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Saturday, April 9, 2016

Non-Family Friendly Housing Project in 'Zone of Stability' Nears Completion

Ocean Avenue Housing Project: End Run Around General Plan

News Analysis
As workers put the finishing touches at north Emeryville's newest apartment complex, 'Ocean Lofts', the units stand ready to receive their new occupants and the neighbors who railed against the project years ago can start to see their worst visions become realized and City Hall's stated housing goals subverted.  The project, at 1258 Ocean Avenue involved a small scale developer/builder tearing down a historic existing detached single family house built in 1913 to make way for much denser housing at odds with Emeryville's stated goals of making the town more family friendly and saving the east side housing from the wreaking ball as a General Plan designated 'zone of stability'.

Ocean Lofts street elevation.  Its back is turned to the
neighborhood. Oceans of stucco, sheer featureless facade
rises up and crowds the sidewalk, no 'eyes on the street' here.
The neighbors railed against the project approved in 2007 (the City granted an extension in 2009) quoting the General Plan's recommendation that single family detached housing in the Triangle neighborhood and the north side be protected against demolition but they were defeated by developer tactics some described as cynical.  The developer bought the existing house and requested a tear down and a new 4-plex building from City Hall regardless of the General Plan zone of stability prohibition but neighbors united against it.  Undaunted, the developer withdrew and allowed the house to be taken over by squatters who proceeded to strip out architectural details and damage the interior.  The roof was not repaired and rotted over several seasons.  Finally, the City Council, ignoring cries of foul from neighbors, relented to the tear down citing the damaged and rotted nature of the house.

The rarely-to-be-used front door (drive in, drive out garage
on the side). The vast featureless plane makes the laundry vent
to the left of the front door scream. In the '70's this kind of
architecture was called 'brutalism'.  A historic and family
friendly house in the 'zone of stability' was torn down for this.
And so the North Emeryville residential zone of stability gets Ocean Lofts with its interior courtyard and its back turned to the street and the neighbors.  The lofts crowd the former site of the single family house and so the developer was granted a variance from the Zoning Ordinance requiring a minimum of 15 feet of back yard, allowing the building to push up against the property line to four feet.  The City completed the deal by sweetening the pot, granting the developer private use of a Peabody Lane/Emeryville Greenway connection in the back of the project, forever shutting the public out of a critical bike/pedestrian connection in this city the General Plan identifies as "a connected place".

The big corporate developers in Emeryville haven't needed to use these 'hold, defer repair and let rot' tactics, relying instead on a compliant City Council who commonly engage in large General Plan amendments to accommodate the large development proposals.  1258 Ocean shows how a small scale developer, lacking the gravitas and therefore the capacity to garner City Hall largess like the big time developers, can through clever, some might say cynical scheming, still deliver the goods, maximize his profits and bypass our General Plan.


  1. I agree with the premise of this; that Emeryville needs more family friendly housing. However your definition of "Historic" seems a litle off to me. Just because something was built in the early 1900's doesn't justify keeping it. As a matter of fact a lot of the houses I see around Emeryville built in the early 20th century should probably be torn down. Most don't have proper foundations and are rotting. Nor are they have earthquake safe, or have proper plumbing and electrical. In fact the 1890's house on our property that was torn down when we built our house used bay sand for stucco; probably done in later years. The salt and God knows what else that was in the sand destroyed the redwood frame and structure. And don't even get me started on the soil contamination from years of lead paint that we had to mitigate for a small cost of $20,000+ . My point is just because it is old does not deem it "Historic" and indeed most of the time justifies a total tear down. The only incentive for an owner to keep the
    "History" is the savings in permit fees and taxes of a "remodel" versus a "total tear down." For a prime example of that, go see the 4 "historic" brick walls left standing at the new Parc on Powell apartments. That's what the General Plan gets us.

    1. The former early craftsman California classic bungalow on the site was "historic" by virtue of the fact that it was old. But you're right, not all old buildings have the architectural merits to be considered a valuable asset for the neighborhood. Those kinds of houses could be allowed to be torn down with the caveat that once gone, they can never be replaced and today's vision of what has architectural historic merit may not match tomorrow's. The General Plan however says NO to tear downs of houses in these two zones (Triangle and North Emeryville). To get around that problem and tear down a house in this zone the City would need to declare a 'Statement of Overriding Consideration' (hard for a single homeowner) or a clever scheme concocted by the homeowner to bypass the General Plan (wondering if there's a place to buy termites sprinkled around for 'seeding' as a predecessor to a teardown).

      Agreed, the problem at 1258 Ocean Avenue is less the weak General Plan and architectural history lost and more the family friendly housing lost (and neighborhood denying horribly oppressive architecture gained). Ask any neighbor around Ocean Lofts about this and you'll get an earful.

    2. Oh, BTW good point on Parc on Powell but that project only saved two "historic" brick walls...a prime example of "fa├žadism" so popular with city council members wishing to placate developers while claiming to vest residents interests.