West Berkeley Bowl Traffic Study Up for Debate Again

By Suzanne La Barre
Tuesday April 04, 2006

Due to an administrative snafu, the public has additional opportunity to debate Wednesday the merits of a study assessing traffic patterns at a proposed West Berkeley marketplace. 

Planning Commission staff mistakenly distributed two versions of a report detailing potential peak-hour traffic jams at West Berkeley Bowl, a 1.9-acre grocery store and prepared food service project slated for development at 920 Heinz Ave. 

One report outlined car travel in December—a month known to produce the heaviest gridlock—while the other looked at January traffic. The January analysis shows typical traffic patterns more accurately, said Principal Planner Allan Gatzke, because it does not include holiday traffic. 

Christopher A. Joseph & Associates, an environmental planning and research firm based in Petaluma, prepared both studies. The same company drafted an environmental impact report in October 2005 that did not find any “significant and unavoidable impacts” associated with the project, but was deemed inadequate for failing to account for weekend traffic patterns. 

The recirculated report, available for public consideration until April 24, finds considerable impacts. West Berkeley Bowl would include an 83,990-square-foot grocery store and an adjacent 7,070-square-foot prepared food service building, in addition to a 109-space underground car garage and 102 surface parking spaces. To accommodate the development, the city would have to rezone the area from mixed use/light industrial to commercial.  

As proposed, the project is expected to generate about 6,095 vehicle trips a day on Saturdays, which would jam up the intersection of San Pablo Avenue and Ashby Avenue by an extra 44 seconds, and San Pablo at Heinz by 107 seconds during Saturday peak hours.  

Installing a traffic light at the latter intersection would decrease traffic to a less-than-significant level. Mitigation efforts at San Pablo and Ashby, however, would not adequately offset congestion, the report says.  

The latest report includes alternatives to the proposed 91,060-square-foot project.  

One option would be to leave the site as is. Another alternative would involve building a 150,000-square-foot office building, which would eliminate weekend traffic impacts, but increase weekday gridlock. Planners say mitigation measures could reduce the latter effect. 

A third option would see the development of a 50,000-square-foot single story light industrial/manufacturing building, expected to generate less traffic than an office building. However, because of the cost of land in West Berkeley, the city is unlikely to receive many—if any—applications for manufacturing buildings, the report says. 

Neither plan fulfills the West Berkeley Plan objective of erecting an affordable food-shopping hub. West Berkeley, a mixed-residential, commercial/industrial and educational community, does not currently house a full-service supermarket. 

Other alternatives consider reducing the scope of the West Berkeley Bowl project. One proposal would cut back development to 65,815 square feet, and would include a 37,005-square-foot grocery store, a 28,810 warehouse, 111 parking spaces and 33 spots for bicycles. 

The store would sell natural and organic produce and groceries, but would not be a full-service supermarket. Car buildup would occur during peak weekday and weekend hours, but mitigation efforts could curb much of the major congestion. 

A second reduced-size alternative would develop the site with a 45,430-square-foot grocery, a 3,420-square-foot office and a 23,908-square-foot warehouse for a total of 72,758 square feet. This project would create more traffic than the 65,815-square-foot alternative, but less than the proposed West Berkeley Bowl. 

Project developer Glen Yasuda, who owns the original Berkeley Bowl on Oregon Street, has said he would rather build the marketplace elsewhere than downsize. He could not be reached to comment for this article. 

Planning Commissioner Susan Wengraf admitted that a new grocery store in West Berkeley would introduce added congestion, but she said it’s a small price to pay.  

“Personally, I think it is going to create more traffic and I don’t think that can be mitigated,” she said. “But I do think you have to look at the bigger picture, which is that there will be a greater good. West Berkeley needs a marketplace.” 

That might be the case, said Commissioner Mike Sheen, but the commission needs to pay special attention to the alternatives.  

“There’s a lot of potentially bad things that could happen if we were to put in something that big,” he said. “I haven’t fully made up my mind yet, but I am wanting to take a closer look at possible size reduction.” 

The Planning Commission will take comments on the recirculated traffic impact analysis and revised alternatives analysis of the draft environmental impact report Wednesday, 7 p.m., at the North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst Ave..