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May 2019 Planning Commission Recap: Second Onni Tower Study Session, WeWork Sign Hearing, 40th St. Bus Lanes

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The Planning Commission’s May meeting was jam-packed with two public hearings, an administrative review of a proposed 40th street & San Pablo Avenue bus hub design and a second study session for the Onni Group’s proposed 54-story tower project.

Director’s Report:

  • At their May 2nd meeting, the City Council unanimously approved the first reading of an ordinance amending the planning regulations to allow research and development uses in the ‘mixed-use with residential’ zones. The amendment was passed with its second reading at their May 21st meeting and will take effect on June 20th
  • At their May 21st meeting, the City Council heard a presentation on the proposed City budget for the next two fiscal years and they made no changes at that presentation. The budget is due to be adopted by the Council at their June 4th meeting and will take effect on July 1st
  • Also at their May 21st meeting the City Council approved several resolutions surrounding the south bay front pedestrian bridge, including the authorization of $21 million dollar construction contract for the construction to Ghilotti Construction. Current estimate has construction beginning by the start of this summer.
  • Finally, the City Council voted unanimously to call for a review of the Planning Commission’s May 14th decision on the Parcel B Marketplace final design. City Council will review the issue at a future meeting

Public Hearing: WeWork High-Rise Sign

The Planning Commission started the evening by considering a Major Sign Permit for a single high-rise identification sign on the south side of 1900 Powell Street (The Towers at Emeryville office complex). WeWork opened their Emeryville coworking location back in April.

The proposed WeWork sign would be located in the exact same location as the recently removed AAA sign that was approved by the Planning Commission back in 2012. AAA moved their corporate office to Walnut Creek in 2016.

The sign consists of the “wework” typographic logo. The sign face is made of a white acrylic that is covered in a perforated black film: this allows light from LEDs, located behind the face of the letters, to shine through the perforated film to appear black during the day and illuminate white at night. As required by the Planning Regulations, all illumination is dimmable.

While similar to the sign it is replacing, there was some public concern. Emeryville resident Finley Robins voiced her concern that the use of these LED lights causes potential harm that should be better understood,

“I’ve been reading about and hearing about the effects of LED lights, and it is very detrimental to birds and insects… and I would urge anybody who is going to be putting any kind of lighting on any kind of construction… to try and use warm colors.”

Commissioner Young echoed Ms. Robins’ concerns and suggested that the applicant look into studying the potential harm of the LED lights to determine if a different color bulb should be used. Commissioner Hidalgo addressed the concern noting that from his experience working with an environmental consulting firm that the impact would likely be a reduction from the existing light pollution conditions. “It’s less obtrusive than the previous sign that was there,” agreed commissioner Donaldson.

The rest of the Commission was accepting of the proposed sign, as summed up by Commissioner Guerrero,

“I share the opinions of the fellow commissioners. I don’t see any impacts visually… and I would like to welcome WeWork to Emeryville.”

The sign was unanimously approved by the Commission.

View the Entire Staff Report →
Watch the staff presentation and subsequent commission discussion above at [7:49].

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Study Session: Onni Christie Mix-Use Project Update

Over three hours of the nearly five-hour meeting was devoted to the second study session of the proposed Onni Christie mix-use project. The first study session was held back in December, 2018.

For review, Vancouver-based Onni Group is looking to build a 54-story residential tower at 801-5861 Christie Avenue (site of Emery Bay Cafe). The 3.76-acre site would include 638 residential 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.

At the first Study Session, the Commissioners were generally supportive of the project. Most Commissioners suggested that a public bar and/or restaurant at the top of the residential tower would be a good amenity for residents and visitors alike. It was also pointed out that the east elevation, which would be visible to Emeryville residents, needed more attention and that there needed to be a design connection between the two towers.

Comments were also made on the large parking podium and it was suggested that the applicant should seek ways of reducing the parking so that the size of the podium could be reduced. Traffic and circulation were highlighted as main concerns and it was suggested that the applicant consider obtaining needed bonus points by doing intersection improvements at Powell Street & Christie Avenue. It was noted that currently the only vehicular entry and exit point is on Christie Avenue and that additional entry/exit points would assist in addressing traffic concerns.

City Committees Weigh In

After the December Planning Commission study session, the project was reviewed by the City’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (February 4, 2019), Parks and Recreation Committee (February 19, 2019), and Housing Committee (April 3, 2019). The Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee expressed concern regarding safety of bicyclists and pedestrians in the general area and it was suggested that bonus points could be obtained by the reworking of road alignments and any other traffic related improvements. The Committee also talked about a clockwise one-way loop on Shellmound Street and Shellmound Way and requested that the traffic study consider this option. A recommendation was made to site bicycle storage areas close to different users of the facility.

