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Smart & Final makes way for Longs Drug

By Matthew Artz, Special to the Daily Planet
Monday July 08, 2002

A new Longs Drug Store and a handful of living units will soon appear on the lot at 1941 San Pablo Ave. between University and Hearst avenues, according to David Fogarty, a community development project coordinator with the city. 

The plan marks a victory for city planners, as they continue to promote the development of residential units above commercial space to help alleviate the region’s housing shortage. City planners had failed to convince former property owner Smart & Final to restore the abandoned apartments on the site. 

According to Fogarty, the city helped conduct a feasibility report which found that the site’s seven studios and a one-bedroom apartment presented a valuable market opportunity. Smart & Final, which closed its discount food store in April after it proved unappealing to Berkeley shoppers, decided to sell the property after learning of its housing value. 

Fogarty, who facilitated the sale, would not disclose the names of the new owners, but said that they planned to rent the apartments at market value. 

The building has a varied history. Opened in 1926 as an ornate single screen movie theater, it has been home to several supermarket chains since the theater’s closure in 1955. 

Fogarty said that Longs will keep the building’s original fresco ceiling, which was restored by Smart & Final in 1993. Longs and the new owners will both contribute money to refurbish the building and they have not determined when it will re-open. 

The Longs project is seen as one of the first steps in the city’s effort to increase foot traffic and population density along busy San Pablo Avenue. 

Because Smart & Final specialized in selling bulk items, most shoppers arrived by car and did not frequent other neighborhood shops, said Council member Kriss Worthington. He hopes that a pharmacy will generate pedestrian shoppers, which are typically more likely to patronize nearby stores. 

The city’s effort to remake San Pablo Avenue is also getting a boost from AC Transit. When the apartments were built in 1944, San Pablo Avenue was a transportation hub, equipped with Key System streetcars, the Bay Area’s original mass transit system that ran along major streets and connected residential neighborhoods to downtown Oakland and San Francisco. After the train service was shut down in 1958, the avenue was redeveloped for automobile traffic. 

Now local authorities are trying to restore San Pablo Avenue as a public transit center. According to Worthington, AC Transit will convert its bus routes along the avenue into an integrated bus rapid transit system. The plan calls for new environmentally friendly buses, attractive and comfortable stops for passengers to wait and board, high-tech traffic signals that will enable buses to face fewer red lights and transit-only lanes that will allow buses to get through high traffic areas.  

Worthington added that the city has identified eight sites along the avenue that it hopes can be developed into new housing units, depending on the health of the local economy. 

"It’s a destination location," Worthington said of the stretch of San Pablo bordering University Avenue. "It’s time to market it."