Walk into La Farine on Oakland’s bustling College Avenue for coffee and croissants and it’s easy to spot several pamphlets floating around on a big round table—the only one in the store—drawing attention to the proposed expansion at Safeway, across the street from the petite French bakery.
The pamphlets turn up at Ver Brugge next door, tucked somewhere between its extensive meat and seafood collections.
They peek out from behind delicately wrapped orchid stalks at The Meadows—the neighborhood florist.
The bold type decries the proposed development, summarizing neighborhoods concern about Safeway’s plans to expand its 23,000-square-foot store at Claremont and College: aesthetics, parking and a threat to local independent businesses.
Neighbors Concerned with Safeway/College—a neighborhood group spearheaded by Rockridge residents Susan Shawl and Nancy McKay for the sole purpose of fighting Safeway—has distributed hundreds of these pamphlets to garner support against what they say is an “ugly big box.”
Safeway spokesperson Esper-anza Greenwood told the Planet Monday the company had abandoned an earlier design, which would have demolished the store and built a new 55,000-square-foot structure with rooftop parking, and would present a new set of plans to the community within a month.
The company also plans to buy the adjacent Union 76 gas station to add to its 1.6 acre site.
“We’ve received a significant number of comments about the project over the last couple of months, and since this is a community grocery store, we want to incorporate some of these comments into the plan,” Greenwood said.
Greenwood declined to comment on the proposed size of the project until the new plan is revealed to the public.
“We don’t have a date yet,” she said. “It’s important to understand that something like this is a really long process. We are building a store from ground up.”
Safeway is upgrading its 1,710 stores nationwide into what Greenwood described as “lifestyle stores.”
“We are in our fourth year of ‘lifestyling’ our stores,” she said. “By 2010, all our stores will be ‘lifestyled,’ which includes having a larger produce section, a bigger bakery, improving fixtures and lights and upgrading the refrigeration system to make it more energy efficient. It’s a capital improvement campaign.”
Shawl said her group is not against an upgrade to the store, but is strongly opposed to the proposed 55,000-square-foot structure, which she said is a huge departure from her neighborhood’s architectural scale.
“Safeway has a prototype of their stores, which they want to use again and again and again and it’s a big ugly box,” Shawl, who lives less than a block away from the superstore, said. “We don’t want all that traffic, and we don’t want other people coming into the neighborhood other than those who like doing business with the indepen-dent stores.”
Neighbor Denny Abrams, developer of the first sections of Berkeley’s Fourth Street shopping district, said he was against Safeway’s ‘lifestyle’ store plan for College Avenue.
“We don’t say that the market is of no value to us, but a lifestyle store will destroy the character of the neighborhood,” he said.
Locally owned small businesses on the main thoroughfare voiced their concerns.
“The size and scale of the proposed development is not appropriate for the neighborhood,” said Patrick Ansari, who owns The Meadows at 6307 College Ave. “Where else do you see that kind of footage or linear expansion on College Avenue?”
Shelly Grubb, who owns Lulu Rae Confections, said there was a lot of speculation about the size and shape of the building.
“But we know it’s going to affect our view,” she said, pointing at Safeway’s pale-gray concrete walls right across the street from her store.
“As it is, there’s hardly much of a view now. You can’t fight development, but I wish Safeway would have some common sense.”
Some merchants said they were concerned about the disruption from construction.
“I don’t care if they are putting a pharmacy in there,” said John Gelinas, who owns Chimes Pharmacy at 3210 College Ave. “But I am worried about all the digging and the parking. Chimes has been here for 22 years. ... If my customers want to go to Safeway they will. I am too old to worry about things like that.”
Shawl, a retired designer, is currently conducting a survey to document the different delivery trucks at Safeway throughout the day.
Community meetings, Greenwood said, had indicated that neighbors wanted more parking and a larger selection of organic products.
“We are trying to address traffic concerns,” she said. “Safeway has started to conduct a traffic analysis to understand the situation.”
Safeway hired the public relations firm Aroner, Jewel & Ellis Partners, headed by former Assemblymember Dion Aroner, to counter community concerns about the proposed project.
The firm sponsored a Rockridge Community Planning Council (RCPC) town hall meeting last June to get feedback from neighbors about the project and developed a website (www.safewayoncollege.com) to update the community about the expansion.
“No mention of a mega-store was ever made during the meeting,” Shawl said. “All they wanted to know was what would be the ideal store for the neighborhood that would complement what was already there. We were given the impression that they were going to remodel the existing store.”
McKay criticized the website for the lack of information about the project.
“Our only method of communication with Safeway is through Aroner’s office,” McKay said. “Safeway has put a gatekeeper between the neighborhood and themselves by hiring a consulting firm of political lobbyists who have no perceived agenda other than keeping their client happy. They are just giving us vaporware.”
Aroner, Jewel & Ellis partner Elisabeth Jewel declined comment and directed the Planet’s questions about the website to Greenwood.
“The website is a great source for neighbors to send us their comments,” Greenwood said. “Once we start going out with the plans, we will post them there. Since we are still in the planning process, there is nothing to put up yet.”
Calls to Peterson Vollman, the Oakland Planning Department planner assigned to the project, were not returned.
Safeway replaced its architect Kirk Peterson with San Francisco-based MCG Architects in April, something Greenwood said the company did in order to hire a firm with more retail experience.
“The design was changed in many ways but it was never really revealed,” Peterson told the Planet in a telephone interview Monday. “Some people wanted it to look like a bunch of cute buildings, but I think one building with an interesting design and a pedestrian facade would be good. I have heard people shopping there complain about space, and I know the current store doesn’t fit Safeway’s suburban model. But the general sentiment is about less change rather than more.”
Peterson said Safeway also plans to expand its stores at Broadway and 51st Street in north Oakland, Solano Avenue in Albany and Shattuck Avenue and Rose Street in Berkeley.
Safeway’s expansion at Broadway and 51st calls for relocating from the existing space at the Rockridge Shopping Center and moving into the approximately 75,000 sq. ft. Longs Drugs at the east of the facility.
“We feel that the College Avenue store should continue to be a ‘satellite’ Safeway to the much larger Rockridge Shopping Center Safeway which is only 1.4 miles away,” McKay said. “This kind of a predatory corporate approach will put our local butcher, baker, flower shop, drugstore, coffee shop and vegetable market out of business.”
More than 100 people turned up at meeting organized by “Concerned Neighbors” in March to hear McKay and Shawl talk about the proposed expansion.
The group has 18 people on its steering committee—which includes lawyers, architects and a few retirees—and is lobbying neighbors to demand that Safeway stick to a maximum of 25,000 square feet, not allow roof top parking and make the new design compatible with the surrounding neighborhood.
For more information on the Safeway project at College and Claremont visit: www.safewayoncollege.com and www.rockridge.org.