Like most contentious development projects that are approved these days, they generally come down to a 3-2 vote. The long-awaited “EmeryStation West” or Emeryville Transit Center was no different. The agreement between The City of Emeryville, Wareham Development and CBS Corporation (Formerly Westinghouse Electric Company) was approved to move forward at the January 21st. Council Meeting by, in fact, a 3-2 vote despite a 2-2 deadlock by our Planning Commission. Councilmembers Davis, Atkin, and Brinkman all aligned again in favor of Wareham development’s plans while Mayor Asher & Councilmember West dissented citing the minimal lack of public benefit.
The project proposal was presented by Economic Development Director Helen Bean. The criteria for council vote had to vote on three components: Funding, Remediation, and development agreements. Her presentation highlighted the project’s benefits to the public and how it was consistent to the City’s general plan. She recommended the council to approve all three agreements based on the following benefits to the city:
- Remediation of the toxic “mound” site
- Improved parking and inclusion of bus bay facilities
- Improvement to Emeryville’s intermodal transit connections
- Strengthening the City’s economic vitality by with the expansion of the bio-science cluster.
Lastly, Bean cautioned everyone by explaining that since state grants and Successor Agency funds were project specific, they would risk losing those moneys if the deal was denied. During the public comment period, responses against the project argued that the project, calling it an “automotive center”, as it promotes vehicle traffic on the dedicated Horton Street bicycle boulevard. Commenters also criticized the project for being dishonest for changing the terms of completely removing the toxins underneath the site to just 9.5 feet above sea level (the highest point of the mound site is about 16 feet above sea level, so removing up to 9.5 feet above sea level translates to approximately removing 7 or 8 feet). They were further angered by CBS’s clause that relieved them from all future liability after the job is completed. “Suppose you have an earthquake and that’s all released?” asked former Councilmember Ken Bukowski. Emeryville Tattler Editor Brian Donahue argued that Emeryville giving up the first 12 years of parking revenue to Wareham was just unreasonable.
The other side of the story came down to numbers. Wareham’s Geoff Sears recounted the number of parking spots that would be increased in the corridor and the amount of commercial square footage that his two project areas would bring to Emeryville. Sears compared the Transit Center to the Transbay Bus Terminal Center project in San Francisco, where a “private component that helps build and expands an existing transit benefit to that city.” Further advocating the project was Bob Canter of the Emeryville Chamber of Commerce. He quietly added that the Emeryville Transit Center would bring many external benefits that the council should consider. These included property taxes, business taxes, sales taxes, permit taxes, Measure-A revenue (15 cents per square feet that goes to the school district), PBID taxes for Emery-Go-Round (taxes are assessed by square feet), and utility users licenses. These funds do add up to increased revenue for the City, which critically lacks funding after the dissolution of the Redevelopment Agency. However, these funds are not inherent to this project, but would be there for any other commercial development.
The last major speaker was Earl James, a professional geoscientist for the environmental service company Erler & Kalinowski, Inc., who was the expert on the toxicity issue. He explained that the procedure that they are enacted to the site was no different from that of Site-B on Bay Street or that of the Emeryville Greenway, calling it a classic example of Brownfield redevelopment. He further stated that the only reason why it was not developed until now was that it lacked the funding to do so, not because of its level of toxins. The procedure that they selected to remediate the site includes the excavation of soils up to 9.5 feet above sea level, In-Situ treatment of groundwater, and removal of hot spots where extremely high levels of toxins were found. The studies used a risk-based analysis and concluded that it would be safe enough for people to live and work in.
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Both proponents and opponents were concerned about the safety of the community that would use the project areas. Nevertheless they were differing opinions amongst the level of risk by the council. Councilmember Ruth Atkin called the Transit Center a “once in a multi-generational opportunity to do the job right.” Former Mayor Brinkman referenced Emeryville’s history of embracing “Crazy ideas” that have panned out. He called this “another crazy idea that will provide benefits to all of us that live here in the city” and compared it to the successful Amtrak Station, which was unpopular at its conception. However, present Mayor Asher labeled it a “deep ambivalence” and believed that the City should not rely on tax-increment style projects that subsidizes developers. Many questions still remain, but for now the gears have been set and a new transit center will be built in Emeryville.
Time will tell if this project will ultimately benefit the city and fulfill its promises (and if the toxic remediation will be adequate). The saga of this project is a lengthy one that dates back to 2007. Wareham development’s Rich Robbins provided an overview of this project on this video unearthed on Ken Bukowski’s EPOA YouTube Channel:
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