Without a meeting in November, the Planning Commission met on December 13th with a jam-packed agenda and a meeting that stretched beyond five hours. All eyes were of course on the proposed Onni 54-story high-rise that would reshape Emeryville skyline and our populace.
- Council approval of a General Plan amendment increasing the allowable FAR, height & density of projects on east side of San Pablo Avenue from 40th to 45th
- At their October 30th meeting, the City Council reviewed the proposed updated parking management plan and decided they will not be moving forward with it at this time
- As part of the rotating system, the City Council appointed Ally Medina as the new Mayor
Public Hearing: Decathlon Signs
The commission reviewed a major sign permit for the proposed Decathlon sporting goods store at the former Toys “R” Us building at 3938 Horton Street in the East Bay Bridge Shopping Center.
The company is proposing to use five signs around the exterior of the building, including one illuminated wall sign, one non-illuminated monument sign, and three illuminated signs on the tower structure.
The proposed wall sign is located on the south façade of the building above, and to the right of, the main entrance and its proposed detentions are 8 feet tall by 31.67 feet wide. The proposed tower signs would include two facing east and west, like the previous tower signs, and a third facing south towards Mandela Parkway/Yerba Buena Avenue and the MacArthur Freeway. Each tower sign measures 5.5 feet tall, by 21.75 feet wide.
The applicant is also proposing a non-illuminated monument sign at the corner of Horton Street and Mandela Parkway/Yerba Buena Avenue. The monument sign would measure 3 feet tall by 11 feet wide, and would be placed on top of an existing concrete pad.
All of the signs have a blue background with white letters in the style of the Decathlon logo. All of the sign returns are made of aluminum, while the sign faces are made of acrylic and vinyl; the illuminated signs also have polycarbonate faces and are illuminated using white LEDs behind the sign faces.
There was some concern from the residents present at the meeting that the signs would be too bright. However, it was made clear that all of the illuminated signs are able to be dimmed, and in accordance with the conditions of approval, they may be dimmed to the satisfaction of the Director of Community Development should there be any complaints.
Representatives from Decathlon and the sign fabricator were on hand and commended the city’s staff for their assistance during the application process.
The commission had few concerns with the proposed use. Commissioner Keller did question the number of the signs proposed, and asked the applicant to consider eliminating the illuminated sign on the top of the building:
”I am probably the most sign-friendly, but I need to question if the sign in the building is necessary. I think it’s rather large… and I think with the sign on the tower, the building is really well identified.”
The permit was unanimously approved 6-0 (Commissioner Thomson absent).
Watch the Discussion at [24:30]
Public Hearing: Telecommunication Facilities Regulations Amendments
The Commission considered an amendments to Article 17 of Chapter 5 of the Planning Regulations and other associated amendments to the Planning Regulations to make approvals of Wireless Communication Facilities ministerial pursuant to the Zoning Compliance Review process. The amendment is required due to recent changes in the law that impact how municipalities can review and regulate telecommunication facilities.
In general, both federal and state law govern how the City may regulate wireless communication facilities. Under the federal Telecommunications Act, both states and local governments are preempted from prohibiting wireless communication facilities. (47 U.S.C. § 253.) However, the Telecommunications Act purportedly preserves cities’ authority over the placement, construction, and modification of these facilities, subject to certain constraints. (47 U.S.C. § 332(c)(7).)
Under this authority, cities have sought to regulate wireless communication facilities by adopting ordinances that regulate the use and design of such facilities, and to charge fees for access to the public right of way. Recently, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) issued updated rulings that impacts the City’s ability to regulate wireless facilities in several ways.
First, the ruling limits local government’s authority to impose local aesthetic standards. Under the ruling, local aesthetic standards must be reasonable, no more burdensome than those standards applied to other infrastructure, and published in advance.
Second, the ruling shortens the “shot clock”, the time by which the local government has to approve or deny an application. Previously, local governments had between 90 and 150 days to take action on small wireless devices on existing structures, and now, the shot clock has been reduced to 60 days in many instances. This 60-day period covers all local actions, including both planning approvals and building permit issuance. The ruling becomes effective January 14, 2019.
