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Monday, July 22, 2019

Onni Project Threatens City Hall With Regulatory Capture

City Hall, Enthralled  
Captured by Onni

Work Performed at 1313 Park Ave is Done to Onni's Benefit

"Regulatory capture is a form of government failure which occurs when a regulatory agency, created to act in the public interest, instead advances the commercial or political concerns of special interest groups that dominate the industry or sector it is charged with regulating."

News Analysis/Opinion
Resident communities get to plan their cities as they see fit.  That's a given.  All the planning documents ensconced in City Hall, made with lots of voluntary citizen work and taxpayer money is evidence of this.  And planning, by definition, means regulation and thus the people of Emeryville have created a regulatory framework to facilitate the building of the town as they envision it.  It’s a good thing.
The proposed Onni Development with its 700' Tower
So seductive to the City Council, they have allowed the
 Canada based Onni Corporation to capture our regulatory
safeguards meant to protect Emeryville's residents.
Except of course for those who end up being regulated.
We needn’t go into a lot of expository rhetoric parsing how the regulated tend to push back against the regulators in such a dynamic.  Suffice it to say the public commons are a contested space and there is always a yin to every yang in the administration of a democratic public policy.
What’s evolved of late in Emeryville however upsets this familiar apple cart; a new grand mal of late capitalism excess embodying total corporate empowerment; private for-profit entities, especially billion dollar entities pushing for and getting carte blanche access to the levers of public power.

Enter the specter of ‘regulatory capture’ to Emeryville; that being an abdication of the checks generally imagined to be inherent in representational governance, by a rapacious private sector intent on seizing the commons.  In a word, Emeryville  City Hall, in the thrall of the recently proposed Christie Avenue Onni project, has abdicated control of the regulatory regime to that corporate entity.  Meaning, the developer of the Onni project gets his say utterly in virtually all the circumstantial aspects of this looming mega-project in our town.  And that’s not all. The regulations that are being lifted for the benefit of Onni now, will expose the citizens of Emeryville to future development of a kind that will likely be at least as voracious. 

Onni Residential Tower Unit Mix as Proposed
A portrait of regulatory capture.
While this regulatory capture is unwritten of course, it can easily be seen in the City Council chambers when the existing tower separation regulations are repealed at Onni’s say so.  Done without public debate.  Did we mention this developer’s proposal would be constrained by our tower separation regulations?  …And when our family housing unit mix is repealed, again for Onni’s benefit and without debate.  …And when our General Plan’s provisions for acres of park per new residents are pushed aside, again all for the benefit of the Onni developer and again, without a public debate.  ...And when our General Plan's provisions to make our town a town of no more that 16,600 souls by 2029 are pushed aside, again to the benefit of Onni and again, without public debate.

It all adds up to a corporate capture of the constraints on greed that were set up to serve the citizens’ interests.  Barring a citizens’ revolt against Onni, the public will receive nothing but crumbs for all the destruction of the commons this project with its 700 foot luxury apartment tower and accompanying 200 foot office tower will bring.

Regulatory capture is evident when a single private entity is able to steer the government to its corporate bidding on multiple fronts, simultaneously and without real public debate.  It becomes weaponized when there are enough local calculating politicians with hidden agendas and/or when the private entity behemoth is out of scale with the local government.  City Hall, clearly enthralled with the billion dollar Onni Corporation and wont to hand over the reins likely represents a less corrupt version sometimes called non materialist regulatory capture or cognitive capture, meaning government regulators begin thinking like the regulated.  As opposed to a simple series of illicit money transactions taking place behind closed doors.  That's probably not taking place here.  Probably.

Onni, at 638 units is an extremely large development, and it would remake our town even if we still had control over our regulatory system.  The problems the Onni project brings are legion if not familiar for such a large project; massively increasing traffic and congestion, increasing pollution in all its forms, the blocking of views and the creation of a generally alienating environment of course all come with any large development project to a small city.  But Onni, being a 100% rental project also dramatically drives down the ratio of homeowners in our town, a town that already has the lowest percentage of home ownership in the East Bay.

Onni Residential Tower if Built as Required
Emeryville's existing family friendly unit mix regulations
provides housing for families.  A portrait of a town trying to
make up lost ground after a generation of losing families.

But what’s at stake specifically is our capacity for our own autonomy as we attempt to make our city a city for families, to build park land, to address legitimate concerns over crowding of towers and to limit our city's population to 16,600.  All things we have identified as desirable for us.  All things the law allows us to pursue.  And unfortunately, all things the developer of Onni has captured and turned away from us.
And woe be it to anyone who attempts to defend our public regulatory system in such an environment.  Indeed, the old familiar epithet of NIMBYism has already entered the Onni debate such as there is one.  But there is nothing beyond a debate tactic to conflate the idea that people who don’t want more traffic in their town or their views blocked and those who don’t want to see outright regulatory capture by a specific developer.  One is democratic and the other isn’t.

