to subsidize more shopping malls and office buildings and are forbidden to be spent on any operational costs. One parent demanded to know why the city couldn't get money for the center as part of a development agreement before projects are approved. There was no response from any city official.

Whether city officials have the brains or the cajones to recover some funding back from developers to help pay for programs like the city's pre-school, remains to be seen.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Emeryville: A Great Place to Work, but I Wouldn't Want to Live There

What is it about Emeryville that makes its biggest boosters run for the hills when the sun goes down?

Many of those steering Emeryville's public policy, shaping its urban design and singing its praises loudest, live elsewhere. A telling detail, as it were. At the same time, decisions regularly bend to fit the desires of these same out-of-towners. From the Fire Department to the Police Department to City Hall, virtually no one on the payroll actually lives here.

It's not a question of money. Most officials are paid incomes comfortably into the six figures. City Manager Pat O'Keeffe can afford to, but he must not think Emeryville is the kind of town he wants to live he doesn't. Likewise Planning Director Charlie Bryant and City Attorney Michael Biddle, they don't either. City Engineer and Public Works Director Maurice Kaufman likewise makes his home elsewhere. City Clerk Karen Hemphill lives somewhere close by and Finance Director Edmond Suen thinks Emeryville is a great place to live; just not for him.

The pattern isn't limited to the public sphere. Emeryville's biggest boosters, the Chamber of Commerce, may constantly lecture residents about the good of unfettered development, but living in the midst of it isn't their cup of tea. Chamber CEO Bob Canter loves Emeryville so much, he lives in Martinez. The Chamber's Vice Chairman, Mason Myers, may wax poetic about a magic transformation from post-industrial slum to the Bay Area's best place to live, but to reach him at home, you must first dial 1 (415), just like Ken Bukowski.

Is this a case of listen to what we say, not what we do? Maybe the fact that these people are making a handsome living off of the transformation of Emeryville is the real driving force. Follow the money, as it were. Perhaps what is most illustrative is that their vision for Emeryville is so great, even they don't want a part of it.

Lies, Damn Lies and Traffic Studies

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:

Nora Davis
Ken Bukowski
Kurt Brinkman
Ruth Atkin

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Shocking Pix of Buke Death Ride

Twenty-six months after a tragic accident, Council member Ken Bukowski's SUV still bears the scars of a crash that took the life of 56-year-old Michael Smela, as these shocking exclusive photos show.

Smela was on foot patrolling the 5300 block of Hollis Street for his employer, Novartis, when he was struck and killed. The then mayor was driving home from a city meeting to collect public input on a proposed pedestrian bridge.

Police declined to perform a sobriety test. It was ruled an accident.

The city settled a lawsuit with the stricken man's widow for an undisclosed sum.

A neighbor said seeing the vehicle,"gives me the creeps."
These un-retouched photos were snapped recently outside the blighted Bukowski compound on Doyle Street by our intrepid Emeryville Tattler photographer.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Cafe Promises Grow Cold

Vow of Coffee and Steamed Milk Just Hot Air

by Brian Donahue

Park Avenue residents have been fooled again. An iron clad agreement between city officials and a developer for a cafe has proven not worth the paper it wasn't printed on.

It's the second time in recent years that city officials quieted neighborhood opposition in the same area by promising to deliver a coffee shop. It's also the second time developers have reneged.

As part of negotiations between city officials and San Mateo-based Prometheus Real Estate Group over a new building at 1401 Park Avenue, Emeryville Planning Director Charlie Bryant extracted the promise in part to blunt neighborhood opposition. The building, first proposed as an office building, morphed into a large condominium project after the dot-com bubble imploded. After failing to catch the speculative bubble in office space, the property's owners ended up missing the housing boom too. When the structure was finally complete, the market had collapsed and the building was converted to rentals.

During the planning period opposition sprang up, led by residents of an earlier condo project. Residents of 1500 Park Avenue and others were concerned that the new structure would partially or entirely obstruct their views of the East Bay hills. Mr Bryant succeeded in soothing the opposition by extracting promises of a street level cafe with sidewalk seating and a wireless network for what officials were billing as a burgeoning historic district.

Park Avenue residents built their case against the new building because plans exceeded the city's height and lot coverage regulations for the area according to Emeryville's zoning ordinance.

Once Prometheus agreed to a cafe, opposition was mollified and the city council gave its approval.

As it turns out, residents have been waiting in vain. Construction finally underway inside the cafe space is for an exercise room exclusively for building residents. Call it a classic 'bait and switch.'

This is the second time a cafe was promised on Park Avenue as part of a development project. Peet's Coffee agreed to add a retail coffee house as part of its agreement with the Planning Department in 1995 when the company relocated its roasting operations and corporate offices from Berkeley. Neighbors are still waiting. The planning department never got the assurances in writing. Peet's officials later admitted they never had any intention of opening up a retail store on the site.

Residents have been fooled again. Once again, the planning department failed to get a written agreement and Prometheus is under no legal obligation.

Charlie Bryant meanwhile, relayed that Prometheus blames the tanking economy for making a cafe no longer viable. One wonders if back when he was disarming opponents, Mr Bryant couldn't have made it clear that there was no written guarantee.

Of course had he done that, the residents might have renewed their opposition.

Towering Office Building Gets OK

Council overturns Planning Commission in a 4-1 vote
By Brian Donahue

A new office tower will join Emeryville's growing skyline after the City Council approved the project over objections from residents and the city's Planning Commission.

Capping many years of wrangling over the "mound site," a sealed toxic EPA Superfund site beneath Emeryville's Amtrak parking lot, the Emeryville City Council approved construction of a 165-foot tall office building Tuesday night on a 4-1 vote. Newly elected council member Jennifer West was the sole dissenter, saying the building was too tall. The vote overrules the city's planning commission, which recently rejected the same project based on concerns that the structure would adversely affect the neighborhood and traffic circulation.

