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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Wareham Development: Sterile, Banal, Corporate

The New EmeryStation Greenway: feels very corporate.

Corporate landscaping, banal architecture:
The Uninspired Wareham Emeryville Development Portfolio

Opinion/News Analysis
"Lick 'n stick" brick on a massive, non-
pedestrian friendly building.
It feels phony because it is phony.  This
building replaced genuine load bearing masonry
buildings waiting to be rehabilitated as the
General Plan dictates.
Wareham Development Corporation, a major developer in the heart of Emeryville, is finishing out their newest property here, 'EmeryStation Greenway' on Hollis Street, giving residents a chance to see how this building will impact the neighborhood: the pedestrian experience, the psychological sense of public space and the overall created general sense of livability for local inhabitants.  Unfortunately what is already evident is that EmeryStation Greenway will just be another Wareham development offering Emeryville residents a sterile and banal corporate street-scape.

The problem is that there is a decided lack of real planning here.

Leftover 'Second International Style' glass boxes
juxtaposed with curtain wall lick 'n stick brick.
Kentucky blue grass and corporate
"Turd-in-a- Plaza" sculpture
completes the picture.
One only needs to observe non-tenant pedestrians as they transect a Wareham building to see the problem:  people don't wish to linger, they're voting with their feet, the (corporate) fountains and flowers notwithstanding.  The experience is one of getting past, usually quickly.  Compare this to a newly redeveloped commercial zone in Berkeley on San Pablo Avenue near Dwight Way.  There, pedestrians stop and interact with each other and with the built environment, a sense of intimacy, even discovery for pedestrians.  There's a sense of funkinesss that's critical to human scale development.
Alas, it's anathema to Emeryville's corporate land use ethos.

Other than the tenants, people walk on by the
parking garage fronted by Kentucky blue grass.
Perhaps being cognizant of the stultifying nature of the architecture here, Wareham has thrown in some details one normally associates with the idea of lingering: along the margins of several of their buildings there are planted flowers, offering a chance to stop and smell.  But it's not working.  Even the planted flowers have a regimented corporate feeling, demoting them to a cookie-cutter developer placed tenant amenity; placed to bump up rents.

EmeryStation Greenway is but the latest of Wareham's 13 developments in Emeryville.  Indeed, the whole center of town, the swath of land bounded by Hollis Street, the railroad tracks and the Greenway heading north is now thrown over utterly to Wareham... and more buildings are on the way.
Wareham's politically connected CEO Rich Robbins has built Warehamland with City Hall's help by seizing private property and tearing down the existing buildings, often of architectural and historic merit, all with taxpayer subsidies. And Mr Robbins' political clout at City Hall has enabled him to build Warehamland with extensive use of planning variances from the Building Department due to the fact that his buildings are too tall according to Emeryville's General Plan.  A less connected developer would not be allowed to so flagrantly and frequently violate our General Plan.
 It's all been very profitable for Mr Robbins but it has helped contribute to the $250 million debt, left over from the former Redevelopment Agency, that must be paid back.

This second floor "park" in the center
of a Wareham building was sold as a public
amenity for the residents of Emeryville with
guaranteed public access 24/7.  The Planning Commission
was impressed.  Ever been to this "park"?
Other large development in Emeryville has generally involved single parcels of land bordered by public streets and sidewalks.  In Warehamland, the public thoroughfares, the major arterial of Hollis Street and the side streets, bisect through the Wareham realm, creating a feeling of the public commons yielding to a private developer's whims.

 The Planning Commission too has abdicated its planning authority to Mr Robbins.  The result is the undemocratic Warehamland; one single man's vision for the very heart of Emeryville.  Rich Robbins has become the defacto designer of the vast center of our town, and the primary function is to serve as a profit center for Wareham.  It has the feeling of a town driven by external ideology, a town without pride or a sense of responsibility to the public commons.  


  1. This "news" post sound a lot like a Fox News "Fair & Balanced" piece. I understand your upset, but you come across as a bitter person.

    I've worked in one of the "Warehamland" buildings for the past three years and although I don't live in Emeryville, I can assure you that I've pumped an awful lot of money into local restaurants and shops.

    Do you realize that most people would never have stepped foot in the Wasteland that was once Emeryville if these sort of developments didn't exist? I can understand your frustration, but take a deep breathe...and calm down and act like a grown up.

