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Sunday, January 1, 2012

Oportunity Lay In Redevelopment Ashes

Phoenix Lurking For Emeryville?
Collapse Of Redevelopment Agency Will Provide Opportunity

Opinion/News Analysis
Welcome to 2012!  On this day many residents will no doubt speculate on Emeryville's future.  As it turns out, over the next year and more, we will be harshly buffeted by forces outside our boundaries and beyond our control.  The recent California Supreme Court decision to dissolve the State's redevelopment agencies will alter Emeryville's course, for better or worse.  It's our job, the people that live here, to make sure it winds up being for the better.
We are fated to live in interesting times as Emeryille sits on the cusp of a new post-redevelopment era.

Whenever events conspire to dramatically transform an existing political paradigm, as surely as the day follows the night, the forces of greed will rise up and try to use the crisis to serve their interests.  And we can be assured here in Emeryville too, these forces will attempt to reconfigure our town in ways that don't serve the resident's interests.

What Have We Lost?
First, a little history: the redevelopment concept was born in 1945 as a way to use government action in city planning to eliminate blight; something the private sector was incapable of doing.  In Emeryville, redevelopment was implemented in 1976.  
The idea is to use the government to seize property in blighted areas by use of Eminent Domain and shuttle the land to private developers with approved development projects and then use the increased property valuation to fund a Redevelopment Agency to continue on the blight elimination regime. This increase in taxes brought on by the increased economic activity is a public/private partnership known as 'tax increment' financing.  As easy and good as it all sounds, alas, this is not a magic money machine and these tax diversions to the Redevelopment Agency are made at the expense of the government of the State of California; as a result public schools and public safety have taken a hit.

Redevelopment was never meant to be permanent though many agencies have existed for decades, diverting 12% of property taxes away from school districts and contributing to California's education crisis.  In its place, redevelopment has shuttled this money over to favored developers; in Emeryville that would be mostly Wareham Development and Madison Marquette Development, the builders of the Bay Street Mall and various office towers in town.

35 Years Of Redevelopment In Emeryville
Emeryville's Redevelopment Agency has been better than many other cities' across California. We've mostly avoided the horror show of edge city farmland being called 'blight' and wholesale graft conducted by crooked politicians.
Emeryville's Redevelopment Agency built the popular Doyle/Hollis Park two years ago, clearly a major success by any measurement.  There have been other projects also that have increased livability shepherded by the Redevelopment Agency.  The Agency is required to spend money on housing, part of a State mandated 20% housing set aside with targets for low to moderate housing included.  
But City Hall and the Chamber of Commerce have been silent about the myriad problems wrought by the Agency, not the least of which is the maven of wall-to-wall autonomous and alienating shopping malls, choking traffic, unaesthetic streetscapes and the massive debt incurred by taxpayers as a result.  The Agency has come up short on its housing mandates as well.  
Two years ago, a city-wide survey of over 400 residents was conducted and the residents took the Redevelopment Agency to task.  The respondents almost universally panned the Bay Street Mall, a major Redevelopment Agency project.  The survey revealed that the mall is not used by Emeryville residents.   The survey takers also rebuked other Redevelopment Agency projects as not in the interests of residents.
The "tax receipts" argument forwarded by cheerleaders of all the malls built by the Agency with taxpayer's money never seem to acknowledge that the malls don't just raise money for Emeryville...they are Emeryville.  This is the town we've built with the Redevelopment Agency.
The first 10 years or so of redevelopment helped eliminate legitimate blight here in Emeryville, but as under-utilized, inappropriate and unaesthetic buildings came down, the appetite for demolition was not satiated and many beautiful historically and architecturally significant buildings also fell under the wreaking ball.  What rose in their place is a net loss for livability in our town.

With the court's ruling, the redevelopment experiment has run its course and state-wide it has left cities with massive bond debt, now wholly the responsibility of the taxpayers.  Emeryville, being more than 90% made up of the Redevelopment Agency, too, is facing a mountain of debt after the 40 year redevelopment party.  In the short term, there will be a redevelopment fiscal hangover.

