Biotech, Pixar, Amtrak & Emery Go-Round: Emeryville’s ‘Renaissance’ Recounted by some of its Modern Architects

17 mins read

In 2016, a contingency of Australian Councils dubbed The Future Cities Collaborative, participated in an exchange program where they toured major metropolitan cities. Cities including Seattle, New York City, Boston, Philadelphia … as well as little Emeryville and all of its 1.2 square miles.

Emeryville’s reinvention was described as a “global benchmark case study” by the organizers which was an initiative of The University of Sydney Architecture, Design and Planning faculty. “We’re huge in Australia!” quipped longtime Community Development Director Charlie Bryant.

The event was facilitated in part by UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus of City & Regional Planning Edward J. Blakely.

Photo: City of Emeryville.

This revitalization, it was explained throughout the course of the 1:20 presentation, didn’t happen by luck or accident but a well devised and executed plan by then city leaders and stakeholders. A plan to help our city pivot from a gritty industrial town into the mixed-use, retail-dense city it is today.

The presentation by the city and its featured speakers is a fascinating one for those curious about how our city was able to turn itself around after decades of decline.

Emeryville’s Early History

Among the presenters at the event were then (and current) Mayor Dianne Martinez, former City Manager Patrick O’Keeffe, Bryant and Wareham Development Founder and philanthropist Rich Robbins.

Martinez kicked off the event by welcoming those in attendance and Bryant took over to guide them through a brief history of our city. Bryant, who has been with the city for over 20 years, was interviewed separately by an Australian publication regarding his own involvement helping rebuild the city.

The presentation included some incredible “before & after” pics including the creation the Emeryville Peninsula, the development of Bay Street at the site of a former pigment factory and The EmeryTech campus from the Grove Valve & Regulator plant.

1987 Election & Hiring of New City Manager sets stage for Comeback

Things were already beginning to shift for Emeryville when Nora Davis, Ken Bukowski and Greg Harper all won council seats in 1987. The trio ran under a “reform” ticket promising more controlled growth and pushback on developers for civic improvements in exchange for building. “We’re not going to be a rubber stamp city council,” Bukowski noted in this 1987 Chronicle story following their victory.

“Emeryville is evolving into a gentrified center for high technology, especially biotechnology, and a haven for young professionals desiring upscale bayside condominiums” the story went on to describe.

Greg Harper, Nora Davis & Ken Bukowski ran and won council seats in 1987 as the “All Emeryville Alliance” slate.

Former City Manager John Flores, who was not present for the event, is credited with engineering much of the turnaround when he was hired by the city in 1988. “He turned around one square mile of toxic waste dump into a model city,” Davis acknowledged in this 2006 EBT story when Flores announced his retirement.

“One of his strengths was he could bring many differing elements of the community together … and that’s not easy. It’s like walking a tightrope, so many competing interests and passionate people.”

The Critical Role of Redevelopment

Former City manager Patrick O’Keeffe took over to explain the important role of Redevelopment in our city’s turnaround. O’Keeffe took over his role from Flores in 2006 and held it until his retirement in 2013.

Redevelopment, he explained, was a funding mechanism for rebuilding the town that was left stripped by the exodus of manufacturing and the toxic cleanup left behind. The creation of Emeryville’s Redevelopment Agency helped the city capture local tax dollars to remedy blight and entice new development. 20% of this revenue was allocated towards the creation of affordable housing in the city.

Wareham Development CEO Rich Robbins Explains Role of Developers

Probably the most intriguing part of the presentation and least documented was provided by Wareham founder Rich Robbins. Robbins, a New York native, has been redeveloping old buildings since the 70s.

His company has a massive footprint in Emeryville owning and maintaining 14 buildings centered around the North Hollis area of the city. They also have a large footprint in West Berkeley and are also their city’s largest commercial landlord.

Robbins provided his perspective of Emeryville’s growth that we had not previously heard in a public forum. Robbins repeatedly stressed the Public/Private Partnership model as the “secret ingredient” in Emeryville’s much studied renaissance.