In anticipation of the ruling becoming effective, the City is Modifying Article 17 of Chapter 5 of Title 9 (Planning Regulations) of the Emeryville Municipal Code, “Telecommunications Facilities”, and to the Use Table in Article 2 of Chapter 3 of the Planning Regulations to adhere to the updating rulings.
The Commission unanimously approved the modifications.
Watch the Discussion at [4:07:30].
Study Session: Marketplace Redevelopment Project Parcel B
The Commission held a Study Session to consider a new Final Development Plan (FDP) for “Parcel B” of the Marketplace Redevelopment Project. This would replace the FDP that was approved by the Planning Commission back on June 23, 2016. The applicant, CCRP, had initial plans to restore the parcel into a parking lot but withdrew their application and submitted this plan instead.
The previously approved FDP included a three-level, 300 parking space parking structure with 26,000 square feet of retail space. This revised FDP application would build a 113-foot tall, 8 story building and reduce the ground floor retail space to 14,000 square feet. Four levels of the building would accommodate 565 parking spaces, and office/laboratory space totaling 150,000 square feet on the top three levels.
CCRP President Mark Stefan noted the changing retail landscape and skyrocketing construction costs necessitated the pivot in the project. “What we came up with was Life Science. It’s very much in demand, it brings in well paying jobs and employees that can frequent and be patrons of the Public Market both retail and the restaurant space.”
In general, the Commission liked the updated plan. Commission Tito Young approved of the updated esthetics,
”I live very close to this building, and while I won’t have a view of it, I definitely would want one… I like the color scheme, I like the shape. I think it’s beautiful.”
Commissioner Keller also approved of the use of the property,
”I like the mixed use… this is a destination… there are a lot of restaurants here, and the bar scene is really kicking it.”
Commissioner Donaldson also approved, but has concerns over the parking structure,
“[the updated design] is much more monolithic. The materials are much more monochrome.”
Commissioner Barrera closed things by agreeing with Commissioner Keller about the mixed-use benefit while also looking for additional information on the ground floor retail plan, which should be available in the near future.
Watch the discussion at [2:54:40].
Study Session: Onni Christie Mixed Use Project
The main event was a study session to review the divisive and much talked about proposal at 5801-5861 Christie Avenue. The 3.76-acre site would including a 54-story residential tower with 638 units, a 16-story office tower with approximately 238,000 square feet of office space, about 20,000 square feet of ground floor retail space, and 1,105 parking spaces.
On hand to present the vision for the project were Onni Vice President of Development Mark Spector and development manager Nathan Pitters. Also on hand was project Architect from IBI group Salim Kumar Narayanan. The team acknowledged that this would be the first of many community meetings.
City of Emeryville Senior Planner Miroo Desai presented the staff report and noted which aspects of the project met and did not meet the city’s planning regulations and reaffirmed the need for 100 bonus points and how they could be achieved. Commissioner Keller clarified that there were other unspecified community benefits that could be included to achieve the bonus points but would require city council approval.
Half of the bonus points could be achieved through the inclusion of 108 affordable units (17% of the total units) that would include 23 very-low income units, 38 low-income units, and 46 moderate units.
The project will include a new half-acre public park fronting Christie Avenue and will retain the existing 87,410 square foot office building occupied by Wells Fargo Bank and other commercial tenants. The existing one-story, approximately 44,000 square foot building that is occupied by Allegro Ballroom and other commercial tenants will be demolished.
The site is bounded by Christie Avenue on the east and Interstate 80 on the west. Denny’s restaurant and 76 Gas Station are located on adjacent parcels south of the property. There was some discussion about the developer also purchasing these properties as part of the overall project, but the current property owners did not wish to consider any offers at this time.
The proposed residential Tower would include a ground floor consisting of 10,000 square feet of commercial space primarily fronting Christie Avenue, a large lobby and entry for residential parking and loading. In addition, there is a proposed six-level parking podium that connects the residential tower and the office tower.
