The largest new commercial project in Berkeley in decades won city approval Thursday—though Zoning Adjustment Board (ZAB) members fear West Berkeley will be bowled over by the traffic.
On a 6-3 vote, ZAB members approved the environmental impact report (EIR) for the two-building Berkeley Bowl grocery store planned for 920 Heinz Ave.
Dissenters faulted the study for failing to adequately address traffic impacts.
That vote was followed by a closer 5-4 vote approving a use permit for the project, including a controversial provision to impose a proposed traffic mitigation fee—if and when the city ever approves a proposed ordinance authorizing the fee.
The votes came during a marathon session that lasted until 2:14 a.m., despite the fact that one controversial project had been postponed earlier in the session—a discussion of the design of the massive housing complex at 1885 University Ave., dubbed by one ZAB member as “the Trader Joe building.”
Board members also voted to deny a use permit to allow a Quiznos sandwich shop at 3095 Telegraph Ave. and to approve a new air filtration system for West Berkeley’s Pacific Steel Casting (see related story, page Three).
While no one rose to say they didn’t want a Berkeley Bowl in West Berkeley, plenty of residents and business owners said they favored both a smaller store and more stringent traffic controls than were laid out in the permit and environmental documents.
Some of the criticism came from administrators and parents of students of the Ecole Bilingue de Berkeley—commonly known as “the French School”—located catercorner from the store on the Ninth Street and Heinz Avenue intersection.
The school concerns focused on the traffic that would be generated by the store, which features an entrance across Heinz from the school.
Neighbors, parents and school officials proposed traffic control measures, including directional closures, roundabouts and other measures they hope will lessen the impact on the neighborhood.
A broader concern is the impact of the store on traffic on the already congested Ashby and San Pablo avenues, which intersect a block from the building site.
One key issue is the source of the new store’s customer base. Store and city officials contend most of the customers will come from within a mile-and-a-half radius of the site. Rob Rees, one of the two consultants hired by the city to prepare the project’s EIR, said repeatedly during questions by ZAB members that the 5,000 to 10,000 housing units in that area would be the primary base.
“It’s equally possible you could get a big regional draw as well,” said ZAB member Dave Blake.
“There’s nothing in the industry to indicate that would happen,” said Rees.
The Berkeley Bowl features an exceptionally wide array of produce and organic foods, and the existing store already draws many customers from Oakland and Emeryville—which Rees acknowledged.
But he insisted only 25 percent of the customers would come from out of the immediate area, the same figures as for the existing store—although the new site is located much closer to the freeway.
The EIR acknowledged that the store will create significant impacts on traffic, and that none of the mitigation measures proposed would reduce the weekend impact on the San Pablo/Ashby intersection to a less-than-significant level.
“The problem is that the proposed store is not a neighborhood grocery store but a regional super store,” said mayoral candidate Zelda Bronstein, one of the critics who argued that ZAB should only permit a smaller store than the project proposed by Bowl owner Glen Yasuda.
The 90,970-square-foot project ZAB approved includes two buildings, a 83,900-square-foot market building and a 7,070-square-foot food services building, each 40 feet high. Beneath the larger building will be a 99-space parking lot, with an additional 102-space surface lot north and east of the buildings.
Members of the West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies, including Mary Lou Van Deventer of Urban Ore, argued for a smaller project.
“It’s just too big and it’s going to generate too much traffic,” said Rick Auerbach, who lives a block from the site.
“I oppose the massive size and urge you to scale it down,” said David Levinson, who lives five blocks away. “I don’t believe this particular project is designed for West Berkeley. It’s designed to draw people from Emeryville and Richmond and who knows where else.”
A smaller number of speakers offered unqualified support, including Claudia Kawczynska, who lives a block away.
“I am more than willing to accommodate it, to have such a wonderful and worthwhile project in the neighborhood—a world-class grocery store that has demonstrated community values,” she said.
“We are asking you to take on a big task,” said Associate Planner Aaron Sage, “to make a decision on this very large environmental document and, if you find it is adequate, to take action on the project itself.”
In the end, it was board member Bob Allen who moved for approval of the EIR, seconded by Rick Judd.
David Blake, Dean Metzger and Andy Katz voted no. Each had criticized the report’s handling of traffic issues.
In approving the use permit—the official document authorizing the project to move forward—the board acted on a document they had only received at the start of the meeting that evening, and which did not include some language added later by city staff for inclusion in the final document, prepared after the meeting.
“I have never seen so many businesses get up and object,” said Judd. “I am not in favor of telling people they have only the choice of accepting the Berkeley Bowl and accepting the traffic impacts we can do nothing about. This project is the biggest traffic generator I’ve seen since I’ve been on this board or that I expect to see.”
Allen said he wasn’t concerned about the traffic impacts on the main thoroughfares, and said that if the project slowed down San Pablo, it would merely stop people from using it as an alternative thoroughfare to get to Emeryville.
It was Tiedemann who came up with a solution of sorts.
Pointing out that the city is currently considering a Transportation Services Fee that would pay for mitigations for traffic caused by new businesses and residential projects, she proposed that the board approve the project, subject to inclusion of the fee if the City Council adopts it before the building permit is issued.
It was Andy Katz who put the notion into a motion, noting that under the measure currently proposed, the fee would amount to a maximum of $1.8 million.
With that added, the motion to issue a use permit passed on a 5-4 vote, with Allen, Raudel Wilson, Jesse Anthony and Dean Metzger opposed—the first three objecting to the inclusion of the fee.
All that remains for project critics is an appeal to the City Council.
One unexpected revelation threatened to sidetrack the hearing momentarily—the news that the store’s owners wouldn’t consider their union contract binding on employees of the new store.
“We were told the labor issue has not been resolved,” said ZAB member Dave Blake.
”What I’ve been told [is that] it will be up to the employees of the new store,” said Kava Massih, the Berkeley architect who is designing the new store and who appeared as one of the spokespersons for the company.
“The Berkeley Bowl philosophy has always been to allow the employees to make the decision,” said Dan Kataoka, manager of the existing store at 2020 Oregon St., at Shattuck Avenue. “It is not right for the people of this board or people in the audience to impose their will on our employees.”
Kataoka didn’t mention that the National Labor Relations Board had issued an unfair labor practices complaint after an initial 2003 vote to deny the union at Oregon Street. A vote a year later ended with a win for the United Food and Commercial Workers and Butchers Local 120.
“Should [the new store] be non-union, what assurance do we have you won’t close the old store to get rid of the union?” asked Blake, noting that a key traffic study in the new store’s EIR was based on the old store remaining open.
“We will not close it,” said Kataoka. “It will be our core store.”
“It would be a relief to hear that there would be a neutral card check at the new Berkeley Bowl,” said ZAB member Andy Katz, referring to a process by which employers recognize a union if a majority of workers sign cards certifying their desire for a union.
“No.” said Kataoka. “We believe in the democratic process,” that is, holding an election.