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West Berkeley Bowl Faces Mounting Challenges

By Richard Brenneman
Friday June 09, 2006

Will there be a new Berkeley Bowl market in West Berkeley or not? 

Though city officials say owner Glen Yasuda hasn’t withdrawn his application to build a store and warehouse complex at Ninth Street and Heinz Avenue, they also say the project faces serious roadblocks. 

The first issue is rising construction costs, says city Economic Development Director Dave Fogarty. 

The second issue—and by far the more politically charged—is union representation of future workers. 

“There’s no way this City Council will pass a general plan amendment without assurances that they comply with fair labor standards,” said City Councilmember Dona Spring. 

The issues will come to a head at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, where councilmembers will be asked to vote on amendments to the city’s General Plan and Zoning Ordinance and to endorse a use permit for the project. 

To help them in their decisions, councilmembers will be pondering 3,000 pages of documents on the complex battles that have dogged the project’s progress. 

Fogarty said he has been in frequent contact with Dan Kataoka, the Bowl’s general manager, and with Glen Yasuda, who owns the store with his spouse, Diane. 

“They have not notified the city that they are withdrawing their application,” said Fogarty. “That would require a formal letter. But Ben has indicated they are unhappy.” 

“We have not heard anything formally from them, but it is my understanding that the project is still on,” said Dan Marks, the city’s Director of Planning and Development. 


Construction costs 

The biggest hurdle, Fogarty said, has been the sharp increase in construction costs since the Yasudas purchased the West Berkeley site in May 2002. 

“They submitted their application in November 2002, and here we are finally getting ready to vote on it on Tuesday, June 13, 2006. That’s a lot of time,” Fogarty said. 

In the interim, economic factors both in the United States and in China—where a massive building boom is consuming a huge share of the world’s concrete and steel—have seen construction prices soaring. Because the manufacture of both materials requires massive amounts of energy, skyrocketing energy prices have boosted prices even higher. 

Current plans calls for a total of 97,970 square feet in two buildings and 201 parking spaces, 99 of them in an underground lot. 

The complex would feature both a retail store and warehouse facilities to serve both the new store and the existing store at Oregon Street and Shattuck Avenue. 

“The type of construction they’re planning, with an underground parking lot that requires excavation and lots of concrete, the prices have gone way up. Contractors can charge premium prices,” he said. 

Fogarty said he has seen the estimates contractors have given the store, but wouldn’t comment on the numbers, beyond saying they are “very high.” 


Troubled labor history 

A study in contradictions, the Bowl is both the epitome of the socially conscious grocery store, offering an incomparable array of organic and hard-to-find goodies, and, critics say, the prototypical union-busting firm—forced finally to accept a contract in the face of federal action. 

Workers had rejected the union by a 119 to 70 vote in 2003, but the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that managers employed unfair labor practices. The store paid settlements to two pro-union workers fired during the organizing effort. 

A second vote last August resulted in a 107-13 vote in favor of a contract with the United Food and Commercial Workers Butcher’s Local 120 last August. 

That pact excluded employees at the proposed West Berkeley store. 

Zoning Adjustments Board member David Blake brought up the union issue during the May 11 hearing where construction and the project’s Environmental Impact Report were approved. 

“We were told the labor issue has not been resolved,” said Blake. 

“The Berkeley Bowl philosophy has always been to allow the employees to make the decision,” said Dan Kataoka, manager of store at 2020 Oregon St. “It is not right for the people of this board or people in the audience to impose their will on our employees.” 

Fogarty said Kataoka has told him “they feel chagrined about the NLRB decision. They know they did things they shouldn’t have done, because there was a period when they had no legal representation.”  

Blake asked if the old store would be closed if the new one wasn’t organized. 

“We will not close it,” said Kataoka. “It will be our core store.” 

ZAB member Andy Katz called for a “card check,” 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. 

Fogarty said Thursday that union elections have faced long delays in recent years. 

“Because the NLRB is controlled by the Republicans, elections take a long time these days,” he said. 

Delays pose problems for union organizers, because of the high turnover typical of the grocery business, he said. 

“A huge percentage of elections now don’t result in union representation,” he said. 

One rumor circulating Thursday had Yasuda pulling his plans for the retail store but using the site only for a warehouse—a move that would not require a change from the existing zoning, and which would strip the council of its power to impose a pro-labor condition. 

“The city doesn’t have to give a zoning change unless it feels it is getting something of equal value in return,” said Blake. The thing of value could be a pro-union requirement. No zoning change, however, means no gift—potentially short-circuiting a pro-labor requirement. 


Other opposition 

The store has run into other opposition, both from those who oppose the location outright and from neighbors who like the store but want assurances that traffic impacts will be mitigated. 

The most vocal opposition has come from merchants, industries and artists who oppose the location and the rezoning that will reduce the amount of space zoned for manufacturing and light industrial uses in West Berkeley. 

Other objections focus on traffic impacts on the already crowded Ashby and San Pablo avenues. 

More focused opposition has come from administrators and the parents of students at the Ecole Bilingue de Berkeley, better known as the French School, which is located catercorner from the store site at Ninth and Heinz. 

School-related objections seek protections for students who arrive and leave the school during weekdays. 

But many West Berkeley residents say they welcome the store, which will bring fresh food into an area of the city currently without a grocery store. 

If past meetings of the Planning Commission and Zoning Adjustments Board where the project was discussed are any indication, the public comment section at Tuesday night’s council meeting could be memorable.