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Thursday, February 2, 2017

More Demolition in Emeryville's "Area of Stability"

Emeryville's Last Stand of True Family Friendly Housing in Peril

Detached Single Family Residences Make Way For Apartment Blocks in Triangle/North Emeryville Neighborhoods

Big Changes Coming to the Areas of 'Stability'

1 :  the quality, state, or degree of being stable: such as   a :  the strength to stand or endure :  firmness 
2 : the quality or state of something that is not easily changed or likely to change

News Analysis
As development pressures continue to mount in Emeryville, another detached single family home faces the wreaking ball in order to make way for another techie four-plex on Ocean Avenue as was presented at a Planning Commission study session last week.  The looming demolition could represent the beginning of a gathering storm of such single family to four-plex conversions in the City's last traditional family oriented neighborhoods despite prohibitions spelled out in the General Plan against demolition in designated "areas of stability".  The Ocean Avenue development is in such a designated zone and to move it forward, the City is re-interpreting the word stability to include the ability to demolish, a expansion of developer prerogative from only two years ago.  Further, the City is now interpreting language encouraging density embedded in the General Plan to exacerbate and actually encourage the demolition of the remaining single family residences in Emeryville, a subversion of the idea of stability.

Detached Single Family Home
The first choice for actual Emeryville families but
limited to the Triangle and North Emeryville
neighborhoods. The last true family friendly 

housing and a feeder for the School District.
The 1270 Ocean Avenue four-plex development proposal (presented at the January 26th Planning Commission meeting) would dramatically increase the building height over the existing single family home as well as the Floor Area Ratio (FAR) on the property and of course it would also increase the residential density.  Those qualities are all within the bounds of Emeryville's zoning ordinance for the neighborhood (with development bonuses) and in fact the demolition and increase in density has earned the developer coveted FAR bonuses allowing for much less landscaped or open space on the site.

The City's realignment to interpret the zone of stability to mean a zone of demolition has moved the needle a far amount in just two years.  At another site (also on Ocean Avenue) the community was in an uproar when a developer bought a single family home with an eye to demolish it to build a four-plex but the City invoked the stability clause in the General Plan.  That move prompted the developer to let the home sit vacant for several years letting rot to take hold of the unmaintained structure.  The developer then made a successful argument that the home was beyond repair and he was granted permission to build his four-plex.

That was then, this is now.  Now the staff doesn't even see the idea of demolition as problematic.  At 1270 Ocean, the staff is encouraging the approval of the project but they didn't even bother to tell the Planning Commission at the January 26th meeting the proposed development falls within the zone of stability as identified by the General Plan, a designation meant until recently to curtail such demolition conversions.

Apartment Building
Despite some three bedroom units, families don't 

 want to live here.  Developers throw in children's 
play equipment but families vote with their feet.
The staff's failure to disclose to the Planning Commission decision makers the fact that 1270 Ocean Avenue falls within the zone of stability may be an omission that's more than an oversight.

'Stability' Taken to Mean 'Demolition'
Outside of Emeryville, the word 'stability' is generally used to mean 'not anticipated to change substantially' and 'the strength to stand or endure'.  Even here, the General Plan itself uses the standard definition; in its designated areas of stability in town, the General Plan states "Areas of stability are those parts of the city that are not anticipated to change significantly in character, land use or development intensity over the next 20 years [the life of the General Plan]. "

The definition of the word stability becomes more expansive in the way the staff now sees it, including demolition of the stock of single family homes in town: "Stability doesn't mean NO change" a staff member who wished anonymity told the Tattler regarding 1270 Ocean.  The salient part of 'stability' according to City Hall is not the enduring nature of the housing types but rather that the new apartment buildings fit in with the character of the neighborhood in the aggregate as is spelled out in the General Plan the staff tells us, apparently lacking a sense of irony.

The Last Developer Battleground in Emeryville
The City Hall expanded definition of stability will serve as a windfall for developers seeking avenues for profit after the 25 year Emeryville building boom.  The boom has left the older residential neighborhoods, the areas of stability, the last place left to turn a profit.  The last three large development projects in town, Anton/Nady, the Marketplace and Sherwin Williams (primarily residential developments) approved last year, together collectively represent the last of the large residential projects that will be built in our town for at least 20 years (the average lifespan of a typical commercial building being about 30 years).  Residential developers, long given the keys to Emeryville by City Council majorities over the years, now have few opportunities left here and so it is understandable they would turn to the zones of stability to eek out the last little bit from our town.

