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Powerful comeback story

City emerges from blighted past with stores, corporate centers and enviable new economic base.

Cleanups transform Emeryville into magnet for private investment - Source: City of Emeryville, Department of FinanceOnly a generation ago Emeryville was an eyesore along Interstate 80, a tough old industrial town of worn-out buildings and long-gone jobs. Worse was the pollution, a toxic mess of spilled solvents and other chemicals that poisoned groundwater.

Who could have imagined the comeback story that now defines Emeryville? Even as California’s economic downturn slows business and reduces tax revenues, Emeryville proves the rejuvenating power of brownfield cleanups. As home now to cultural and biotech icons IKEA, Pixar, Novartis, and their thousands of jobs, this one-square-mile city of 10,000 people has seen:

  • The value of its taxable property base rise from $870 million in the early 1990s to $4.1 billion in 2010; 
  • Annual city sales taxes nearly double from $2.9 million in 1991 to $5.7 million in 2010; 
  • Annual visitor taxes from hotel stays rise nearly 25 percent from 2002’s $2.5 million, to $3.3 million in 2010.

Behind this commercial success and Emeryville’s trailblazing reputation for restoring industrial wastelands is a quarter century of DTSC-supervised environmental cleanups. Beginning in the late 1980s, accelerating in the 1990s and 2000s, and continuing today, DTSC helped city government and business leaders create an enviable new economy. The cleanups also provided a statewide and national model for restoring existing communities rather than building new ones on valuable farmland.

“Cleanup and redevelopment of formerly contaminated properties has allowed Emeryville to emerge from its industrial past and be reinvented,” said Helen Bean, the city’s economic development director.

Given the overwhelming challenge of its toxic properties, it would have been easy for Emeryville to give up. At one time in 1995, more than half the 385 acres zoned for commercial and industrial development were known to be contaminated, according to city officials. Most of these acres, cleaned up with DTSC oversight, now provide space for new housing, office buildings, shopping districts and job centers.

Robert Colangelo, executive director of the Chicago-based National Brownfield Association, a nonprofit organization which promotes sustainable development of abandoned industrial sites, said Emeryville’s cleanups and growth compare well with similar success stories on the industrialized East Coast – in cities such as Portland, Maine; Providence, Rhode Island; Pittsburgh and others in Connecticut and New Jersey.

“Brownfields are like a cancer,” he said. “If left unattended, and people take do-nothing strategies, it grows and perpetuates blight and drags down the economy.”

Emeryville worked for years with DTSC to reap the opposite.

Today, city leaders are targeting six more former industrial sites for cleanup and future development. The renaissance continues.

Cleanups transform Emeryville into magnet for private investment
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