‘Lifestyle’ Stores: Smaller is Greener

By Becky O’Malley
Thursday June 26, 2008 - 09:38:00 AM

Be Afraid. Be Very, Very Afraid. That’s the advice I gave my old companera Dion Aroner last week, when I passed her on my way out of the meeting at Perata School last week which is written up elsewhere in this issue. The topic at hand was the Safeway corporation’s plans to put its current slightly dowdy local supermarket, which now occupies most of one leg of the scary, crowded multi-street intersection of College and Claremont on the Elmwood-Rockridge (Berkeley-Oakland) border, on steroids. Aroner was there in the Madame Defarge slot, hanging around in the back of the room, taking notes, saying nothing. Her firm has been hired to be the political fixers in Safeway’s ongoing drive to, shall we say, fully exploit its urban landholdings by turning four or five East Bay neighborhood stores into a new business model which promises to combine the worst features of Wal-Mart and a strip mall. 

We’ve lived within walking distance of this store for 35 years, but have seldom been inside. B.G. (before gentrification) we shopped at the Lucky store which was right next to the new Rockridge BART station. It was put on steroids by its own corporate masters at some point, sold to Albertson’s at another point, shut down, and has now re-opened as Trader Joe’s. Location, location, location—with parking, it’s everything.  

Why Lucky instead of Safeway? Because it was much smaller, and for those of us shopping for families on a budget it had the basics with few exotic temptations to slow you down on the way home from work or school with kids in the cart.  

Now that our household is smaller and our standards are higher, we mostly get produce at the many farmers’ markets which have opened up around here, and most other food at our small but perfect local family-owned market, the Star. Surprisingly, many items are less expensive there than at chain stores. Neighborhood teenagers staff the registers.  

Occasionally we walk to the string of specialty food shops across College from Safeway for something fancy. When we first moved in, Magnani’s poultry store, a plain bare-bones establishment in those days, was the anchor tenant in the building which is now so much more elegant. When I ordered my first Thanksgiving turkey there (not organic, not free-range, but at least not frozen) old Mr. Magnani (was his name Babe, or am I imagining that?) looked at the name on my check and said, “Well, my daughter married an Irish and it turned out OK.”  

We went to the Perata meeting as neighborhood residents, not as members of the media. Just like everyone else there, we fear seeing our human-scale walkable shopping zone turned into a corporate destination for SUV drivers from god-knows-where—there are already plenty of those in the Trader Joe’s lot now. Since we were late, we got the last seats in the crowded hall, on the stage facing the audience. From there, we could see the faces of everyone in the room, many of them people we’d known for many years in many contexts. That’s why I warned Dion to worry. 

Just for a start, I saw at least two first-rate environmental lawyers who live in Rockridge, attorneys of record in several leading cases. Better make sure that those EIRs are perfect, or else. And at least six architects, good ones, to critique any sloppy designs which might be offered to the Oakland Planning Commission, which would have to grant a pile of variances to make any version of the plan the Safeway guy was promoting fly. Not to mention the several wannabe politicians, articulate and dynamic spokespersons for the infinite variety of Oakland interest groups who would be eager to challenge any sitting councilmember who voted wrong on this one.  

Two critics among the many speakers seemed especially potent. One was Denny Abrams, the planning genius who invented Berkeley’s hugely successful Fourth Street shopping district with absolutely no help from clueless City of Berkeley planners. He lives nearby, and according to my companion (I’d gone outside for a moment) he delivered a rousing denunciation of the economics of the whole stupid scheme which someone will surely have paid attention to, perhaps even someone in Safeway’s management.  

The other was a guy whose name I can’t remember, but whom I recognized from long ago days when many of us picketed Safeway for a couple of years to support the Farmworkers’ Union grape boycott. He reprised that very successful effort, which he’d organized, and suggested that it could happen again. If there’s any word that should strike fear into Safeway’s heart (if a corporation had a heart) it should be “boycott.” If local residents decided that the company wasn’t dealing with them in good faith, and starting handing out leaflets saying that opponents should take their business elsewhere, it would show up quickly on the bottom line. Thinking back, I believe it was the grape boycott which put us off Safeway in the first place, and we never returned.  

The particularly short-sighted aspect of the new Safeway schemes, which seem to be approximately the same in most incarnations, is that they’re premised on creating megastores (puzzlingly euphemized as “lifestyle” stores) to attract many more customers driving in from ever more distant locations. Maybe the powers-that-be at Safeway haven’t noticed the sudden dearth of cars on the road in the last month or so.  

Perhaps instead they should be going back to the old neighborhood supermarkets with which they started years ago. Among the very few speakers cheering the expansion scheme were a couple of recent post-students, who thought that Safeway’s plans could mean lower grocery prices within easier driving distance of student apartments in the campus area.  

Well, here’s a concept: How about just opening another Safeway right near campus instead? When I was an undergraduate the building on Telegraph which is now Amoeba Music was a Lucky store. No one had cars. We walked to class, walked to Lucky’s, walked home with our groceries and cooked dinner at home instead of going to restaurants.  

Now that the Cody’s building is empty, maybe it would be a good place for Safeway to put in a walk-up grocery—no parking lot needed. It could be the neo-green lifestyle store of the future. The City of Berkeley’s fabled Economic Development Department should get right on it.