A quick back-of-the-napkin calculation shows the potential for handsome profits; home prices in these two Emeryville neighborhood zones of stability run about $500K to $600K for a fixer upper.  Tear down costs are about $30K and building costs run less than $1 million for a four-plex.  Sale price would be about $800K for the upper end market (times four) leaving about $1.5 million made over six to eight months.  After financing costs are figured in, a tidy profit remains.  That's not enough to interest the biggest developers we've been attracting up till now but plenty of mid-sized developers would gladly enter this field.  All it takes to get the party started is a re-defining of the word stability to open the floodgates to developers.  And that's something the staff at City Hall has already taken care of.

The Late Great Single Family Residence
This is how the City of Emeryville defines
a stable neighborhood.
Single family detached residences are by far the most popular type of housing for families.  Among other advantages, the private backyards associated with this kind of housing permits young children to play unattended, parents the time to do the myriad things that need attending to besides their children.  This kind of housing is abundant in the suburbs and it's the primary reason young parents often decamp for the leafy hinterlands.  Emeryville's housing stock at this point is only a small fraction detached single family (and it's all in the zones of stability), but the two zones of stability are the biggest feeder areas as a percentage for children attending the Emery Unified School District.
But after developing the rest of our town, it is here, the last low density places left in Emeryville where developers now turn to extract their profits.   The word 'stability' is meant to stop this from happening regardless any new interpretation by City Hall.

With a staff willing to overtly turn the meaning of the word stability on its head to facilitate the remake of these last traditional neighborhoods in town, some might find it curious that the General Plan uses the word stability to describe what should be done with the single family home neighborhoods when it presumably would be easier to facilitate the demolition of these last homes in Emeryville without that word in the Plan.  Why is the word stability used for the North Emeryville residential neighborhood and the Triangle neighborhood in our General Plan?

The idea of the zones of stability rose up when during the public vetting process for the formulation of the new general plan in 2009, residents were alarmed that the staff was pushing such an increase in density for our town (compared to our former general plan).  The allowable huge building height increases and residential density increases over the old plan were a cause of concern for the residents.  The zones of stability were added to mollify criticism because at that time, most Emeryville residents lived in these zones.  Now after so many new apartment projects having been built outside the zones of stability, this is no longer the case it's helpful to know.

1270 Ocean Avenue
The little home on the right with the gardens and
large backyard will become a three story wall.
The final irony is that unless the new building replacing the former single family residence has at least 10 units, the project need not be constrained by Emeryville's family friendly housing ordinance.  Thus, 1270 Ocean Avenue at four units (eight if the ground floor bedrooms with their own baths and separate entrances are subsequently rented out via Airbnb) will not be built as a 'family friendly' project.

1270 Ocean Avenue, while certainly not the first demolition of a single family home in a zone of stability since the new General Plan was certified, will add to the precedent being built up that will prove harder to resist if a resistance were ever to be mounted.

Amend the General Plan
The drive for home demolition in East Emeryville is further buttressed by a provision in the code that makes density like a one way check valve; it can only go up, never down.  A tear down of a duplex say could only happen if the developer built at least a replacement if not a triplex or more.  And that means over time the zones of stability will be completely made over and Emeryville's last single family residences will cease to exist.
A fix for the bad optics for Emeryville, its oft repeated claims of being a family friendly town running at cross purposes with language that encourages demolition of the most family friendly housing in town, would be to amend the General Plan.  The most obvious amendment would be to eliminate the zones of stability altogether to remove the hypocrisy.  Another amendment could be to keep the zones of stability but remove the language that encourages developers to demolish these family homes.  The City of Emeryville is probably most comfortable leaving be the mutually exclusive provisions ensconced in the General Plan.  It's the path of least resistant even if it is so easily construed as hypocritical.

Map from Emeryville's General Plan
1270 Ocean Avenue is located between Ocean and Peabody Lane; the zone of stability


  1. This seems wrong. The city should do what the neighbors want. How does the staff benefit by siding with the developers? What's in it for them?

    1. Institutional memory. The head of the Planning Department Charlie Bryant never got fired. He's left over from the Nora Davis decades when developers were king. He's still there and so we still have a Planning Department doing the developer's bidding.