The Parks and Recreation Committee asked several clarifying questions including whether the applicant had considered a sound barrier along the western perimeter of the site to shield the proposed POPOS (Privately Owned Public Open Space) from adjacent freeway noise. The Committee felt that the park design should be flexible to allow different types of uses and that it was critical that the commercial spaces near the proposed park include retail of everyday use items such as coffee and newspapers that would bring people to the park. The Committee also suggested that the park use solar lights and include a restroom, pet station for dogs, a stage to allow small events, and public art pieces such as sound sculptures.

The Housing Committee generally appreciated the addition of new housing units to the city and asked clarifying questions. They had general comments on the project that included having a dedicated area for Lyft/Uber pick-up and drop-off zones and that the applicant look at ways of reducing parking. There was a clarifying discussion on the route of the Emery Go-Round and possibility of having a bus shelter. One member suggested potentially looking into skyways to create otherwise difficult linkages.

Feedback Yields Updates to Preliminary Design

After the various study sessions, several important updates were made to the preliminary design. To address the Planning Commission’s concerns on the design, they added staggered balconies to create wave form on the east façade. They also added fins and frits glass to the office building to create a more balanced design. In addition major traffic and flow updates, including a transportation demand management plan, plans for additional traffic lights and arrows on the ground floor for cars, bikes and pedestrian access.

Community and Commissioners Weigh In

The public comprised of a healthy mix of those who love the thought of more dense residential units, those who wanted to see more detail, and those who do not want this project to move forward. Emeryville resident Sue Kelly expressed her desire to stop the project in its tracks,

“I am kinda interested in doing what I can to prevent this building from being built at all in Emeryville because it makes Emeryville look like an extension of Oakland, and we are not an Oakland extension… we have a lovely small town here and many of us want to see it stay that way.”

Kelly’s skepticism of the project was echoed by additional commenters who pointed out the congestion that already exists in the intersection.

“It’s a pipe dream to think that people are going to get rid of their cars overnight and not rely on [them]. I personally wouldn’t move into a place where I didn’t have a parking spot.”

Some commenters countered this narrative and focused on the potential benefits including jobs, transit and the overall need for housing in the region. They stressed that Emeryville, like most of the bay area, is changing and growing, and this is an opportunity to put high-density living in a transit friendly location.

“When I see my area densifying, what that means for me is that I can walk to more things. I have more transit in the area. The quality of the transit from AC Transit has increased greatly and that’s because we have higher density in the neighborhood.”

The Commission appreciated the work that Onni had put into the design and reaching out to various community organizations. However, there was some concern about the overall size of the project and several Commission members wanted to see more detail on the streetscape. Commissioner Young started dialogue with his concerns about the overall sizing of the project,

“I have some issues with the building and what it looks like. If we look at the building just by itself… all-in-all this building is too big… it’s out of scale.”

Commissioner Thomson added her desire to see more details and to have the project team look to the future of urban living as they design the major elements of the project,

“It is interesting that the scale and size of the building is large, remarkably large compared to what we have today… and while I like the project, I want to see it work harder and address a lot of the other priorities that we have identified.”

Commissioner Thomson added that focus needs to be paid to the streetscape and how residents will interact with the building,

“this is an incredibly important part of an urban place, this is what makes walk ability possible.. we need to see that level of quality in the streetscape.”

Commissioner Keller wrapped the discussion up with a reminder that this is a new kind of project and something that everyone should keep in mind as the project progresses,

“We need to realize that this is a project that is a first of its kind in Emeryville, this is a true urban project, so it will be a shock to the system.”

Onni will continue to work with the City and local community groups and will come before the Planning Commission again for additional study sessions.

View the Entire Staff Report →
Watch the staff presentation and subsequent commission discussion above at [18:36]

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Public Hearing: Tower Separation Requirement Amendment

Related to the Onni tower project, the Commission ended the night by reviewing an amendment that would update the City’s requirements for tower separation. As currently drafted, the tower separation regulations require that towers that are more than 100 feet tall be separated from each other by a minimum horizontal distance equal to no less than the height of the taller building.

As discussed in our December Recap, the Planning Commission held an initial study session on this issue and the City Council held a study session on February 5, 2019. City staff presented four options for amending the current regulations, which included:

  1. Leave the regulations unchanged
  2. Add an exception to Section 9-4.202(f) to stipulate that the separation requirement does not apply to developments with multiple towers, provided that sky exposure is adequate
  3. Change the tower separation requirement to a specific number, such as 100 feet. Include the above stipulate that the separation requirement does not apply to developments with multiple towers, provided that sky exposure is adequate
  4. Eliminate the tower separation requirement of Section 9-4.202(f) and replace it with a modified finding in Section 9-4.204(f)(3) for bonus height over 100 feet that “the proposed tower or towers will be adequately separated from other buildings over 100 feet tall with consideration given to sky exposure and the effects on Emeryville’s skyline

After review of the options  the Planning Commission unanimously expressed support for modifying the tower separation requirement and using option four above. The amendment will now go to the City Council for their review and vote.

