Feb. 2019 City of Emeryville Highlights: Fast-Tracked Onni Tower Hits Hurdle with Unit Mix, EIR Input Deadline Friday

8 mins read

The City of Emeryville held two council meeting during the month of February. Among the highlights that emerged from these meetings was a Study Session on High-Rise regulations that could directly impact the approval of the contentious Onni 54-story tower.

The project is proceeding with unparalleled speed relative to similar large development projects in our city. The final day for the public to weigh on the scope of the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) is Friday, April 19th.

The project is largely being ushered forward at the direction of Councilmember John Bauters. While the other councilmembers have been vague about their support of this particular project, Bauters has openly embraced it on Twitter.

Unit Mix Requirements Making High-Rise Development Unfeasible?

One of the hurdles for the project are the Emeryville Design Guidelines which require a unit mix of at least 50% two-bedroom units and at least 15% three-bedroom. It also states that no more than 10% of the units should be studios.

These regulations were adopted in 2015 to encourage the construction of “family friendly” housing. Emeryville established a goal of reaching 50% two plus bedroom units in our city which was cited as a benchmark for better performing schools by neighboring cities. Exemptions to these unit mixes can be made (such as a senior oriented development), although they will require city council approval.

Onni is proposing just 19.6% of its units be two-bedroom and 8.6% be three-bedroom units or a combined 28.2%. The project would require an exemption or a modification to our regulations to be built with this particular mix.

Emeryville’s General Plan encourages High-Rise developments in the Christie Core area of our city (defined as over 100 feet tall) although no residential towers have actually been built here since Pacific Park Plaza in the 80’s. There is no “limit” on how high you can build in Emeryville, but design, community benefits and impacts are all criteria for final approval.

There are restrictions on “tower separation” (the distance between towers) although council is looking to modify these as well.

Planning & Building Director Charlie Bryant noted that developers for the Nady Site and Shellmound Way projects both agreed that our unit mix requirements would make High-Rise projects economically unfeasible at their sites. Possibly supporting their argument is the news that San Francisco recently surpassed New York as the most expensive city to build in the world. High-Rise buildings require steel framing which dramatically increases building costs.

Bryant’s presentation included four options for the council to consider including no action, providing an exemption for high-rises, specifically modifying the unit mix, or watering it down. The Planning Commission recommended the third option dropping the two-bedroom mix from 50% to 30% and the three-bedroom and larger requirement could be reduced from 15% to 5%.

School Board Members come out in Opposition to Exemption

For many decades, Emeryville built a high percentage of studios, lofts and two bedroom units that have not accommodated growing families. This has often been pointed to as a reason Emeryville has had difficulty retaining local families within our school district. The percentage of out-of-district transfers attending EUSD schools has stubbornly hovered around 50% for years.

One thing that was not discussed is that families also want to vest in their communities by owning their homes. Onni has made no indication that these will be anything but more rental units. In fact, there is not a single significant development in our city that has committed to building ownership housing.

School Board members Susan Donaldson, Barbara Inch and Sarah Nguyen all stepped up to speak in opposition of making any exemption to the unit mix. “I don’t want you to give up hope,” noted Donaldson who cited data that family-friendly housing was tied to student yield.

“It is clear that housing is a large part of the problem of family flight from our city,” chided longtime RULE (Residents’ United for a Livable Emeryville) activist Judy Timmel in a letter opposing waiving any regulations. “This project is a huge departure from the Emeryville and East Bay architectural aesthetic, and seems more like someone’s vanity project.”

The “vanity project” that Timmel refers to might be a dig at Councilmember Bauters. Bauters has openly embraced the twitter moniker of the proposed project as ‘Mt. Bauters.”

It’s clear that Bauters has political ambitions beyond just Emeryville and RULE has little influence outside of our city. He may be willing to defy RULE and challenge the current political dynamic if he can court activist groups that would support him in a larger, regional race.

Bauters has increasingly attempted to widen his political profile beyond Emeryville including a recent Reddit AMA (Ask me Anything) declaring himself one of the “youngest, gayest and most progressive elected officials.”

