The West Berkeley Bowl supermarket, proposed for Ninth Street near Ashby, is on a very fast track. It is double the size of the University Avenue Andronico’s. According to industry standards, a supermarket that size is expected to generate more than 51,000 cars per week. That level of traffic would put an enormous strain on an already stressed system, and would transform the area, hampering industries, damaging the mixed residential neighborhood, and gridlocking commuters.
The project will come before the planning commission at a “special” meeting on at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 15 at the West Berkeley Senior Center, 1900 Sixth St. (at Hearst). You wouldn’t know that from the notice on the city website, which states only that they will post the agenda of the meeting just five days in advance. That the city has quietly scheduled it right in the heart of the holiday chaos, when everybody is preoccupied, indicates that they want to minimize public scrutiny.
This story started decades ago. Drive down Dwight below San Pablo and turn south on any local street before Seventh Street. You will find yourself in a neighborhood that looks basically industrial. On closer examination you’ll discover a thriving mix of industries, artisans, artists, creative start-ups, residents, recyclers, homes, schools, restaurants, almost anything you can imagine. It is a very fertile place. Most locals love the neighborhood. The atmosphere is relaxed and the scale is human. It is a good place to walk.
The main ingredient almost all agree is needed, is a neighborhood supermarket. In 1993 this desire was written into the West Berkeley Plan. Three years later, developers proposed putting a big Lucky’s store in almost the same location as the Bowl, but community opposition quashed it in the bud. What the community wanted was a small supermarket, not a big box that would turn the area into a commercial zone. Years passed. Then when the Bowl made their first proposal, for a 27,000-square-foot neighborhood market, it sounded perfect, and the community expressed almost universal support. But suddenly they doubled the size to 55,000 square feet, and were proposing a big box catering to regional traffic, along with a warehouse and offices totaling over 92,000 square feet. Nonetheless, it was still the Bowl, maybe a little tainted by their recent attempts to bust the union, but some rough edges are understandable for a family business seguewaying up to the big leagues, no? It was still a community icon, offering the best produce anywhere.
Well, the joke is that the Bowl—if built—will probably wind up being Lucky’s after all. The buzz has it that the family just plans to get the West Bowl started, then after a few years will cash out. The Bowl gets the use permit that Lucky’s was denied, th en we get Lucky’s through the back door. This is shaping up as a remake of the Reel Store transmogrifying into Hollywood Video.
At a recent meeting with the architect, Kava Massih, the locals living and working in the adjoining Potter’s Creek neighborhoo d came out against any car access to the Bowl from the local streets, asking that all traffic be routed through Ashby or Seventh Street. That would limit damage to the neighborhood. However, all that traffic on the main arteries would make a difficult sit uation even worse for industries. The already-jammed intersections of Ashby/San Pablo and Ashby/Seventh would take big hits. Lower Dwight Way would be heavily impacted. Nonetheless, the Potter’s Creek neighborhood should be protected and there should be n o access from Heinz Street.
But the Bowl itself would not be the end of it. Developers see it as an anchor to further regional retail development in the area.
Just as perilous are the widespread repercussions of the changes that would have to be made t o the zoning ordinance and to the General Plan. To grant the Bowl a permit, zoning of the land would have to be changed from mixed use/light industrial (MU-LI) to commercial west (CW), and regulations would have to be changed to permit the warehouse in CW. To avoid being accused of “spot zoning,” they would have to gratuitously include adjoining properties in the zoning change. The city would also have to change the General Plan policy of maintaining the MU-LI boundaries. This is particularly dangerous be cause the policy applies to large areas of West Berkeley, and its removal could open the door to dismantling the district piecemeal. Other industrial neighborhoods immediately affected would be the Gilman area and lower University Avenue.
A further impac t of the intense increase in traffic is air pollution. The most vulnerable victims would be the many children in the immediate area, concentrated in the French School on the corner of Ninth Street. This could possibly make the city vulnerable to a law sui t.
From the city’s point of view, the main attraction seems to be sales tax for the General Fund. True, the city is hurting. But to turn the industrial zone and the Potter’s Creek neighborhood into a sacrifice area for the benefit some supposed greater g ood, is to take a low road unworthy of Berkeley.
There is an alternative: Scale the West Bowl back to 27,000 square feet, as originally proposed. At that size it could be both a moderate financial success and a great social success. A store that size should generate half as much traffic, although some argue that the Bowl's popularity would draw excessive traffic no matter what its size. However, after the initial curiosity, if it’s too impacted, many people would stop coming, and traffic would probably diminish to manageable levels.
But according to the architect, the Bowl owners have said that they will ditch the project if they can’t erect a big box and reap big bucks. Can this be the same store that once took satisfaction in providing the best foods at affordable prices, and in building community?
Today the industrial zone shelters all the other diverse West Berkeley uses. Only by maintaining an environment in which industry can thrive, can economic, social, and ethnic diversity be maintained in th e area. If industry is pushed out of town, it will drag diversity with it.
So that is what is before the planning commission and ultimately the City Council: Will the city open the door to the destruction of a successful neighborhood for the tinkle of a few gold coins?
Come to the meetings and make your voice heard.
John Curl is co-chair of the West Berkeley Association of Industrial Companies.