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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Emeryville Needs Another Mall: City Hall's Obstinacy

City Council's Bay Street Blunder; Where's The Accountability?  

What is it about Emeryville that always seems to make accountability at City Hall out of bounds?  Why is it that even the most bone-headed public policy, cooked up by the city council dilettantes, never seems to face a day of reckoning?
City Council: Let it ride with
Madison Marquette
For years, the city council has allowed a huge piece of cleared land north of the Bay Street Mall to lay fallow, all so the mall developer, Washington DC based Madison Marquette corporation, can have exclusive dibs to develop it at their pleasure.  They get to hold this valuable piece of land in reserve as long as they like and the cost is paid by Emeryville taxpayers.  The council kept voting 'all in' with Madison Marquette's Bay Street expansion, locking out any other (paying) proposals for the land.  The council has read the tea leaves and they see shopping malls in Emeryville's future.

A recent article in the New York Times however highlights the fool's errand the city council has been on, especially with regards to the planned Bay Street Mall expansion.  The article is not specific to Emeryville but it reveals how the shopping mall's best days are behind them and the political favors bestowed upon Madison Marquette by the council will not likely net a new mall on the land and any chance at another use for it has now likely been usurped by the recession.  It was a failed initial bet on Madison Marquette and the council kept doubling down.

The future of the Bay Street Mall?
The Times tells the tale: As retailers crawl their way out of the worst recession since the advent of malls, many are realizing they are overbuilt and they're closing locations at a fast clip.  The result is near-record vacancy rates in malls of all kinds; Gap Inc is closing 200 stores, Abercrombie and Fitch recently closed 50 stores and Talbots will close 110 this year.  In addition, many more have filed for bankruptcy.  The story chronicles how non-retail uses are starting to move in where stores close down, "Schools, medical clinics, call centers, government offices and even churches are now standard tenants in malls."
 Urban planners and Wall Street say there are too many malls today.  The vacancy rate at shopping centers and strip malls was 11% in the last quarter of 2011 even though larger malls fared better at 9.2% vacancy.

Here in Emeryville, the Redevelopment Agency cleared the way for Madison Marquette by seizing land from private owners, closing down locally serving businesses including the much loved Flower Mart on Shellmound Street.  The taxpayers picked up the tab while the council continued to say NO to other offers for the cleared land from other developers.
Meanwhile, a city-wide survey has shown that the residents of Emeryville don't use the existing Bay Street Mall, but criminals sure do: it's been the single largest source of Emeryville Police overtime pay because of it's vastly underestimated crime profile.  Not enough taxes were negotiated by City Hall to pay for cops to offset the increase in crime generated by the mall.  So the taxpayers have to pick up that tab as well, not to mention  the original $50 million subsidy Madison Marquette received from City Hall to build the existing mall.

So now we're left with eight years of fallow land, not generating revenue for the city while the city council waits for Madison Marquette to start building the next mall; an increasingly unlikely prospect.
It reminds us of the assurances residents got from the city council that the $95 million school bond brought by 2010's Measure J will be backed up by Emeryville's iron clad positive assessed valuation growth.  We were told the whole thing can't fail, "Four percent growth is very conservative" Mayor Ruth Atkin told us.  Well, fail it did; Emeryville can now rate only $40 million in bonds but onward the $95 million project goes.
Emeryville citizens can wait for a day of reckoning for these blunders, some accountability for pig-headed and disastrous public policy.  But accountability at City Hall is not part of the culture.  It's a yet another increasingly unlikely prospect.


  1. Excellent, Brian. You hit the nail on the head; dead center. I wish my voting neighbors would wake up.

  2. Don't worry, the word around City Hall is that Nora Davis has signed up Mongomery Wards and Mervyn's as anchor tenants, and we'll also have a Thrify drug store, Circuit City, JJ Newberry's, Woolworth's and a Studebaker dealership.

  3. don't knock studebakers! my sister had one in 1959, used of course.