No More Free Money For Developers?  
Don't Bet On It!
The dissolution of the Redevelopment Agency with its Santa Claus bag of government subsidies will bring a response from those who have used it to their advantage over the years, namely the developers.  We must watch out for the inevitable cries of "Disaster!" and "The sky is falling!" from the local chambers of commerce and the greater state-wide media influenced by  right wing think tanks.  They're going to see their interests served in draconian solutions offered up in the face of the 'disaster' that will invoke some new program to somehow continue the transfer of public money into private developer's pockets.  After years of feeding at the redevelopment public trough, it's unlikely its developer beneficiaries will simply throw up their hands with a "C'est la vie, it was a nice run while it lasted".

A New Vision For Emeryville
Emeryville shouldn't sit by paralyzed, as paroxysms of change sweep over us.  We're going to have to figure out how to rebuild our town in a new way, without the Redevelopment Agency.  We already know the solution isn't to react by turning away from government as crucial to the process.  Reliance solely on the private sector might be tempting after a generation of watching local politicians engage in mutual backscratching with connected developers under the aegis of redevelopment.  Most of these made developers couldn't compete in a real free market.
Our Redevelopment Agency did do good works: the parks, the affordable housing (what little it did), the removal of toxic soil and the bolstering of our tax base by development.  The bad work includes all the stifling suburban style shopping malls and the shameless coddling of connected developers who are not interested in creating a livable town for us, the residents.  We should work to retain the Redevelopment Agency's good public policy while jettisoning the bad.
We'll probably need to start acting more as a regional player.  The recent urban density increasing Smart Growth, so much in vogue now will not likely subside owing to the rising price of fuel and our envious central Bay Area location will certainly help us.
We need to look to the past for inspiration; before the invention of redevelopment, cities did a fine job of providing public amenities.  Think of the City Beautiful movement at the turn of the 20th Century: cities across America built large and small scale public infrastructure, beautiful public edifices including train stations, libraries and parks.  We need to realize we can do this again.

The demise of redevelopment needn't be the end of development for our town and more importantly, it needn't mean the end of providing livability.  The citizens need to be vigilant against any politicians that may hold sway developer's desires for profit over our desire for building a city we want to live in.
We need to build up our city with a progressive vision and that means with the desires of the residents as the driver.  Let's get started.


  1. Good coverage, Brian, but I see it a little differently. Why can't we just take a breather.
    Remember,"If you build it, they will come". Well, Emeryville built it, and now the money is dried up.
    But, the foundation has been laid. We ought to spend some time fixing pot holes, and enjoying what we have. And, THEY WILL COME. Our GATEWAY TO EVERYWHERE location will encourage that. Whatever will be, will be; and life is good in Emeryville, right now. Let's enjoy what we have!

  2. I agree with your point that the developers will simply invent a new way to get subsidies from the city. I don't think this ruling will even slow them down. Look for the day when we'll be crying for the good old days before redevelopment was killed.

  3. Superb, balanced article Brian.

    Let me summarize the results of all this redevelopment in a slightly different, somewhat more critical light (I divided my comments into this Part I and a Part II that follows to stay within your blog's character count limit):

    1. Emeryville built tons of big box retailers that mainly serve out-of-town shoppers (Office Max, Office Depot, Home Depot). Some serve the community as well - Best Buy.

    The emphasis on "big box" retailers has made it very hard to have "small town" shopping opportunities such as exist on Berkeley's 4th Street, on Shattuck, on Telegraph, in Albany along Solano Avenue, along College Avenue from Berkeley to Rockridge. First, because available development capital got siphoned to "big box," second because the music department at Best Buy, for example, drives out smaller retailers like Rasputin.

    Why did Emeryville emphasize big box? Due to a lack of faith in support by local residents and a fear that out-of-towners just wouldn't drive into Emeryville for anything less than a big box, or big mall, experience. What a failure of vision!