Robbins also referenced the importance of continuity in city leadership and having “three critical council members” including Nora Davis and presumably more “pro-growth” councilmembers Ken Bukowski and Ruth Atkin.

The presentation came during Nora Davis’ 27th and final year on council. She passed away last year at the age of 92.

From L-R: John Flores, Rich Robbins, Nora Davis, Charlie Bryant & Patrick O’Keeffe.

Below is a transcription of the Wareham CEO Rich Robbins’ portion of the interview. Some parts have been edited for clarity. The entire presentation can be viewed in its entirety in the video embedded above.

Cheap Rent, Artists, Public/Private Partnerships & Leadership Continuity

I imagine what you want to know is going to come through a Q&A but let me hit on a couple very critical points. One issue that does not get magnified to the degree it should was the birth of the artist community because of the cheap rent in this area.

I consider in our public/private partnerships one of the key ingredients was the artist community in Emeryville and the good fortune that they were here and the creativity and the ‘chi’ energy that was in the air because it allowed us to do a lot of things that couldn’t have been done in a lot of other communities.

The stability that both Charlie and Pat discussed was the overwhelming factor of what made a public/private partnership successful. Having John Flores and Pat O’Keeffe as partners, having three critical council members, one who’s still serving, Nora Davis, who wouldn’t allow us to name the railroad station after her because she doesn’t want to die yet. That said, I was willing to bury her there on many an occasion [laughter].

I think that is the critical ingredient, that you can’t have too much political interference. The political process has to be a governor that has an alignment of interests, where there’s a commonality, where we magnify the 60 to 80 percent we all agree on and accomplish those goals and try to continue the dialog of where we don’t agree.

“I think that is the critical ingredient, that you can’t have too much political interference. The political process has to be a governor that has an alignment of interests, where there’s a commonality, where we magnify the 60 to 80 percent we all agree on and accomplish those goals and try to continue the dialog of where we don’t agree.”

The agreement to disagree is equally as important to the success of a community as any other factor because, as you know, because in your country right now you have polarized politics, in this country we’re off the chart polarized. There has to be both the concept that Ed [Blakely] always pronounced on the macro basis – as well as the incremental improvement on a micro basis.

Those micro bases start with one of the more important issues that got overlooked in Emeryville for a while, and that’s education. If you draw a circle where people want to be, it starts with the schools. If you have good schools, the businesses want to be there. Your residential community will have incremental value. People will want to live there, and family housing is a key ingredient to people rooting in a community.

Now, why did I start off on artist public/private partnerships and education? Because it’s a convergence of forces. You’re looking at one of the luckiest people on earth. I got to play social engineer in partnership and collaborate with some great people. All of what we do is a collaboration and never lose sight of where the next gem’s coming from because that gem may be in a regression analysis, the critical factor that gives you the most interesting aspect that will change the cultural fabric in that community for the next 10 to 20 years.

Cetus, Chiron & “Biotech Alley”

One of the things that happened, that ingredient, was life science. For 20 years people have been asking, ‘How do you do it?’ Well, you start with UC Berkeley, UCSF and Stanford University. When you have those three universities at work, very similar to what you have in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, you have already the platforms in place.

When I came along, I took the wrong left turn. I was into restoration and rehabilitation or as my oldest calls me ‘a burnt out hippy.’ All of a sudden, I was running across a lot of professors. Their whole augmented income came from working for pharmaceutical companies or research companies or doing research for larger corporations.


Cetus was the first large life science. In those days we had no name, so we gave it a name, ‘Biotech.’

Suddenly some of them got ideas, “Why am I taking this on an hourly basis when I can start my own company?” As Ed knows, I remember the days when Cetus was one of my first tenants. We had to put blue ink, red ink, yellow ink in canisters so when they brought a bunch of people around to raise money, everyone said, “Oh my god. This is science.”

