Search The Tattler

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Onni Project Asks Permission to Build Beyond 'By Rights'

Huge Difference Between What Onni Wants and What They Have a Right to Get

Developer Should Come to Us,
Cap in Hand
News Analysis
The Onni development project is really big.  It's big, even for Emeryville, known throughout the Bay Area for welcoming extremely large development projects that couldn't get approved elsewhere.  This reputation precedes us and is likely the reason Emeryville was chosen by Onni to locate its 640 foot tall building, the tallest residential tower west of Chicago, here instead of Berkeley or Oakland.
Christie Avenue's proposed Onni project
It has to please us or it's going to be a no go.

But what if Emeryville acted more like our neighboring cities?  What if we decided we didn't like the Onni project as its being proposed?  What if we thought it's too much?  This corporate developer, like all land owners, has rights to develop their property.  But they can't develop as intensely as they're proposing without our permission.  Emeryville has rights too.  We can say no.

So what's the difference between what Onni wants to build in Emeryville and what they have a right to build?
Quite a lot as it turns out.

What Onni Has
Onni can build 'by rights' a building 75 feet tall, no matter what Emeryville says.  On the 3.76 acre real estate parcel they bought, Onni can build a building or buildings totaling as much as 163,706 square feet.  They can build up to 320 housing units on it with a floor to area ratio of 3.0.  Meaning they can build a building that covers the entire 3.76 acres that's no more than 3 stories tall.  Or they can go as high as 75 feet but they would have to leave some of the lot as open space to meet the 3.0 FAR regulations.

That's it.  That's as much as this developer is legally entitled to build.  Everything beyond this meager amount of development has to be done to our satisfaction.  And Onni wants to build A LOT more than what they have right to build.  So that means they're going to have to satisfy us.  They have to do as we please if they're going to build as intensely as they're proposing.

What Onni Wants
Onni wants to build a tower 640 feet tall; 565 feet over what they have a right to build.  Onni wants to build 638 apartments; 318 over what they have a right to build.  Onni wants to build a project that's almost a million square feet (982, 236); 818,530 square feet over what they have a right to build.  And Onni is proposing to build their project with a FAR of 6.0; twice what's their right to build.

As the Onni project moves towards approval by the City of Emeryville, the people have a right to ask for concessions from this billion dollar development corporation.  The concessions should at a minimum, make up for the development's impact on us, over and beyond what Onni can build 'by rights'.  Otherwise we're on the losing end of the deal.  There is nothing that says we have to concede anything beyond the by rights numbers.  Beyond the minimum is at our pleasure.  This project needs to markedly make our town a better place to live for the existing residents.  Anything less than that, constitutes a gift from the people of Emeryville to the billion dollar Canada-based multi-national corporation.

The by rights legal minimum development rights Onni has should be known by everyone as the City and the developer move this consequential project forward, least we let the developer obscure and cajole us and reap unjustifiable benefits at our expense.

The apartment tower at Onni will be 8 1/2 times
  taller than they are allowed to build by rights.

Double the number of apartments 
over what's allowed by rights.

How big is Onni?
Six times bigger than the by rights size.

The developer is asking to double our by rights
FAR allowance.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Emeryville Celebrates Its Status at the Rotten City Block Party

Emeryville celebrates this Saturday 11:30 - 4:30 in the first annual Rotten City Block Party at City Hall.  All are invited to what is being called a celebration of our past, present and future.  Our future is what we make of it but our reputation in the past was cemented in 1927 when Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren called Emeryville with it's reeking rendering plants, dirty smokestacks and corrupt politics "The rottenest city on the Pacific coast".  Today Emeryville has shown a remarkable penchant for consistency.  Our town is still rotten with its worst in the Bay Area record in many areas of livability including the lowest ratio of park acreage per residents, the unfriendly-to-families lowest number of people per housing unit, the worst record on home ownership and our school district's highest per pupil spending netting the lowest test scores and worst teacher retention.

Come one and all this Saturday to celebrate how we don't have any parks to speak of at Emeryville's Rotten City Block Party!  It's gunna be bad...super bad!

WE SUCK!  And we're damn proud of it!

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Community Benefits Agreement Looming for Controversial Onni Project Says RULE

The Emeryville resident advocacy group known as Residents United for a Livable Emeryville has announced it is considering plans to negotiate directly with the developer of the proposed Christie Avenue Onni apartment tower project, skipping the City of Emeryville, by means of a Community Benefits Agreement to deliver a more resident friendly project than is being proposed.  In an August 17th letter to its members, RULE's steering committee indicated they have requested the City host a town hall type meeting to address resident concerns about the controversial 650 unit Onni project to be followed by a RULE facilitated Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) with the developer, depending on the outcome of the town hall.

