Public Comment

Commentary: Bowling for Dollars: A Rush to Judgment

By Dave Blake
Tuesday June 13, 2006

I have a particular fondness for the Berkeley Bowl. I fought the chair of the Zoning Adjustments Board and the mayor when they tried to approve a MacFrugal’s Bargain Closeouts at the Bowl’s current Oregon site a decade ago. The neighborhood, reeling from the closing of their Safeway, begged the city not to allow anything but a grocery store. Staff responded by commissioning a $25,000 report that “proved” no grocery store would ever be profitable there! 

In the end the city sided with the neighbors, and as a result the Bowl is what and where it is today. Now the Bowl wants to open up in West Berkeley, and again the local neighborhood is excited at the prospect, and again I’m hoping to see it happen. But now that the Bowl is a Bay Area powerhouse, I’m also hoping we’re not about to help it expand at the cost of our ability to navigate our overburdened streets and our commitment to fair-labor practices. 


The streets 

When a project as sizable as the Bowl is proposed, California law requires us to evaluate its effect on the environment, especially on traffic. The Bowl’s nearest major streets are Berkeley’s only state highways, Ashby and San Pablo. The environmental impact report (EIR) says that that intersection, already the city’s most congested, will be greatly harmed by the Bowl, and also claims that nothing we can do will fully undo the damage. To make matters worse, the analysis leading to that conclusion is based on far-from-credible assumptions that dramatically underestimate the effect. 

In evaluating the new site’s traffic impacts, Fehr & Peers, the EIR traffic consultants, used the standard industry average for American supermarkets, dismissing the Bowl’s obvious high patronage. And when asked to explain why they found zero increased regional draw from opening a new Bowl just four blocks from Highway 80, their representative said that no regional traffic would want to take the freeway because it was too crowded. When cornered in public testimony, he repeatedly fell back on the argument that, with 5,000 to 10,000 homes within a mile and a half of the project, the new Bowl would not need regional traffic to sustain it. But the question their analysis was supposed to be answering was how much traffic the Bowl would generate, not how much patronage it would need to turn a profit. 

The artificially low numbers not only distorted the analysis of what will happen to the already miserable San Pablo–Ashby intersection, but also fed into a distorted analysis of the parking spaces needed to prevent the Bowl parking from overflowing onto neighborhood streets. That number was already reduced by taking at face value the owner’s improbable claim that the new Bowl will have fewer employees than the existing store, even though at twice the size it will be the largest supermarket in the Bay Area. 


The workplace 

Now I have to turn to an unpleasant topic that all Berkeleyans who like me love the Bowl must face up to: the Bowl is not a pro-union business. 

Four years ago, when the union struggle at the Bowl played out, I thought—as I suspect most of us thought—that the unionization of the Bowl’s workforce meant its labor issues were resolved. Far from it. Glen Yasuda, the Bowl’s owner, fought the union so hard that the NLRB cited him for unfair practices and issued an order forcing him to negotiate a contract in good faith or face sanctions. The eventual contract contained no provision for the unionization of the new store. Mr. Yasuda’s representative Dan Kataoka, when asked if he’d allow a “card check” election to let a clear majority of the new workers establish their right to join a union, labeled that fundamental democratic practice undemocratic and refused, setting the stage for another protracted and uncertain struggle at the new Bowl. 

If it remains non-union, Mr. Yasuda will have a strong incentive to close the old unionized store and retain the new non-union one, creating profound ramifications for Berkeley traffic. When asked why he didn’t evaluate that circumstance, the traffic consultant called it “speculative” because Mr. Yasuda told him he has no intention of closing the existing store. (As if it’s speculative to assume that a businessman who wants to build a much bigger establishment just two miles away might be building a replacement instead of an expansion. That’s what has happened to Cody’s, which got the identical kind of gift for their Fourth Street expansion.) The city’s zoning director then jumped in to volunteer that he thought that if the old Bowl were to close, it would have no effect on traffic to the new site, dismissing with a wave of his hand the question that should have necessitated a whole new section of the EIR. 

And add to the list of worries the possibility that Mr. Yasuda could accept his $10 million rezoning gift, then turn around and sell the site to a similar company of his choice. That might be Whole Foods, which at least would serve the neighborhood, but also—dare I utter the word—WalMart. Right now, there’s nothing in the permit or proposed zoning revision to prevent that. 

The City Council meets on the project tonight (Tuesday). The gift they are holding out to Mr. Yasuda is large. In exchange he should be required to truly address the traffic problems the new Bowl will create, maintain the viability of local business, ensure that the supermarket we’re changing our zoning for is the one we’re going to get, and deal with all Bowl employees fairly. Every issue can’t be resolved tonight, but this project, which will have greater impact on the lives of Berkeley citizens than any project that’s come before any of our Councilmembers, rates better than the wishful neglect it’s met with so far. 


Dave Blake is vice chair of the Zoning Adjustments Board.