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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Planning Commission Throws Back Center of 'Community' Life

Planning Commission: Major Problems 

With School District Plan

Planning Commission shocks School District with numerous criticisms of Center of 'Community' Life.

At Thursday evening's nearly four-and-one-half-hour-long Planning Commission meeting, the Planning Commission did not approve the joint City-School District's Emeryville Center of 'Community' Life (ECCL) application.  Each of the five non-recused Planning Commissioners in attendance expressed various concerns, some reaching existential proportions, about the current design of the ECCL project forcing the applicants to return next month with an improved design.
After the School District's architect Mark Seiberlich told the Commissioners the bike/pedestrian path associated with the project along the western border "never rose to a level of priority", the Commissioners were near unanimous in their disapproval of the District's lack of deference for Emeryville's General Plan.  Specifically and especially, the project's abandonment of both the proposed bike/pedestrian path and the proposed 53rd Street Greenway along the northern border were pilloried by the majority of Commissioners. The inadequate 'community commons' part of the project was also singled out for scorn.

City Staff, confident that Thursday night would be a rubber-stamp approval,  had only prepared a resolution approving the project and so at one point in the meeting when a majority of the Commissioners seemed willing to simply deny the application, they were unable to do so as no resolution rejecting the application had even been prepared.

There were two major actions before the Planning Commission regarding the ECCL Thursday evening. First, as the City Staff Report explained, as a Responsible Agency under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the Planning Commission was to reach its own conclusions regarding the project's compliance with CEQA based on their own independent judgment and analysis.
 Commissioner John Scheuerman
The lack of space at the
ECCL project is "troubling"

Second, the Commission was to consider granting various permits needed for the project to move forward, such as a tree removal permit, a permit allowing the building heights to exceed 30 feet, a permit allowing fewer on-site parking spaces than the minimum normally required, and a general use permit and design review. Commissioner Kairee Tann mentioned at the outset that the residence she owns is within 500 feet of the project site and so she was recusing herself.

At a previous study session held by the Planning Commission, several Commissioners had expressed concerns that the San Pablo Avenue site was too small to accommodate the proposed wide range of uses by so many students and community members. Planning Director, Charlie Bryant, started the evening off by trying to rein in these sorts of comments by admonishing the Commissioners regarding precisely what was before them, stating that any concern that there "is too much stuff crammed onto the site" is not within the Commission's purview, but then he had to admit that to the extent that any such concerns did affect any of the discretionary permits that were before the Commission, that then such issues were fair game.  The warnings from Mr Bryant didn't stop Commissioner Gail Donaldson from piping up, "This project has undersized facilities...minimal community spaces. Everything is squished together."  Collegue John Scheuerman joined in, "It's troubling" that there's not enough space to follow the General Plan he said.
ECCL Architect Mark Seiberlich:
"The bike/pedestrian path was never ignored
[during the design phase] but
it never rose to a level of priority".

Commission Unimpressed With District's Environmental Analysis
When it came time to discuss whether the District's environmental study for the contentious project, called the Initial Study Mitigated Negative Declaration (IS /MND) adequately identified environmental impacts and whether its analysis was adequate, Commissioner Gail Donaldson expressed concerns that 53rd Street had numerous traffic safety issues, calling it "a nightmare of conflicts between bicycles, pedestrians, turning cars, and people that are impatient, angry, and backed-up and stacked beyond what the capacity of that intersection is."  Commissioner John Schuermann responded that, "I definitely share that concern... I'm really uncomfortable that it hasn't been addressed and I do see a lot of conflicts." Chair Vanessa Kuemmerle then added, "I also see conflicts.  Especially with the queuing and also left turn lanes... I don't feel like the traffic was adequately addressed in the initial study.  And there are definite bike-pedesrian-vehicle conflicts."

Then one of the District's consultants, paid to produce the Initial Study, rose to respond that, "With regards to the turnaround, just keep in mind, in the mornings with drop-off, folks when they drop their kids off aren't lingering, there'd would be a lot of movement at that point. You let your kid out.  They shut the door.  You move on... This layout would work in addressing drop-off."

This provoked such guffaws from the parents in attendance that Chair Kuemmerle had to ask the
audience to quiet down and only whisper to themselves.  As parents know, drop-off at the existing Anna Yates Elementary School on 41st Street, especially for the youngest children, is rarely as quick and simple as consultants might like to imagine.  Kindergarten parents almost universally go with their children onto the campus, especially during the first months of school, and may stay with their child on campus until the bell rings at 8:27.  Currently the end of Salem Street closest to Anna Yates' 43rd Street entrance fills up with the cars of parents who are walking onto campus with their children.  The 41st Street entrance also sees its parking spots in wide use during drop-off and pick-up.  Yet somehow consultants who seem to know nothing about what the parents in our District actually do assure us that parents dropping off at the ECCL will barely slow down to a complete stop as they shove their children out the doors and speed away.

