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Emeryville, California, the New Face of Urbanization

Posted on: Jul 02, 2013

Public Market, Emeryville, CA

Public Market, Emeryville, CA

Recently we were asked by a real estate developer to do a photo essay on the city of Emeryville.  They had recently purchased a well known older industrial property and wanted to develop it into an upscale retail, dining and night life destination.  Our assignment was to find and photograph similar properties and establishments in the surrounding area.  Creating photo montages is always fun because of the huge factor of serendipity.  The developer gave us a shot list, a budget and let us go.  Working with Dee Rogers, we divided up the list and set out to rediscover Emeryville.

Public Market, Emeryville, CA

Public Market, Emeryville, CA

Public Market, Emeryville, CA

Prize Fighter Bar, Emeryville, CA

Emeryville has long been regarded as one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s backwaters.  Sandwiched between industrial Oakland and more upscale Berkeley, this small, ill defined community is a patchwork of upscale condominiums, box store retail, recycled industrial properties, and single family housing dating back a century or more.  Emeryville’s prohibition era legacy as a place to be naughty still lives on in funky old saloons and at least one functioning poker hall.  About 30 years ago, a determined city government decided remake the city by opening the doors to development inviting all comers.  Their initial push was housing, offering up shoreline properties for condominium and marina development.  Being only minutes from San Francisco, they then encouraged high-rise office bay-side development.  Individual developers sensing a sea change started to jump on board, first by converting old industrial buildings into live-work lofts and then buying blighted “brown fields” and erecting whole new multifamily communities. With close proximity to major research universities, bio-tech startups found Emeryville inviting and set up shop.   The city made a deal with animation giant Pixar who built a ground up studio for 1000 animation artists.  Novartis erected their U.S. headquarters and research facility.Public Market, Emeryville, CA

Amidst all this development, Emeryville has managed to maintain its funky retro industrial character.  It has added thousands of condos, box stores like Ikea and Home Depot, and a huge, upscale shopping district, but Emeryville still is a place where a working class guy can find a great tasting brew and a little entertainment.  In today’s scenario however, that working class guy is more likely to be a researcher from a bio-tech company or a young architect than a welder.  Emeryville, in the space of one generation has gone from industrial backwater to hipster hangout.  It has managed to both embrace development and maintain much of its character.  This is no easy task, but Emeryville seems to have pulled it off.

Ubuntu Coffee Roaster, Emeryville, CA

Ubuntu Coffee Roaster, Emeryville, CA

In some ways, Emeryville is the little city that could.  It transformed its heavy metal industrial core into a place for new technologies to work and thrive. It took brown fields and turned them into communities for young families. It took industrial funk and made it chic.  Can Emeryville’s success be repeated in other rust belt cities? Probably, but it takes, vision, forward thinking governments, money, geography and luck.  As we become a denser and more urban country, cities need to find ways to reinvent themselves and open their doors to enlightened development that can pave the way to prosperity without obliterating the past.  In our day and a half adventure in and around town, we were surprised by the amazing vitality of the place. I discovered a small independent coffee roaster serving his brew on the sidewalk to anyone interested. I stumbled into a rocking bar in an old brick warehouse filled with Friday revelers.  A pizza joint at the Public Market was serving some of the nicest looking Italian food I have seen in a while. The Friday night scene in adjacent Oakland’s Temescal district was just short of an al fresco street party.  Not every city is Emeryville, but Emeryville can offer every city positive ideas on how to make themselves better places to live and work.

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