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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.


  1. In your previous stories about the tower you reported it at 700'. Now you say 640. Which is right?

    1. Yes, they've lopped off 40 feet according to the latest City documents. I think most of that height reduction has come from a lower mechanical tower on the top of the proposed building. Onni has been tweeking the design over the last few months.

  2. Great post showing how much this project departs from what’s been accepted as reasonable until now. Thank you! Your graphics are eye-catching. That tower is not!

  3. Thanks for this analysis. It would be helpful if you could provide the links which document your numbers to have as back up for those who challenge the data.
    Seems like city staff always have a counter.

    1. Thanks for bringing this up. There is no way the staff can counter these numbers because the numbers in the story come directly from the staff itself. No one else can question the numbers because they are factual as quoted from the guiding documents ensconced at City Hall. The only numbers that can change in the short term (or long) without public oversight are the numbers that represent what Onni is asking for. As of today, the Onni request numbers are accurate.
      I stand by this story 100% and will gladly take on any comers.

    2. The "analysis" in this story isn't reflected in the raw numbers. Those are simple facts. The analysis lies in the revealing of power that the people have, often willfully obscured by the powers that be when big money comes to town. It is hoped the people of Emeryville (and surrounding communities that will be affected) will realize their true power and their ability to craft this controversial and highly consequential project to their liking. If citizen empowerment is increased, the story will be successful.

  4. Let us take a moment here to insist that citizens of the town who don't want this building start attending planning commission and city council meetings. These folks want to continue to serve and be re-elected. What ONNI said was:

    The Emperor’s New ONNI Clothes
    (ONNI said:)
    “Won’t you come into my parlor?”, said the spider to the fly,
    “I see you have some coastline that I’d really like to buy.
    Since your landfill doesn’t faze me, nor your traffic that’s quite bad,
    If I can build expensive housing, then I really will be glad!”
    (the Council and Planning Commission has replied:)
    “Well, we’ve never seen a project of this vast huge magnitude,
    But your siren song’s alluring and may put us in the mood.
    After all, a teensy park and many windows with great glare
    Won’t pervert the Bay’s great beauty. Isn’t that what you swear?
    Our answer for the moment is that we need a little time,
    Could you please be more persuasive, our voters aren’t blind.
    We’ve been elected and appointed, and we’d like to stay that way,”
    (Both Together:)
    “Well, we’ll have to think it over, and come back another day!”

  5. I thank you for this story. This info is important for Emeryville people to know when we start really taking about this project. The info here serves as a starting point. Again thanks and please keep doing stories on Onni.

  6. Who can help come up with a community benefits package and what might that look like? Yes the people have the right to ask for things but it seems that without a super empowered advocate for that it will always fall very short. The money to spend time on that is always on the developer's side, never the people's. I fear the city barely can cover the time to process the application let alone advocate for its citizens. Speaking for Oakland anyway but guessing it is not much different for our neighbors to the north.

    1. The Emeryville resident's advocacy group Residents United for a Livable Emeryville (RULE) is likely going to draw up a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) with Onni. Watch the Tattler for details.

  7. Isn't the benefit to Emeryville getting so-desperately needed housing? We're getting a neighborhood's worth in one building; how is that less important than some percentage of us not loving its looks? I fully support requiring construction of or funds towards low-income housing but this piece has no point of view on what to request; it seems only to say that "we should get something in return". Please.

    1. I'll address your last point first; this developer should obey our rules just like any other developer. That means no rolling back of our regulations to accommodate him (see Tattler stories on the Onni project and 'tower separation' and 'family unit mix' regulations). Beyond that, we should get what we the people of Emeryville collectively decide is a fair trade for this very consequential project.
      To your first point; Emeryville does not need more housing. How do we know that? Because ABAG's RHNA numbers tell us. We have build housing far in excess of what we need to satisfy the jobs/housing findings that regional housing government agency, the agency of which Emeryville is a dues paying member, mandates. Check this Tattler story:

  8. Is there evidence the developer isn't obeying the rules? Asking for a zoning and/or building variance, as I think Onni's developers are doing, is part of the rules. As anyone building or remodeling will testify, many (if not most) projects require variances.

    While the RHNA data is really interesting, and a great contribution to the discussion, I have to agree with the commenter on the linked article: we're experiencing high housing prices because of constrained supply. That is irrefutable economics. Your counterargument is that this is the result of developers only building "luxury apartments", but that's a data point rather than argument. Building high-end inventory reduces the prices of other inventory, benefiting those who can't pay top-dollar. And your point that the whole town experiences higher rents proves that we need more affordable inventory; there is no economic argument that constraining supply will make housing more affordable.

    Since land and development costs keep increasing, the odds of government building more affordable housing are not increasing. We have to identify opportunities which are attractive to developers, and then require construction of or funds towards local affordable housing as a prerequisite for those projects with (your words) the "biggest profits".

    1. The City Council is rolling back our established regulations on tower separation and family housing unit mix in order to accommodate the Onni developer. That’s what we mean when we say this developer needs to obey the same rules as other developers have to in Emeryville. This is not a building department variance…it’s wholesale rules changing. And the fact that it's being done for the benefit of one developer raises the specter of corruption...or at least really bad public policy.

      Emeryville is part of the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). They are tasked by the State of California to come up with a housing calculation to achieve a jobs/housing balance. That’s what the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) tracks. Each city in the Bay Area is then told how much housing and what type of housing they need to get built over each RHNA implementation period (three years usually). Emeryville has built more than its share of market rate housing every RHNA implementation period for the last two decades plus. Some periods more than 200% over the RHNA numbers. We’ve done more than our share. Other cities, however, have not built housing according to their RHNA numbers mandates. That’s why the Bay Area is short of housing…because of Berkeley, and Oakland and other cities have shirked their ABAG responsibilities.
      So yes, the old supply and demand saw is applicable in the region…but not for our town.

      If you ever hear somebody say Emeryville needs to build more housing ask them- how do you know?…is there anyway to measure how much? Because the answer is yes there is a way to measure it. It’s been measured…using the scientific method…by ABAG. Remember, public policy has to be based on measurable metrics. It can’t just be capricious.

    2. To your first point: I'm not following why you're focusing the story on the developer. It sounds as though we should be petitioning the City Council to enforce current regulations or demonstrate why changing them is good public policy. Am I missing something?

      To your second point: perhaps I'm too sold on using an economics lens, but I don't follow the argument you're trying to make. The housing market doesn't care that "we've done our share"--at all. Housing isn't a closed marketplace; those who need housing and jobs routinely cross municipal boundaries to get the house or job which benefits them most. If housing prices are high in Emeryville, it's because people are competing to live here. We can build more supply, or we can stand on the recommendations OF RHNA and insist other cities to do their part while our housing prices remain high (or continue to increase). There is no magic 3rd option, is there?

    3. Good point on the City of Emeryville demonstrating the public good in changing our laws to accommodate this one developer's material interest. Let's hope they're transparent in that regard.

      As I said, public policy has to be rationally based. Otherwise, why is your or my personal opinion worth more than someone else's? To that end, the people of the State of California have collectively decided to regulate housing needs assessments. Here in the Bay Area, ABAG is the agency that is tasked with that goal. There could be many people that don't like ABAG's or even California's housing needs assesments (especially developers who stand to make a profit) but that doesn't mean we're going to turn our policy over to the mob. If you don't like it, the voting booth beckons. But warning: every political party and virtually every individual politician that I'm aware of signs on to the constitutionally permitted concept of urban planning. Having said that, the Libertarian Party might be the best fit for you. Thanks for your comments.