You think that that didn’t happen but it was “holly-weird” all the way. Cetus was the first large life science [company]. In those days we had no name, so we gave it a name, ‘Biotech.’ It came from a PR guy who’s still with us today, Tim Galen. We called it “Biotech Alley.” Cetus raised $300 million, which back in the late 1970s, 1980s was off the chart.

From L-R: Chiron founders Edward E. Penhoet, Bill Rutter & Pablo Valenzuela. (Photo: David Powers).

Chiron leased space from Cetus. That was a company started by two brilliant people. It was by Bill Rutter and Edward Penhoet, two friends. They started Chiron. Now, their thrust was more egalitarian because they were professors. Cetus had professors but they also brought in what we call a Hollywood star in the scientific community to change their culture. Ultimately, we pushed and others pushed those two to join and merge.

What happened was Chiron was a first example of a very small company that leased a small amount of space, raised a little money, had an idea validated that continued to grow, that merged into a multinational company purchased by Novartis. From there a lot of people in Chiron started five or six companies.

Providing Space to Incubate Startups

You say, “Okay. How did this all come to be?” Well, the traction is in innovation and what we used to call in the old days “incubation.” How do you incubate someone? Well, someone who’s working in a large company has an idea, but it’s not going to be big money for five or ten years. They want to pursue that interest.

You have to have smaller spaces. You have to have, excuse the expression, cheap space, cheap space that also can give services that that individual can afford on its own and on their own.

About 11 years ago, Ed and I shared this, and I’m not a big fan of the individual, but a governor we had named Gray Davis was persuaded to do something very bright called QB3. It was Quantitative Bionetics Three, three being University of California Santa Cruz, University of California San Francisco, University of California Berkeley.

What that was was what we were doing in the private sector called incubation. How do you get a bunch of people for a couple of hundred dollars a month to validate an idea?

An Alignment of Interests and Live/Work Spaces

They weren’t even talking at the time about commercialization of research. They were talking about job creation. Remember, it’s politics and political people always want to know, “How do you create jobs and what’s in it for me?” Ultimately it was good for the whole community. There was an alignment of interests. Underline alignment of interests.

Go back in history to Emeryville, and you have an alignment of interests — including quality of life. Now, quality of life gets shunted aside when development comes swooping through, but the great part about Emeryville was that even though they wanted to change and see the residential values change and increase, they had an idea that would become a program that everybody bought into as long as there was enough preservation of quality of life.

Remember, it’s politics and political people always want to know, “How do you create jobs and what’s in it for me?”

Whether it was trees – there was a planner in the old planning department who picked the absolute worst trees you could plant. I think he got 2,000 free trees. We had silver eucalyptus that we never should have been planting. You guys and your eucalyptus are killing us! [laughter] We never got any lumber out of the deal either, just a lot of fire, but the idea was right. Change the concept.

Back in 1978, when I was 14 as I told you guys, I started Wareham, we’re starting our 40th year. What we did was we took an old building that had a lot of illegal uses, from research, to epoxying tanks, to people living in spaces illegally. I went to the then Director of Redevelopment and planner at the time because he did both. It was Mark Buell and Anderson at the time. I said, “We’ve got to make this legal so I can get insurance.”

They said, “We don’t want these uses. We don’t want to give social services. We don’t want to pay for those types of uses. How can we do it?” They came up with a phrase to cover their butt called basically “incidental residential.”

Now you say, “Well, what the hell does that have to do with life science?” Well, those 1,200-square-foot spaces, those 1,500-foot spaces, those 2,000-foot live/work spaces not only brought artists but it brought innovators, people who were working at home, people in the tech industry because don’t forget, Silicon Valley is south but most of the knowledge, proprietary information came from UC Berkeley for most of Silicon Valley.

If you look outside the most recent years where Stanford would take over of who graduated there, most of the ideas in Silicon Valley came from UC Berkeley. Now UC Berkeley is into the nanotechnology. I’ll talk about nanotechnology life science energy in a moment.

