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Boomtown

  • Oakland Tribune
  • August 17, 1997
  • Jonna Palmer

From slaughterhouses to heavy industry to biotechnology, little Emeryville has adapted to become a big player in the East Bay

Nestled between Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco Bay, the tiny city of Emeryville might have been tough for a casual passerby to distinguish from its neighbors a decade ago.

But thanks to Its prime location and redevelopment incentives, the once rundown and polluted Industrial hamlet has blossomed into a thriving commercial and retail hub for the East Bay - a transformation that holds some lessons for other cities looking to orchestrate a similar revival.

Now the corporate headquarters for giants such as Chiron Corp. and Sybase Inc., the city also claims per capita retail sales that are more than three times that of Alameda county. It has a nighttime population of only about 6,000, but an additional 20.000 employees come to work in the city every day.

And the development boom is not over, Pixar Inc. and an Ikea store will soon be coming to town and Chiron is working on a major expansion of its current facility.

"Ten years ago Emeryville was a very different city." said local artist Sharon Wilchar.

But not everyone in town is happy with the pace and scope of development. Artists and other neighborhood activists are concerned that the city is becoming a business center at the expense of their quality of life.

A young Earl Warren once called Emeryville "the rottenest city on the Pacific Coast" back in the days when it sported a bevy of gambling halls and corrupt politicians. But even the most rebellious of cities had to grow up sometime.

For a long time, Emeryville was known as 'Butchertown." a testament to the many slaughterhouses and tanneries that called the city home. As the area's capital of heavy industry, commuters on their way to the Bay Bridge saw only dirty-looking warehouses and dilapidated residences through the 1970s.

Alan Barr, the new executive director of Emeryville's Chamber of Commerce, said the town has come a long way since 'he was a kid. "When I grew up in Berkeley, Emeryville was a dump." he said.

Despite its choice location at the foot of the bridge, the town was seen as a blight on the East Bay.

Haven for artists

Some or the first people to see Emeryville's potential were artists who occupied decaying warehouses as heavy manufacturing companies started to move out at' the area in the 1970s. The huge buildings they left behind were quickly turned into cheap studios for artists, and helped pioneer the now-popular live/work spaces gaining popularity throughout the Bay Area.

Wilchar, who is chairman of the Emeryville Artist's Cooperative, said she moved to Emeryville 17 years ago, just as the industrial giants were moving out. The artist's co-op was started by two women who were looking for affordable working space. "These buildings were pretty cheap then," she said.

Now, the building houses one of the only co-ops in the nation exclusively for artists and the city claims the highest concentration of artists in the country.

But in the 1970s, when artists were moving in and heavy Industry was evacuating, the city saw the opportunity to attract developers and created a redevelopment district that covered half of Emeryville.

The other Watergate

The first large development was the Watergate apartments and office towers, which went up in the 1970s on landfill west of the freeway that had been nothing more than a dumping ground, said City Manager John Flores. The 1,249 apartments nearly doubled the population of Emeryville.

The Watergate development brought white-collar workers to a blue-collar city, bringing in more informed, involved voters who would make themselves heard loud and clear after the next project went up across the freeway.

Completed in 1983, Pacific Park Plaza was a turning point in the history of Emeryville's redevelopment, said activist Jerry Carniglia. He said Emeryville's government was largely run by big business and a political machine headed by Police Chief John Lacoste.

It was in that political environment that Pacific Park Plaza was approved and constructed. A high-rise apartment tower on the east side of the freeway, it was one of several towers scheduled to be built in the early 1980s. Carniglia said community members took one look at the finished product and lobbied the City Council to stop construction of the remaining buildings.

Mayor Nora Davis said the problem was not so much with the first tower, but with plans to have four or five of them line the bay, "which would have made this like Miami Beach West," she said.

After the uproar over Pacific Park, Flores said the city elected a new City Council and voted to establish a new form of government, taking some power away from the mayor and appointing a city manager. The community also decided it was time to create a general plan for the city, which would act as a guide for redevelopment.

Three years in the making

Flores said the city's general plan took three years to develop and was completed in 1987. The master plan called for more residential developments, more restaurants and more diversity in the businesses in town. "This city and people are pretty realistic," he said.

The remaining half of the city, aside from the Watergate area, became a redevelopment district at about the same time. "(Redevelopment) truly started after that," said Flores.

Patrick O'Keefe, director of the city's redevelopment agency, said being a redevelopment area has helped Emeryville recruit developers who might otherwise have gone elsewhere. The agency can help assemble smaller parcels of land for a larger site, offer some financial incentives and, perhaps most importantly, help clean up toxic waste problems in the area.

