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Saturday, May 16, 2015

Emeryville's Worthless General Plan

General Plan:
Stuck in a Wet Paper Bag, Can't Get Out

News Analysis/Opinion
Emeryville has a really impressive General Plan...outwardly impressive but alas, essentially worthless.
It's the premier planning document that directs how our town is to develop over time.  It's impressive because among other things, it was forged democratically by the people of Emeryville.  Indeed, our General Plan was so democratically vetted, it has received an award from the state for that, lending it a voice of authority.  More than 25% of Emeryville residents took part in developing the General enviable percentage other cities would love to have to lend credibility to their general plans.  The full community engagement allows us to say with confidence our General Plan represents what the people collectively want for our city. 

Nevertheless, after having spent some $4 million on the General Plan several years ago, the Plan has become increasingly known by developers as having no value.  It's worthless because it has proven to have a total lack authoritative force regardless all the public buy-in.   For instance in every single contest between a developer that wanted to tear down a building in Emeryville and the protections afforded to it against demolition as mandated by the General Plan, our feeble Plan has buckled under the strain.  And then the walls of the building buckled under the developer's wreaking ball.  

This remarkable disconnect between what the people want and what actually gets delivered has existed because of a hidden pro-developer agenda by the City Council majority for many years.  The agenda has caused us to lose our architectural heritage among other social ills.

Twenty five years ago, Emeryville was primarily a place of 19th Century factories and warehouses.  Vernacular and handsome historic brick buildings were abundant. The General Plan identified many specific buildings as being 'architecturally significant' and protected them from demolition.  The current iteration of the General Plan as well as earlier editions of it were clear: historic brick buildings were catalogued and suggested be saved and rehabilitated for new uses.  Besides the historical legacy and all the documented social good tidings such buildings provide, another benefit is realized when older buildings are retained; entrepreneurial start-up businesses and locally serving businesses are given a place to thrive owing to the cheaper rents older buildings allow. 

In November 2014, Emeryville finally turned a corner and elected a progressive City Council majority.  We like to think the hidden agenda deference to developers died with the old guard Council majority.  We like to imagine the wreaking ball will henceforth only be swung against buildings without historic and architectural merit.  Unfortunately though, that November day of people power came too late for vast swaths of our town and we're going to have to live with the new 'any town' built Emeryville for generations to come.

Consider the pie shaped building at 3850 San Pablo Avenue.  The Emeryville General Plan was unequivocal; this building, 100 years old and torn down in 2000, should have been saved.  One gets a visceral sense of the people's wisdom reflected in their General Plan by gazing at the before and after pictures below:

3850 San Pablo Avenue, early 20th Century (photo used with permission)
Note the 'Key System' street car rails on the street.
This building was destroyed in 2000 in order to build...

3850 San Pablo Avenue today

(the trees are nice)


  1. This reader thinks that you just don't get it. Step back and take another look at your
    Before and After photos. It is clear to me. Think about the REAL concepts of obsolescence and economics. Would you invest you own money? Chances are likely that by saving the old buildings, you would have never seen any profit, and the City would have deprived itself of significant Property Tax increases. Get real !

    1. Au contraire, sweet reader! The new building houses a few marginal retail shops on San Pablo Avenue but the rest of the structure is entirely residential. Emeryville (or hardly any other cities for that matter) doesn't make any money on residential properties. And this is the way it should be frankly. It's unethical for a government to make a profit taxing people's homes. So we don't make a profit. In fact in Emeryville we actually LOSE money on residential projects....they use more in services than they pay in the form of taxes. In the case of this building, the retail gains are pretty much offset by the residential loses. There's no net gain for City Hall. Had the old building been retained as the General Plan calls for, the whole building could have been used for commercial enterprises, substantially adding to our coffers. But a developer wanted to make money tearing down the building and that's what happened.
      There, I got real! Now it's your turn.

    2. Increased "Property Tax", which is wider in scope than just Emeryville, is generated by new development. Over the long term, no matter what your argument is, it will be better revenue to the County, and the City. And the updating of obsolescence is a plus!

    3. So every old building must be demolished that it? How old? Anything older than, what 10 years? Well then why not 2 years? If 10 years is good to demolish then 2 is even better. Anything older than 2 years must be destroyed to make way for a new building because...why again? So Alameda County can get taxes...yes that's it....right? Our city must be sacrificed and people power is no good and must be stopped so Alameda County can get taxes to do what again? I'm having a hard time with this.

    4. FYI, the site was identified for affordable housing and the city and developer initially had a plan that incorporated the old building into the project. It was not economically feasible. The city could have thrown money to restore the building for housing. It would not have increased city coffers any more than it does now.

    5. Does any of what you say refute the story in any way?

  2. I like the old building, but I also like LSD, so it's sort of a wash, I guess.

  3. While the brick buildings are nice looking, just google 'brick building earthquake'.
    Probably not a bad idea to replace the brick buildings in a major earthquake zone.

    1. It's true that unreinforced masonry buildings (URMs) are dangerous in an earthquake, there are proven and inexpensive ways to make these buildings up to current seismic codes; moment frames or 'gunite' and rebar. This is the industry standard for dealing with URMs in the quake zone. With these engineered earthquake retrofit practices we don't have to destroy our architectural heritage to make buildings safe. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise.