Plethora of Pre-Existing Empty Storefronts Doesn't Faze City
Emeryville's Department of Economic Development has been very busy recently working in conjunction with the Chamber of Commerce and are now calling for among other things, a City Hall facilitated plan of action to deliver more empty storefronts in "neighborhood centers" around town. This plan, called the 'Economic Development Strategy', is to become policy at City Hall. It would spend an unknown amount of taxpayer money to "expand retail" and other business promotion.
The plan makes no reference to the vast amount of existing empty and boarded up retail throughout the city nor does it offer any policy change by way of attracting retail tenants to the new storefronts.
The strategy plan as an aside, also calls for putting more cars on our streets and encouraging auto use by improving vehicular traffic efficiency, presumably something good for business.
This is what high rent brings.
It should not be necessary here to chronicle all the cascading negative effects of boarded up storefronts in a town. Suffice it to say the perception of this kind of blight tends to affirm and multiply it.
Emeryville, it should be noted, has long had an excess of empty storefronts, pre-dating the current recession due to our particular brand of land use public policy. City Hall has by myopic and rigid thinking, pursued a land use philosophy that just about guarantees we will see block after block of empty stores.
The Redevelopment Agency in Emeryville is tasked with what it calls its mandate to eliminate blight. It is the city council, through the Redevelopment Agency and their narrow, some would say surreptitious agenda that has gotten us to the place where we now find ourselves: awash in empty storefronts. Perhaps they're incapable of seeing the irony of a government agency, dogged in its fight against blight, instead being the chief agent of blight proliferation.
General Plan Ignored
San Pablo Ave in Berkeley: This is
what cheap rent will get you.
Our $2 million General Plan calls for a policy that would help avoid empty storefronts. The current general plan and the previous general plan both call for rehabilitating existing buildings, especially historic or architecturally significant buildings but unfortunately in Emeryville, the General Plan always takes a back seat to the whims of developers who are looking to maximize their profits.
Saving old buildings is more than just recognizing the value of the vernacular architecture of the past; leaving some existing buildings as the General Plan dictates, would keep retail rents low since new construction costs usually are added to the financing.
What retail that CAN afford the high rents tend to be national franchise fast food and mattress stores and the like, something we the people have collectively said is not desirable.
Berkeley Model Superior
One only needs to look as far as San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley and its retail renaissance to see the benefits of keeping older, cheaper buildings around. Berkeley, it seems has figured this out and they've left Emeryville in the dust.
It should be said that Berkeley's much higher business tax has not served as an impediment to this flowering of resident and pedestrian friendly development. On top of this, Berkeley is seeing this revitalization of San Pablo Avenue at the height of the recession; further evidence of the wrong-headed thinking in Emeryville.
Since Emeryville seems incapable of saving old commercial buildings regardless of the mandate from the General Plan, a fait accompli really, some other model must be introduced to stop empty storefronts from proliferating as they have been. Other than simply not building anymore retail, a choice not embraced by the people and made clear in many public General Plan scoping meetings, a new idea needs to rise up.
A New Idea
A different approach would need to see a culture change at City Hall. This can likely only be accomplished by changing the ossified old guard city council. A different council could see how Emeryville has been selling itself short to developers for many years. A necessary change would involve the council being proactive in pursuing development and they would have to learn how to occasionally be able to say NO to a developer.
Future developers could be welcomed to make proposals for our town but when it comes to providing the street level retail that commonly accompanies the development, the developers must be told we expect the storefronts to be rented, and rented to an approved list of retail types as the General Plan dictates. Rent could be controlled to make sure our goals are achieved; retail rent would slide down over time as the storefronts remain empty until a tenant steps up. This rent sliding regime could be initiated in a number of ways to achieve our goals. Skittish developers can be shown the door.
We need a culture at City Hall where this kind of dissent is not summarily attacked or ignored. A debate should be allowed, even encouraged.
With the November elections looming, a change-up along these lines could be forthcoming, dependent upon who is elected of course. Candidates for office should be told in no uncertain terms that new thinking is needed to stop the downward spiral of boarded up storefronts in our town. Clearly what City Hall and the Chamber of Commerce is offering with the new Economic Development Strategy, is not rational and will only exacerbate this problem that only Emeryville seems to be flummoxed by. Our neighbors have figured out how to deal with this, why can't we?