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From big block to Bay Street

By Matthew Artz
Monday October 07, 2002

Emeryville’s steady climb from dumping ground to consumer paradise is set to take a giant leap forward next month. 

Bay Street, a $400 million, one million-square-foot mega-development featuring a 16-screen movie theater, nine upscale restaurants, 65 specialty shops, a 250-room hotel and 300 housing units will begin opening over a three block radius north of Ikea, beside Interstate 80. 

When Bay Street is fully completed, developers say it will give Emeryville, known as a home to giant retailers and manufacturers, what it has always lacked – a vibrant pedestrian-friendly downtown. 

“This will be the anti-mall,” said Eric Hohmann, Vice President at Madison Marquette, developers of Bay Street. 

Designed to look and feel like an authentic city center, Bay Street will hide most of its 1,900 parking spaces from pedestrian view behind new urban-looking buildings. Residential units will fill the upper stories of these buildings. 

The Bay Street project highlights a growing shift in Emeryville away from unsightly big box retailers flanked by acres of parking lots to traditional urban development mixing residential and small commercial space. 

In addition to Bay Street, Emeryville is working on two nearby San Pablo Avenue developments also involving the mixed use formula. 

According to City Manager John Flores, Emeryville has had no choice but to welcome giant retailers into the city, beginning in the 1990’s. Since much of city’s available land was contaminated with industrial waste, no bank would finance local development projects, he said. 

“Big box chains were not what we wanted, but they were the only thing that could get around the financial blacklisting,” Flores explained. 

But the success of the chains during the past decade now gives Emeryville greater flexibility to pursue projects at its discretion. 

Tax revenues from profitable chain stores have funded new city development efforts. And banks, which have witnessed the expansion of retail in Emeryville, are now more willing to support smaller city projects. 

To get Bay Street off the ground, Emeryville first needed to clean up the land polluted with arsenic and lead by previous tenants Sherwin Williams Paint Company and Elementis, a pigment company. The city spent $12 million, which it eventually recouped from the polluters. 

Flores noted the $12 million city outlay would have been inconceivable without the tax revenue and financial reputation the city received from the big box retailers. 

“Now we have more control over our development projects and can take big risks to clean up sites,” Flores said. 

Although Bay Street satisfies the goal of developing shopping districts in residential neighborhoods, not everyone supports Emeryville’s idea of new urban development. 

“It is certainly better than big box development, but it creates a feeling of artificiality because it isn’t a real street that grows organically over time.” said Greg Van Mechelen of Berkeley-based Architects, Designers and Planners for Social Responsibility. 

He added that because most of the stores at Bay Street will be national or regional chains, Emeryville will not reap the same financial benefits from independent stores. Chain Stores, Van Mechlen said, send their profits to their corporate headquarters instead of reinvesting in the community like locally-owned shops. 

But Flores said that considering how far Emeryville has come from its industrial roots, it needs an urban kick start. 

“There was a human outcry to redevelop this town,” Flores said. “I think Bay Street is exactly what they were asking for.” 



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