The building accommodates a total of 638 units, with a typical floor (Floor 9 to 49) including 15 units which is a mix of three studios, six one-bedroom units, two one-bedroom units with a den, three two-bedroom units and one three bedroom units. The top five floors are penthouse units with three “sub-penthouse” floors each accommodating two one-bedroom + den units, one two-bedroom unit and four three-bedroom units, and the top two penthouse floors accommodating a single large three-bedroom unit.
Onni provided a video fly-through of the proposed project.
In addition to the residential units, the proposed site would include a 16-story, 202-foot office building accommodating 238,000 square foot of office space. The ground floor includes 10,000 square foot of commercial space fronting the new park, office lobby and bicycle storage. The property would also contain approximately 15,000 square feet of green area along the western property line fronting Interstate-80 is also proposed where there is currently surface parking.
The project lies in a designated “transit hub” area which reduces the amount of required parking spaces. Despite this, Onni is proposing including more spaces than required at 1105 spots, including 690 residential spaces and 415 commercial spaces (only 847 combined residential/commercial spaces were required by regulation). Spector noted that having a deeded parking space per unit was more conducive to a for-sale project.
The developers have also proposed extensive bicycle parking to accommodate residents, commercial and short-term uses.
Planning Commission Weighs In [1:21:14]
Commissioner Guerrero pushed the developer on public access to the site, including a potential viewing level at the top, which would be similar to the newly finished Salesforce building. “Is it viable to say that there’s a possibility to have some sort of restaurant or cocktail lounge on the top of this building?” Spector noted if it was a priority for the community, they would look into it but this was not something they’ve incorporated into previous projects and would require additional safety and access considerations.
Guerrero also pushed the developer to clarify if they would be condominiums or rentals which he noted was an ongoing concern from community members with nearly 63% of city’s population being renter-occupied. Guerrero identified himself as a renter of five years and that he, like others, wanted to plant roots in the city but there were few opportunities. Onni noted the inclusion of a “condo-map” but, like other developers, noted this decision would be market-driven at the time the units went online but Onni had built condominiums before.
Commissioner Keller suggested the possibility that bonus points could be achieved by committing to ownership housing. Keller also acknowledged the intersection near the proposed site is one of the worst in the City, but also believes the project may be able to help,
”Everyone knows this is the worst intersection in town. It will probably never get better, but what we need to understand is a lot of the traffic in that area is drive-thru traffic because people can’t live here. They drive from other places, so we need to create housing and businesses where people can get there by bus, by bicycle, or by walking, and this [project] is a paradigm shift.”
For their part, the developer made it clear that they would listen to the public’s comments and concerns. Spector outlined their typical approach to these types of projects, which includes dozens of meetings with local groups,
”It really depends on the city and where we are located… In less areas where we are one of the first high-rise, we have 20-30 open house meetings with the community as a whole to get to know individuals groups… Onni is a family-run company, so we are here for the long-term.”
In general, the commission was receptive to idea of the project while acknowledging they are in the very early stages, and issues needed to be fleshed out.
Some commissioners, including Commissioner Hidalgo, wanted the developer to evaluate the number of residential units are two and three bedrooms. A larger proportion of units being two or three bedrooms would allow families to stay in the neighborhood as their families expanded, an ongoing issue for the City.
In response to concerns from members of the community that this building is too high and out-of-place, Commissioner Keller reemphasized that the this type of project is what the general plan not only anticipated, but encouraged, and this is evidenced by the height limits the general plan allows for,
“The discussion on height was a very contentious discussion during the update to the general plan… and this height issue has not been taken lightly, but this is where the general plan steering committee and the City Council at the time chose to put this height, so this [proposed location] is the right place, this is the right area… and as a commission, we are charged with following the general plan.”
Commissioner Donaldson echoed public comments that the housing, especially affordable units, are desperately needed, and this project would be a net positive there. She also acknowledged that traffic will be a real issue,
“It’s a really tough site. We are not on a standard street grid. We have a really awkward and non-functional intersection there now and I am really hard time seeing how much you can do with the existing street.”
Commissioner Donaldson suggested the developer could consider reworking that area as part of the community benefit points that would be required. Finally, Commissioner Donaldson shared her disapproval with the proposed parking lot design, which in her opinion is a huge massing issue that needs to be reworked as the project progresses.
