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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Eminent Domain In Emeryville Works For Developers, Not Residents

More Than 10 Years
Residents Still Wait For Pickleworks Connection

Call it another case of 'who does the City of Emeryville really work for?'.
More than 10 years after city officials, under pressure from residents, announced they would use eminent domain to re-establish a public walkway between 53rd and 55th streets if they had to, residents are still waiting.

Now dubbed the 'Pickleworks Path,' it was once a pedestrian short-cut connecting EmeryBay Village, Novartis and the Child Development Center on 53rd Street with the small businesses, and the CoHousing project on Doyle and 55th Streets along with the rest of North Emeryville. The once 300 foot stroll is now blocked by two padlocked fences and requires pedestrians to take a lengthy six block detour.

The city's newly approved general plan calls for the restoration of this pedestrian connection.
In 1999, developers added padlocks to two gates, severing the walkway as a new building went up behind the old Pickleworks facade.
Residents inquiring about the path a over a decade ago were told by officials that the pathway was privately owned and the property owner barred access fearing that pedestrians would vandalize the building. Officials said their request for a public easement was declined as was daytime access to the pathway.
Residents were told that the only way the path could be restored, owing to the recalcitrance of the landlord, was by seizing it through eminent domain, a process the city of Emeryville is very familiar with.

This path now private and blocked by this gate,
connects 55th and 53rd streets and would help
shave blocks off north and south bound
pedestrian's travels if made public.  
Eminent domain has been used by local and state governments for decades as a tool to promote the common good. Private property owners are awarded fair market value for their property and the land or structures are conveyed to government entities---typically to make way for new highways, schools, reservoirs or hospitals.
Recently however, eminent domain has morphed into an entirely new form: the conveyance of property from one private owner to another private owner, with a public entity only involved as a middleman of sorts. This new version was recently and controversially ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court in the infamous Kelo vs City of New London case where people's homes were seized by a Connecticut city and then given to a developer who planned to construct a shopping mall.

Emeryville has been a pioneer in the private to private use of eminent domain.  A recent example was the seizure of the so-called Alder property on the Northeast corner of Hollis and Powell Streets. Michael Alder, the owner of a century-old, seismically retrofitted brick building housing a law office, an architecture firm and firm that converted cars to operate on electricity, had no plans to sell his building. That didn't matter to Emeryville officials who used eminent domain to seize the structure and convey it to Wareham Development and its multimillionaire CEO, San Rafael's Rich Robbins.  Wareham bulldozed Alder's historic structure for a planned project dubbed 'Emery Station Greenway.'  Robbins received almost $2 million in subsidies from the city for his efforts (please see January 25th Tattler story).  Council watchers noted that the city made Robbin's needs a top priority, completing the entire process in barely a year.

This trend has been repeated throughout the city; lightning fast turn-around for favored developers, while eminent domain projects that would improve the quality of life for ordinary residents like restoring the Pickleworks path limp along at a glacial pace.


  1. You have the facts of Kelly v. New London wrong. A shopping mall was never planned. It was a mix of office, hotel, commercial and residential uses. Also, 'Supreme Court' should be capitalized. If for no other reason than out of respect for this storied institution. I happen to love Justice Stevens opinion in Kelo, but Justice O'Connor's dissent makes some worthy points too

  2. I corrected the capitalization of the Supremes, thanks for the heads up! However, in your admonishment, you've spelled Kelo wrong. And also, the redevelopment in New London included a shopping mall.

  3. Glad I saw your post. My partner and I tried walking up that direction (just a few blocks from my home) for the first time, and passed by this Pickleworks… but then we were detoured all the way out to San Pablo, and crossed through some dodgy areas before we could continue through. Your post explained how this came to be.

  4. This is simple economics. The city would have to pay the value of the strip of land that would cost about a 1 million after the lawers are finished negotiating. This kind of money spent will benefit how many residents? On the other hand, when the city completes an eminent domain transaction with Wareham and adds a 2 million dollar subsudy to the deal, I believe the city recovers the money spent within years due to the increased propery tax collections and revenues added through new business development. Compare the values between the improved property against the old unimproved property's revenues collected. Once you see this, you might ask where is all this additional revenue going to be spent? Sadly, it will be respent on the city's own, and their benefits, salaries and packages. It will not be wasted on a pathway or park for its residents.

  5. The guy above says "We've got to stop this 'livability' nonsense. Cities don't exist to build anything for the residents, they exist to help business. If we don't stop all this talk about livability, we're going to sink".

  6. Just because the Redevelopment Agency hasn't yet used eminent domian to create this pathway does not mean it will not be done. The Agency (just as any government) sets priorities. You fail to mention all the other examples of eminent domain which benefitted residents. The Doyle-Hollis Park is an amazing example. This park has infinitely more value to residents that the Picleworks path (not that the Pickleworks path is unimportant) but I'm glad the Agency has thus far prioritized projects which give residents the most bang for the buck.

  7. Whoops. That was the auto-correct on my phone the turned "Kelo'" into "Kelly." But you are wrong that the redevelopment project in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood of New London, CT contained a shopping mall. You are probably referring to Justice O'Connor's dissent which talks about "replacing...any home with a shopping mall." This was just an example, however. The Fort Trumbull plan did not include a shopping mall. You can actually view a rudimentary version of the Fort Trumbull Municipal DEvelopment Plan here:

  8. Do you know what is happening with the parking lot on 59th Street between Hollis and Doyle, in the back of Elevation 22? It was supposed to be part of the public walkway...two days ago, it became completely fenced off.

  9. You say: "Cities don't exist to build anything for the residents, they exist to help business." Why is that? Because the Council Members are business ideologues? I don't think so. Several (most?) of them come from a government employment background.

    They favor business when business fills the city bank account. Why? "ask where is all this additional revenue going to be spent? Sadly, it will be respent on the city's own, and their benefits, salaries and packages."