Questions of traffic tie-ups and union-busting did not stop the City Council from giving the green light to the West Berkeley Bowl early Wednesday morning, a project which supporters say will bring affordable fresh produce and vitality to an oft-neglected area of the city.
After hearing from some 70 members of the public, divided between those calling for approval and others demanding significant changes in the plans, a motion by Councilmember Dona Spring to delay the vote one week so that the question of unionization could be resolved failed 4-4-1, with Councilmembers Laurie Capitelli, Betty Olds, Gordon Wozniak and Mayor Tom Bates in opposition and Councilmember Darryl Moore abstaining.
The 12:15 a.m., 6-0-3 vote to approve the Bowl—with Councilmembers Max Anderson, Dona Spring and Kriss Worthington abstaining—included the use permit, zoning changes and approval of the environmental report that describes impacts on the project area and mandates improvements where possible.
“How many trees died from this four-year process,” said Moore who represents the area, pointing to 3,000-pages of documents stacked before him. “We’re not talking about Safeway or Albertsons, but a homegrown grocery store.”
Neighbors support, criticize
Many supporters of the project—estimated to be up and running in two or two-and-a-half years—live just blocks from the Ninth Street and Heinz Avenue site.
Laura Coates is among them. “There are 13 families with children on the block—everyone on the block is in support,” she told the council.
Representing the 66th Street neighborhood group, Roxanne Schwartz, added her support. Christine Staples, another nearby resident, put it this way: “The corner liquor store doesn’t carry organic milk.”
Another neighbor, Natalie Studer, a nutritionist, based her support on access to healthy food. “The Berkeley Bowl is a public health issue,” she said.
Some neighbors, however, expressed ambivalence and others, outright hostility.
A group from the Potter Creek Neighborhood Association and the French-American School had proposed a traffic plan to keep Bowl traffic out of their neighborhood. The developer has agreed to put $20,000 into the project, but city planners said they do not want to plan traffic mitigations until the store has been running for six months, so they can address real rather than assumed traffic problems. Moreover, planning staff said they fear the Potter Creek plan would send traffic to other neighborhoods.
Barbara and David Bowman have lived in the neighborhood since 1977. “I’m thrilled to have Berkeley Bowl come to the neighborhood,” Barbara Bowman told the council, but added: “Protect our neighborhood.”
And Maurice Levitch who works at 10th Street and Heinz argued that “waiting until the store’s up to fix traffic is too late.”
The union issue caused a number of councilmembers and the public to raise questions, even among the project’s strong supporters. While Dan Rush of the United Food & Commercial Workers Butchers’ Union Local 120 called for a card check vote—where employees simply turn in cards for or against unionization—Bowl owner Glenn Yasuda said he wants a National Labor Relations Board-run election. Rush characterized that process as having “no appeal and no protections.”
Pointing to the union vote at the Oregon Street Berkeley Bowl in 2003 where the NLRB determined that owners had retaliated against union organizers, Rush said, “The Bowl has proven the need to scrutinize (it).”
Calling himself a red-diaper baby and speaking in favor of the store, Gene Agress, one of the founders of Berkeley Mills on Seventh Street, argued, “It’s not my business to tell the Berkeley Bowl how to work things out with the union.”
But others said it is the city’s business. Jane Welford contended that zoning approvals—the area had to be rezoned commercial so that a grocery store could be sited there—should be tied to the company approval of a union card-check election. Councilmember Dona Spring also hoped to use the permit process to compel the Bowl to accept a card check.
But City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque argued that linking zoning to unionization is illegal.
Many of those speaking against the project size—55,000 square feet of groceries, 29,000 square feet of storage and 4,000 square feet of office space—were nearby business owners who fear being overrun by Berkeley Bowl traffic. Rick Kelley, Ashby Lumber general manager, said the project’s traffic analysis “began at the Berkeley border” and didn’t take into consideration cumulative impacts of other nearby projects.
Kelley and others argued, moreover, that traffic planners ignored evidence that the Bowl would be a regional draw and not simply serve the immediate neighborhood.
Pointing to the 27 businesses opposing the size of the project, mayoral candidate Zelda Bronstein called on the council to “hold off (on the vote) and ask staff to do an economic impact analysis.”
While supporters lauded the Bowl for its unique array of produce, several said they feared a Walmart or Target could come in, if the Bowl were to pull out of the project.
“We need to be sure it stays a grocery store in perpetuity,” said Rick Auerbach, a Grayson Street business owner and resident.
It was with that in mind that Councilmember Laurie Capitelli tacked an amendment on to the final vote, which would tie the use-permit to “a very carefully defined grocery store,” with the Bowl’s large area of fresh produce and fish. Another operator would have to get a new use permit, Capitelli said.