The City of Emeryville, California is showing the value of patience, partnership, and persistence in the process of brownfield redevelopment, reaping its latest reward in the form of a long-awaited piece of bike and pedestrian infrastructure, the South Bayfront Bridge. This public project tops off a decades-long community revitalization effort, bridging brownfields sites to build a more sustainable community.
Over a 3-day period at the end of 2020, a crane lifted the arch of the bridge into place over the active Union Pacific railway corridor. The bridge, projected to be a $22-million project, was first conceived of almost 4 decades ago as part of the City of Emeryville General Plan. A regional greenway system will link the bridge to the San Francisco Bay Trail to the west, with the Emeryville Greenway and the future Horton Landing Park on the east side. It will also provide an important connection between the City’s Park Avenue District and the Bay Street retail and residential development. Including the project and tracking its progress in the General Plan helped sustain the momentum of the project over decades and also helped frame the strategic importance of the project to the City as a whole — a practice that other communities can learn from.
Benefits of the Long View
The site at the eastern end of the bridge had been part of a railyard, leaving groundwater contaminated with arsenic, cadmium, and volatile organic compounds. Like many brownfield clean-up efforts that CCLR assists with, the City began planning on city-wide brownfield sites in 1996 with funding from the EPA. Planning at the east landing site began in 1999 following receipt from the EPA of “supplemental assistance for its Brownfields Demonstration Pilot and additional funding for assessments at brownfield properties" to complete the implementation of a Groundwater Management Plan and perform assessments “for expansion of future greenspace resources.” These were two of many EPA grants that the City leveraged for brownfields redevelopment, many of which are stone’s throw from the bridge site.
The Emeryville Redevelopment Agency officially kicked off bridge design in 2002 and in 2009 obtained additional EPA Brownfields Program funds through a hazardous substances clean-up grant to use on the eastern bridge landing, the Horton Landing Park site, as well as two other sites along the greenway. The western end of the bridge connects to the Bay Street retail center, which itself was a brownfield and recipient of a Phoenix Award, a prestigious national brownfields award.
The project made steady progress until the State of California deauthorized all Redevelopment Agencies in 2011. The City sued the state to recover the $12 million project funds - more than 50% of the project budget - before continuing with the project in 2015. This experience underscores the importance of municipalities securing their own funds even while maintaining partnerships with other regional, state, and federal entities.
Following several years of complicated right-of-way negotiations and the completion of site cleanup overseen by CCLR partner EKI Environment and Water, construction commenced in January 2020. The bridge is expected to open in fall of 2021. Cross-sector partnerships are essential to any project of this scale from the initial community outreach and planning stages through construction and close-out. In addition to coordinating with the active railroad corridor, the City also worked with private parties including BayStreet (Madison-Marquette) and Novartis (also a Phoenix Award recipient) to accommodate construction staging and access.
The City also benefited from the leadership of local government officials and devoted stakeholders including the late, longtime Councilmember Nora Davis. Davis chaired the city’s Brownfields Task Force that focused on the citywide toxic cleanup efforts to support sustainable growth, which resulted in thousands of new jobs and economic development, affordable housing (click here for an example of a development cleaned up using an EPA cleanup grant which CCLR helped obtain), and community benefits, including the creation of parks and trails. The Task Force’s long-view of development continues to bear fruit with projects like the South Bayfront Bridge, which are worth the effort and worth the wait.
Brownfields reuse does not happen overnight. Emeryville’s brownfields redevelopment efforts started in 1996 under the leadership of various city managers and staff, withstanding several election cycles and challenges from its own state government. As it has done with Emeryville, CCLR supports communities over the long-haul, to nurture similar patience, perseverance, and partnerships for sustainable brownfields reuse.