  2. Emeryville is quite tiny. There's only so many single family homes that can fit on such little land, and by your argument then only so many families that can fit in Emeryville.

    As it turns out, families do love to live in multi-family units! And that makes Emeryville less of an exclusive gated community, since more families can move in!

    1. Spoken like a politician seeking re-election!
      I think you need to reread the story. Nowhere is it claimed families will not move into apartment buildings in Emeryville. What IS true is that single family detached residences are the most family friendly housing type. And we're now preparing to demolition all the remainder (there are 197 now, oops there goes another one... make that 196). Families do not love to live in the housing in Emeryville (outside the remaining single family homes). How do we know this? The marketplace tells us that (and demographics produced by the City of Emeryville and the Census Bureau). People vote with their feet and families are not moving to Emeryville (we're going backwards on that). We're at the bottom of ALL the East Bay towns in terms of attracting families. And Emeryville keeps getting lower. This is not likely to change with the 'family friendly' housing ordinance we enacted last year. It was a case of too little too late. We had 25 years of building what developers wanted to build and now we're stuck with it. We went from a mostly home ownership town to a renter town (now the highest ratio of renters to owners in the East Bay) and from a town with families to the least family friendly town in the whole East Bay.
      These last single family residences in East Emeryville could serve as a place saver to stop the hemorrhaging of families. We just have to make it a priority.

  3. Wonderful, thanks for sharing the good news! :D

  4. This amazing! I'm so glad Emeryville is moving towards being a more inclusive community and responding to the demand of housing in our area. So proud of my city!

    1. You're proud Emeryville is kicking families to the curb and transforming the town to a city of (techie) renters? Responding to demand? What demand? They're responding to the demand developers have to maximize their profits. Emeryville has doubled its population in the last ten years and families are leaving in droves as prices keep escalating (now $3000 per month for a one bedroom apartment). Emeryville has provided more than 200% of market rate housing recommended by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the rent keeps skyrocketing. The housing demands of ordinary people is going's only the demand of developers who want to build luxury apartments that's being met. And this makes you proud, why exactly?

  5. It's funny how you see things. You say Nora Davis and Charlie Bryant are Right wingers and that you are Progressive. Though you all are liberal with other people's money. Remember, you promoted raising the city transfer tax on real estate transactions, and you are for increased taxes just as Nora Davis was. The City needs more units built and turned over to pay for their salaries, and in Charlie Bryants' case, his costly retirement. Maybe you don't see the logic. This house that they will tear down has a tax base of about $250,000 that reaps about $4000 in annual property tax. Once they build the 4 new units, each unit will sell for up to 1 million dollars each. This will net about $16,000 per unit in property tax or nearly $64,000 per year for the project. This is what they do. Anyways, by no means this city has or ever will be family friendly. The city is not our friend, they only want our money.

    1. It's funny how I see things: I'm in favor of democracy...people getting the town they want. Hilarious.
      Other people's money...yes, that's how a civilization is built. And that's a problem because why? You hate civilization? Transfer taxes, yes Emeryville charges almost as much as our neighboring cities charge...again, a problem, why? And your conclusion about the City staff going unpaid if we don't tear down our single family housing....not cogent. They're gunna get paid no matter what gets built (or not built). Show me the contract that delineates how they work on contingency based on new projects being built and I'll retract what I say.

  6. One-family unit removed to make room for three more. Good trade!

    1. Good trade for whom?
      And if it's good to move from one to four then is it good to move from four to 100? How about 1000? How should it be decided what's a good trade? Who should decide?

  7. Brian, they are really trolling you hard on this one. they must be scared. the old neighborhoods are quite charming and human scale. it will be a grave mistake to lose that to what they are doing, which is upzoning. however, since there are already apartments sprinkled throughout the neighborhoods, the four-plexes are very likely conforming with the code.
    The project will encourage others, and with the profit potential, it will pervert the housing market, as speculators, hoping to reap those profits out-bid any actual families. FUBAR

  8. I live at 1274 Ocean. Here is the letter I sent to the city.

    Hello again,

    Below is the copy of the letter I sent you on December 17th. Since then I have gotten details of the proposed 1270 Ocean Ave. condo project, and it's worse than I thought. They are proposing a three-story condo with four three-bedroom units. Here are my concerns:
    Solar blocking. It will eliminate my solar access with large shadows cast over my property. Lack of Sunlight will sicken and kill my chickens, make my garden plans. currently in development obsolete, make my solar energy plans obsolete, potentially kill existing plants, trees, and grass, and lower my property value, unless I'm willing to sell so another condo can be built. My home is a family home. It was given to me by my parents and was planned to give to my son for his children.

