Rockridge is a successful neighborhood that has recovered several times from severe economic impacts, including highway construction and the Oakland Hills fire, without any help from the City of Oakland. Following the construction of BART and Highway 24, more than 50 percent of the businesses were vacant, empty lots dotted College Avenue, and Rockridge was one of the most crime-ridden neighborhoods in Oakland.
Concerned citizens and merchants of Rockridge organized and created a solution to bring an end to the problems of the commercial district. That solution was a new zoning designation, C-31—small-scale, pedestrian-oriented shopping with residences or offices above. Over time, this zoning designation has been so successful that several other neighborhoods in Oakland have adopted it, including Piedmont Avenue and the Montclair and Laurel districts. Rockridge has been a top revenue generator among neighborhood retail districts, benefiting all of Oakland, for almost 40 years.
Now Safeway, a $9 billion global corporation, has decided that it wants to bust the zoning that makes Rockridge successful. Its current store is grandfathered in at 22,500 square feet. The C-31 designation limits size to 7,500 square feet without a conditional use permit (the average size of stores on College Avenue is actually 1,200 square feet), but the Safeway proposal is for a 50,400 square-foot store, plus retail condos totaling an additional 11,000 square feet. They contend that this will better serve the neighborhood.
But does the neighborhood need a larger Safeway? Within a 1.6 mile radius of the College Avenue Safeway, there are seven other markets—Berkeley Bowl, Andronico’s, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Village Market, Star Market and the Safeway at Broadway and Pleasant Valley. In addition, we have a Sunday year-round farmers’ market at the DMV on Claremont, Market Hall specialty shops and other locally owned independent food shops. We are well served.
Safeway’s commitment to Oakland and the track record here is also not good. Safeway abandoned Oakland as a headquarters in favor of Pleasanton. Safeway closed a number of stores in Oakland as part of a consolidation in the 1970s, and left East and West Oakland simply without grocery stores. They left Rockridge with a blighted property at Claremont and Clifton, a huge empty store and vast parking lot, the best use of which in all these years was as the temporary FEMA Disaster Recovery Center after the hills fire.
Safeway is a big corporation. It does what it does for its own bottom line. There is no public benefit concept underlying its development. A present estimate is that the College location generates over $2,000 per square foot. That places the current gross receipts at $50–60 million per year. Doubling the size of the facility will drive gross receipts to over $110 million per year. Naturally, our concern is where the additional $50–60 million in sales will come from. We believe these sales can only be generated by expanding the catchment area—the geographic area served—and greatly increasing traffic.
In past Safeway presentations it has been the company’s contention that the catchment area will remain the same size, because its studies indicate a great amount of sales “leakage” (buyers who currently leave the neighborhood to shop elsewhere). As customers and consumers in the neighborhood, we know this “leakage” concept is not correct and the only way to increase sales is to increase the size of the catchment area. The environmental costs of traffic/congestion and noise/pollution will clearly increase.
I am a member of FANS, which is a coalition of groups in Oakland and Berkeley that share concerns about Safeway’s proposal to expand its store on College Avenue. They were originally asked by Safeway to work with them as stakeholders impacted by the proposed rebuilding of the College Avenue Safeway store, but when it became apparent that the community disagreed with Safeway’s plans, Safeway abandoned the stakeholder meeting process. FANS, however, continued to work together.
FANS comprises various groups, including the Rockridge Community Planning Council (RCPC); Claremont Elmwood Neighborhood Association (CENA); Rockridge District Association (RDA), composed of local business owners and professionals; Concerned Neighbors of the College Avenue Safeway; Contiguous Neighbors to the College Avenue Safeway; Contiguous Merchants to the College Avenue Safeway; Rockridge/Elmwood Local Architects and Planners.
STAND and ULTRA, groups in neighborhoods near Rockridge, also share concerns about this project.
The currently proposed project will have significant air-quality impacts, transportation impacts in both Berkeley and Oakland, land-use impacts, aesthetic, cultural and visual impacts on the community, as well as blight, and sustainability and energy use impacts, including global warming.
The current Safeway needs a remodel, and FANS would be willing to consider a modest expansion of the current Safeway store to better serve the community, but the project as presented is unnecessarily impactful. It violates city standards and needs to be rejected in favor of a smaller, more appropriate project that would meet both Safeway’s and the community’s needs.
The true question is, will this project really benefit the neighborhood, or will it benefit Safeway? Residents and merchants believe that this proposed project will do irreparable economic harm, and we are asking the city of Oakland to look at our economic track record. We have created and sustained success for almost 40 years, pouring millions of dollars in revenues into city coffers while asking for little in return. We even built a library for the city and deeded it over, a meeting facility in constant use by community groups from all over Oakland. We have given a great deal to Oakland including some of its most positive press; it’s time for some soul-searching at City Hall.
Annette Floystrup is on the board of RCPC and FANS and has lived in Oakland most of her life.
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