I recently reviewed the site plans and descriptions of the proposed expansion of the Solano Avenue Safeway on the safewayonsolano.com website with great concern and dismay at the oversize scale and boilerplate language about “enlivening and enhancing the area...to promote increased pedestrian activity and community pride. The unique design includes multiple retail spaces on the street level to enhance the flow and energy of the area and encourage shoppers to visit the store via foot or bike.”
Solano Avenue is already a model of pedestrian activity. The housing prices in this neighborhood clearly reflect the value we place on having the stores and restaurants of Solano Avenue accessible by foot and bike. The character and visual harmony of Solano Avenue relies on its buildings being of a similar size and scale—only a very few buildings are above two stories—with those closest to Safeway being only one or two stories high.
I have been present at the discussions with Safeway representatives since they first floated this proposal in November 2005, and it was clear at that time the company had no interest in really listening or incorporating community feedback in this proposed expansion. The emphasis in the language above—on increasing “flow” and “energy” makes it clear that we are being referred to the same as every other Safeway location. A review of Safeway’s 2005 Fact Book shows the corporate decision to expand every store in the country—whether or not it meets the needs of any particular store locality. “Safeway’s new store prototype is called the “Lifestyle Store” and is approximately 55,000 square feet. The Lifestyle Store showcases the company’s commitment to quality, particularly in the perishable departments. The Lifestyle Store has an earth-toned décor package, subdued lighting, custom flooring, unique display fixtures and other special features that impart a warm ambiance that the company believes significantly enhances the customer shopping experience. The company is engaged in a process to remodel virtually all of its existing stores to the “Lifestyle” format over the next five years.” Solano Avenue Safeway is just part of a company-wide program. The likelihood of the corporation really evaluating the site based on the unique parameters of the Solano Avenue neighborhood is nil—and that’s reflected in the proposed store design which shows Safeway towering over the existing streetscape.
Neighbors at every meeting with Safeway have been saying loud and clear for more than two years that what we want and need is an improved Safeway: a store that is clean and tidy—both inside and out—and stocks products that appeal to the customers in the area (a Safeway representative said items stocked on Solano were determined by items sold in its Richmond store).
Improving the existing store would also avoid a lengthy and disruptive construction period. Many stores and businesses, including the very popular dining spots Sunnyside Cafe and Fonda, would be negatively impacted by dust, noise, and street traffic of heavy construction vehicles. Many of the businesses on Solano are already seeing slowdowns due to the recession. Even if they aren’t directly across from Safeway, the loss of parking in the existing Safeway lot for the restaurants and stores between Peralta and Santa Fe could affect their bottom line and further impact already jam-packed adjacent residential streets.
Solano Avenue is also severely congested by automotive traffic throughout much of the day. Heavy vehicles going to and from the Safeway job site would create hazards for drivers and danger to pedestrians along the entire length of the street, and side streets, from people trying to avoid backups. I have two very young children and already I find crossing Solano with a stroller to be a little like playing Russian Roulette. We have Marin Elementary only two blocks away from what would be a major construction site, and heavy trucks traveling through the intersection of Santa Fe and Solano could pose significant danger to children going to and from school on foot or by bicycle.
I appeal to the Albany city planner and the City Council to force Safeway to scale back this project to something that realistically fits within the streetscape and neighborhood of Solano Avenue. We have a singular shopping district which so far has avoided a “big box” takeover. Interested parties can attend a meeting on Tuesday, June 24 at 7:30 p.m. at the Albany Community Center, 1249 Marin (at Masonic), Albany. Comments can be sent to Amber Curl at firstname.lastname@example.org before June 24.
Sarah Baughn is a Berkeley resident.