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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

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.

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