    1. I guess only children care about the public commons...adults on the other hand just want to get home to comfort and safety and snap on the TV... leave the public realm to the children, is that what you're saying?.

      If you re-read the article, you'll note that I do not address any positive economic effects Warehamland may have. The story isn't about that, it's about City Hall devaluing the commons and questioning why that regime should hold sway. It's my contention that the greater public should expect their interests to have primacy as we develop our town.

      You are free to characterize this as childish if you want but that would mean most people are mere children (or should be).

  2. Brian,
    Thank you for the astute architectural critique and review.
    On the one hand Robbins may be rich, but he has poor taste. On the other hand, it is hard to think how you could make a bunch of bulky and squat four story office/lab buildings look nice. Is Robbinsville more or less ugly and uninspired as Bishop Ranch Business Park? What about the Watergate towers I, II, III and IV? It's hard for me to say.
    Where Emeryville went wrong is the council and planning commission's decisions for BIG projects---requiring a clean slate---bulldozing everything so Robbins, Madison Marquette and the rest get a vacant lot. Our city would be much more interesting, have a much more diverse business and tax base and be more affordable both for businesses and residents and have a better quality of life, had city leaders allowed Emeryville to change slowly and we have boring corporate chain stores and office jobs for dull cube jockeys.

  3. Rich Robbins is the biggest gonif since Bernie Madoff. Those two and Ruth Atkins make me ashamed of my heritage.
    All the work I do to live by example as an ethical, generous and compassionate soul is wasted when Atkins, Robbins and Madoff go around confirming every anti-Semitic stereotype there is. Sad.

  4. It's labeled "opinion" so I'm ok with hearing Brian out. Brian is pretty good about printing letters to the editor in their full, un-edited form if anyone cares to make a reply.

  5. I believe I need a list of all these so called parks and common spaces I can visit. I've never been or heard of the park in the above picture. I'm sure my nieces would love it!

  6. I live near the Wareham campus and next to the new greenway building. I believe that Wareham has done a very nice job. Now, I'm not an architectural critique (you clearly are not, either), but I'm glad Wareham is talking toxic waste sites and turning them into community assets. And yes, I've been to the 24/7 park. I go there often. Others are usually there, as well.

    As for the new Greenway building, Wareham solicited community input and revised their plans on the basis of what they heard. They have worked closely with neighbors and have actually managed to build that new building with very little inconvenience to those of us who are steps away.

    You come across as an anti-development person (which is your right) who will bitterly oppose any change. I pity you.

    1. Hi Robert-
      Yes, I agree, I am not an architectural critique, I am however, an architectural critic. That's how I'm able to recognize the banal and stifling nature of the buildings in Warehamland.

      Regarding your anti-development charge- Watch out there might be exposing your bigotry against residents who would like a higher caliber of development in town. To thuggishly conflate those who would so ask for better development with anti-development is just that: thuggery.
      It's ironic that the city council is actually the anti-development crowd here...they keep approving low slung, low density suburban style malls and such with their acres and acres of parking lots. It has been me (and others) who have asked for years for 'smart growth'; that being HIGHER density, HIGHER intensity development here. The developers, for their part, only want to build what they perceive as the most likely to maximize their profits...and so that's what we've gotten here in Emeryville. Being a resident, I love the idea of Emeryville changing and becoming better.
      Remember, someone that calls for denser development is not anti-development.

  7. I pity the poor fool who pities me!

  8. Hi, I am an Emeryville resident for over 10 years, an architect with close to 20 years of experience, don't mean to sound presumptuous, but I would like to say that the glassy curtain wall Wareham building is one of the most beautiful buildings in Emeryville, I would go as far as saying one of the most well-proportioned office buildings in the entire bay area!! The new Emery Station building would be a strong contender for the ugliest building in the bay area- I am not being dramatic or exaggerating.

    1. You are arguing one of Wareham's buildings is well designed from an architecture point of view (I would disagree) but what I'm saying is the architectural portfolio presented by Wareham's Emeryville properties is banal and stultifying, from a pedestrian point of view. As a resident and not a drive by viewer, the pedestrian experience is the one that matters.
      The charge remains: Warehamland is sterile.