Some highlights from an active 4-hour July 18th City Council meeting that included a Special Study Session for the stalled Emeryville Arts Center, the retirement of longtime Planning Director Charlie Bryant and the approval of the 40th Street Multimodal project.
The full meeting agenda is available on Emeryville.org
Emeryville Arts Center (Special Study Session)
The city held a Special Study Session to discuss next steps for the troubled Emeryville Arts Center. An Art Center has been high on residents “wish list” for decades but the city has not been able to deliver it.
The city seems no closer to achieving it than they did when the project was awarded to Orton Development nearly five years ago. The pandemic seems to be just the the latest barrier for the city following through on one of its many stated goals and priorities.
The saga of the Arts Center is a long and complicated one. The city had already acquired the adjacent “United Stamping Company” property in 2006 and the center was well on its way to becoming a reality. Jensen Architects was retained to design the center and a comprehensive business plan was formulated in 2009 to address the costs of running it. Redevelopment was yanked from local municipalities in 2011 by the then Governor Jerry Brown sending the project into limbo for several years. The city successfully recouped the funds earmarked for the project in 2015.
After several additional study sessions, Orton Development Inc. (ODI) was selected among a pool of three applicants to develop the center largely because of their straight-forward approach, experience with other adaptive reuse projects including Richmond’s Craneway Pavillion and, in at least one councilmembers view, having an office within Emeryville.
Their selection was criticized by some who favored the inclusion of artist housing whose rents might help offset the operational costs needed to sustain the center. The city has been focused on creating a sustainable model that wouldn’t rely on ongoing and unpredictable subsidies from the city and constant fundraising efforts.
At the time of the approval in September, 2018, there was optimism that the project might be complete in time for the fall 2020 annual Celebration of the Arts. Instead, no visible progress was made over the next two years .
The 2020 pandemic further threw the project in disarray. ODI, citing a 17% increase in construction costs, attempted to amend the approved plan to get it to “pencil out” including eliminated the café space, reducing the size of the multi-purpose gallery, and increasing the size of the co-working area.
This amendment was denied by the Planning Commission and this decision was reaffirmed by council. The Land Development and Disposition Agreement (LDDA) with Orton was terminated in 2022.
Last April, Emeryville City Council directed staff to schedule yet another Study Session to help reboot the project. Recently appointed councilmember Sukhdeep Kaur made the recommendation of the inclusion of discussion of adding a library to the project. Emeryville has ambitions to have its own library but currently relies on Oakland’s Golden Gate Branch Library on San Pablo Avenue as well as neighboring Berkeley.
City staff instructed Council to provided direction for moving forward including the modification of the projects objectives and its key elements.
An Albatross for City & Council
The disappointment was palpable by the artists who spoke at the meeting and had put considerable time and energy into advocating for. Some questioned wether the city and their chosen developers had the needed specialized skills and leadership to see the project through. As a small city, employee positions are often split between several roles. Being a councilmember is considered part-time.
“…no one on the staff has expertise in this area,” noted one speaker who identified himself as 26-year resident and Public Art Committee member. The speaker cautioned the city that its ambition of running an art center without ongoing financial support from the city was not realistic.
The project has become an albatross for local politicians and there doesn’t appear to be any immediate path forward. While the reasons are varied and complex, the bottom line is the city and its council has not been able to follow through on their vision for supporting the Arts keeping it in the “minor leagues” of cities.
Many of the artists who have been advocating for the center are now in their 70s and are rightfully questioning if the project will happen in their lifetime.
Library Nixed, Demolition Likely
Former councilmember and longtime Artist Coop resident Scott Donahue recommended “starting from scratch” and demolishing the existing building that he explained was limiting the design and functionality of the space. Other speakers and members of council seemed supportive of the idea. “One of the big barriers was the desire to maintain the structure,” noted Mayor John Bauters who is the only remaining councilmember left from when the project was rebooted in 2018.
Kaur, who advocated for the addition of a library to the project, argued that it would introduce additional funding opportunities and that literary arts were as important as visual arts.
Last year, in 2022, the State of CA awarded $313Million in grants in Round one for improving and building local libraries. The funding is there for a center for art and innovation and more for Emeryvillehttps://t.co/ItElAUAcnK
— Councilmember Sukhdeep Kaur (@4Emeryville) July 20, 2023
The majority of council seemed skeptical of introducing another variable like a library into the already complicated project. “One thing that’s become crystal clear to me as a newer council member is the need for clear direction,” noted councilmember David Mourra. “It’s a trap to turn this into a grab-bag of wishes and desires for the city and [sink the project].”
Council ultimately recommended support for the “hybrid” implementation recommended by staff that would’t 100% rely on city resources to operate the center. They also recommended to not modify the key elements listed above and not include the addition of a library.
A more comprehensive history of the project can be read in the city’s staff report on Emeryville.org.