Where these little spaces came together was allowing people to live and work. That’s an interesting concept. You’ve got the artists. Now you’ve got some live/work. You say, “Okay, what the hell is he talking about? How does this tie together to commercialization?”

Well, Cetus and Chiron both were bigger companies. Chiron grew exponentially. Cetus was having trouble, but it had a lot of proprietary information. When they merged, the money from Cetus and the facilities from Cetus mixed with the egalitarian philosophy and hardworking knowledge of Chiron, brought about certain serendipitous events.

One of them was PCR. That came from Cetus and Chiron. Its applications are exponential across almost every sector in our life. You know it from crime and criminal, but it’s also the basis of genomics. It’s the basis of other areas of science. When that grew, other companies came out of that.

Courting Pixar & Steve Jobs

In addition, there were other creative companies that came here besides research. Pixar was our company for 13 years in Point Richmond which is a little further down the East Bay shore. Steve Jobs came to me and said, “I can’t stay here anymore even though I want to stay.” We had all art and their original work from Toy Story.

He said “I can’t recruit.” I said what do you mean? “For us to grow and recruit, besides our Pixar University where we teach people, we need to be closer to San Francisco so we can get people from Southern California, from the South Bay, from the North Bay. We’re not centric right now in Point Richmond. Can you help me?”

I said, “Well, most developers don’t like that type of thing because am I going to lose my tenant?” As it turned out, I’ll tell you the story, it worked out well. He looked and really wanted Berkeley. I’m going to go back to Berkeley and Berkeley’s impact on Emeryville in a moment. Ultimately, Kaiser had this site locked up from Del Monte.

“For us to grow and recruit…we need to be closer to San Francisco so we can get people from Southern California, the South Bay and the North Bay. We’re not centric right now in Point Richmond. Can you help me?”

–Steve Jobs

Our competitor way back when, David Martin, had brought them there, but Kaiser couldn’t get it together. They saw some of the pitfalls and decided to centralize in one area of Oakland. I heard about that. We moved in with Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs obviously was a big figure. The city loved him, and Pixar loved him, and the rest is history. It was an inverse takeover, Pixar really taking over Disney if you want to know the truth.

Pixar continues to do great things today, but it was another creative element because the site was there but the private/public partnership was equipped to take advantage of the opportunity. The impediments weren’t laid there but proactively they said, “Here’s what we need to make this happen.”

Pixar donated to the arts, to the schools, to a lot of educational improvements. Emeryville needed that help at the time. They became a great community citizen but the community, even with its concerns about growth, brought them in and made it easier to attract.

Berkeley’s Growing ‘Anti-Business’ Sentiment Benefits Emeryville?

Someone asked about incentives. Outside of redevelopment there haven’t been that many incentives. Recently, the cap got raised for business license fees. A reasonable Solomon-like compromise was worked out for the larger companies.

There’s an incentive there, but ultimately the dialog is the incentive. The ability to say, “We really want this. We really need this. We really need this. We really want that,” because location does trump but quality of life issues also are quite important because if you look what happened, Berkeley in the ’80s started passing legislation about proprietary information.

“I got very angry during those political times, said, ‘You know, I’ve had it.’ We went on a building spree here in Emeryville.”

What’s going to scare stockholders and the capital markets more than anything is when a government agency says, “I want to know what you’re doing and how you do it.” Cetus came from Berkeley. Sybase came from Berkeley originally before they left. A lot of companies came from Berkeley. We’re the largest developer in Berkeley.

I got very angry during those political times, said, “You know, I’ve had it.” We went on a building spree here in Emeryville. It wasn’t just for that reason, but it accelerated the volume and the type of companies we were bringing. Because the city wanted that proprietary information, a lot of science and a lot of technology that didn’t go to the south bay and could not grow in Berkeley came to Emeryville.

You had that political juxtaposition that also was an incentive that allowed growth to come. Now, everything is balanced. The pendulum swings this way, the pendulum swings that way.

