The Emeryville Peninsula: The Vibrant Neighborhood that Nearly Wasn’t

Published On April 25, 2020 | By Joey Enos | History & Archive

Today, the Emeryville Peninsula is among the most vibrant and populated areas of our city. Runners, dog-walkers and cyclists traversing its trails, panoramic views, sailing and dining. About one-fifth of our city’s population resides at the vast Watergate condominium complex as well as a smattering of liveaboards at the two marinas. A Hilton hotel, The Towers and Tanium buildings provide an active jobs center.

But this neighborhood almost didn’t happen. In fact, had it not been for a long and complicated legal battle, this part of Emeryville might not exist.

Emeryville’s Need to Pivot, Expand

For most of Emeryville’s existence, vice and heavy industry were the economic lifebloods and foundational fabric of the city. In the early 1960s, these industries were in rapid decline threatening to decimate the city’s tax base and leave it in a precarious position. The world was rapidly changing and Emeryville needed to change with it or risk being irrelevant, or even absorbed.

For urban growth and modernization, other cities began investing in the suburban landscape. This created new revenue and infrastructure through growth and modernization. Emeryville, pinned between two much larger cities to the North, South and East, had limited options to expand.

Conversely, Emeryville’s border to the west is the east shore of the San Francisco Bay. This represented an opportunity.

Early Bay Fill Plans Gain in Popularity

Beyond Emeryville’s shoreline at the time, was 600 feet of soft mud under the shallow waters. The mud had been deposited there for over 8,000 years. The soft mud underneath a beautiful and complex saltwater marsh. It is exquisite at supporting an ecosystem, it is awful though at supporting a manmade foundation. Soft mud of that magnitude compounds onto itself under any foundation that is put on top of it.

John Reber and his 1946 Reber plan, Courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.

In 1946, local show business personality Jon Reber drew up a plan to drastically changing the Bay’s landscape. The Reber Plan sought to create huge areas of fill across the bay, freshwater dams to the south, and giant shipping channels throughout. By 1957, it became a popular enough idea that the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers (USACE) built a working hydraulic model of the bay to understand the ecological impact of projects like these.

USACE concluded that such a project would be unsafe and catastrophically detrimental to all life in the San Francisco Bay. This fact suggested that any bay fill project, from Oakland to Albany, would be potentially unsafe and harmful to the environment. The lucrative idea of filling the Bay did not stop many Bay Area cities like Foster City.

The Santa Fe Railroad Company, who owned much of the land rights along the East Bay Shoreline, dreamed up their own massive development in 1963. This development would have stretched from Richmond to Emeryville, creating manmade islands of communities, schools, and college campuses.

Forgotten Santa Fe Development plan of the East Bay (Oakland Tribune, 1963).

Emeryville Gets on Board with their own Bay Fill Plans

In Emeryville in the 1960’s, there was a long and complicated political war that crippled the city. Following this time of instability, newly elected Mayor Don Neary began to look for ways to modernize the city and expand the residential population.

He and the city council looked to develop the tidal lands for residential development and expansion. In 1962 the city created a Planning Commission to address the issue of modernizing Emeryville. They hired Berkeley-based planning consultants Ruth + Krushkhov to come up with a plan. “…49 percent industrial, with no parks, playgrounds or churches and a serious portion of its homes facing dilapidation,” they cited in their preliminary report.

“…49 percent industrial, with no parks, playgrounds or churches and a serious portion of its homes facing dilapidation”

Since the construction of the Eastshore highway in 1937, the waters in Emeryville were used as an unregulated area to dump construction waste. The Paraffin Company, now where the Public Market Emeryville is, had constructed a wharf in the 1910s that extended far into the bay. To the south of that wharf, companies like PABCO and Fibreboard Plants used the shallow waters to dump production waste from their manufacturing plants.

This dumpsite extended about 300 yards out into the Bay and consisted mainly of roofing tiles, tarpaper, linoleum, and remnants of demolished buildings. This fill can still be seen today on the north shore of the peninsula behind the Chevy’s restaurant. You will find the rolls of roof tiles and linoleum peak out of the ground like long lost artifacts of past pollution.


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Herman Ruth of Ruth + Krushkhov went to the Emeryville city council in 1964 with their master plan for the city. It laid out a plan to expand the residential population from 3,000 to 20,000 by 1985. The idea was to expand into the waters west of the highway by creating Islands of residential communities. They looked to tap into the migration of upper-income professionals to California.