40th Street Safety Plan (Action Item)
One thing the city has prioritized and been able to follow through on are gradual improvements to their bike-ped infrastructure.
The 40th Street Safety Plan has been on the wishlist of bike-safety advocates for a long time. The plan would provide a safer east-west connection to the Bay Trail entrance on Shellmound near IKEA as well as create bus express lanes allowing quicker travel for Emery Go-Round lines going to and from MacArthur BART.
Council was considering three components to the project including:
- Enhancements along 40th including a two-way cycle track and dedicated bus lanes
- The closure of “unsignalized” intersections along 40th to vehicles
- A second phase that would provide similar improvements along Shellmound between Christie and IKEA
Some business owners, particularly those that require delivery vehicles, have pushed back on some of the recent changes citing the negative impact it has on them. This project will eliminate street parking along 40th but more importantly for business owners, the project considered closure of “unsignalized” intersections (those without traffic signals) to vehicles on the north side of 40th including Emery, Watts, Haven, Holden and Hubbard. Traffic from these streets would be diverted to parallel “signaled” streets including Horton, Hollis and Harlan.
Public comment was clearly divided between two camps: BPAC members and business owners along 40th street and its side-streets. Councilmember Priforce pointed out how the lack of a Chamber of Commerce in the city put the business community at a disadvantage and allowed a small lobby mostly composed of BPAC members to provide undue influence on these matters.
The compromise recommended by Mayor John Bauters who cited “balancing safety and the economic needs of the city” was closures of Hubbard and Haven and partial closure at Watts and Holden. The motion was approved 4-1 (Priforce nay).
More information about the project can be read on the city’s website. Construction on the first phase of the project is expected to begin next summer.
Discussion on this Action item can be watched above at [2:27:27].
Longtime Planning Director Charles “Charlie” Bryant Retires (Special Proclamation)
Longtime City of Emeryville Planning & Building Director Charlie Bryant bid farewell as a city employee after twenty-three years. Bryant was a critical figure in the city’s redevelopment-fueled “Boomtown” era that saw the city’s population swell from less than 7,000 in 2000 to over 10,000 in 2010 and has continued its growth to its current ≅ 13,000 residents.
Bryant achieved his bachelors degree in Architecture with MIT and his masters in City & Regional Planning from U.C. Berkeley.
He began his career in planning with the City of Oakland where he worked for the first 18 of his nearly 50 years in the planning profession. He started as an intern with Oakland working his way up including being the city’s first Environmental Review Coordinator.
Bryant was lured over to Emeryville in 2000 by then City Manager John Flores when the city was beginning to shift gears from larger, commercial redevelopment activities like Bay Street and IKEA to attracting more residents. Bryant also helped continue the ongoing work of remediation of the city’s many EPA brownfields sites necessary prior to be being redeveloped.
Bryant helped nurture what he referred to as “big ideas” and oversaw the 2004-2009 General Plan update that provided the blueprint for many of the amenities that are finally being realized. This includes the nearly complete Greenway extension and many other street improvement projects. The plan was honored with an award from the American Planning Association. Emeryville’s “renaissance” has been closely studied and admired by other cities looking to make a similar pivot from industrial to mixed-use.
“I am most proud the improvements in quality of life that have been achieved for the Emeryville community,” Bryant told an Australian contingency when they toured the city in 2016. “This includes parks, bike paths, recreational programs, early childhood learning facilities, and, most recently, the opening of the Emeryville Center of Community Life.”
Bryant likened his role with the city to being the conductor of an orchestra helping formalize these ideas into comprehensive, official city documents. Bryant was particularly adept at helping the city navigate the the most bureaucratic components of local government.
One of the big ideas Bryant helped facilitate was the Emeryville Greenway, arguable the city’s best feature. Nearly 14 years later, this greenway is on the verge of completion. Bryant was a regular bike commuter from his home in Berkeley and seeing the city and its many flaws through the lens of a cyclist surely influenced his planning philosophy.
“I am most proud the improvements in quality of life that have been achieved for the Emeryville community.”
— Charlie Bryant, City of Emeryville Director of Planning & Building
Bryant citied these streetscaping projects, the Public Market renovation and the Sherwin-Williams development among the many projects he oversaw that he was most proud of. “I hope that I live to see the day when the Powell Street Plaza and the East Bay Bridge [Shopping Center] are similarly transformed as envisioned by the General Plan.”
Bryant was also a source of irreplaceable institutional knowledge of the history of the city as one of its longest tenured employees.
Bryant thanked the small staff that he oversaw that he described as talented and dedicated. “They will carry on the great work of this department without skipping a beat after I retire. You won’t even know I’m gone.”
7/28 Update: His final day with the city will be September 1.
The Special Order of the day proclamation acknowledging Bryant can be watched above at [1:52:28].