West Berkeley home and business owners told planning commissioners Thursday that when they endorsed the notion of a new Berkeley Bowl on their turf, they weren’t reckoning on a heavily trafficked super-store.
While a few endorsed the idea of the 91,060-square-foot three-building complex at Ninth Street and Heinz Avenue, most of the speakers weren’t so obliging.
And most of those who endorsed the project faulted the city for failing to reach out to the community to explain the proposal and its potential ramifications.
“This is not the place to put that store,” said Primo Facchim, founder of the West Berkeley Association. Because of the high volume of traffic the store is certain to generate, Facchim said, streets would have to be widened to allow the flow of customers from Ashby and San Pablo avenues.
The city staff report cited studies by the Institute of Transportation Engineers that grocery stores typically generate 102 average vehicle trips per day for every 1,000 square feet of floor area.
With 54,735 of retail surface floor, the store would then be expected to draw at least 5,583 additional vehicle trips into the heavily traveled Ashby and San Pablo corridors. A study by transportation consultants Fehr & Peers said the only significant impact would be at the San Pablo Avenue and Ninth Street intersection—where they suggested a new traffic signal and crosswalk.
Before the complex can be built, commissioners must amend the West Berkeley Plan land use map and change the zoning on the site from Mixed Use-Light Industrial to C-W, West Berkeley Commercial.
Final approval of the specific building plans for the project fall under the purview of the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB).
The proposal as it now stands is more than three times the 27,000 square feet originally proposed, prompting Mary Lou Deventer of nearby Urban Ore and the West Berkeley Industrial Committee to liken the project to “a welcome mouse that’s now grown into an elephant.”
Deventer charged city staff with “railroading” a project that would generate enough traffic to swamp the intersection of Ashby and Seventh Street.
“You’re about to drown the river if you add this much traffic,” she said.
Antoine Portales, business manager of the East Bay French-American School (Ecole Bilingue de Berkeley) at Ninth and Heinz, said he was another early proponent who’d grown sour as the project size expanded.
“At first, we were really supportive,” he said. “We are not in support of the project any longer.”
Along with other neighbors, Portales had urged that access to the store be restricted to Ninth Street via Ashby Avenue and Anthony Street via Seventh Street, with no access from Heinz Avenue or Ninth Street to the north of the site.
“The city traffic engineer said it would cause too many problems to close them,” Portales said.
The school official said his main concern was student safety, both from increased traffic on Heinz, where parents typically drop off and pick up their charges, and from the effects of increased air pollution caused by heavier traffic.
Ranil Abeysekera, who lives in the area and works at Inkworks, a nearby business, said he, too, initially supported the smaller scale project, “but it has become a larger project altogether in an already congested area. It’s totally out of control even as it stands now.”
Abeysekera said he was also concerned about the health impacts of increased pollution and the negative effects of traffic on other nearby business.
John Curl, a West Berkeley woodworker, also endorsed the notion of restricting store access to the south and west. “The community almost to a person wants no access through Ninth and Heinz,” he said. “What we’ve got is a rock and a hard place.”
Curl called the city approval process “a steamroller” and urged commissioners to hold a community workshop to provide a forum where concerns could be fully aired. “If you give us enough time, we’ll have hundreds of people here.”
“The staff report seems to me like everything’s being spun like Alice in Wonderland,” Curl said. “For the community, it’s going to be a disaster.”
“It’s the scale of this project that frightens me,” said Susanne Hering. “It’s four times the size of the Andronico’s on University, and their restaurant is larger than any other in West Berkeley.”
Hering then raised an issue that other critics said they also endorsed: “It sounds like this is not so much for Berkeley as for the surrounding communities.” If so, she said, traffic could be even heavier.
Harpsichord-maker John Phillips said he was troubled by the growth of the proposal from a neighborhood store into “something like K-Mart, except with better vegetables.”
Fran Haselsteiner of the Dwight Way Neighbors told the commission, “We don’t need a superstore in West Berkeley. What we need is a neighborhood store on the scale of Andronico’s on University.”
Haselsteiner urged commissioners not to amend the General Plan “to accommodate a store that will have traffic impacts as far away as Dwight Way.”
Ron Wichmann told the commission he too had had concerns but they had been resolved by a discussion with city Planning Manager Mark Rhoades.
“My main concern is that this meeting was not noticed,” he said.
The city sent formal notices to property owners within 300 feet of the project, but not to the larger community, Rhoades said.
Susan Libby of Libby Labs said she was concerned at the erosion of industrially zoned land in West Berkeley.
“You’re missing the boat in handling all these changes from industrial to commercial. Cody’s was supposed to be the line, and there wasn’t supposed to be any retail north of Cody’s. I don’t see how you can let it go on like this,” she said
She too endorsed Curl’s call for a workshop.
Project proponent Karen Hexem said she would be “delighted to think there’ll be that quality of store in our neighborhood.” Nonetheless, she said. “I would like to see more meetings to educate the neighbors.”
Hexem’s remarks were echoed by fellow proponent Daniele Hellman, who said, “the city is not known for its process, for having a good lead time for the public.”
Diana Keena, another Berkeley Bowl advocate, said, “I don’t live there, so I’m not concerned about the traffic.”
Marvin Lipofsky was the only nearby resident to endorse the project without reservations. “It’s a great project. I’m all for Berkeley Bowl coming in. We need this, Berkeley needs this. This is a plus for Berkeley and a plus for the neighborhood, and we don’t need any more blocked off streets.”
Stephen Dunn, a neighbor of Lipofsky, said he wouldn’t mind so much if the Berkeley Bowl were the last project built in the area, but “there are big things, very dense things coming down the pike in that neighborhood which would be terrible mistakes.”
Gianni Ranuzzi, a member of the LeConte Neighborhood Association who lives near the existing Berkeley Bowl on Shattuck Avenue just north of Ashby, said her group had worked very hard to keep the store in their neighborhood and expressed fears that the new complex could lead to the closure of the older store.
With Ranuzzi the public comment period closed and it was the turn of commissioners to ask their own questions.
Because owner Glen Yasuda has avoided public meetings on his proposal—his name wasn’t even mentioned Thursday—Helen Burke and other commissioners posed their questions to project architect Kava Massih.
When Burke asked why the original plans for the 27,000-square-foot store had been abandoned, Massih said the owner had determined that anything smaller than the current plan wasn’t economically viable.
It was Burke who also took up Curl’s proposal for a public workshop, moving to hold a workshop at the commission’s next meeting on Jan. 12, followed by a hearing at a later meeting.
Commissioner Joe Fireman endorsed the workshop proposal, as did Sara Shumer and Nancy Holland.
There was immediate opposition from colleague David Stoloff.
“Workshops turn out to be negotiating sessions,” he said. “I don’t know what would be gained.”
After further discussion, Stoloff agreed to a workshop, but only if it were combined with a public hearing. “Double notification drags it out,” he said. Fireman immediately endorsed his alternative, as did Chair Harry Pollack and Commissioner David Tabb.
Burke’s motion for two separate forums failed on a 4-3 vote, with only her colleagues Sara Shumer and Nancy Holland voting with her.
A second vote on the combined workshop and hearing carried on a 6-0-1 vote, with Holland abstaining, placing the combined workshop/hearing on the Jan. 12 agenda.
Commissioners also devoted some discussion to proposed changes in the city’s Landmarks Preservation ordinance but took no action.