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Safeway Closes Gas Station, Moves Ahead with Rockridge Expansion

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday November 12, 2009 - 09:24:00 AM
A fence was constructed around the former Union 76 station at the corner of College and Claremont avenues last week after Safeway bought the site and closed the station as part of its plans to expand.
Michael Howerton
A fence was constructed around the former Union 76 station at the corner of College and Claremont avenues last week after Safeway bought the site and closed the station as part of its plans to expand.

Safeway took ownership of the Union 76 gas station site in Rockridge last week and is moving ahead with plans to incorporate it into a proposed remodeling project for its supermarket at the corner of College and Claremont avenues. 

Todd Paradis, real estate manager for Safeway’s Northern California Division, told the Planet that escrow for the property closed on Nov. 3. 

A fence has been constructed around the property since then to prevent loitering and trash from collecting. According to the website, created by Safeway to post updates about the development, the fence was erected to prevent the property from turning into a public nuisance. 

The website also reports that Safeway is considering “temporary commercial uses such as an auto repair tenant without gas,” who will rent the site until it is ready to be redeveloped. 

Safeway embarked on a mission to revamp its College Avenue store several years ago, meeting stiff opposition from neighbors regarding size, traffic and other issues. 

Size is still an issue for a number of area residents, many of whom balked at the idea of a 65,000-square-foot shopping center—more than twice the size of the current Safeway. 

Opponents of the plan think the scale is unsuitable and unnecessary for the neighborhood, threatening to change the area’s small town feel. 

They also say they are worried that an expanded Safeway, with its larger selection of merchandise, would chase away the small independent shops across College Avenue from the supermarket. 

Safeway officials contend that the store, which was built in the 1960s, is long due for an upgrade. 

“We believe that keeping with the spirit of the location is important and that is why we’ve tried to design a new store that blends well with the local area,” said Susan Houghton, public and government affairs director of Safeway, Northern California. “Since we exist in the area now, I am not sure how our new store would threaten local businesses. We want to be a valued neighbor in the area—and we believe there is room for all.” 

Some neighbors said they suspect that Safeway is sending a nal that development is “going to happen” by acquiring the gas station. Others are waiting for a chance to go before the Oakland Planning Department to comment on what they think should be included in the project’s environmental impact report. 

Oakland’s Community and Economic Development Agency and Planning and Zoning Division are preparing a draft environmental impact report for the College Avenue Safeway and have invited the public to comment on what they think should be included in the document at a meeting on Nov. 18. 

The city has crafted an initial study that says that the environmental impact report will address transportation, traffic, noise and air quality. 

Susan Shawl of Concerned Neighbors, a neighborhood group opposed to the scale of the project, said that she wanted to voice concerns about zoning and land use at the project. 

The store is in the C-31 or Special Retail zone. 

Shawl said that she did not object to the building’s external design, but is opposed to its scale. The project includes a two-story building with a roof-top garden and a pedestrian walkway next to eight retail stores. 

Safeway also plans to expand its Broadway and 51st Street store, about a mile away from the College Avenue store. 

“Why are they building two stores totaling about 100,000 square feet so close to each other when this area is already so well served?” Shawl asked. “There are parts of east and west Oakland that could use stores like this. I am concerned about the cumulative effect of both stores. What about traffic?” 

Oakland city planner Pete Vollmann told the Planet that a traffic study was being conducted by transportation consultants Fehr & Peers and would be part of the environmental impact report. 

Vollmann said there was no set timeline for when the study would be released to the public. 

Houghton defended Safeway’s plans to upgrade both stores. 

“The area in question has a lot of residents—and two stores have been supporting this general location for quite some time with high transaction counts,” she said. “The average size of our new stores or lifestyle remodels is 55,000 square feet—so they can adequately provide many of the lifestyle type services (wine, cheese, deli, produce) that our customers desire. So these plans are not out of line for how we handle remodels in other locations. We obviously want to be sensitive to the desires of our neighbors and customers and that is why we’ve worked diligently with a number of local groups to design the store.”  

Shawl said that neighborhood zoning laws mandated that any development should “maintain and enhance what is there now.” 

“However, they are literally going to grow and change the area,” she said. “College and Claremont will never be the same again.” 

Oakland’s planning staff wrote in the study that the “proposed project would result in a taller, more massive, and more intensively developed commercial center at this key retail corner in north Oakland than what presently exists at the site.” 

“I am skeptical of Safeway’s ability to deliver a neighborhood development that is consistent with the pedestrian-oriented shopping district that characterizes College Avenue and of the project’s ability to comply with Oakland’s zoning code,” said Jerome Buttrick, an architect at Buttrick Wong Architects who lives in the neighborhood. 

“They have no track record building urban infill projects of this sort. Most importantly, however, the impact it will have on the local community cannot be overstated,” he said. “The project will quickly destroy the delicate balance of small, local retail shops that has taken decades to put in place.”