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Zoning Board Allows West Berkeley Bowl to Skip Traffic Fixes

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday April 30, 2009 - 07:17:00 PM

Despite concerns voiced by more than two dozen neighbors at a special public meeting Monday, April 27, the Zoning Adjustments Board gave Berkeley Bowl the green light to open a new store in West Berkeley without previously required traffic changes. 

At least four community members urged the city to approve the project, explaining that the Bowl would bring vitality to the area and greater economic stability to the city. 

Berkeley Bowl’s use permit, approved by the zoning board in 2006, mandates the new store, at 920 Heinz St., to install a traffic light at Heinz and San Pablo Avenue and a left-turn signal from eastbound Ashby Avenue onto northbound San Pablo before the store opens for business. 

Project applicant Kava Massih Architects told the board that CalTrans had not signed off on the projects for various reasons, although the new store is scheduled to open in two weeks. CalTrans oversees both Ashby and San Pablo because each is a state highway. 

The city’s planning and transportation departments, in consultation with Berkeley Bowl, came up with interim solutions to address the six-month delay for the traffic light at Heinz. Michael Vecchio, the city’s associate traffic engineer, said that a sign will go up at the Berkeley Bowl exit at Ninth and Heinz, directing drivers to turn either left or right on Heinz and not head straight on Ninth. There will also be another sign on the other side of Ninth and Heinz requesting northbound traffic to use Seventh Street. A sign at Heinz and San Pablo will tell drivers not to make northbound left turns onto San Pablo.  

The city will also prohibit left turns from westbound Ashby to southbound San Pablo. 

CalTrans does not normally allow a left-hand turn signal in one direction on a state highway without a corresponding left-turn signal in the opposite direction. To address this and allow a turn signal for traffic turning left from eastbound Ashby onto northbound San Pablo, the city plans to create a corresponding left-turn lane from westbound Ashby onto southbound San Pablo once the 1200 Ashby Ave. condo project at the intersection’s southeast corner dedicates land for the new lane. That project has been approved by ZAB, but is the subject of two appeals. Aaron Sage, the city’s senior planner working on the project, said the left-turn lane was expected to be completed by 2012. 

West Berkeley business owners and residents said the interim modifications for Heinz and San Pablo will only exacerbate the problem by bringing more traffic into the neighborhood, particularly to Eighth, Ninth and Tenth streets. 

The grocery store will open on May 14, right across the street from Ecole Bilingue, which enrolls about 500 students, ranging from pre-school to eight-grade. 

Traffic engineer Rob Rees, representing Bowl consultants Fehr and Peers, said traffic estimates show there will be one car coming from Berkeley Bowl every minute at peak hour. Rees said in order to install the traffic lights at Heinz and San Pablo, CalTrans had requested further documentation to consider the changes. 

“CalTrans also wants an analysis, which we did not know about until two months ago,” Rees said. 

Carey Robbins, who works at the corporate offices of Meyer Sound Laboratories at Heinz and San Pablo, called the temporary improvements a disaster. “There are going to be some serious problems on Heinz Street. What you are proposing now is not going to help the neighborhood. Better just let it be until the mitigations are put into place.” 

John Curl, chair of West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies (WEBAIC), said the Bowl was not acting like a good neighbor. 

“They are not coming in humbly, they are coming in with arrogance,” Curl said. 

Ecole Bilingue Principal Antoine Portales said the proposal to amend the use permit had taken place “too fast,” adding that he was concerned about the safety of his students. 

“Maybe if we had a little bit more time to meet with the Bowl—we don’t want to see an accident on the first day of the opening,” Portales said. 

Some area residents said the redirected traffic from the Bowl would congest their streets and infringe on their quality of life. 

“Imagine how fast that light would be in place” if they prevented the Bowl from opening without it, said neighbor Barbara Bowman. “Properly you should say, ‘you didn’t do the mitigations, so you don’t have your permit until it’s done,’ as you would to any project that is not a cash cow.” 

Wareham Development, which owns 24 buildings in West Berkeley and four in the immediate vicinity of the new store, asked the city to make sure there were proper penalties in place if the Bowl did not make the required changes by the deadline. 

Sage said Berkeley Bowl will be posting a $250,000 bond—the cost of the traffic safety lights—which would go to the city if it did not complete the project by the end of 2009. 

Zoning board member Bob Allen said the neighbors were kicking up a fuss about nothing. 

“This kind of handwringing was done when Marin Avenue went from four lanes to two,” he said, explaining that the community’s concerns had turned out to be unfounded in that case. “I don’t think this is the end of the world.” 

Board member Michael Alvarez Cohen said the concerns should be given some importance, saying, “We don’t want to delay the opening, but once it’s open, we won’t be able to shut it down.” 

Sara Shumer, another board member, questioned Berkeley Bowl’s diligence. 

“I supported the Bowl when it first came before us, but I am disturbed that it is coming to us in a special Monday night meeting two weeks before opening,” she said. “There is no way the Bowl did not know they would not get those lights before May 15.” 

Board member Terry Doran suggested that the city carry out a traffic analysis of the temporary mitigations to find out if they were working. 

Sage pointed out that the city had required Berkeley Bowl to conduct a traffic study before the store opened and six months after its opening. Under the board’s direction, the city’s Planning Department will change the schedule to assess traffic three months after the opening and then again six months after the traffic lights are installed at Heinz and San Pablo. The board asked Berkeley Bowl to pay for these studies, estimated to cost as much as $20,000.