Residents Per Acre of Park Land
Emeryville Already Has the Least Acreage of Parks in the East Bay
The Onni project will drive down our already lowest
in the East Bay acres of park per resident.
Onni provides park land at 2200 residents per acre. 
Emeryville's existing average is about 512 residents per acre.
The General plan says we should have no more
than 333 residents per acre.

Number of People Per Rental Unit
Emeryville Already Has the Fewest Families in East Bay
Emeryville compared with our neighbors.
Onni will drive down Emeryville's average even lower.

Our schools will suffer the consequences. 


  1. You mention a citizen's revolt against Onni. Count me in!

  2. You've made a good case here. Onni has good attributes to bring to the city and bad as well. But they should play by the rules. Let's insist on that at least. Are you listening council?

  3. The fact that Emeryville's City Council, Planning Commission and Planning Department even allow this inaccurate "fantasy photo" to be shown says reams since it is the PRECISE 24/7 choke point for hundreds of thousands of vehicles, hello CalTrans! Take a look at auto insurers operating in the area. Are your premiums are going UP? This correlates to the increasing number of LOW MILEAGE CRASHES at precisely the point ONNI is demonstrating.)

    California cities governed by the term "livable" are encouraging building near or next to MASS TRANSIT. Emeryville's strategy appears to be the opposite: to dump more traffic onto congested highways exactly at the chief choke point because a builder has come to town with some as yet unknown siren song . . .

    No Council member lives at the I-80/Powell Street interchange. The air is filthy, increasingly polluted with tire and brake particles.

    Just makes no sense . . .

  4. Naturally, some NIMBY outcries in the area of the proposed ONNI project are coming from Pacific Park Plaza, a nearby condo building, home to about a thousand people. A majority of the owners there are absentees. Many of the live-in owners are senior citizens. More than half the residents are renters who may be interested in, but not particularly passionate about, the construction of ONNI. Other nearby residences are populated almost exclusively by renters. The potential ONNI builders and their political allies are surely aware of these factors, and it's unlikely they're concerned about a vociferous hue and cry against the super high rise coming from nearby residents. The horrendous traffic mess that would result from ONNI is a region-wide problem, and opposition, to be effective, should include input from nearby cities, the county, and the state.

  5. A well written article to be sure but you leave out the most important point. The housing crisis. Emeryville may need more parks and such true but the region has a much bigger problem. There is only one way to help and that is more housing. Yesterday.

    1. Anonymous must work for ONNI:

      Housing set FAR from MASS TRANSIT at consumer gouging prices yields a huge set of COSTS to the CITY and REGION and is therefore a NET NEGATIVE.
      Anonymous is a real estate salesperson . . with a big high tech big bucks clientele . .

  6. ONNI pulls out of Seattle deal when Shoebox is declared a historic landmark . . . people cared enough to protect and preserve . . .

    1. Thank you for that link. Onni CAN be slain as it turns out. A grass roots community group has done it in Seattle. Good to know.

  7. another massive ONNI deal in the works for Chicago . . .

    It is not that ONNI would be satisfied with ONE EMERYVILLE PROJECT BUT with MANY . . . and this is the inherent problem. The deal and its subsequent "children" offers too little benefit to the City and the population this 1.2 square mile City with NO BART station can support NOW - OR - in the future.

    If ONNI is seriously interested in "civic good," and "affordable housing," let ONNI devote 50% of its units to affordable housing, make the rest affordable to the "middle class", build a tunnel to MacArthur BART AND create a 24/7 shuttle to oakland west . . . or just offer a properly scaled project on a site that is closer to public transportation.

    This one tower and office building on top of the clogged POWELL STREET exit/entrance - soon to be even more clogged with ASHBY and UNIVERSITY Ave. overpass reconstruction - would imperil the ENTIRE REGION. You don't need to be a genius to figure that out . . .

  8. here is ONNI 40 stories in LA DOWNTOWN WITH REGIONAL MASS TRANSIT. Why is this concept so difficult for the Emeryville City Council and planning commission to grasp with ONNI? Saturday 1:21 pm traffic blocked in both directions, an accident and clever Emeryville will ADD to this congestion?
    On the contrary, The Emeryville City Council and Planning Commission could be thinking about ONNI providing a tunnel to MacArthur BART or a shuttle to Oakland West to get cars OUT of the maze rather than add into it.

  9. Just asking, exactly how, now that we are housing our homeless behind the Emreyville TARGET, is ONNI going to help Emeryville's "squeezed in the middle" young families, non-high tech workers, and the 60+ crowd, where per zillow, market rate 1 bedrooms go for $2500 . .

  10. Is ONNI's strategy a waterfront hotel? . . . . . after all, all of that blinding glare and congestion seems to mean nothing . . .

  11. So SF just did a safety fire drill at the CHASE Center and what did they find? Traffic inhibited access to safety. This ONNI project mirrors that and a fire/safety drills would easily show the clog in the area would be prohibitive in terms of access to safety . .

  12. Onni is pretty close to Oni. Just saying...