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Friday, April 18, 2014

Locally Serving Retail Can't Afford the Rent in Emeryville

Fast Food, Mattress Stores 
& Empty Storefronts 

Is There No Other Way?

How Do We Get What We Want?

Opinion/News Analysis
Walk down San Pablo Avenue in Emeryville and take a look around at the built environment.  Aside from specific food purveyors and retail establishments along the sidewalk, you'll note there's not much going on in the way of architectural heritage.  In this hundred and twenty year old town you'd be hard pressed to find a building built much before the George W Bush presidency.  Virtually every building is new.  And it's the same way pretty much everywhere in Emeryville. Twenty five years ago, Emeryville was filled with historic buildings from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Other than some existing single family residences and the Watergate neighborhood, virtually our whole town has been rebuilt in the span of a generation. So much for Emeryville history.

Not Emeryville
There's none of this in Emeryville...
Welcome to the Emeryville as imagined and built by Councilwoman Nora Davis and her latter day assistants on the Council Kurt Brinkman and Ruth Atkin.

Emeryville used to be a town made from bricks. Actual bricks, not the 'lick 'n stick' kind that have invaded the world of shopping malls of late.  Where before there was a real town with lots of beautiful and historic structures; warehouses, nineteenth century factories, an elegant three story Beaux Arts turn of the century triangle shaped bank building, vernacular storefronts on San Pablo Avenue and a classic Art Deco commercial building with a 1930's aquiline parapet and round windows, now there's....well there's what we have: anonymous new buildings with chain stores and fast food.

but there's plenty of this....
New Empty Retail Space
The tenants that are renting the retail spaces in these new buildings have their corporate headquarters in far flung locals and are mostly selling stuff you don't want...stuff like mattresses and fast food.  But there's something else.  And it's not something that's here, rather it's something not here.  While there's a lot of retail space at the sidewalk level in these new buildings, with more retail space in the pipeline, what you'll notice as you walk Emeryville is the street-scape has a Great Depression feeling about it.  There's lots of empty spaces, opaque paper over the doors and windows.  The multi-story residential building may be ten years old but the retail space at the ground level is empty, and it's been that way since the building was completed.
 of course, extra helpings of this...
 It's the same across town: empty retail spaces in new buildings going unrented.  In a city growing, becoming more affluent with lots of tech boom cash floating around, these retail spaces sit idle.  Back before the building boom, Emeryville was poorer but more alive, the retail spaces didn't sit empty like this.
In the mean time, today's Emeryville residents are clamoring for an authentic town.  Other than the parks and bike/ped paths that are essential to a desirable urban public commons, new residents and old alike want the built environment to serve as an ersatz commons; with retail that suits their needs.
Who can blame them?

Won't Pencil Out
If you can manage to sit through a City Council meeting when a developer is guiding one of these ubiquitous (mostly residential) development projects through the process, going through the motions on the way to approval, you'll hear them lay it on thick and heavy.  They'll tell the Council members what they want to hear: the proposed project, Acme Lofts say, is family friendly(!) and they're sure it'll create a vibrant and activated neighborhood with locally serving retail on the sidewalk front.  It won't be put in writing but the developer will assure everyone how wonderful the retail will be.  Once those boxes are checked, the proper words have been spoken, the project can now be approved.
After, when we don't get what was advertised, if you ask the staff or a Council member, they'll tell you (if they answer you at all)  they tried to get the kind of retail tenants that were promised but it just couldn't pencil out; the rent is too high.  Maybe next time.  Thanks for your concern.  
but mostly it's just loads of this.

And that, for all it's obvious and phony histrionics is how it's done. But smugness aside the "won't pencil out" thing is actually true.  The rent IS too high in these new buildings to support the kind of retail we want.  The only retail tenants that can afford this new construction rent are the national chains.  So if we listen to Nora Davis and her minions on the Council, it's simple economics: we now find ourselves in a new city that by definition can only support fast food or national chain retail.  Trust them, nothing can be done...join with the burger...learn to love it.

Cost Of Doing Business
Developer landlords commonly don't care about the retail component of their projects.  They're interested in building (rental) residential projects.  The retail is put in only because the City requires it.  Many of these developer landlords would rather just let the store fronts sit empty rather than bother with being a retail tenant manager.  The required retail storefronts are chalked up as a cost of doing business.

So we're left with either empty retail space or national chains including fast food.
But aside from us not getting what we want, shuttered retail has a way of negatively downgrading a town, both in terms of bringing down property values and psychologically depressing a neighborhood.  This empty storefront paradigm in Emeryville is actively harming the viability for locally serving neighborhood authentic retail.

Who could have guessed we would wind up with a terrible retail situation like this when we began our Nora Davis lead demolition spree a generation ago?   The answer is any proper city the ones we hire to staff our Planning Department.  They know the way to accommodate the kind of retail Emeryville residents are looking for is to craft your city with a mixture of new and old buildings.
The old buildings are not to be retained simply because they're nice and directly connect people with their heritage (although they do that well).  No,  the main function of old buildings (from a civics perspective) is they provide cheap rent for locally serving neighborhood retail.  Cheap rent also has the added benefit of helping incubate start-up entrepreneurial business it should be noted.
This concept is not radical or even controversial.  It was spelled out by legendary Canadian city planner Jane Jacobs 50 years ago.  It's taught in universities across the land.  This is a close to as it comes to gospel for contemporary city planners.  Here in Emeryville, the bureaucrats in the Planning Department know this but they also know who runs the ship here.  And they're not rocking the boat.  That's going to have to be the resident's job.
It's your town; learn to love it.

Having said all this, at this point in our 'rape and scrape Emeryville' frenzy it's too late to start saving older buildings in hopes of maintaining a stock of cheaper rental spaces for neighborhood serving local retail.  That horse has left the barn as they say.  Or maybe we should say 'that burger has already been eaten'.  For other than to provide a little scenery relief, there's not enough older buildings left in town to make a difference in this equation.
But it's important to note we're not now paralyzed with nothing to be done.  There's a small glut of development projects moving forward right now at City Hall: the Sherwin Williams project, the Maz project, the Golden Gate Key project, the Avalon Bay project and the Marketplace project.  These projects all contain ground level retail space.

A New Coda: How To Get Locally Serving Retail
To salvage something by way of the idea of locally serving neighborhood retail with these last few large projects now securing approval at City Hall, a monkey wrench needs to be thrown into the works.  We know the same old way of doing business will only result in the same old result: nothing but broken promises for Emeryville residents.
What we need now is retail subsidized by the developers themselves, done by written agreement and the force of law.
The City could set up the contracts so that the developers would be allowed to charge market rates for their new retail spaces (from an approved list of tenants; no fast food for instance) for a certain amount of time, followed by a sliding down rent reduction according to a pre-agreed upon schedule.  The rent would slide down until an approved (locally serving) tenant could afford it.  This new coda would be written off by developers as the new cost of doing business in Emeryville and would comport with our new creed that we should 'sell' ourselves at the price the market will bare.  If developers don't like it in the new Emeryville they can move on to Fresno.  We expect the developers and the Chamber of Commerce to push back vigorously against this.  That's what they do; fight for business interests.  But we're finished listening only to them.  We want our interests looked out after as we develop the last bit of our town.

This idea would also go a long way towards securing worker owned co-operative businesses that residents want and what we need to increase and stabilize wages in the retail sector.

This sliding rent subsidized by the developers policy, if promulgated by our City Council, is what leadership looks like.  This is how we can finally secure something for ourselves in Emeryville that's not part of the abstract and greater public/private, socialist/free market debate that seems to be poisoning public policy elsewhere and has heretofore been a silent partner here.  We need to use the tools at our disposal to create a livable town.  Forcing developers to play by our new rules with the last remnants of fallow land left, is such a tool.  The developers use every tool they have to maximize their profits, so why shouldn't we?  We're only hamstrung insofar as we let ourselves be.  Let's stop acting the rube and deliver what we want; locally serving neighborhood retail.


  1. I agree, and really enjoyed this article. But the list of excluded businesses besides fast food should also be businesses that prey on the poor and misguided such as Gambling establishments, Check cashing outlets, and Pawn shops such as Cash for Gold.

    1. Check cashing, payday lending, cash for gold and pawnbrokers are banned under the Planning Regulations adopted by the Council in February 2013.

  2. The "Pull Out" or failure of Retail is just the beginning. If we pass an ill advised CHARTER CITY authorization, come November, we can look for a continuing erosion of business growth, and much more. DOWN WITH THE "CHARTER CITY" idea.

    1. Business would flee if Emeryville taxed and charged fees more than what the market will bare. But if the City charges what the market will bare (or less than what it will bare), then by definition, business will stay right here. They'll just pay more than they do now. Your idea that business is irrational is irrational. An irrational business won't be in business long. The market place is's not a place for babies, whiners and complainers.

  3. You're saying we don't need mattresses in Emeryville? I do, though I shopped at Ikea most recently. National fast food chains, excluding Bay Street, account for two long-established locations in the city. There's not even a McD's, even though you have a picture of Big Mac in the article.

    Plenty of cities have fast food. Plenty of cities have mattress stores. Relatively speaking, for a city with the land area and population of Emeryville, it appears to me there are a proportional amount of these establishments and this article doesn't provide any facts to counter that argument.

    Emeryville is certainly missing a classic downtown location, with the benefits therein, and Bay Street doesn't count. But where else would it be? Where is the land that can make more money than housing or big box retail?

    Aren't these still jobs and reasons to bring people in to the city?

    The draw of this city is housing -- does anyone really mind going to Oakland, Berkeley, or SF for the downtown experience?

    I'm trying to determine the impetuous of this article. What would you have Emeryville residents and voters do?

    For better or worse, to address Anonymous above, gambling (Oaks) has been in Emeryville longer than any of us or any the above businesses.

    1. It all depends on how high or low you want to aim. If you're aiming low, well than Emeryville has done a pretty good job. Once the "jobs" argument comes out though you know where you've aimed.