Emeryville Leaps at Amtrak Station Opportunity

What you want to know is, well, how did we bring this about? As Pat mentioned, we didn’t have a connection to BART. The earthquake came in 1989. We had a development ready to go on the Westinghouse site, which was where the EmeryStation campus is largely there.

We also owned the Chevron site, which had to be cleaned up. At the time the city manager, John Flores, called me, “Can you come to my office?” “Sure.” I came to his office. The head of Amtrak was there. “We need a train station. How do we get a train station? We don’t feel that Oakland’s going to give us a train station.” I said, “Alright, we’ll build it.” He said, “You will? When?”

I said, “When do you need it by?” and he said, “In a year.” I looked at Flores and Flores looked at me. We said, “Okay. How long will it take for you to get your act together back at Union Station in Washington DC?” It was about six months.

Essentially, John went to the political powers and his staff to come up with a plan. We figured out a private/public way to do it. We took the footprint of where the station was going to be and parts of the platform. John said, “We’ll do some tax incremental bonds on the infrastructure,” because at the time we couldn’t move fast, so we divvied it up. We didn’t take redevelopment money.

We said, “Okay. I’ll do this on a break-even basis,” because I said, “If we build this station, then you’ve got to be a partner with me to build what we’re doing all around.” He honored his word, as did the council, as did Pat. A great deal of staff time went into this, and we did it. It was the first train station built in California in 50 years.

Now, think about that. In 50 years there wasn’t any other train station built. That’s nuts. But it was built. It was 10,000 square feet. They had a big ceremony and whistles and everything. I just got word last year they passed three million passengers that went through that station last year. That doesn’t like a lot in a big infrastructure, but it’s essentially TransBay east that gets people to San Francisco.

Emery Go-Round and “A Lincoln Box”

More importantly, it was tying into Intra, which is our Emery Go-Round, which is taxis, now Uber and Lyft and people like that. The idea was Emeryville was left off a major infrastructure. How do you compensate for that? Well, you’re not going to compensate by saying “we’re better” or ”we can do this.” You’re going to have to provide that service one way or another.

And the creativity became, as Pat mentioned, the Emery-Go Round. How did the Emery Go-Round get founded? John Flores and I talked about it and he gave me two tickets to what we call a “Lincoln Box.” That would mean going to a place where you’re going to get shot. There was an old man named Lathrop who controlled two or three shuttles. I had to go grovel and bark like a dog to get him to come together with us.”

We put together three or four power people who could use this system and make it work. We took on the cost and the operation. The city got a grant from, of all places, CalTrans, some PG&E money. I don’t know how that happened, but it was only about $350,000. The more important issue was the city went and used creativity. “Where can we get a bunch of grants and will you match us in this endeavor? Will you align your interests so we can get this transit moving?”

Last figures, the Emery Go-Round does, free of charge, seven days a week, averages somewhere around 8,500 to 9,000 passengers a day. It has GPS systems, we have dot racing, you can find at any moment in time where it’s going to be so busy people can be on their computer and know I have 5 minutes down the elevator to the kiosk.

“A Convergence of Forces”

I rambled as I promised I would. I’ll end by saying something that’s super important. We’ve been called by 30, 40 cities, “How do you do it?” It’s not us. It’s a convergence of forces. If there’s one or two items to remember, it’s public/private partnership and not just using the words, putting some weight into it and an alignment of interests. The third point would be magnify the 60 percent of commonality and deal with the agreement to disagree in a civil way.

Further Reading & Resources

Emeryville: One of California’s boldest urban fixes

How real estate developer Rich Robbins guided Wareham to success

Developer partners with city in helping Emeryville thrive

Emeryville: “the little city that could” | AECOM

How The Loma Prieta Earthquake Transformed Emeryville

How A Free Bus Shuttle Helped Make A Small Town Take Off

Emeryville City Manager Will Retire

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Rob Arias

is a third generation Californian and East Bay native who lived in Emeryville from 2003 to 2021. Rob founded The E'ville Eye in 2011 after being robbed at gunpoint and lamenting the lack of local news coverage. Rob's "day job" is as a creative professional.

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