A CBA is a legally binding contract signed by the community and a real estate developer that requires the developer to provide certain amenities or mitigations to the proposed project in exchange for the community’s acceptance of the project.  Often, the community forms a coalition with labor organizations and environmental groups.  CBAs are open processes and the whole community is encouraged to attend meetings and engage.  Usually CBAs accompany the largest development projects.
The Proposed Onni Project
At 700 feet, the Onni tower would be
America's tallest residential building
west of the Mississippi River.
RULE, extant for more than 10 years, is open to all Emeryville residents and even out of town residents (in a non voting capacity).  The only group excluded from RULE meetings have been City Council members although they have been allowed in by invitation.  However a RULE facilitated CBA would likely allow out of town groups to have the same legitimacy as Emeryville residents.

The Vancouver-based Onni developer is entangled in a FBI bribery allegation after officials accused a Los Angeles Councillor of accepting money from Onni in exchange in 2018 for a positive vote on a pending LA Onni project.

In Emeryville, Onni plans an all rental 650 unit 700 foot tall apartment tower joined by a bridge with a 200 foot office tower.  The City Council has been working to help the developer, voting to remove existing ‘tower separation’ regulations from the books in July.   Additionally, the Council will seek to overturn existing family housing regulations at the request of the developer who claims he can’t afford build the towers if he is required to build family housing as other developers in Emeryville are.  These regulation rollbacks were chronicled in a Tattler story exposing City Hall of ‘regulatory capture’ and has contributed to a lack of trust among the residents, helping fuel a push for a CBA.

CBAs have a checkered history in Emeryville.  In 2016, a private group of property owning neighbors formed the Park Avenue Residents Committee (PARC) for the sole purpose of negotiating a CBA with the developer of the Sherwin Williams project, a 500 unit development on Sherwin Street slated to begin construction later this year.  The City assisted PARC with the "CBA" and ultimately the City Council used it to justify approving that project.  However, the Sherwin Williams "CBA" turned out to be out of character for a CBA; the PARC group operated behind closed doors and only invited guests could attend their meetings.  No other community members or labor or environmental groups were permitted to take part in the negotiations.  Regardless that the final document produced by PARC and Sherwin Williams didn't fit the description of a CBA, the City proclaimed it as such.
The RULE/Onni CBA by contrast will be democratic and transparent, says members of the steering committee.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

For Shame: Emeryville's Minimum Wage Roll Back Debacle

Dust Has Settled From City Council's Use of Minimum Wage Rollback Bludgeon

Citizens Want to Know Why
They Took Us There

News Analysis/Opinion
Three months ago Emeryville City Hall launched a divisive attack on the working poor in our town; a paroxysm of pro-business ideology in action forwarded by three members on the City Council.  At their May 21st meeting, the Council majority three, working at the behest of certain restaurant owners in town and without consulting any affected workers, voted to rollback Emeryville's hard fought four year old progressive Minimum Wage Ordinance (MWO).  The injudicious action was subsequently beaten back by the people of Emeryville by way of a voter ballot initiative petition brought by a coalition of labor and community groups forcing the Council's hand who voted to retract the wage rollback on July 23rd.
So now that the dust has settled and the minimum wage has been successfully defended, we're right back where we were before this whole thing got started.  The people's befuddlement and acrimony however is lingering over the whole sordid and unnecessary affair. 
Citizens would be right to ask why did all that just happen.

It's been a roller coaster of drama in the people's hall, the actors all playing their parts: posturing, feigning, kibitzing, doubling down, pivoting and then closing with a July 23rd “heartsick” capitulation, to quote Councilman John Bauters, the initiator of the whole spectacle.  Dramatic to be sure, but it was drama the people of Emeryville never asked for.

The May 21st City Council minimum wage incursion, led by Mr Bauters and joined by his colleagues Dianne Martinez and Scott Donahue, formed the spare three member majority needed to roll back wages for small restaurant workers in town.  The insurgent majority set up an ambitious timeline for themselves; by July 1st, they would have to finish the required second reading necessary to amend the existing ordinance (effectively creating a new ordinance), in order to make sure the restaurant workers didn’t get their MWO mandated Consumer Price Index pegged raise set to take effect on that date.  A lot of finagling of schedules was necessary owing to California’s Brown Act ‘sunshine law’ notifications and individual Council members’ personal calendars, to make the hard July 1st date.  The 'Council three' made use of a controversial but technically legal provision performed by a family event obliged Councilman Donahue phoning in live from the East Coast to cast the deciding vote.
All their hard work paid off and in the eleventh hour, the City Council three was able to stop the Emeryville restaurant workers from getting their raise, just in time.

Or so they thought.

The problem is they didn't sufficiently calculate the passions of an aroused and aggrieved Bay Area labor contingent.  Because  of the audacity of the Council’s action, the coalition of labor groups and community activists known as East Bay Working Families entered the fray with a bevy of hot off the presses voter petitions.  Weeks of door knocking and 871 Emeryville registered voter signatures later, the Council majority’s whole ambitious anti-worker plot came to its inglorious end.

