Column: The Public Eye: A Good Meeting (in Another City)

By Zelda Bronstein
Friday October 05, 2007

On the evening of Sept. 19, I had a rare experience: I left a community meeting about a big new project feeling edified and even hopeful. Need I add that the event wasn’t run by the Berkeley Planning Department? Indeed, it wasn’t in Berkeley at all, but at the Albany Veterans Memorial Building. I was there because the project—the renovation and possible demolition and rebuilding of the Safeway at 1500 Solano—is a few blocks from my north Berkeley house. To judge from public comment, most of the hundred-plus people seated in the Memorial Building’s cavernous main hall were Albanians.  

The meeting’s engaging character, however, should not be attributed to the inherent affability of our neighbors to the north. Last year Albany was roiled by a nasty fight over a proposed mega-development at the waterfront. And in 2005 neighbors bristled at proposed changes in the Solano Safeway itself. 

No, the quality of last week’s discourse had other sources, all of which should interest Berkeleyans seeking more democratic public planning processes for our own city. (City of Berkeley planning staff, please take note.)  

A key factor was the developer’s apparent solicitude for the people whose lives would be most affected by the project. Early in the meeting, Safeway real estate manager for the East Bay, Todd Paradis (sounds like paradise), told the crowd that he had already conferred with neighbors whose property abuts the grocery store’s site, as well as with those who live across the street from the supermarket on Curtis and Neilson, which are both narrow and heavily trafficked. He then proceeded to respond to every one of the dozens of speakers who queued up to comment at the open mic. Some of Paradis’ replies were more satisfying than others, but all were rendered in a respectful tone that contributed greatly to the overall civility of the hour and half-long event. It also helped that there were no time limits on individual testimony, and that the event’s organizers—besides Paradis, the public relations consultancy of AJE Partners (the A stands for former Assemblyperson Dion Aroner)—allowed the meeting to go overtime so as to accommodate everyone who wished to speak.  

Lesson One: Treat the public with respect, and most of its members will respond in kind. 

Lesson Two: See that respect for the public extends to the content of the planning process as well as the tone and format.  

The flashpoint of controversy over Safeway’s 2005 proposal for the Solano store was the company’s proposal to put 40 condominiums on top of a new grocery building. Neighbors objected to condo-ization, noting that nearby streets are already thick with cars. At the start of last week’s meeting, Paradis defused the condo issue by stating that Safeway does not intend to put any housing on the site.  

So the question was—and is—what IS Safeway contemplating? On this matter, Paradis was ambiguous. Though he repeatedly assured us that no plans have been drawn up, he also indicated that some basic concepts are being considered. For example: bringing the store up to the lot line on Solano Avenue and moving all the parking—now situated in a 20,000-square-foot lot in front of the store’s Solano entrance—behind and underneath the building. Tied to that possibility was a second: creating a more “urban” ambiance by breaking up the Solano facade with smaller shops who rent their space (Paradis mentioned a café). He also spoke of upgrading the grocery’s offerings, especially its produce and organic sections, and adding a bakery. That would involve enlarging the store, which now has a problem with “run-outs,” due to lack of storage space. And Paradis said that Safeway wants to move the little pharmacy down the street, which it recently purchased, into the remodelled or rebuilt supermarket.  

All these disclosures drew lively responses from the audience—responses that contributed as much to the evening’s instructiveness as the disclosures themselves. Accustomed as I am to celebrating the specialness of Berkeley (and deploring its degradation at the hands of the current municipal regime), it did me good to witness Albanians’ deep affection for their town and their equally deep desire to protect its distinctive character. “We like Albany because of the small feel,” said Michelle, who lives on Cornell. The town is like “a village,” said Julie from Ordway. “We have a unique environment.” “The last thing I want to see,” said another woman, “is some big orange stucco building that looks like it should be in Pleasanton.”  

But when it came to specifying what they do want to see, Albanians were not of one mind. A few speakers liked the idea of putting the parking behind and beneath the store, moving the market up to the lot line on Solano and having small shops along the frontage. One such enthusiast, describing himself as a co-founder of Albany Strollers and Rollers, said that absent these changes, bicyclists and pedestrians would remain “second-class citizens” who had to dodge cars as entering and exiting the parking lot or looking for a free space. Others wanted to keep the parking in front. Several women, including myself, said that they liked parking in a highly visible location, especially at night, and that they wouldn’t use an underground lot. A neighbor of the north Shattuck Safeway wondered why Paradis didn’t report that the Berkeley store’s underground lot goes empty. An Albany resident took a refreshing approach: The up-front parking lot, she said, is precious “open space” that should be enhanced, not eliminated. 

Another issue that drew varied opinions was the store’s optimal size. Touting Albany’s walkability, Ordway’s Julie got a round of applause when she said that one very large building was a “drive-to idea.” But another Albanian, Carol, said the existing market is too small and runs out of things. Bettina from Curtis hoped the pharmacy will be folded into the new store. Nora, a young pharmacist who works at the Safeway pharmacy down the street, took the opposite view. Older customers who patronize the small, stand-alone shop because its entrance is right on a corner and its interior is easy to navigate with a cane or a walker. Move it into the supermarket, she said, and you will lose those customers.  

There’s an old saying: well begun is half done. The community planning process for the remaking the Safeway on Solano has had a promising start. Now, what? Paradis said that the company had created a website for the project, and urged us to use it to contact him. As of Oct. 1, the store’s current floor plan was posted there, along with an e-mail address and a phone number to call for information, 849-4811. The “Community Outreach” window was blank.  

It would behoove the community to reach back and let Safeway know that we want our involvement in this project to continue in a meaningful way—and by “we,” I mean neighbors and patrons from Berkeley as well as Albany. Major changes to the store are going to affect the Solano Avenue and adjacent streets in both cities. The office of Berkeley’s District 5 councilmember, Laurie Capitelli, learned about the Sept. 19 meeting only a few days beforehand, and then, through a member of the Thousand Oaks Neighborhood Association Board. Safeway should give Capitelli’s office and his constituents timely notice of future activities.  

Throughout the Sept. 19 meeting, AJE’s Barbara Ellis appeared to be taking copious notes. How about posting her notes or some account of the proceedings, as well as additional comments from neighbors and Safeway’s responses to those comments? Also helpful would be a schedule of next steps in the planning process. Paradis mentioned a three- to five-year timeline that included 13 months worth of construction. Whatever the next step, it should deepen the dialogue between the company and the community, and within the community itself—a dialogue that includes decisionmaking. That’s a tall order; for the moment, I’m allowing myself to believe that Safeway is going to fill it.