Pixar Foes Turn Tables on E'ville 

Low-income Emeryville residents issue a challenge to the city to start asking for more from its corporate citizens.

Nobody tells Steve Jobs what to do. As the head of both Apple Computer and Pixar Animation Studios, he has snubbed guys like Michael Eisner and lived to laugh about it. Five of Pixar's movies have grossed a total of $2.6 billion, and now that its distribution deal with Disney has dissolved, executives from rival movie companies are banging at its door, begging to be its next partner. Jobs' arrogance is legendary on the tech beat, and the culture inside his companies resembles a paranoid cult, as employees hunker down inside their glossy campuses, hiding their secrets from the world. Steve Jobs can punch anyone he wants in the nose. But 380 people in Emeryville's working-class flatlands have just told him to go to hell -- and gotten away with it.

Pixar executives have long planned to triple the size of their headquarters, which is located just across the street from Emeryville's City Hall. In May and early June, a few citizens asked whether, as long as the company's officials were going on a building jag anyway, they wouldn't mind humanizing the Stalinist entrance to their compound. The company curtly declined and offered the city a take-it-or-we'll-leave-it ultimatum. That prompted city Councilman Dick Kassis to opine that "Pixar is more important to Emeryville than Emeryville is to Pixar," before he and his colleagues voted to approve the expansion.

But a few weeks later, a small group of flatlands neighbors, aided by the left-leaning, Oakland-based East Bay Alliance for Sustainable Development, stopped the company right in its tracks by putting a measure opposing the expansion on the November ballot.

All they had to do was collect 380 signatures, and the future of one of the most sophisticated companies in the world suddenly became uncertain. Only in Emeryville could this have happened.

If you like corruption, influence-peddling, and the mob -- and, really, who doesn't? -- then you should love Emeryville. At least, the Emeryville that was. Ever since it earned the sobriquet "Butchertown" a century ago, E'ville has served as the repository for all the things we need to live, but don't want in our neighborhoods. Run by a succession of old-fashioned political bosses -- the last of whom, former Police Chief John LaCoste, used to administer the city from his bar stool at the Townhouse Bar and Grill -- Emeryville has historically done everything possible to accommodate such industries as meatpacking, gambling, and the oldest profession in the world.

Starting in the '70s, long after most of the city's infamous gambling houses and brothels had been shuttered, Emeryville's city fathers began casting about for another cash cow.

They started with luxury waterfront housing, but abandoned that after the middle-class residents who moved into these apartment complexes threw out the very bosses who had built their new homes.

Within a few years, Emeryville's new leaders hit upon a different path to prosperity. Starting with Chiron and Sybase, the city council set out to turn Emeryville into the East Bay's tech and retail maquiladora, green-lighting every development no matter how huge or incompatible with frivolities such as parks, public land, or rational traffic engineering.

Since most of the new developments took place on the east side of the railroad tracks, the waterfront yuppies were largely indifferent to how massive Chiron would get. Once again, the city was open for business.

But Pixar wasn't the only one who noticed the city's anything-goes attitude. After a successful campaign to pass a living-wage ordinance at the Oakland airport, East Bay Alliance for Sustainable Development executive director Amaha Kassa turned his attention to the small city to his north. Last year, the organization studied whether Emeryville's development policies have benefited its poorest residents.

Its conclusions were alternately absurd and sensible. Although Kassa acknowledges that Emeryville has built more affordable housing than its neighboring cities, it is nonetheless exacerbating the housing crisis by -- get this -- creating so many jobs. "Of the affordable housing demand generated by all new jobs from 1991 to 2000, Emeryville provided only 27 percent of needed units," reads a typical example of the study's convoluted logic. "Other cities in the region have had to absorb at least three out of four new worker households."

In addition, the study assigns a low priority to the terrible gridlock created by Emeryville's runaway growth, although this is clearly the worst development-related problem. But Kassa's most important conclusion is an interesting one: that the days when Emeryville had to roll over for big business are gone, and the city can now ask for something in return without running the risk of these companies fleeing for the suburbs. Impoverished East Palo Alto, for example, demanded that IKEA set aside a number of well-paying jobs for local residents, while Emeryville asked for nothing from its IKEA store.

In essence, Kassa thinks Emeryville is so perfectly positioned as a corporate headquarters that its leaders can start pressuring companies to help fund job training, child care, and affordable housing construction. When Pixar executives announced their new expansion plans, Kassa met with a group of low-income Emeryville residents and decided that the time had come to put this theory to the test.

"It's not about Pixar; it's not about any one corporation," he says. "It's about the future of development in the city, and whether Emeryville's going to be a developers' playground or a community responsive to the needs of its residents. ... Is this the best deal possible? If not, do residents want the council to take the issues of jobs, housing, and neighborhood impact seriously?"

Frankly, few local companies invite blackmail quite like Pixar. The firm's corporate culture is notoriously secretive, arrogant, and just plain creepy. When asked to list the financial contributions Pixar makes to Emeryville's free bus service or affordable housing funds, a spokeswoman named Karen not only refused to comment, but refused to even provide her last name. "We prefer, 'A Pixar spokesperson declined to comment on the expansion,'" she said. That's just weird.

Fortunately, Patrick O'Keefe, Emeryville's director of economic development and housing, is a little more, well, normal, and he listed Pixar's very considerable contributions to civic life. The company already donates money to local food banks and city-run arts and music education programs, to say nothing of the economic benefit the city receives from the spending of hundreds of Pixar employees.

The property taxes garnered from the expanded facility would total $3.5 million a year, $750,000 of which must be spent on housing. In addition, Pixar has agreed to pay the city $1.5 million in mad money once the expansion is finished. So when Kassa and his colleagues asked the city council last May to ask a little more from Pixar, councilmembers took one look at these numbers, laughed him out of the room, and green-lighted the deal.

They sure ain't laughing anymore. Kassa and a group of forty residents circulated a petition to overturn the council's decision, stop the expansion, and negotiate a better deal. Within thirty days, a collection of working-class moms who spent a Saturday or two walking precincts had collected enough signatures to place the measure on the ballot. Company executives used to negotiating multimillion-dollar deals with Fortune 500 companies realized that 380 insignificant nobodies had just stopped the Pixar juggernaut.

This terrifies and enrages councilmembers such as Nora Davis, who worries that Pixar will simply pack up and move. "Amaha is doing corporate extortion," she snarls. "They come into the community, and their message was, 'We should push these people up against the wall and extort more. More job training, more child care, and we can do it.' I believe they lied to the people of this city. ... Amaha Kassa and his minions come in from Oakland and say we could do better, and by the way, if we don't do better, we can always go back to our office on 17th Street and you're left swinging in the wind."

But frankly, Kassa is just playing by the same rules that Emeryville itself has played by for more than a century. With a population of little more than seven thousand people, and a legacy of indifference and disengagement from local government, this town was just small and nimble enough to remake itself without being hamstrung by the boisterous interest-group politics of its more sprawling neighbors in Berkeley and Oakland.

"For the past sixteen years, there's been very little interest in the city council elections," says Greg Harper, who sat on the council for thirteen years and was often the lone critic of the city's development deals, "which gives the city council the impression, rightly or wrongly, that people are content and they like what they're doing."

But now, the very qualities that made Emeryville what it is today are working against the old guard. A small group of dealmakers took control of a languid city and turned it into the best deal Big Business had ever seen in the East Bay, and now a small group of dealbreakers are using the same techniques to make Big Business pay to play.

If you knew the right buttons to push, you too could remake Emeryville in your own image. The city council has known this for years. Now, someone else has figured it out.


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