1,837 Units in Emeryville’s Development Queue as of 2014

While everyone seems to agree that our region needs more housing, many have questioned whether Emeryville needs more housing. ABAG’s Regional Housing Need Allocation (RHNA) is the state-mandated process to identify the total number of housing units that each city needs to build. Emeryville’s 2015-2023 RHNA allocation was set at 1,498 units.

Emeryville is expected to exceed its market rate targets which list 1,837 approved, planned or built units. These totals do not include Onni’s (638 units) or the Shellmound Way (244 units) directly across Christie Avenue. Construction for Parc on Powell and 39th and Adeline (3900 Adeline) are both complete and occupied.

Emeryville, like many other cities, is well short of its affordable unit targets. Falling short of affordable unit targets could subject cities to state Assembly member Scott Wiener’s SB 35 bill approved last fall. Jurisdictions that do not meet their affordable targets (which currently includes 97% of our state’s cities) could lose the ability to reject certain types of development projects like lower-income housing.

The City Council also recently endorsed Wiener’s controversial SB 50 bill that would remove some local controls and “up-zone” development near so-called “transit centers”. This tactic is intended to spur growth and dig California out of what Wiener routinely refers to as our states “3.5 million housing deficit.”

NIMBY vs. YIMBY Showdown Looming?

The pro vs. anti-development argument has fractured those in liberal circles. While traditional “Progressives” have typically loathed developers and growth, YIMBY (Yes in my backyard) activists have openly courted them and are rapidly gaining influence. Organizations like RULE that lean older and whiter have generally embraced NIMBY policies while younger, more diverse advocacy groups like East Bay for Everyone have embraced density as a way to achieve affordability.

YIMBY’s acknowledge more “free market” principles that there is in fact a supply and demand quotient to our high rents and housing costs and that this is not merely coming from developer and landlord greed. They identify that obstructing development is a cause of our affordability crisis that has pushed people of lower incomes and families to the margins or our regions.

Please note that the summaries provided below are taken directly from the text of these reports.

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February 2019 Highlights of The Month

The City Council held a study session on unit mix requirements for high rise development and directed staff to conduct further research on the impacts of the City’s current unit mix regulations on the economic feasibility of high rise construction.

The Council approved a framework for parking management, including installation of short-term parking meters in the North Hollis and Triangle neighborhoods.

The Council approved a contract for preparation of an Environmental Impact Report for the Onni Christie Mixed Use Project, which includes a 54-story residential tower and 16-story office tower. In addition, the project was reviewed by the Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee and the Parks and Recreation Committee in February, and a community meeting was held by the applicants on February 21.

A community meeting for the proposed Emeryville Center for the Arts was held on February 11, and a Planning Commission study session was held on February 28.

The Planning Commission’s January 24 approval of an office/lab building on Parcel B of the Marketplace Redevelopment Project was appealed to the City Council by Wareham Development on February 8.

Demolition of the buildings on the blighted “Nady Site” at 6701 Shellmound Street was completed in February, and site remediation work will begin soon.

Staff held a kickoff meeting with consultants for the Highest and Best Use of Curb Study on February 25. The first deliverable, a matrix of fifty potential curb uses, is expected in March.

Staff held a Cannabis Tax Workshop February 27 to provide an opportunity for industry representatives to review the forms and procedures associated with the new Cannabis Business Tax, authorized by the voters through Measure S at the November 2018 election.

View the entire progress report on Emeryville.org →

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February 5th City Council Meeting

Study Session on High Rise Regulations (Study Session)

The City Council held a study session on high-rise regulations, including unit mix and tower separation, following the one held by the Planning Commission on December 13. Like the Commission, the Council unanimously supported eliminating the current requirement for tower separation and replacing it with a finding that the proposed tower separation is adequate. However, the Council did not have a consensus on what the unit mix for high rises should be, and directed that staff conduct further research on the impacts of the City’s current unit mix regulations on the economic feasibility of high-rise construction. Staff is currently engaged in this research, and will report back to the Council when further information has been developed.