The Ruth + Krushkhov City plan predicted the needs for the communities not yet seen, such as the 1980s yuppies and today’s tech sector. Emeryville saw this economically viable plan as a way to modernize Emeryville.

Emeryville Master Plan, 1964

Save the Bay Organization Leads Opposition

Similar fill projects were sprouting up in cities all along the Bay. With this, a citizen-based activism began to build awareness against the practice. In 1961, Sylvia McLaughlin, Kay Kerr, and Esther Gulick founded a grassroots movement called they called Save The Bay.

These three women lobbied CA State Senator J. Eugene McAteer and Oakland Politician Nicholas Petris to take up the cause of preserving the San Francisco Bay and access to its shores.

Esther Gulick, from left, Sylvia McLaughlin and Kay Kerr, Courtesy of Save the Bay

Convinced of the importance to protect the essence of the San Francisco Bay, they introduced the McAteer-Petris Act into California legislation in 1964. This Act would help create the BCDC, The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission.

As it was written, a temporary agency was charged with studying and developing a comprehensive plan for the San Francisco Bay. This potentially could stop all Bay Fill projects unless they could pass many more tests such as environmental impact studies and its relationship to the public good. As it was written, there were some vague aspects of the legislation, so Emeryville’s political might hatched a plan to test its reach and try to circumvent the act.

Emeryville’s Race Against the Clock to Approve, Enact General Plan

The threat from Sacramento to Emeryville’s plan was manifesting quickly. The BCDC oversight was slated to go into effect in the fall of 1965. So the Emeryville city council fast-tracked the vote to proceed with part of the Ruth + Krushkhov plan in January of 1965. By August of ‘65, the Emeryville Planning Commission recommended the project. This allowed funding to be released to begin the project. Thirty-seven days later on September 17, the McAteer-Petris Act was enacted.

Now, Emeryville could argue that their development was “grandfathered in”, and in theory lawful. There was no protection against the grandfather clause in the act. For the moment, the City Council found a way to circumvent the commission.

On February 14, 1966, the City Council adopted the new General Plan with the filling of the Tidelands included. The plan stated that it would be “compatible with a comprehensive Bay Development Plan.”

After the Construction of the East shore Freeway and the Paraffin Company Pier off of Powell Street, 1937.

In 1965, knowing the soft legal foundation the project stood on, the city of Emeryville and Knapp Excavators pushed their plan to fill the Bay. It could be months or even years before anyone got a clear answer, so the city moved fast to dump as much earth as they could in that time.

The process of filling tidal areas and eliminating salt marshes was a fairly common practice around the world at the time. The standard method involved constructing a series of pools or closure dikes with earth and concrete. This created a series of ponds with high walls of earth and concrete. Water is then pumped out and then earth, wood, and other debris are dumped into these ponds.

This is how Knapp Excavators made the land underneath the Watergate Community. To do this on this Powell street extension involved over 100 truckloads of earth a day for three years.

Filling in the Bay off of Powell Street, 1967.

State Seeks Injunction Against Emeryville

Immediately after the City of Emeryville started the project, the state controller of California, Alan Cranston got involved. He did not recognize Emeryville’s grandfather clause claim as it was not involving the new BCDC. He pressed for an immediate injunction. State officials saw this as an illegal project and fought to stop Emeryville from proceeding.

Emeryville City Council voted to not recognize this injunction and continued to fill the project. This set up a legal showdown with the state.

The first round of this legal battle took place in 1967 in the Alameda County Supreme Court. Not convinced about the argument of the State’s jurisdiction, the Alameda County Courts ruled in Emeryville’s favor. This allowed Emeryville’s project to proceed. Within the verdict, Emeryville made a compromise to focus the project on the extension of Powell Street and to scrap the larger concept of a multiple island community.

This put a stop to the most northern activity of bay fill on the border of Emeryville and Berkeley. A jet of land into the bay that still exists is all that is left of that halted project, now named Point Emery.

Point Emery, although eroding, is a reminder of Emeryville’s attempt at further expansion (Photo: Google Maps).

The BCDC continued with this case and brought it to the California Supreme Court in 1968. They cited a legal tool called a writ of supersedeas that “suspends the power of a lower court to issue an execution on a judgment where an appeal to a higher court has been taken.” This would give the California Supreme Court the chance to make their ruling.

