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Sunday, May 24, 2015

Emeryville's Worthless General Plan: Overturned on a Whim

Emeryville's Former & Current General Plan:
98 Pound Weaklings They

News Analysis/Opinion
The trials and travails of Emeryville's weak and pathetic General Plan have been well documented by the Tattler over the years, including last week's piece highlighting the destruction of the architectural gem formerly known as the First National Bank Building on San Pablo Avenue.  That iconic piece of Emeryville history in brick and stone was destroyed to make way for the post-modernist architectural pablum that now opprobriously occupies the same site.  The General Plan didn't have the legislative or moral authority to secure what Emeryville residents have declared as sacrosanct; part and parcel of progressing is remembering.  We wish to save some of our older buildings.
Emeryville's General Plan
Not up to the task.
The problem comes when developers seek permission to construct projects that involve tearing down our historic and architectural buildings of merit.  The General Plan expressly forbids that but we've yet to see an instance where the Plan has been strong enough to ward off such an attack.  It's clear to all; our General Plan, so democratically vetted it won an award from Sacramento, is no match for any developer seeking to make a buck in our town.
But what about Emeryville's former general plan?  How did that plan fare against developers also so inclined?

As it turns out, Emeryville's previous general plan was no better than what we've got now.
The previous general plan, encoded some 25 years ago was not nearly as vetted by the citizenry as the current iteration.  The City Council simply paid a city planning firm to write it up and then the public was given a few chances to comment before it became the central guiding document for the City.  However even without the current Plan's democratic bona-fides, the old plan also recognized the value in retaining Emeryville's historic architectural legacy, especially in the Park Avenue core.  Vernacular nineteenth and early twentieth century brick factories and warehouses were identified as a specific protected class of buildings by the plan.  These buildings were to be retained and converted for new uses.  The idea was not only to save Emeryville's architectural legacy but also to keep Emeryville as a place for start up entrepreneurial businesses, owing to the cheaper rent in these existing buildings versus new construction.

Consider the Disney/Pixar campus site.  The Emeryville General Plan was unequivocal; The old nineteenth century brick cannery row Del Monte factory on Park Avenue, its many buildings torn down in 1996 (mistakenly reported 1992 by the SF Chronicle), should have been saved.  But it wasn't that our General Plan lacked the cajones to stand up to wouldn't have, but it wasn't Pixar that demolished this massive site.  It was actually torn down for no reason at all.
At first, Kaiser Permanente wished to tear down the old Emeryville cannery row to build a hospital.  The General Plan needed to be amended to specifically allow hospitals to be built on that parcel and that was quickly done by City Hall to accommodate Kaiser in 1994.  The beautiful Del Monte buildings were to be torn down, the General Plan be damned.  But then suddenly Kaiser pulled out of the deal, presumably returning the buildings to their protected status afforded by the General Plan.  But that was not to be the case.  Instead the Redevelopment Agency took it upon itself to demolish Emeryville's historic legacy on Park Avenue with no proposed construction project even in the pipeline.  The General Plan was overturned so Emeryville could clear 20 acres of land in the center of our town to search for a developer to buy it.  It wasn't until later, 1998 with the site cleared, that Pixar bought the land and finished their first building in late 2000.
In a case of governmental hubris, Emeryville City Hall is now claiming on their official website, the land was cleared before Kaiser backed out of the deal...probably because the truth about a General Plan not even worth the paper it's printed on is embarrassing for City Hall.  

One gets a visceral sense of the people's wisdom reflected in their General Plan by gazing at the before and after pictures below:

Park Avenue (Before) 
Cannery Row: part of the old Del Monte Canning factory.
The General Plan said save this building (and others on the site).
Photo used with permission 
Park Avenue (After)
Same site, same camera angle.  Cannery Row today...
Large street trees and a security fence.


  1. The Del Monte cannery row was here when I first moved here. They had their last season canning and I remember hundreds of workers coming out of their at shift end. It was seasonal work and I understand the factory sat empty between seasons. Thanks for this post. The photo really brings back memories. The building in the photo was only one of the many and I remember much more beautiful buildings that were there. Can you find pictures of the other buildings and post them? Thanks again!

    1. Before the Del Monte cannery was destroyed it was photo documented as a 'mitigation measure' for the Environmental Impact Report (as if pictures would serve as a mitigation). I'm still trying to find the photos (another reason these pictures don't serve as even the barest of mitigations...they're nearly impossible to find) and I'll post them when I do.

    2. i would love to see photos of the old Oaks Ballpark! also the long extinct Emeryville Mud Flat sculptures!

  2. I have long advocated a Landmarks Preservation Board in the City (possibly
    part of the Planning Department such as in SF) with teeth to stand up to
    Developers and Old Guard City Council Members. Landmarks don't have to be
    of stone and brick... they can be wooden frame old residences as well. We
    have substantial surviving residential neighborhoods that deserve
    protection as Historic Districts. Don't wait for the so-called* Emeryville
    Historical Society* to do anything... they are based in Oakland and past
    history indicates that they are afraid to/ are not interested in saving old
    buildings/ neighborhoods.

    Anybody interested in joining the effort?

    Richard Ambro, Ph.D.
    1264 64th St. in Old Butchertown

    1. There are neighbors who would likely be interested, who live in the Golden Gate area. While some of them are in Oakland, a group that shares wisdom of best practices and learnings from going up 'against' project proposals and planning departments would be well-received. GG neighbors have worked to hold back McDonald's expansion (on SPablo/65th) and Suprema Meats decades of violations/expansion without permits, without much success, due to intransigent city department staff and what seems like back-door agreements with business.