    The closest efforts to "local shopping" are the Powell Street Plaza and Emeryville Public Market, which fail to capture the "local feel" of the East Bay's best shopping streets and neighborhoods. With all the redevelopment money in Emeryville and all the talent at City Hall, you would have expected more than simply replicating suburban strip malls.

    After the tons of money that went into the "big" centers, Emeryville's sole contribution to "local" life is the KFC/House of Pancakes/Arizmendi "strip mall" along San Pablo. Was that the best we could do?

    2. "Big box office" - ginormous buildings that seem to be loved by bio-tech companies, but aren't they as ugly and imposing as possible? Near-descendants of the architectural school that emphasized making people feel "small" relative to the mass of the buildings. I predict one these "big box offices" will become relics of urban blight themselves. They are VERY poorly designed for multi-tenant and start-up use. While the trend in commercial r&d was towards human scale "college campus" style parks, Emeryville allowed it's developers to build for mass.

    In contrast, the best office/commercial buildings in Emeryville are the "converted" industrial buildings. And of course Pixar, complain though you might about their "squatting" on some of Emeryville's old streets (and thus blocking bicycle and pedestrian circulation, instead of protecting it from "car monsters." The scale of Pixar's distributed buildings and open spaces is very "human friendly."

    P.S. Emeryville - some of the most productive and expensive real estate in the office world is on Sand Hill Road near Stanford, where the venture capitalists hang out. Why couldn't we have figured out how to take the spill-over effect from UC Cal and build them the infrastructure they needed close by - in freeway- and parking- friendly Emeryville, away from crazy anti-development Berkeley? Instead of aiming at Cal, we aimed at San Francisco and tried to steal their high-profile tenants. Sorry that wasn't likely to happen, think "start up" not City theft.

    continued below in Pt II

  4. Pt II (see Part I above):

    3. And finally, in the worst anti-family, anti-affordable policy decisions ever, Emeryville gave us "loft hell," a peculiar circle of hell which antedates Dante's refreshing description of the underworld. In this peculiarly modern purgatory, the "non-committed" dwell - those who don't actually _work_ in lofts (the concept of "lofts" hearkens from artists and craftspersons "live/work" space) or make babies like the apartment and house dwellers - but those locked in the eternal cycle of childless Peter-Pan-ism, commuting to the the golden land known locally as the "City" and whose sole objective is (was, post 2008 crash) to leverage up their equity so they could actually _move_ to the City and buy a loft or flat there. Lofts are SO stylish, soon to be like disco, I am sorry we couldn't have built more during the real estate boom (bubble)!

    So people ask me why I ran for City Council in the last election. These are the kinds of reasons. To the extent there are other Emeryville residents who really feel there is a need to change, I suggest we start getting together and start planning a strategy and develop a positive vision for the 2013 election.

    P.S. - I still consider the Emeryville Center of Community Life to be part of the same broken Emeryville policy. Bigger and Better! Massive! Clean and new! Instead of rolling up our sleeves and figuring out how to keep wonderful Anna Yates open, and figuring out how to give Emery Secondary the _same_ "small town," Friday Night Lights charm. We don't need another steenkin' El Cerrito High School type massive campus structure. We need the impression of smallness, its community-building, not the daunting effects of "largeness."

    And I will tell you that the only reason ECCL exists (as a concept now, unless we can stop it) is due to the academic ambitions of a certain crowd (which wants to prove that "co-location of all grades" works in an urban mixed- to low- income setting, not just in "elite" communities) and the political aspirations of certain politicians (who want to get on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors when the time is "ripe").

    Come on, community, let's not go to sleep/put our collective heads in the sand until the next general election. Speak out or watch Brian write another article on the ECCL in 7 years detailing why it didn't work and we have dwindling, not growing, school enrollments.

  5. The elimination of redevelopment surely does not provide any opportunities that were not already present. By eliminating redevelopment, the legislature has eliminated a great opportunity for investing in our communities and replaced it with nothing.

  6. Right on Brian - now let's all get to work and help Emeryville become the urban city it's begging to be.

    gale bailey