College Avenue Neighbors Voice Concern Over Safeway’s New Plans

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday April 30, 2009 - 11:01:00 PM
Safeway's rendering of the new store, as seen from the west side of College Avenue.
Safeway's rendering of the new store, as seen from the west side of College Avenue.

If Safeway representatives thought fresh carrots and celery sticks would appease the disgruntled crowd at the Claremont Hotel Wednesday, they were wrong. 

The supermarket chain unveiled the latest design for its revamped College Avenue store, and while there were some in the audience who applauded it and made a beeline for the nibbles, others fumed and fretted, arguing that the proposed expansion was out of scale with the neighborhood. 

Safeway’s current store at College and Claremont avenues is a modest 25,000 square feet. It sits right on the Berkeley-Oakland border against the backdrop of the Oakland hills, and serves the Rockridge and Claremont communities. 

While some area residents understand the company’s need to upgrade, adding softer lighting, earthy tones and wider aisles, they don’t agree with its need to expand. They think a two-story structure will attract more people, leading to traffic snarls in an already congested neighborhood. 

The 61,972-square-foot project, which will be submitted to the City of Oakland May 6, includes a 50,400-square-foot Safeway on the second floor and eight new retail storefronts on College, totaling 11,572 square feet. Safeway itself will be enclosed in a glass facade, much like a design proposed last year, and customers will be able to access it via elevators and stairs. 

The gas station located at the edge of the Safeway parking lot, at the corner of College and Claremont, will be converted to about 3,500 square feet of retail space, with a public roof garden that connects with the grocery store through a skywalk. The underground parking lot, which Safeway promises to keep well illuminated and monitored by video cameras, will hold 173 cars. 

Many area residents who came to see the new design were bewildered by the fact that the dozen or so colored architectural renderings on display Wednesday lacked any mention of square footage. 

“There is no size under the drawings, which is a big problem,” said Anne Metzger, a neighbor. “Why don’t they have any figures? It’s ridiculous.” 

Metzger joined a group of people watching a Power Point presentation conducted by architect Ken Lowney, who was fielding questions about the size of the project. 

Lowney, the only person from Safeway at the event who agreed to talk to the Daily Planet, said that creating a pedestrian-friendly retail environment had been one of the highlights of the remodeling. 

“I was specifically told by Safeway to not look at any of their other stores,” he said, explaining that he had incorporated a lot of glass, copper, bronze and stone to help the new building blend in with the surrounding environment. 

A man in the audience praised Lowney for doing a terrific job with the retail space. 

“It’s honoring pedestrian culture, which is missing on that part of the street,” he said. 

Karen Nickel, who lives at College and Boyd, said that she was in love with the new plan. 

“I absolutely love it,” she exclaimed. “It’s awful to shop there right now. I think the building looks beautiful.” 

Dean Metzger, president of the Claremont-Elmwood Neighborhood Association and Anne Metzger’s husband, said he was disappointed Safeway had not taken into consideration the community’s feedback about keeping the new store small. 

“I don’t see anything that accommodated the neighborhood’s concerns at all,” he said peering at a drawing that showed a view from Cole Coffee on 63rd Street. 

Since last fall, Safeway has held a series of stakeholder meetings with neighborhood groups, local merchants and community members to get feedback on the expansion project. Requests ranged from improving a bulky grey wall adjacent to College on the current Safeway building to controlling traffic. 

At Wednesday’s unveiling, Safeway displayed an informational chart that pointed out that the company had removed the wall in the new design. As for whether or not the redesign would make traffic conditions worse, the company’s display materials said it would carry out a traffic analysis. Next to the statement, someone had scrawled “When?”, but no answer was forthcoming. 

The question on a lot of people’s minds, however, was why Safeway had not paid attention to concerns regarding the size of the new store. 

“It seems like they paid no attention to our feedback at all,” said Susan Shawl of Concerned Neighbors of College Avenue Safeway. “At each meeting, the overwhelming response was that Safeway needs to cut back on the size. Size has been our issue all along. We are really disgusted. They’re in for a major fight.” 

Safeway spokesperson Esperanza Greenwood did not return calls for comment by press time. 

Denny Abrams, developer of Berkeley’s very successful Fourth Street retail neighborhood, who lives a few blocks away from the store, called the design a “monster that looks like Walnut Creek.” 

“I am quite insulted by the sign on top that says ‘Rockridge,’ as if it’s supposed to represent Rockridge,” he said. “In fact Rockridge is the total antithesis of that. It doesn’t represent Rockridge at all. It’s an insult to what Rockridge is all about.” 

Abrams said most neighbors would like to see the existing market renovated, but didn’t want Safeway to turn it into a “$100 million vacuum cleaner” to suck money out of the local community. 

Joseph Anderson, who was shuttling from one end of the room to the other with a plate of food, agreed. 

“Too high, wall to wall with the sidewalk,” he said shaking his head. “Reminds me of the Broadway Plaza, which is a shopping mall. I don’t think anybody wants a shopping mall. The only thing that looks good is the food.” 

For more information on the Safeway expansion, see www.safewayoncollege.com.