Dubbed the "Emeryville Transit Center," the seven story office building will sit atop a two story parking garage. The structure received about a million dollars in state grants for transit-related infrastructure, despite having only a tangential connection to mass transit. According to earlier plans, part of the garage will be used as a storage facility for out of service Emery-Go-Round shuttle vans.

The project gained traction on the pro-business council despite flaws that likely would have scuppered similar proposals in other Bay Area cities. The structure will be built by Wareham Development, a firm that has delivered the city's Novartis campus, the Bayer Labs facility in Berkeley, the Emeryville Amtrak station and surrounding office buildings. From its conceptual inception until Tuesday night, the "Transit Center" has been showered by official largess and government support.

Beneath the asphalt of the Amtrak parking lot and a layer of clay lies a highly toxic cauldron left behind by Westinghouse which once operated a plant that built transformers and other electrical components on the site. The company escaped liability for the cleanup through a series of mergers, leveraged buy-outs and property divestitures. The chemicals were entombed and designated safe by state and federal officials over a decade ago.

With Tuesday's Council approval, Emeryville taxpayers will subsidize $3 million uncovering and removing thousands of tons of PCB-contaminated soil. The toxic waste will be trucked through local streets to a hazardous waste dump site, likely outside of California.

The structure will be more than double the height allowed under the city's own zoning ordinance. It is also more than four times what was allowed under older rules, which were amended largely to benefit Wareham and other developers. Emeryville's 25-year-old regulations limited buildings to 40 feet high in that neighborhood. The new zoning ordinance, only recently adopted, allows a maximum of 75 feet.

At 165 feet, the Transit Center would seem in obvious violation were it not for special loopholes allowing "transit centers" to rise to "unlimited" heights.

The new general plan, five years in the making, encourages a "central core" of tall buildings to create a 'downtown' district in Emeryville. The further from the central core, the shorter the buildings should become, according to the plan. Sadly for Wareham, the mound site sits outside this designated core. No matter, the company's city council friends added another loophole. Now, tall buildings can rise in the central core AND at Wareham's parcels on Horton Street.

The "transit center's" 825-space garage also violates the new general plan's concepts of actively encouraging alternative transportation, an irony not lost on critics.

According to plans, the office tower will have four bus parking spaces beneath, qualifying it as a "transit center." This linguistic sleight of hand caused consternation among some planning commissioners.

The council's handpicked Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee also raised red flags. That body unanimously warned that the project will destroy the new Horton Street Bike Boulevard by bringing thousands of cars and trucks onto Horton Street every work day.

After activists pointed out that environmental documents for the project failed to note the existence of the 'bike boulevard,' city officials retorted that the boulevard is meaningless, because the council never officially defined what a bike boulevard is, despite designating Horton Street as one.

When activists attempted to publicize the city's linguistic gymnastics, city officials placed a gag order on the writers of the building's traffic study, Berkeley-based LSA Associates, forbidding company employees from discussing the Transit Center document with the public, even privately.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Developer: I am the Law

Wareham Flexes Political Muscle
By Brian Donahue

In an example of how some in Emeryville are more equal than others, a favored developer will likely gain approval for a bulky office tower without answering criticism from Emeryville’s normally pliant Planning Commission.

Wareham Development Corporation, the builder of most of Emeryville’s bio-tech and office complexes, is so confident that its planned 165-foot tall office tower and parking garage will sail through as-is, that the firm didn’t bother to address any of the reasons the city’s appointed Planning Commission cited when they rejected the building’s plans two weeks ago.

Wareham didn't have to. The Planning Commission's ruling was appealed by Nora Davis and other members of the pro-business council majority.

The so-called "Transit Center," was rejected by the planning commission after it ruled that the accompanying environmental studies required by state law "lacked credibility." The commission also dismissed the resident amenities and benefits touted by the developer, as ‘dubious.’ One commissioner stated that the proposed building was clearly "out of scale" with the neighborhood.

A rejection of this sort, especially by a body seldom finding fault in any project, would normally cause reconsideration by the city bureaucracy or the firm making the proposal. But this is not a normal project, nor a normal city.

No need to go back to the blueprints. Wareham, and its leader, Rich Robbins don't need to listen. After all, this is a firm with the ‘chutzpah’ to name a parking garage and office tower a “Transit Center.” Robbins is also a man with enough juice in Emeryville to get what he wants.

The council majority didn't even wait for Robbins to pony up the cost of filing an appeal. Instead, they appealed it themselves. Now the council gets the chance to overrule its own hand picked commissioners.

Tomorrow, the council will likely ignore the planning commission’s objections and approve the project without alteration. Even the planning department's official report urges full acquiescence to Robbins wishes.

The project has created controversy over the years. Many millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies were demanded by Robbins and granted by the Council. Before the ink was even dry on the city's new general plan, a special exemption was added for Robbins' garage and tower. Construction will disturb one of the city’s EPA Superfund Sites, a toxic legacy of a Westinghouse plant currently sealed beneath the Amtrak parking lot. Construction will excavate tons of PCBs and truck them through our community. Additionally, the Bike/Pedestrian Committee unanimously objected to what the project will do to the city’s new and only Bicycle Boulevard----bring heavy traffic to a street from which bicycle lanes were removed.

The Council will consider their own appeal of the Planning Commission's decision Tuesday. To anyone who might want to witness an expression of raw political power, attend the meeting, scheduled to get underway at City Hall on Tuesday, February 16 at 7:15 p.m.

Friday, February 12, 2010

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The Emeryville Tattler, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable since 12 February 2010.....
News, analysis, history, human interest and events, with special attention to the goings on at City Hall.