    Privacy. My privacy will be further eroded as condos from both sides will be looking down into my yard. The condo on the west already broke this promise to me with large balconies overlooking my yard. This new condo proposes 3 stories of windows overlooking my house and yard.

    Parking. Parking is already an issue. The condo to the west only allowed for single car residents who could potentially have 2 cars each, which will further impact parking. This new condo development could potentially add 12 more cars to the neighborhood with a garage for only 3 of those 12.

    Unity and Harmony. This push to fill our block with condos is eroding the culture of the neighborhood replacing homes and yards, with super blocks of bulky condos. If Emeryville is going to maintain its architectural unity and harmony then the ideal development would be a 1 - 2 story house with a small front yard and a large backyard. I ask that you respect Emeryville history and support the existing neighborhood character by denying this condo proposal.

    Dec 17, 2016, at 12:50 PM,


    I live at 1274 Ocean Ave. when I moved in this was a neighborhood of houses. Slowly condos have attempted to encroach on our block. We are the block that separates the condos to the north from the houses to the south.

    The condo that was recently built next to me is much larger and more intrusive than promised. Now I'm told that the neighbor on the other side of me wants to build condos as well. If this happens it will open the floodgates for more condo development and we will continue to lose the culture of our neighborhood.

    In addition with all the nearby businesses parking is already becoming more and more of a problem. My disabled neighbor had to park two blocks away the other night. While the condo next to me has a parking spot allocated for each condo, it does not take into consideration people who have more than one car. I only see this problem getting worse in the future if condos are allowed to continue to encroach upon our neighborhood.

    Please help us keep the neighborhood family friendly and full of quaint houses full of inviting yards.

  9. Hello,
    My husband and I are currently "renting" 1270 Ocean Ave. (Ok, it's air bnb, but we still have a 6 month lease while we look for houses and jobs in the bay area). We are from Denver, an up and coming city as well, going through much of the same situation as your town of Emeryville. We are relocating to find something a little better for our growing family. This rental is kind of a jumping off point if you will, to look at different towns/areas/communities that we think would be good for such a family.
    A couple weeks ago, a paper sign was posted on the fence of the rental house. We kept it up, no big deal. We understand what your issues are and think it is important to be heard. Then, a couple days later, a GIANT wood sign was screwed to the fence. Again, we understand. However, we were getting cars stopping out front, people stopping and staring. We have unfairly had the anger of the community placed onto our shoulders. So, we decided to change what the sign said so people would stop staring. We put up a nice message, and requested that people take their agenda somewhere else other than the fence of the rental property (mind you, the owners are 100 percent aware what is going on. Your message is getting through to them.). Then, when that message was defaced we decided to just take the sign down. We are not here to harass anyone, and it's not our fight (again, we're just the renters). The night we did that, our car was keyed. No other car on the entire block or any surrounding the block had any similar damage.
    What is really upsetting about this, is that we have also worked hard for what we own and love. Someone vandalized our vehicle, from what we can assume is because of THIS.
    I can assure you, that for the organizing and work that goes into keeping this a 'welcoming' community, it is the opposite of such. We have felt targeted and we have had our personal property damaged because of this. Emeryville is not a place I would like to call home, especially in this neighborhood. I am disappointed that your sense of 'community' means keeping others out.
    We will be changing residences, and take our money that we would be spending in your community elsewhere. I will also inform anyone and everyone who asks me about this neighborhood, about the unfriendly and hostile neighbors they will live with. We wish you well with your endeavors.

    1. Why someone would key the car of a renter because the landlord is selling the house to a developer who wants to tear it down (in violation of the General Plan) is obtuse to say the least. I'd say you're dealing with overly emotional neighbors that lack critical thinking skills. Alas, this kind of thing seems to be trending nation-wide at this point. Xenophobia isn't part of a rationally based polity and I think you're intersecting with a few 'bad apples'. I understand your well placed dismay about your car being vandalized but we're going to continue on here insisting on a democratic polity for Emeryville in the face of these base affectations. Dialogue is good, vandalism isn't but we're going to continue A even as B rears its ugly face. Good luck and sorry you got caught in a fight you didn't ask for.