Safeway had few supporters among the 300 people who turned up at the Peralta Elementary School Thursday to listen to the supermarket giant's new plans to remodel its College Avenue store.
The two-hour standing-room-only meeting was about converting the less than 25,000 square feet 1960s-era grocery store to more than three times its current size. Speakers expressed fear that the “big box” development will ruin Claremont Avenue's quiet ambiance.
Some Claremont and College residents view the expansion as a threat to existing businesses, and said that a “lifestyle store” with a bakery, pharmacy and a bigger meat and produce section, would destroy the essence of the neighborhood, where College Avenue shops sell gourmet bread, meat and seafood. The block has had a small independent pharmacy for the last two decades.
According to Safeway's real estate developer Todd Paradis, the existing Safeway lacks a number of important departments, including a full-service meat counter, an extensive organic produce section and a flower shop.
“We already have a flower shop right across the street,” hissed a neighbor, referring to The Meadows, a locally-owned independent business, which shares a half-mile long stretch with Yasai Market, VerBrugge Meats, La Farine bakery and other local favorites.
The supermarket's remodeling plans mimic those of its sister stores on Shattuck and Solano Avenues, including lower-level parking, pedestrian-friendly access to retail stores, lower-level parking and a Safeway on the second level, enclosed within a glass facade.
“It's awful,” murmured a couple in the third row when Paradis showed a slide of a two-storied building in Safeway's signature yellow tones.
“It's a bastard design, if you pardon my French,” Claremont resident Susan Shawl, who is spearheading efforts to protest the development, told the Planet. “They say it was inspired by Julia Morgan, but it's clumsy, overbearing, cheap, and looks like it belongs in a commercial mall. It's appropriate in downtown Oakland.”
More than 60 people spoke against the project, but the five or so who did speak in support of it, said a bigger store would serve students from UC Berkeley, and less affluent residents, who were unable to afford smaller independent stores.
Some said they wanted Safeway to remodel the store and improve the parking lot, but maintain the same size.
Paradis said the expansion would primarily increase the number of aisles, which would offer more choices to customers.
“We don't want the aisle full of packaged meat, but meat that can be packaged for you,” he said.
A long-term Claremont resident, who has lived in the neighborhood for 44 years, pointed out that Safeway had originally offered a service meat counter, which was abruptly stopped.
“The way I see it, we don't even need any remodeling,” said Pat McCullough, a neighbor. “It [the store] provides a good opportunity to exercise and meet our neighbors.”
Safeway plans to submit an application for the proposed project to the Oakland Planning Department by the end of July, and it estimates an environmental impact report and other permit application approvals will take over a year.
Shawl, who spoke with Nancy McKay on behalf of the neighborhood group Concerned Neighbors, also addressed traffic concerns related to the project.
She complained that in spite of having had several meetings with neighbors, Safeway had ignored their comments and suggestions about the expansion.
“Safeway is not listening to the neighborhood,” Shawl and McKay, wearing “It's too B-I-G” buttons, chanted in unison several times. “Safeway has already implemented a reduced sized 'lifestyle' approach with the remodel of the Grand Avenue Safeway and the Fruitvale Avenue store in the Diamond district-both are less than 30,000 square feet,” said Shawl.
“Safeway also has built a 15,000-square-foot store in Long Beach called 'The Market by Vons.' The Grand Avenue satellite store is 1.4 miles from the Broadway at Pleasant Valley Store. The College Ave. Safeway location is 1.1 miles from Broadway at Pleasant Valley store. We want our satellite store to remain about the size it currently is ... In the overall scheme of things, Safeway, with over 1,700 retails stores, does not have much to lose. We have everything to lose.”
Some neighbors said they were worried Safeway would lease out retail space to national chains instead of supporting local businesses.
Stu Flashman, who spoke on behalf of the Rockridge Community Planning Council, said his organization had not yet taken a stand on the project.
“However, based on what we have seen, we have concerns about the zoning, which is what makes Claremont Avenue what it is,” he said.
“We are going to be listening to the community and see the traffic study.”
Berkeley resident Dean Metzger, who spoke on behalf of the Claremont Elmwood Neighborhood Association, said the group was against the project.
“Berkeley doesn't have a say in the property but we believe it will affect our neighborhood just as much,” he said.
The College Avenue Safeway store straddles the border between Berkeley and Oakland.
“What we want here is a remodeled store, but one that fits in with the neighborhood,” Metzger said.
“We will put as much pressure possible on the City of Berkeley to get involved with the City of Oakland on this project.”
For more information on the Claremont and College Safeway visit: www.safewayoncollege.com
For more information on the 1500 Solano Ave. Safeway expansion plans visit: www.safewayonsolano.com
Study session at the Albany Planning Commission meeting Tuesday, June 24, 2008, at 7:30 p.m., at 1249 Marin Ave.
For information on the 1444 Shattuck Ave. Safeway expansion plans visit: www.safewayonshattuck.com
Public meeting on Wednesday, June 25, 2008, at 6:30 p.m., at the Hillside Club, 2286 Cedar St.