View the Entire Staff Report →
Watch the staff presentation and subsequent commission discussion above at [4:32:42]

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40th Street/40th and San Pablo Bus Hub Design (Administrative Item)

The Planning Commission also met to review and make a recommendation to the City Council on the design of 40th Street and the 40th and San Pablo Bus Hub. The plans would apply to the section of 4oth street stretching from Adeline all the way to the Bay Trail connection near IKEA.

The plan includes bus-only lanes, a two-way bikeway on the north side of the street, bicycle-pedestrian intersection improvements, streetscaping with green infrastructure and public art opportunities, and bus stop improvements including passenger boarding areas. All parking on this strip would be eliminated in order to accommodate these improvements. Construction costs for the project are estimated at $15.6 million.

The plan would require relocating the Bike Share pod on Horton to accommodate a loading zone for the Watermark (FKA “Bayside Park”) retirement community.

The intent of the project is to improve bicycle safety and transit/reliability times for AC Transit and Emery Go-Round buses. Criticism of the plan included the need to keep a west-bound left turn into the Target Parking lot, addressing the east-bound bottleneck during the holiday’s caused by the single lane over the 40th/Shellmound bridge and the impact of the loss of parking on businesses including Black & White Liquor and Granite Expo.

The Commission briefly deliberated and only questioned the abrupt connection of the bike bath with the Bay Trail Connection as well finding a compromise with Black & White Liquor regarding their loss of parking.

The Commission was generally supportive of the plan with Commissioner Keller questioning the two-way cycle-track and the need for additional illuminated signage to discourage turning right on red turns which can be a danger to cyclists and pedestrians.

“This is going to add to costs but I’d like to look at the ability of putting in an illuminated no right turn [sign].”

The commission voted to recommend the resolution with Keller’s amendment 7-0. The plan will now be presented to the various city committees for input and a funding strategy will be developed.

View the Entire Staff Report →
Watch the staff presentation and subsequent commission discussion above at [3:44:15]

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Christopher Bennett

was born and raised in the north bay and now lives on the Emeryville/Oakland border in the Longfellow neighborhood with his wife and two cats (Sherlock and Watson). When he's not writing, Chris works as an attorney who assist engineers and professional consultants navigate their contracts and related business issues.


  1. This reporting from the E’ville Eye on the planning commission meeting fails to note the intense scrutiny and pushback from the community and even several commissioners on this monstrous project which raises all sorts of deep environmental impact and safety concerns. Only 17% of the Onni project units are affordable and rather than ameliorate housing issues this addition would jack up housing prices throughout the area.

    It would intensify traffic in an already choked area of the City of Emeryville, the congested maze, and the broader region.

    There are serious safety considerations re: access to residents in a fire or earthquake, the carbon footprint of this building and the glare and temperature increase inflicted in crawiling rush hour traffic. The Leeds certification level of this project is currently the LOWEST level, surely nothing to brag about.

    Emeryville’s city plan could and should be amended to restrict this type of high rise building in this already wildly overburdened corridor. Months of endless pile driving would not ameliorate the housing and traffic issues of the area nor would a small park wedged into the maze improve upon the Bay or the Bay Trail many have worked so hard to conserve.

    ONNI is the developer’s name spelled backwards, and it is vastly more appropriate to say “INNO” (in no) way is this eyesore an improvement to our region

    • “would jack up housing prices throughout the area”

      Nothing could be further from the truth. What is guaranteed to jack up housing costs is a failure to build more high density housing.

      There are some legitimate concerns over the extreme height of the building, as well as parking/road infrastructure, but those can be addressed.

      What’s important is that we build build build. The NIMBYs have to be silenced and stopped from standing in the way of resolving this housing crisis.

      • Thankfully the suggestion of unidentified “Anonymous'” to “silence people” doesn’t govern a proper EIR or planning process or the very concerns Anonymous him/herself has raised. Whether this monumental project has merit in this particular location has yet to be seen. Whether it is a good idea to blind drivers trapped between the glare of the sun off the water and the glare shooting from this incredible amount of glass has yet to be seen – never mind the other issues already raised.

  2. Given all the concerns raised by both the public and the Commissioners, and the precedent setting nature of this Super Tower, the city really needs a more thorough review by independent experts in housing and sustainability. At this point, we have the developer who is of course biased in favor. Then we have city staff, Advisory Committees, Council and Commissioners who have limited expertise. Thirdly we have the public with various levels of understanding and their own
    biases. That is why we need to have public hearings with alternative and independent experts.

  3. There is a vacancy on the Planning Commission for a Business or Resident Member, term expires June 2022. Applications are due by Monday, August 5, 2019, at 5:00 PM. Appointments are scheduled to be made at a special Emeryville City Council meeting on Tuesday, September 3, 2019.

  4. If it brings tax money and people willing to pay their way instead of the blight and freeloaders we have polluting our streets today, I’m all for it. That the NIMBYs have their panties in a wad is a sign that the development is on the right track.

    I don’t care about Vancouver or Chicago, let those residents deal with their situation. They are not losing a blink of sleep over Emeryville.

    This town is going to crap and this is a step in the opposition direction.

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