Is there enough room in West Berkeley for the green grocer and the guy in the hard hat? That is a question the Planning Commission started to consider Wednesday at its first public hearing/workshop on the proposed West Berkeley Bowl.
While some in the capacity crowd called the new store a death knell to manufacturing and art space in West Berkeley and a harbinger of even worse traffic congestion, others see it as the triumph of a homegrown treasure and a boon to neighbors with no nearby market.
On the table is a 91,060-square-foot three-building complex complete with a two story supermarket and pharmacy, a warehouse, offices and 211 parking spaces and a separate building for prepared foods. The West Berkeley Bowl would be the biggest supermarket in Berkeley and more than twice as large as the current South Berkeley store.
Currently the 2.3-acre lot is home to vacant buildings and one asphalt business.
The site, however, is part of West Berkeley zoned for artist and industrial space, not supermarkets. To move the project forward, the Planning Commission and later the City Council must rezone the block for retail. After two hours of public comments, with little discussion from commissioners, the commission agreed to continue the discussion at its next meeting.
If the commission ultimately doesn’t oblige with the rezoning, Bowl owner Glenn Yasuda promised he would search out a different West Berkeley plot rather than shrinking his development plans.
“We feel compromising the size is not an option,” he said. “In retrospect we feel that the proposed store is too small, but it’s something we can work with.” The original plans for the store envisioned a 27,000-square-foot market, akin to the current store.
Opponents said they feared that the new store would open the flood gates to more commercial development in West Berkeley, driving up rents and chasing out artists and industrialists.
“Changing the [zoning] means waving a big green flag to other developers,” said John Curl, a West Berkeley-based woodworker. “The only way [artists and industry] can stay in West Berkeley is under the umbrella of industrial zoning. Otherwise they’ll be pushed out by gentrification.”
John Phillips, a business owner on nearby Grayson Street, called the proposal “spot zoning”, and cautioned the commission against giving extra leeway to the popular store. “Will this always be the Berkeley Bowl?” he asked. “What happens when it’s sold?”
Darrell de Tienne, a local developer representing Wareham Properties, one of West Berkeley’s largest land owners, urged the commission to welcome new uses into West Berkeley.
“You need to be flexible,” he told commissioners. “Nothing is static. Things do change and we need to change.”
Cameron Woo, who lives a block from the proposed supermarket, said he would welcome more commercial development. “I breath that blue collar work every day and night,” he said.
For many of Woo’s neighbors, the key issue wasn’t more retail stores, but more cars on their streets.
A study by transportation consultants Fehr & Peers found the only significant impact for the project would be at the intersection of San Pablo Avenue and Heinz Street, where the Bowl has agreed to pay for the installation of a traffic signal.
The store would generate about 3,800 new weekday vehicle trips, but most would absorbed by major streets like Ashby and San Pablo avenues, said Fehr & Peers’ Rob Reese. Ninth Street, he added, could expect a daily increase in vehicle trips from 1,800 to 2,100, and frequent traffic congestion on nearby Seventh Street could be alleviated by improving poorly timed traffic signals.
“Seventh Street should not be an albatross around the neck of this development,” said Peter Hillier, Berkeley’s assistant city manager for transportation. He touted the supermarket’s willingness to extend the Ninth Street bicycle boulevard through its property and promised residents that the city would take actions to keep cars off residential streets if they become clogged with shoppers.
Claire Cotts, who lives at an artist’s loft on Heinz Street, remained concerned. “I love the Berkeley Bowl, but I can’t park in my neighborhood,” she said. “Heinz is just way too small.”