Historic Town Hall to Assert New Vision for Emeryville

by Tracy Scroth and Reem Assil on July 31, 2009

More than 100 Emeryville residents, local workers, and advocates gathered on July 28 at an historic community town hall meeting to call on the Emeryville City Council to ensure the second phase of a major retail-project — Bay Street Site B — results in good jobs for residents, affordable family-friendly housing, and investment in the local public school system. It was one of the largest grassroots gatherings Emeryville has seen in years.

The City Council is considering giving $47 million in public money to the developer of this project. Amidst a recession and the possibility of a shrinking redevelopment budget, residents want a voice in how their tax dollars are being spent. Yet, in a survey of over 400 residents earlier this year, an overwhelming 82% were opposed to or had mixed feelings about the second phase of the Bay Street project in its current form. Based on the last publicly available information, the project proposal includes a 23-story hotel and condominium tower, up to 130,000 sq ft of retail, and up to 900 parking spaces.

United under the Coalition for a Better Bay Street, residents and workers called on elected officials and the developer Madison Marquette to work with the community to shape a project that benefits everyone. The developer has had an exclusive agreement to this site for the last five years. This fall, Emeryville will be considering extending that agreement again. The Coalition, which includes Residents United for a Livable Emeryville (RULE), East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), and UNITE-HERE Local 2850, is calling for the city to require the developer to work directly with residents and workers towards a community benefits agreement before granting this extension.

“We really look forward to sitting down with [developer] Madison Marquette and the city to come up with an agreement. We see this as a huge opportunity to create something really good, for the developer, for the city, and for all the residents who live in this community,” said Tracy Schroth of Residents United for a Livable Emeryville (RULE). Although a small city, Emeryville is a major player in the regional economy. Residents believe that it has the potential to serve as a model city for responsible development.

At the town hall meeting, residents testified that the lack of good-paying, stable jobs, family-friendly housing, and small locally-serving businesses had affected their lives. For many residents, this was the first opportunity for many residents to voice their concerns publicly. Three out of the give Emeryville council members — John Fricke, Ken Bukowski, and Nora Davis — were in attendance to hear these concerns. Mayor Dick Kassis and Council Member Ruth Atkin did not attend.

After listening to each others concerns, residents outlined five key areas for community benefits: quality jobs for local residents; affordable family-friendly housing; public education; locally owned and local-serving businesses; civic participation and government transparency and accountability. At the end of the night, participants affirmed this vision, waving signs in the air reading “Build a BETTER Bay Street.”

The town hall came on the heels of a new report released by the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE) entitled “Bringing Main Street Back to Bay Street: Win-Win Solutions to Create Good Jobs and Livable Communities in Emeryville,” which outlines how the City, Madison Marquette, and the community can work together to shape a project that benefits everyone.

“We don’t want our city to be a soulless regional shopping mall,” said Schroth. Residents are hopeful for change and ready to assert their new vision for Emeryville.

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