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Emeryville residents fight chain stores on San Pablo

By Mary Spicuzza Special to the Daily Planet
Thursday November 22, 2001

Edward Treuting sat inside Point Richmond’s Hidden City Cafe, dipping a homemade sausage patty into his over-easy eggs and talked about his vision for the Emeryville stretch of San Pablo Avenue.  

The Emeryville planning commissioner said his city needs to think about developing the area with small, independently-owned shops. 

“I’m not one of those people who are absolutely anti-chain, no matter what, but I’d like to see independents in Emeryville,” Treuting said. “The buzzword that has come out is ‘reinventing.’” 

“Reinventing” San Pablo Avenue would not only mean developing smaller stores, but it would also include gathering places and making the area pedestrian friendly. 

Glancing up from his stack of maple syrup-covered pancakes, Treuting talked about how a group of neighbors have launched a campaign to bring smaller businesses to the Promenade, the 11,500 square-foot retail project – complete with a Longs Drug Store – and with 110 townhomes now being built on San Pablo Avenue between Park Avenue and 45th Street.  

The project is being developed by Park Emery Associates Limited Partnership – in conjunction with Walnut Creek-based C & H Development – which purchased the property in 1997 after Kaiser Permanente Medical Center dropped out of an agreement with Emeryville to develop the site as part of an 18-acre hospital. 

The residents have met some huge obstacles, however. C & H Development signed a controversial lease with the International House of Pancakes in September. They have also proposed a Panda Express and Quizno’s Subs at the Promenade.  

Tuesday’s Emeryville City Council meeting renewed the neighbors’ hopes that smaller businesses may move into the project. Council members voted 4-1 to have the city lease the remaining Promenade retail space from the developer, and pick their own tenants. They also approved a $50,000 loan to help a Richmond couple open a Coffee Beanery coffeeshop. Developers from C & H, however, had been negotiating with Starbucks Coffee. 

“I’d rather not build the development than to have that happen,” Councilmember Dick Kassis said of a new influx to Emeryville of huge, national chains. 

The project is supposed to consist of “neighborhood-serving” shops, according to city development plans. 

“At all of the meetings neighbors said they wanted locally-owned businesses. And we got IHOP,” Emeryville resident John Fricke said last month.  

On Tuesday night, Fricke was more optimistic. After the meeting, he sent out a mass e-mail to community members titled, “City Council Saves Us From Fast Food Alley!” 

Rather then merely complaining about the impending chain-invasion, Fricke has organized a letter-writing campaign to 38 locally-owned businesses in the area.  

“If we had a restaurant within walking distance, we would go there every week,” he wrote to the owners of San Francisco’s Caffe Delle Stelle. 

The City Council has hired Craig Semmelmeyer, a business recruiter from Main Street Retail Services in Lafayette, to help hunt for businesses.  

“We’re very hot and heavy,” Semmelmeyer said of the local business hunt. “There’s a lot of balls in the air. And there isn’t a signed lease, but I think the program is very effective.” 

Semmelmeyer, residents and councilmembers recently learned that IHOP and the developer had in their lease agreement that the Promenade would not include businesses they consider competitive.  

Much of the debate centers around who gets to decide the development’s fate.  

Bruce Fairty, vice president of Park Emery Associates Limited Partnership, said that developers cannot discriminate against big boxes just because they are not trendy. He also said nobody in Emeryville told his company about their anti-chain feelings until recently, when it was too late.  

“Three-fourths of the way into the project, the issue arises. It was never talked about before,” Fairty told council in September. “There was a lot of talk about what types of tenants, but there was no mention whatsoever of local versus non-local.” 

He described anti-chain discrimination as “illegal” and “unconstitutional.” 

Fairty said the “IHOPs of the world” are a lower-risk investment than funky, independent shops. He said many small Rockridge shops, for example, are built in older buildings, and were less expensive for developers to renovate than building from nothing. He said Rockridge is “charming,” but an unrealistic goal for Emeryville. 

“People are speaking about the project like it’s a public amenity,” Fairty told council at a meeting earlier in the fall. “But there’s $6 million we have spent that say it’s too late for that.” 

Even if Emeryville decides eventually it wants to model its stretch of San Pablo after funky Berkeley shops, it may have a tough time legally trying to keep chains out of the Promenade. Assistant City Attorney Lynn Tracy Nerland said that in last year’s Friends of Davis v. City of Davis case, the court ruled that Davis couldn’t turn away a Borders Books from a location simply because it is a chain store. 

“The council was well aware of the case, and we’ll leave it at that,” Nerland said, when asked if there was concern about lawsuits over The Promenade.  

Mayor Nora Davis, the lone vote against the city taking on the job of tenanting the project, said snubbing chains is a luxury that Emeryville can’t afford. She said only allowing local businesses would make the city economically vulnerable. 

“When we started redevelopment 13 years ago, Emeryville was considered a decaying, industrial town loaded with toxics and brownfields,” Davis said. “We have a broad base of revenues now, and have to as a matter of survival. We had all our eggs in one basket at one time, and that turned out to be disastrous for this city.” 

At this week’s council meeting Davis said leasing the property could lead to major expenditures for the city. 

“I think we are opening a Pandora’s box into a world of hurt for this city,” Davis said.