Emeryville's Restaurant Sector 2013-2018
The Minimum Wage Ordinance took effect in 2015.  
Restaurant owners are claiming the high minimum wage  
costs are driving them out of business or forcing them to flee.  
Notice what happened beginning in 2015 with new start-ups.
That’s the history of the last three months in a nutshell.  Those seeking more detail may want to make use of the Tattler search bar; “minimum wage ordinance".  But still unanswered is why?  Why did this gang of three suddenly make this incongruous turn?
Surprisingly, in retrospect, the three Council members were all endorsed by the progressive citizen activist group Residents for a Livable Emeryville (RULE).  Cutting the wages of the poorest among us is not something one would expect progressives to do.  The official explanation didn’t shed any light. That argument posited that the restaurant owners had assured the three they were all pushed to the edge, business failures and bankruptcies looming if their workers were paid more as relayed and repeated by the Council majority.  But the City Council never checked to see if the bankruptcy claims were true.  They just took the business owners at their word.  And they failed to listen to workers or labor groups at all.  Again- not how one would expect progressives to act.

Trust But Verify
Emeryville, being a small town, has certain advantages when it comes to making decisions such as the Council made based on the word of the restaurant owners.  In this case, the Council could have easily directed the staff to check the veracity of the owner’s claims of looming bankruptcy.  With only as few as 22 restaurants affected by the minimum wage roll back in question, a manageable number, the City could have easily opened the books of these businesses.  A city like Oakland, with hundreds of restaurants, could not enjoy Emeryville’s capacity to actually check before they leaped into such consequential policy change.
Our City Council majority, instead of finding out before they tore asunder the lives of the working poor in our town, instead forged ahead based simply on the assurances of those business owners with a material interest in lying. 

Unlike the City Council, the people of Emeryville, historically, have shown they don't trust the business community to tell the truth when profits are on the line.  In 1997, the City Council looking to increase revenue, began discussions about whether to raise the taxes on the Oaks Club card room up to the Bay Area card room average.  At the time, the Oaks enjoyed an Emeryville tax rate at about 25% of the Bay Area average.  The Council majority believed the owner of the Oaks Club when he said the increase would drive his business into bankruptcy and they dropped the issue.  The people picked it up with a ballot initiative petition and ultimately Emeryville voters approved the tax increase on the Oaks.  Sharp eyed readers will note the Oaks club is still operating at their San Pablo Avenue address - the owner, John Tibbetts having been revealed to have lied about going bankrupt. 
Again in 2005, the people brought a ballot initiative concerning raising wages for hotel workers in Emeryville up to the Bay Area average after the City Council majority believed the hype coming from the hospitality industry warning about wholesale business failures with hotels fleeing Emeryville or being driven into bankruptcy.   An alarmed Council majority alerted the voters not to be "dupes" to organized labor and to vote NO to the 'Hotel Workers Living Wage Ordinance' proposal.  Emeryville voters didn't listen to the City Council who was listening to the warnings of the Hotel owners and they passed the 2005 Measure C easily.  Again, the hotel owners were lying about the effect increased costs would have on their businesses and the only people duped were the Emeryville City Council majority.  Emeryville at the time had four hotels, now we have five, making it hard to make the case for "wholesale business failures".

By 2014 however, the City Council finally learned that businesses will lie to protect their profits.  That year, a new more progressive Council majority didn't believe the dire warnings about wholesale business failure and bankruptcies from the California Association of Realtors and the Emeryville Chamber of Commerce if Emeryville were to raise real estate transfer taxes up to the Bay Area average.  Again, the voters approved Measures U&V that allowed for the increase in taxes and again, the business failure boogyman turned out to be nothing more than the business community not wanting to pay more money to conduct business in our town.

Moving ahead to 2019, it would appear it's back to the future for us.  The City Council majority seems to have unlearned what they knew in 2014 and it's back to the old familiar saw about wholesale business failures if the business community is forced to pay more money.  We'll have to wait and see if this time the warnings were prescient but something tells us it's gunna be more of the same.

So why did these three Council members take us down this path again?  Especially when their own staff told them the 2018 Emeryville Mills College Business Study that reported that restaurant business stress, while extant, was not sufficient to propose public policy changes, "A piece of trash that we never should have paid for" Mayor Ally Medina said of the Mills document.  The staff conducted their own research that showed little or no stress for Emeryville's restaurant sector from added labor costs.  High rent costs were shown to be the primary source of business stress according to the staff report that accompanied a May 7th Council meeting on the MWO and the commissioned Mills Study.

The question of why this Council majority listened to the business community instead of the people of Emeryville or the low wage workers who toil here will likely remain unanswered for the time being.  Following the political careers of John Bauters and Dianne Martinez however might help Emeryville citizens find the answer.

Portrait of a Growing Emeryville Restaurant Sector
From the May 7th staff report to the Council.
Sales are beating the Consumer Price Index.  The Council had this info before 
they voted to rollback wages of restaurant workers despite the claims of looming 
bankruptcies from restaurant owners.
A 3.56% per year rise in restaurant sales average from the first year of the MWO
to 2017.  California CPI 2015 .01%, 2016 1.3% 2017 2.1% source: FRB 9th District