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This Shared Space Serves People of All Ages

Emeryville, California's 'Center of Community Life' shows how communities save money, and residents mingle more, when public buildings and facilities meet multiple needs and benefit the most people

Emeryville site plan


More than a decade in the making, the Emeryville Center of Community Life was built on land primarily occupied by Emeryville’s high school. All of the original buildings except the gymnasium were demolished to create a seven-acre, 130,000-square-foot, $96 million mixed-use community and educational facility. In this site plan, the yellow arrows indicate community entrances. The purple arrows show school entrances. The orange line represents a series of panels where art and information can be displayed.

The Emeryville Center of Community Life (ECCL) in Emeryville, California, has been called an urban version of the old town square, a place where all members of the community, regardless of age or economic background, come together for social, educational and recreational activities. 

A Place to Gather

Emeryville community room


To provide revenue and help offset operating costs, parts of the ECCL can be rented for functions, such as meetings or parties.

The chatter of young children and spirited teens gives a positive energy to the contemporary center that houses the city’s elementary school, intermediate school and high school, in separate buildings. Another building contains the city’s community services offices, the school district offices, a “lifelong medical care” center and dental clinic. The clinics enable students to stay on campus instead of leaving for health appointments.

The center has a multipurpose community room, a public library and a gymnasium with a basketball court, dance studio and weight-and-exercise room. There’s also a swimming pool and an athletic field made of environmentally friendly cork.

The conversation about sharing a “cradle to cradle” space in Emeryville began when the financially troubled Emeryville Unified School District and the City of Emeryville joined forces to build a community center that would serve the needs of all residents.

“Individually, I don’t think we could have built something like this,” says Pedro Jimenez, City of Emeryville community services director, about combining financial resources. “That’s the real benefit of having a partnership.”

A Community History

Incorporated in 1896, Emeryville was once more of an industrial hub than a community. In fact, much of the land was contaminated for decades because of its manufacturing past. Remediation and revitalization enabled the arrival of housing, retail, transit options and high-profile corporate headquarters, including those of Pixar Animation Studios, Leapfrog, Clif Bars, Jamba Juice and Peet’s Coffee.

Emeryville campus


The ECCL's Community Commons is used by the school system during the day and as a public event space during nonschool hours. The blue structure at the far right is a space-saving vertical playground, the second of its kind in the United States. (The first, an orange version, is in Boston.)

Emeryville’s population of a little more than 12,000 residents live in the one-square-mile city that's packed with buildings and dotted with here and there with public green and outdoor spaces. The city backs up to the San Francisco Bay and is surrounded by Oakland and Berkeley, drawing in residents from both those cities to the ECCL.

“The socioeconomics of this area are that there are a lot of low-income people here and we want to be able to provide services to them,” says Jimenez. “We have a high population of seniors in the area, so ECCL contains a seniors’ lounge, where they can hang out, hold seminars and attend exercise classes.”

A Project History

In 2001, the California state government took control of the Emeryville school district due to the misappropriation of funds by a former superintendent. Over the course of the decade in receivership, the district and the city discussed the feasability of creating a shared community facility to both save money and more efficiently use Emeryville's limited available land.  

WHEN AND HOW: Once a decision to proceed was made, more than a dozen years of work and delay followed.

  • In April 2008, Emeryville hired architectural designers to produce a conceptual plan for the proposed ECCL project.

  • The following a year was spent hosting numerous public meetings and workshops, all of which resulted in nearly 50 hours of opinions and comments.

Handy Health Services

Emeryville health center


The ECCL’s on-site health clinic is run by LifeLong Medical Care, a practice founded in 1976 as the Over 60 Health Center by a group of Gray Panther activists. Medical care and social services are provided to “underserved people of all ages” and no patient is denied care due to an inability to pay.

  • The conceptual plan was presented to and approved by the project committee in June 2009. Soon after, the city council and school board each approved the plan.

  • State rules restricting multiple uses of school buildings had to be changed during California's 2009 legislative session. Special permission was sought and received to allow some of the facility's spaces to be rented and for those event hosts to serve alcohol.

  • Administrative changes, a series of legal battles, community concerns and retrofitting issues then delayed the project.

  • Construction began in December 2015. 

  • The school opened in the fall of 2016.

THE RESULTS: “We get all ages in our aquatics program, from 15-year-olds to seniors,” says Recreation Coordinator Stacy Thomas. “Our seniors are super fun, and they love the energy that the young people bring. The energy of our kids and the seniors getting their ‘Y.M.C.A.’ song hands up in the air — it’s great!”

The ECCL staff is working on getting the city's older residents to integrate more into the predominantly young population at the center. 

“We’ve hit some of our goals, but we can always improve on our intergenerational programs and classes,” says Jimenez. “Younger generations can learn a lot from older generations, and they can teach the older adults, too. We've already had groups of children go over to the senior center to teach them how to use their phones."

This article is adapted from the "Support Health and Wellness" chapter of the AARP book Where We Live: Communities for All Ages — 100+ Inspiring Examples From America’s Community Leaders. Download or order your free copy.

Reporting by Susan Young | Book published June 2018 

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