The State Supreme Court subsequently ruled in favor of the BCDC and issued an order to the city of Emeryville to halt the project. This rejection of the grandfather clause showed the potential influence and power of the BCDC. One of the great fears of the BCDC, if Emeryville had won the verdict, was that other cities around the bay would follow suit and claim grandfather clauses to fill their shores of the Bay.

This gave precedence to the BCDC and showed what grassroots movements like Save the Bay could accomplish. This historic verdict led the legislative way for the BCDC to become a permanent state commission in 1969, signed by then-Governor Ronald Reagan.

Map showing the timeline of the Watergate fill project (Emeryville’s Landfill Problems, 1985- Alison Pappe)

Without the BCDC, who knows what the Waterfront would have looked like and who would have access to it. Before the BCDC in 1964, less than 4% of the bay was publicly accessible. The BCDC may have ultimately enabled public commons like the SF Bay Trail that will one day extend 500 miles around the bay.

The Emeryville Peninsula may not resemble the more ambitious 1966 plan, but it did succeed in adding about 10% more real estate to Emeryville.

Construction Begins

Despite its shaky legal ground and the questionable ethical and environmental issues, Emeryville moved ahead with its plan to modernize the old industrial city and change its course. It was only the beginning for the BCDC as the commission continued to fight Emeryville throughout the 1970s concerning the accessibility and environmental impacts of the Watergate area, including the Park, the Marina, and the Emeryville Crescent.

In 1969 Emeryville sold the Peninsula to the Lathrop/McCloskey company for development. The City of Emeryville made preliminary plans to move its City Hall and the Police Station to the Peninsula as a commitment to this change.

The shift of the epicenter of the city away from the industrial plants and gambling halls to new and modern peninsula was symbolic of the city’s new vision for itself.

Clipping: SF Examiner April 8, 1972.

Population Growth Sparks “Watergate Revolution,” Power Shift

With the completion of the the $100 million, 1200 unit Watergate apartments in the early 1970’s, the city was positioned to attract a new crop of affluent residents and continue its vision to reinvent itself.

The apartments were “adults only” with no children allowed. Restaurants included Trader Vic’s, Tia Maria (now Hong Kong East Ocean) and Charley Brown’s. The shopping center included Piedmont Grocery and Market (now Watergate market) as well as a bank branch, beauty salon and pharmacy. Celebrities like Tennis star Billie Jean King called watergate home in the early years.

The new “West” Emeryville would quickly shift the political power in the city with half the population residing there and 4 out of 5 elected Councilmembers living at Watergate at one point.

The Watergate and Emeryville Today

The Watergate, showing its age for many years, has received a recent facelift. The population that had leaned senior for the past couple decade has seen a recent influx of young families and there are plans in the works for a nearby children’s play area.

With no plans for expansion, the Peninsula’s percentage of the population has slowly dipped from roughly half to less than 20% over the decades. They have not has an elected member of city council since Nora Davis retired from politics in 2016.

Today, with nowhere else to go, the city looks to expand upward including plans for a 54-story tower that would be the East Bay’s tallest. Emeryville’s expansion westward may have come to an end, but its evolution, and ambition, is far from over.

About The Author

is an artist and historian who is a 5th generation East Bay Resident and resided in Emeryville for many years. His family has a long history in Emeryville and operated the Michel & Pelton Company off of Horton from 1929-1982. His great-grandmother was Earl Warren's secretary when Emeryville was coined "The Rotten City." Joey works as a Collections Manager for The National Pastime Museum. Follow Joey's curated collection of Mudflat Art pics on Instagram @emeryville_mudflats

6 Responses to The Emeryville Peninsula: The Vibrant Neighborhood that Nearly Wasn’t

  1. Anonymous says:

    Nice write-up.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Another excellent article by Joey Enos and E’ville Eye. Keep up the great work.

  3. ANDY GUILIANO at FishEmeryville says:

    I believe both Chevy’s and Charlie Browns each operated separate restaurants in the cove at one time. After the 89 Earthquake Charlie Browns was removed and Chevy’s remained at the spot it sits at today.

  4. Tomas Gato says:

    Excellent write up. It really is scary to think what the area would look like today had all those development plans gone through.

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