Download the Study Session Agenda →

The presentation for this item can be viewed above at [01:22].

Wireless Telecommunications Facilities Regulations Amendments (Consent Item)

The Council unanimously approved the second reading of a regular ordinance amending the Planning Regulations to make approvals of Wireless Communication Facilities ministerial pursuant to the Zoning Compliance Review process. This was necessitated by a recent Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruling that shortens the “shot-clock” for such approvals to as little as 60 days. The regular ordinance was introduced and first read on January 15, and will take effect on March 7. However, the Council also passed an urgency ordinance at their January 15 meeting with the same regulations, so the amendments are already in effect.

Bird Safe Building Standards (Action Item)

The Council heard a brief presentation on Bird Safe Building Standards, as requested by Council Member Bauters at the October 2 Council meeting, and directed that the Planning Commission hold a study session and provide a recommendation on the matter. Staff is currently researching the issue and a Planning Commission study session is tentatively scheduled for May 23.

The presentation for this item can be viewed above at [2:08:14].

Housing Committee (Action Item)

The Council voted to amend the membership composition of the Housing Committee to nine community members, defined as persons residing or working in Emeryville, and to amend the regular meeting schedule of the Committee to convene on the first Wednesday of every month at 6:00 p.m. at the Civic Center.

The presentation for this item can be viewed above at [2:14:01].

Download the February 5th Council Meeting Agenda →

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February 19th City Council Meeting

Onni Project (Consent Item)

The Council approved a contract with Urban Planning Partners to prepare an Environmental Impact Report for the Onni Christie Mixed Use Project at 5801-5861 Christie Avenue.

40th and San Pablo Transit Hub (Consent Item)

The Council approved a contract amendment with Community Design + Architecture for additional work on the 40th and San Pablo Transit Hub design study. The original contract did not include the extensive redesign of 40th Street that is now contemplated, which includes bus-only lanes and a two-way bike way on the north side of the street.

Estrella Vista Noise Waiver (Public Hearing)

The Council approved a noise waiver for Saturday construction at the Estrella Vista affordable housing project at 3706 San Pablo Avenue including all Saturdays from February 23 to August 10. In approving the noise waiver, the Council added conditions that no work be done on Memorial Day weekend, that construction worker parking be redirected to West MacArthur Boulevard on Saturdays, and that a tarp be attached to the scaffolding to protect adjacent properties.

The presentation for this item can be viewed above at [13:28].

Parking Management Plan (Action Item)

The Council approved a general framework for introducing paid parking in select areas of the City. Specifically, the City Council approved a plan to install parking meters at existing green curbs and certain other specific areas in the North Hollis and Triangle neighborhoods. With this direction, staff will prepare ordinances and a request for proposals to procure and install the meters and ancillary software and equipment necessary to implement paid parking.

The presentation for this item can be viewed above at [34:06].

Download the February 19th Council Meeting Agenda →

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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.


  1. While The Housing Mix remains a major concern, it is by no means the only issue as was shown at the recent City EIR Scoping Meeting. Designed to receive community input, there was allot. Among the issues raised were the GHG emissions during both the construction and operation of such a massive building. According to UN Climate studies, buildings are the source of 30% of global GHG sources.

    Also major concerns were raised regarding traffic and noise and air pollution. So these are impacts that would probably not be as significant with a smaller project, one that would not literally Tower over our city and the entire East Bay.

  2. Is it too late to put a halt to the Omni 50-story project? I’m all for more housing being built, but the traffic in the Powell-Christie-Shellmound corridor during commute hours & weekends is absolutely horrendous. I attended some of the community meetings regarding the project between Dec 2018 – Feb 2019, and most of the community feedback has been negative, particularly with regards to congestion & blocked views from residents/tenants in other highrises. But it sounds like the city council is eager to fast-track this project.

  3. 638 units, lets estimate that each unit will have couples living in them and some units will have larger families cramming into them. An estimated 1276 or more cars are going to be hitting the road each day in that area that is already jammed.

    This is without taking into account the other mid rise complexes coming to completion in the next few years surrounding the public market.

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