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Public Hearing Revives Debate Over West Berkeley Bowl By SUZANNE LA BARRE

Tuesday March 07, 2006

The West Berkeley Bowl marketplace will usher in significant and unavoidable traffic, a new report says. 

An updated draft environmental impact report concludes that while most foreseeable car jams around the proposed Heinz Avenue-Ninth Street site can be mitigated, the nearby intersection of San Pablo Avenue at Ashby Avenue will suffer unavoidable congestion during weekend peak hours. 

A report issued Oct. 7, dismissing traffic surrounding the 90,060-square-foot project as “less than significant,” failed to account for the Saturday peak-hour traffic, a flub that former Planning Commission Chair Zelda Bronstein called “amusing.”  

West Berkeley Bowl would include an 83,990-square-foot marketplace replete with low-priced fresh produce and natural foods, a 7,070-square-foot prepared food service building and 211 parking spaces. Roughly half would lie underground. 

Customers would gain access to the store predominantly via Ashby from Ninth, an intersection expected to withstand heavier traffic, the report says. 

But further east, where Ashby hits San Pablo, traffic from grocery shoppers would only be alleviated with an additional northbound left-turn lane, the report says. Limited right-of-way availability at the intersection thwarts that prospect, however. Thus, delays at San Pablo and Ashby would increase by more than three seconds. 

The report details several other congestion problems that can be relieved with extra signage, lights or other features.  

Four land use alternatives to the proposed plan would generate lighter traffic, the report says. They are:  

• Alternative A: No new development at the site. 

• Alternative B1: Offices only. 

• Alternative B2: Light industrial/ manufacturing building only. 

• Alternative C: Reduced marketplace, 65,815 square feet total. 

• Alternative D: Reduced marketplace, 72,758 square feet total. 

Many project critics support building a smaller store, claiming it will minimize traffic in the neighborhood. 

“What the developer initially proposed was a neighborhood-friendly store,” Bronstein said. “What he’s now proposing is a regional superstore.” 

She added that a marketplace similar in scope to other grocery stores, like the existing Berkeley Bowl on Oregon Street, will ease traffic and better suit the neighborhood.  

Berkeley Bowl owner Glen Yasuda was quoted in the Daily Planet last year saying he would rather move the project elsewhere than downsize. 

“We feel compromising the size is not an option,” he said last January. Neither he nor project architect Kava Massih could be reached for comment by press time. 

For many, the proposed store warrants an unqualified stamp of approval. The original Berkeley Bowl is wildly popular, and West Berkeley residents have complained for years that they lack a high-quality grocery store nearby. 

According to an informal report resident Natalie Studer presented to the Planning Commission in November, West and southwest Berkeley shoulder the city’s greatest number of low-income, minority residents, who don’t have access to fresh fruits, vegetables and natural food. West Berkeley Bowl would alleviate that, supporters say. 

Most critics agree a grocery store in West Berkeley is necessary, but some say problems with the current project run too deep—deeper than size and traffic, even.  

To move forward with the market, officials must revise the city’s General Plan and zoning ordinance to allow for commercial properties. Some fear this will give other businesses the green light to swoop in, drive up rent, drive out residents and permanently alter the character of the neighborhood. 

“I’m very concerned with the rezoning,” Bronstein said. “It this site is rezoned, it sends a major signal to landowners that the city is not committed to preserving affordability for Berkeley manufacturing and industrial artists.” 

Instead of seeking rezoning, Yasuda could apply for a variance, which would grant him an exception to develop commercial property. Variances are generally difficult to obtain. 

Planning commissioners will hold a public hearing on the revised draft environmental review Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst Ave.