City Should Provide Design and Approval Histories for all Development Projects

October 29, 2012

At the Oct. 16th City Council meeting, at the request of Councilmember Jac Asher, the City Council discussed the Parkside Park design and in particular the Council’s decision to approve the removal of all the trees in the new public park.  The discussion began with a presentation from Planning Division Director Charles Bryant who gave a full history of the park’s protracted design and approval process.

During his presentation, Mr. Bryant shared a lot of interesting information including these two points:

  • Although the current park design drawings show replacement trees being planted very close to where the existing trees are, there are significant grade differences between the current topography and the topography called for in the park design. The trees are located on a raised mound (“the berm”) and keeping them there would require significant changes to the current design.
  • According to Archstone, redesigning the park to accommodate the existing trees could cost up to $100,000

Mr. Bryant’s presentation was followed by public comments from residents, a discussion among councilmembers and finally two motions and two votes.

The first motion, put forth by Councilmember Jac Asher, directed the city staff to find the most cost-effective way to retain some of the trees in the park, including possible re-design of the park. For a minute it was looking like that might get three votes (Asher, Ruth Atkin and Kurt Brinkman) until Councilmember Nora Davis cited concerns that a re-design might derail the construction project. In the end Brinkman sided with Davis and the motion failed (Asher & Atkin in favor, Brinkman & Davis against, Mayor Jennifer West recused).

The second motion, put forth by Vice Mayor Brinkman, called on city staff to leave the park design as is, but to preserve as many trees as possible by digging them up, storing them off-site in what he calls a ‘tree library’ while the park is being constructed, then re-planting them in the park during final construction of the park. This motion passed unanimously (West recused). City staff were told to use the Major Maintenance fund however no budget amount was specified.

While I’m glad to see the City Council taking action in response to residents’ desires to preserve these trees, it’s hard to know what to make of this decision. I know nothing about the feasibility and cost of this tree library idea and nor, I think, did anyone in the chamber. Planning Director Charles Bryant told the council he had no idea how much this would cost. Vice Mayor Brinkman confidently replied “It will cost less than redesigning the park, Charlie!”  If the true cost of re-designing the park is $100K, then I would certainly hope he’s right!

But I don’t see how it can cost up to $100K just to design a tiny park like that. That sounds to me like an inflated estimate designed to scare the city council out of reopening the design process. Nonetheless that’s the figure the city council was given. So I’m assuming the council will be happy to get away with anything less than $100K to preserve these trees in a tree library. Perhaps the city can offset the cost by charging late fees whenever someone checks out a tree and is late returning it to the library. (That was a joke.)

It’s unfortunate that there was no city arborist on hand to offer insights into feasibility and cost. His absence was especially surprising  given that city arborist Steve Batchelder was there just 45 minutes earlier answering the city council’s questions about the  Eucalyptus trees in Temescal Creek Park. His sudden absence was noted.

The vote to preserve the trees was one outcome of the meeting, but it was not the only outcome…

I think the communication that occurred between the city staff, the city council and the residents was valuable, and can lead to some improvements in how the city shares information in general.

Mr. Bryant’s presentation was very interesting. It revealed how complicated the design process for this park has been given how many moving parts, physical constraints, shifting priorities and vested parties are involved. After seeing the presentation I felt much better informed, and less inclined to believe that the city staff was deliberately making it easy for Archstone to get these trees out of the way. Instead I sense that the city staff simply didn’t place a high priority on tree preservation. Mr. Bryant pretty much acknowledged that. Now that residents (and the city council) have spoken up, he showed a clear willingness to find a way to salvage the trees.

It’s interesting to note that this discussion about the Parkside trees was immediately preceded by another tree-related agenda item regarding Eucalyptus trees slated for removal in Temescal Creek Park. Both agenda items led to spirited discussion and lots of input from residents. I am confident that at this point the city staff and city council have gotten the message that Emeryville residents care deeply about the preservation of the city’s trees, and will respond accordingly going forward. I consider that to be an important outcome in of itself.

There remains a structural problem to be solved here. These design processes often span many years and many phases. The Parkside Park design process began in 2007. The Temescal Creek Park design process dates back to 2010. There is no easy way that I know of for residents or even for councilmembers to look into the history of a complex design and approval process other than to pepper the city staff with questions, or to request a presentation like the one Mr. Bryant gave.

We can’t expect city staff to prepare detailed presentations like that every time there are questions – that’s simply not sustainable. And peppering the city staff with questions is not a very good solution either, not when the subject matter is as complex as this was. On such subjects it’s difficult for the city staff to convey a complete and balanced picture in a series of disjointed emails and staff reports. It’s inevitable that details will get left out of one email and surface in another. Or details will be mis-remembered and later corrected. All of that that can lead to confusion and, in some cases, suspicion that someone is trying to hide something.

If there had been some way for me or for a city councilmember to easily and directly access the full history of the Parkside Park design and approval process, even in an unstructured and unpolished form, that would have spared everyone a lot of time and frustration. The city should provide this kind of automated visibility into the design & approval histories of all of its projects. I think this can be achieved fairly easily if city staff implements the appropriate workflow and document management processes. If they do this, everyone will benefit: city staff won’t spend so much time answering questions, and those who have questions will get better answers. I hope the city will consider implementing such processes ASAP.

Adrian McGilly lives at Doyle Street co-housing with is wife, Emeryville Mayor Jennifer West, and their two daughters.

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3 Responses to City Should Provide Design and Approval Histories for all Development Projects

  1. Jackie Daniels on October 29, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    This “saving” the trees seems to be getting out of hand. Costs for that, if it’s higher than replacing them,should be scrapped in my opinion. All this seems to be getting a little crazy. I see nothing wrong with just replacing the trees with other trees, if it’s cost effective.

  2. adrian mcgilly on October 30, 2012 at 6:13 pm


    In your opinion it’s ok to replace the trees with other trees. I respect that. And now that the City Council has heard the concerns of citizens who WANT the trees preserved, I will respect any decision the City Council makes. I don’t agree that the process is “getting out of hand” or is “getting a little crazy”. The city needed to do a better job of consulting residents before cutting down these trees, and it is now doing that. If anything was crazy it was the idea to cut down 33 mature city trees without ever posting a single notice on any of them!

  3. Brian Donahue on November 2, 2012 at 8:00 am

    The $100,000 number thrown out in a cavalier fashion, was meant to stop discussion of a park re-design. Any talk of redesigning anything would make the developer, Archstone unhappy. It adds in an element of unpredictability and that’s not something developers like. But Nora Davis and her sidekick Kurt Brinkman need to wrap their heads around the notion that it’s residents who matter in this circumstance. Politics ARE unpredictable and any developer that’s no used to getting their own way every time knows that. Davis and Brinkman work for the developers, not us.

    Regarding saving the nine mature trees; I’m waiting until the staff announces the price of digging them up and storing them, followed by gasps from the council and a flurry of NO votes to save the trees. Lastly we should expect a bunch of talk of their duty to watch the bottom line in these tough times and a hand wringing.

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