Community Weighs In [1:21:14]
The public comment portion of the night was busy as residents waited their turn to provide their personal thoughts on the project to the commission and developers. About twenty members of the public spoke for nearly 40 minutes which included mostly critical feedback of the congestion the project would create.
One longtime community member challenged the “Transit Hub” designation of the site noting the proximity to Amtrak and BART were too far.
Another community member who identified herself as a former planning commissioner was supportive of the project but cautioned that “Emeryville emotionally is just not ready to be an urban high-rise center with the majority of the people that live here,” citing a historic battle in the wake of the construction of Pacific Park Plaza. She, like many others, expressed the desire for the Wells Fargo building to be demolished and the space incorporated in the project.
Several residents made it clear that despite some reservations, they were supportive of the proposed project. Some advocated the need for additional housing, especially the below market rate units that would be included. Others welcomed the progression of the area, and this new project would continue the development. As resident Michael Burke commented,
”We love high-rise living, it’s great… we are finally starting to be like an urban community. There’s are more people on the streets.”
Other residents approved of the affordable housing component, but also want the City to work with the developer to ensure the construction work creates quality jobs for locals, and the City is encouraged to think about setting up a labor agreement.
Others had major concerns about the project, with some feeling this would be a major calamity if it was built. One of the biggest concerns was traffic. Resident Ron Henmi summed the issue up,
“Traffic on that site, specifically getting into their building, one way in and one way out, is going to be a major issue.”
Henmi, a Director of Design for HKIT Architecture and Emeryville resident, reminded the commission that strongest negotiation power for the city was early in the project prior to granting entitlements and recommended concession including traffic mitigation, Emery Go-Round support and of course the inclusion of affordable housing.
The developer will now provide outreach to various community groups to flesh out the proposed design, and will be back to the Planning Commission for additional discussion and review.
The project would also include an extensive traffic study and Environmental Impact Report which are standard. The approval process would likely take upwards of a year to two years if the developer pursues it.
Watch the discussion at [30:26]
Study Session: Amendment to Tower Separation
In conjunction with the proposed Onni heigh rise, the Commission also reviewed potential amendment to unit mix and tower separation requirements in the City.
At the City Council meeting on October 16, 2018, then Mayor Bauters requested that the Planning Commission reconsider the Planning Regulations unit mix requirements for residential buildings that are taller than the California Building Code allows for wood-frame construction. He cited the high cost of steel and other building materials, and the cost of labor, as factors that deter developers from proposing high-rise buildings given the City’s requirements for a minimum percentage of two- and three-bedroom units, and suggested that developers might be more willing to construct needed housing in the City’s high density, high-rise areas if these unit mix requirements were relaxed. A majority of the Council agreed to direct the Commission to consider this question. Staff has identified an additional regulation that needs to be examined, namely the minimum separation of buildings over 100 feet tall.
The policy basis is grounded in the City’s General Plan, which encourages the development of high-rise buildings in the Powell/Christie Core area, and in the northwest and southwest corners of the city. The General Plan is based on ten “Guiding Principles”, with Principal number 10 encouraging growth,
“The City will foster a dramatic skyline of slender and elegant high rise buildings stepping down to low-rise buildings in the older residential neighborhoods … to foster Emeryville’s character as a vibrant, connected, livable community, and a rising signature city from afar and within.”
Currently, the General Plan sets no absolute maximum height for buildings. Rather, the Maximum Building Heights map specifies that “High rises over 100 feet are required to have exemplary design, cause minimal impacts (e.g. wind, shadows) and provide community amenities. Bonus height is discretionary and will be awarded only after developers demonstrate that projects meet community goals.”
The Commission discussed the current regulations and potential amendments to both the unit mix and the tower separation of heigh-rise buildings.
The early consensus from the Commission was they would like the regulation to include updated requirements for the number of two and three room units with also potentially having an exception for buildings that a developer could receive if the City Council approved it. In terms of tower separation, most of the Commission favored an update that would eliminate the current separation requirement and replace it with a modified finding for bonus height over 100 feet that would also consider the sky exposure and effect on the skyline.
Watch the Discussion at [4:20:15]