City Staff Fight Hard for The Project
Chair Kuemmerle also raised the issue of the failure of the proposal to be consistent with the General Plan's call for a bike/ped path along the western edge of the property, since part of the CEQA checklist asks whether  the project would conflict with any applicable land use plan, including the general plan, adopted for the purpose of avoiding or mitigating an environmental effect.

Planning Director, Charlie Bryant, spoke up on behalf of the applicants again, arguing for the view that being inconsistent with the General Plan in this respect does not create an environmental impact, simply because if there is no path there now, then not having one in the future could not negatively impact the environment.  Somehow Mr. Bryant could not fathom that one good reason for including the path in the General Plan, at the site of a Community Center that, if successful, would dramatically increase the number of community members traveling to and from the site, was because failure to do so would have the detrimental environmental impacts created by all those additional car trips to the site, and the greenhouse gases and other harms they would cause.

It was clear that a majority of the Commission wanted to reject the IS/MND as inadequate, so Planning Director, Charlie Bryant, then rallied to the project's rescue, and read from the state CEQA guidelines to say that the Planning Commission's only options were to 1) Take the School District to court 2) be deemed to have waived any objections 3) prepare a subsequent Environmental Impact Report (EIR) if permissible, under another section or 4) Assume the Lead Agency role. Bryant then said he did not know whether the last two options were applicable and said that the Commision's choices were basically either to approve the IS/MND or sue the School District.  The Tattler was unable to determine whether Mr. Bryant was wearing an "S" on his chest and had donned a cape for this performance.

Commission Chair Vanessa Kuemmerle
The 'community commons' area is dark &

foreboding. "It could be called the 
'community canyon'."  Also, "It looks 
like a hamster cage"
Assistant City Attorney, Michael Guina, then jumped in to state that essentially the Commission had to either approve the IS/MND or sue the School District, adding a halo of gravitas to the claim.  It was particularly bewildering for onlookers to watch as the attorney for the City, which was the applicant with the School District for this project, gave legal advice to the Planning Commission who had just made it clear that a majority of them were inclined to adopt an adverse position to the applicants. This conflict of interest never seemed to trouble City Staff and the pressure they applied had its desired result.  Faced with the unappetizing option of having to figure out how a group of volunteer citizens serving on the Planning Commission could sue the School District, the Commission backed down and voted 4-1 to approve the IS/MND.  As the Commissioners voted, one could almost feel the weight of the City's thumb pressing down on them.

Community members had previously provided critical comments on this IS/MND, also found it inadequate.  While it was likely nice for these commenters to learn that a majority of the Planning Commission shared many of their concerns, it was equally distressing to see the will of the Commission thwarted by City Staff.

Commissioners Hold Their Noses During ECCL Design Review
In what followed, the Commissioners explained the remainder of their concerns about the ECCL project, centered around its lack of the Bike/Ped Path on the western edge of the property, the traffic problems on 53rd Street which they felt should have more of the features of the Greenway described in the General Plan, and the "Community Commons" which was intended to serve as the K-5 play area as well as an after-school community space, but which Commissioners felt was, as currently designed, achieving neither function well.

Thwarted by City Staff once more, since Staff had not prepared a resolution denying the permits, and since Staff seemed incapable of drafting a resolution reading "Application denied." on the spot, the Commissioners instead took a two-fold approach.  First, they worked on a list of conditions of approval they would want added to the project, if it were to be approved, and second they decided to continue the discussion at next month's meeting, giving the applicants time to improve the design in the areas mentioned.

The Tattler expects to provide follow-up stories with more details on this remarkable chapter in the apparently unstoppable march of the ECCL project.  Watch where you step.


  1. We are very pleased about the delay. The whole unneeded project should go down in flames. Why are we doing this? Funds from Measure J, $95 Million, are not enough. Now its $150 Million. And Staff is telling elected officials, and the Planning Commission, how to vote. This is absurd. Staff should not be calling any shots.

    We don't like this whole thing; it stinks.

    1. Measure J approved $95 million in General Obligation Bonds for this project. Then Emeryville's assessed Valuation crashed allowing only $48 million in bonding capacity. The District said that was not enough to relocate the Elementary School to the site so the District juiced the system and sold a last $18 million Capital Appreciation Bond (CAB) that pumped up the total due to the high interest rate of CABs. The project now stands at a little over $150 million.

  2. The District and City continue to be blind to the fact that they are building an inferior school just to follow the pie-in-sky vision of Tony Smith. Who would ever think that putting elementary students on the same site with high school students was a good idea? I guess the answer is Emeryville.

  3. The other problem is the apathy of the people and teachers. People don't show up or voice concerns because they don't care anymore. What will change? Thank you tattler for caring. ECCL will be a mess. It will cost triple (?) the proposed cost and leave the district and the city declaring bankruptcy. Why not sue the District? Who is looking out for the students in this whole thing? Anyone? The School Board blew it. They moved forward when they shouldn't have. The real Superman needs to stand up and say, "No more!" Protect our kids!