Case Study: Watergate Condos in Emervyille
by Ignacio Dayrit, CCLR
The Watergate residential project was constructed in the early 1970’s, during a time when land-‐use planning and environmental oversight were not well established in California.
Throughout the early 20th century, there had been many proposals to fill land and development along the East Bay shoreline. In the 1920-‐30s, Santa Fe railroad bought much of the bay shore property in Albany, Berkeley and Emeryville, and proposed substantial waterfront development. Construction of the Eastshore Highway in the 1930s resulted in extensive bay fill and moved the shoreline out to just west of the highway. The Paraffin Company built a wharf area west of the highway near the foot of Powell Street (where the Watergate office towers now stand). Because the east side of the bay was shallow, it was necessary to build long wharfs to reach water deep enough for ocean-‐going ships to dock. The City of Berkeley’s 1955 master plan proposed up to 2,500 acres of land fill extending 3 miles into the bay and doubling the size of the city. An Army Corps of Engineers report (1959) concluded that 70% of the bay was shallow enough to be filled.
Concerned citizens feared that the bay would soon be reduced to no more than a wide river. This spurred the birth of the “Save San Francisco Bay Association” (now “Save the Bay”) in 1961 and mobilized thousands of members to stop Berkeley’s plan to fill the bay. This victory was repeated on bay fill projects around the region, and led to passage of the McAteer-‐Petris Act (effective 1965), which suspended all fill in the bay unless permitted by the newly formed San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC).
Emeryville did not have much of a plan until 1966. Following 3 years of study, the General Plan was adopted, which called for filling in 400 acres of the “Tidelands,” the shallow portion of the bay west of the shoreline. This was to be accomplished by extending Powell and 64th Streets about a mile into, which at that time, was just west of the existing railroad tracks, where the Paraffin wharfs were constructed.
The timing of Emeryville’s 1966 general plan and the formation of BCDC were closely intertwined. On January 11, 1965, City Council voted to adopt the portion of the master plan related to the development of the Tidelands. The Planning Commission voted to recommend adoption of the entire new general plan on August 11, 1965. Just a few days before the McAteer-‐Petris Act went into effect the City Council approved the “Tidelands Reclamation Project” allowing for a mile-‐long peninsula west of the freeway for offices, residential and marina development. Filling activity began soon thereafter. BCDC sued Emeryville but lost.
On February 14, 1966, the City Council adopted the new General Plan, which included the fill that was then underway (see photo), where Watergate residential was built between 1970-‐74, and proposed additional filling of the Tidelands. However, no new fill was permitted by BCDC.
Environmental oversight for the construction of Watergate was not apparent. The Toxic Substances Control Division, precursor to the Department of Toxic Substances Control, was not established until 1981, and the Solid Waste Management Board, precursor to the Integrated Waste Management Board, was not established until 1973. The State Water Resources Control Board was established in 1966, but apparently did not have jurisdiction or applicable regulations at that time. The California Environmental Quality Act did not exist.
The development utilizes a “podium” design, where residential are built above parking. Since completion, and to this day, there have been major repairs to the Watergate structures. The most serious appear to be related to design, workmanship, and differential land settlement (e.g. the buildings, which are constructed on piles, and roads settled at different rates, resulting in gaps and uneven surfaces, issues with utilities). However, according to the Building Department, none appear to be related to any hazardous substances that may or may not exist in the subsurface.
Sources/Credits: Interview with Emeryville Building Department