Because most of the city was used for industrial purposes, he said there is a real need for the redevelopment agency to help clean it up. "There's a fair amount of contamination throughout the city," he said.

O'Keefe said two developers started to build several key projects in the city about 10 years ago. The Martin Group began with the Powell Street Plaza, which now plays host to Trader Joe's, Circuit City and hundreds of shoppers vying for a parking space each weekend.

That retail development was followed in the late 1980s by the Sybase office building, the EmeryBay Club and Apartments and the EmeryBay Marketplace, which now houses the Public Market. At the same time, O'Keefe said Rich Robins was busy constructing a headquarters for biotech giant Chiron Corp. across town in an old Shell Oil building.

Links in the chain

The Martin Group built so many projects together because the city needed to service each development with the other to succeed.

"Critical mass is really important," he said. "If we had to do it one piece at a time each would have suffered. You have to be able to sell the whole story."

He said the company was attracted to building in Emeryville because of the location and the city's approach to development.

The city's waterfront location at the foot of the Bay Bridge means nearly a quarter of a million cars pass by every day, he said. "At the end of the '80s, there was a clear opportunity because of car (traffic)," he said.

Equally important was the attitude of city officials in the 1.2-square-mile town. Covarrubias said Emeryville is such a small town that it was easier to move development proposals through the bureaucratic red tape.

"The whole city is two (freeway) exits long," he said, which made it much quicker to get projects approved.

Davis agreed that smaller cities like Emeryville have a big advantage when it comes to getting new projects up quickly. "We do tend to do more faster here," she said. "There are some real benefits to being small."

Developer Influence

However, Carniglia said that may have been more of a problem than a solution. He said average citizens have lost their political power to huge developers who wanted to build in Emeryville's prime location.

We're sort of cut out of the loop," he said, adding that big business has become the favorite of the City Council. The suits have taken over the scene."

He also said the current City Council has not curbed development as it should have under the city's general plan. "The general plan was simply swept away," he said.

But Flores said the general plan has been followed ø so well that it is now just about completed. "We've done everything (in the general plan) they've asked for," e said, adding that it is just about time for a new plan.

Despite his objections to many of the developments, Carniglia said some of the reasoning behind proponents of the development was sound. He said many city officials and community members alike realized smaller businesses and residential developments could never afford to clean up the toxic waste left on many formerly industrial sites.

Still, "I would have stayed within a smaller envelope," he said. "In my view, a lot of quality of life has been lost to big development."

He added that he is considering moving his studio to another city.

Not without problems

Several other residents said they are concerned about the development, but said they can see the benefits along with the problems. Artist Sharon Hitlan said when she first moved into her loft six years ago, the newly completed East Bay Bridge Center was nothing more than a barren field.

"I was very much against all of the (big box stores) and now I use them," she said. "Now that it's here, I'm getting used to it."

She said the same is true of a property that was just bought by Pixar ø slated to be the company's new headquarters. "My first fear was that it was going to be awful," she said. "(But) I think that it is inevitable that it gets developed."

Joan Braun, who is running for City Council, said the questions about redevelopment aren't all black and white. "It's not a question of do you or do you not want growth," she said.

She said the more important question is what kind of growth the city should foster.

With her housing co-op close to Chiron Corp., she said she was concerned about the huge expansion the company is planning. By the time the build-out is complete, the number of Chiron employees is expected to have jumped from the 1,500 they have now to as many as 4,200. "Chiron is a great company, she said. "But there were some concerns that this was a little large for Emeryville."

The good, the bad

Braun said the East Bay Bridge Center, with stores like Kmart and Home Depot, has brought new jobs and a grocery store into the area but also has meant an increase in crime and traffic. "Growth and new business are a double-edged sword," she said.

Braun said there are certainly many benefits to development, but he wants to make sure the city isnÕt so eager to get businesses into the city that it overlooks details in the plans that could turn out to be negatives for the community. She said part of the problem is that it is tough to keep people informed about what is going on in town.

"So much happens so fast," she said. She added that few people she has talked to recently are even aware of a new joint project between Emeryville and Oakland that will feature an Ikea store near the freeway.

Davis said she understood how many artists and other longtime residents could have mixed feelings about the recent redevelopment.

They moved into a quiet (town) with really cheap living," she said. But she said Emeryville simply has to start bringing in businesses if it wants to survive.

She said city services were floundering before redevelopment began a decade ago. "There were real problems with city finances," she said.

But new businesses meant an infusion of sales tax and other revenue for the city to spend on things such as police and fire services.

Davis said the city simply can't nit-pick every detail in each proposal and still get them built. "Anybody can always say you could have done it better," she said.

Flores said the city has made an effort to listen to community members before approving plans for each project. "I think we're doing a pretty good job," he said.

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