EMERYVILLE—In a unanimous vote Tuesday night in front of a divided community, the Emeryville City Council passed a resolution to help movie giant Pixar Animation Studios take a major step towards tripling the size of its Emeryville campus.
While Amaha Kassa, a local environmental activist with the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE) accused the City Council of being “afraid to ask anything of businesses and as result businesses don’t feel they have to be accountable to the community,” the Emeryville city manager called the council decision “a step in the right direction for other businesses” considering locating in the city.
At the meeting packed to the walls with community residents, the council heard presentations by city staff and Pixar along with several hours of public comment before adopting, 5-0, a Mitigated Negative Declaration for the expansion project. The decision means that Pixar will not have to file a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR), and is the largest potential city hurdle the project has to pass.
Pixar wants to add three new buildings plus a six-story parking garage to its present Emeryville campus, expanding from 218,000 square feet to 750,550 square feet.
The public reaction to the council decision was mixed at the meeting. While some cheered, saying that Pixar has continually shown its commitment to the community, others criticized city officials making concessions to the company without asking Pixar to give concessions in return.
EBASE’s Kassa said the council’s decision sends “a clear message to Pixar and the public that they don’t support any greater requirements of Pixar. Generally people thought [the Pixar expansion] could be a good thing, but they are also thought it should be important to create standards.”
EBASE and other environmental groups have called for a full EIR on the project, citing a contention that such a review was necessary to deal with potential community impacts such as increased traffic. An analysis by an independent traffic engineer and a letter from AC Transit, both posted on EBASE’ website, challenge some of the findings in the Negative Declaration.
But beyond the environmental impacts, EBASE said a full EIR would also force Pixar to respond to needs as stated by Emeryville citizens, rather than the company simply being able to state on its own what it intends to contribute to the community.
Part of the new land Pixar will expand onto, an EBASE website report says, was slated for 120 new housing units, including 20 percent reserved for low to moderate incomes.
The EBASE report said their recent study of development in Emeryville found “signs that many residents in the older parts of Emeryville are being displaced due to rising housing costs. This displacement has occurred hand in hand with Emeryville’s commercial transformation and the Pixar project may also indirectly put upward pressure on the local housing market in the Triangle neighborhood,” they said.
“According to the company’s recent reports, Pixar is in very good financial shape, with over $650 million in cash assets,” EBASE reports on their website. “Compared to these amounts, the benefits the community is asking for are tiny. It’s very unlikely that Pixar would leave town rather than provide them.”
Tom Carlisle, the facilities director for Pixar, defended the company in his presentation for the City Council Tuesday night, listing a number of Pixar’s community programs.
“Pixar is very involved in the community,” Carlisle said. “We do it because we like doing it, not because someone is telling us.” Carlisle also listed a number of environmental programs sponsored by the company, including several ride-share and mass transit options that their employees use to cut down on the environmental affects of the company.
City Manager John Flores openly encouraged the expansion project in his brief summary during the meeting.
“If you haven’t looked around, the economy is in the tank,” Flores later told the Berkeley Daily Planet. He said the Bay Area has lost 400,000 jobs since 2001.
On top of their current contributions, the city manager said Pixar has agreed to donate $500,000 to the city after all three of their new construction phases. Flores also said up to $600,000 of the new property tax generated by the expansion will be used towards affordable housing.