Should Oakland Allow Safeway to Do as It Pleases in Rockridge (and Even Berkeley?)

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday August 03, 2011 - 01:12:00 PM

What kinds of limits should be put on corporate expansion in urban neighborhoods? That’s the question posed by the Safeway Corporation’s ongoing drive to turn the many sites they’ve acquired in city neighborhoods for, traditionally, local grocery stores into mini-mall destinations reminiscent of what you might see in the suburbs, complete with florists, pharmacies, delis, you name it. The company moved to Oakland in 1929 and was there for most of the 20th century, and it therefore owns a big chunk of Oakland real estate, though headquarters are now in Pleasanton. 

Its Oakland operations make Safeway look like the proverbial two-ton elephant:
“Where can it lie down? Anywhere it wants!” But in the Rockridge neighborhood, just a scant half-block south of the border with Berkeley’s Claremont and Elmwood neighborhoods, it’s possible that the corporation has met its match. 

Here I ought to disclose that I’ve been actively participating in the effort to persuade Safeway to scale down its plans for putting a mega-minimall-ette on the site of what is now a serviceable (but dingy and poorly maintained) neighborhood grocery store. This is because we live on Ashby Avenue in Berkeley, which in the 37 years we’ve lived there has consistently been the dumping ground for whatever automobile traffic anyone else doesn’t want.  

An expanded Safeway with attendant new retail stores will surely add to the already serious overload of cars heading for the insane College and Claremont intersection by way of Ashby. Not only do two of the major streets which offer commuter access to the UC campus cross there in an X, numerous small residential streets feed into the chaotic crossing. 

It’s already a horror for both motorists and pedestrians, and it will get worse if Safeway has its way. Safeway expansion could also be a distinct threat to the beleaguered 51 bus, one of the few AC transit lines that really work to get anyone where they’re going in a reasonable time—the 51 now runs up College taking transit users from the Rockridge BART station to UC and on to downtown Berkeley. 

Rockridge in the time we’ve lived nearby has become a distinctive and very successful brand, a collection of mostly owner-operated shops anchored by the BART station which arrived in the early 1970s. Neighborhood housing has been affordable in the middle price ranges, nice but not as expensive as the Berkeley or Oakland hills, though lately home prices have been inflated because of the area’s popularity. 

The stable and attractive ambiance that Rockridge is known for is no accident. The Rockridge Community Planning Council was founded in the mid-80s to keep tabs on what was happening in the area, and it’s done a stellar job. Additionally, several sub-areas within Rockridge have their own active organizations, and these also work to preserve and enhance community character. 

A particularly popular feature of Rockridge shopping is the block of locally owned and operated food stores just across the street from the Safeway site on College. These include a bakery, a butcher shop, a pharmacy, a produce store, a florist, a wine store and others. They offer the kind of pedestrian-friendly shopping celebrated by Jane Jacobs and her pro-urban successors, though it’s no secret that some shoppers with cars have been known to use the Safeway parking lot on occasion. The pricing power of a big chain for items like cleaning supplies, canned goods and paper products is complementary to the specialized offerings of the small stores in the current mix. But Safeway’s auto-oriented mall-like plans could spoil it all  

A new organization, Friends and Neighbors of College Avenue (FANS), grew out of Safeway’s original efforts to spin its plans for the site in meetings with local “stakeholders”. When it became apparent that the great majority of attendees took issue with the corporation’s desire to more than double the size of its building, Safeway called off the meetings, but the group, now a coalition of seven neighborhood groups, stayed together. 

From the beginning, the FANS people have made it clear that they support any reasonable efforts to “renew” or “revitalize” or “remodel” or even “rebuild” the existing store, which certainly needs improvement. The keystone of their objections is that Safeway wants to more than double the size of the building, from 22,500 square feet to 50,000. The assumption is that more shoppers will be attracted, with an attendant increase in traffic and parking problems.  

The proposed project also envisions adding a new strip of retail stores on the College Avenue side of the site, an obvious attempt to compete with the existing local businesses, most likely by adding cheap chain stores. It’s the kind of design that might be considered an improvement in Pleasanton, where Safeway now has its headquarters, but is dramatically unsuited for the already-thriving small-scale urbanity of the Rockridge shopping area.  

Safeway’s contract spinmeisters from the lobbying firm of Aroner, Jewel and Ellis have attempted to frame the discussion as being about design. It’s not.  

The various architects employed by the corporation have come up with a variety of more-or-less lovely graphics which they’re featuring on a one-way website where you can express support for, though not opposition to, to their plans. But the question of scale is glossed over. 

How can critics make their opinions known where it counts? FANS has been active organizing a variety of ways to do so. 

The Oakland Planning Commission has decision-making powers to approve or disapprove the project, subject to appeal to their city council, equivalent to Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustment Board. The first step in the process is environmental review of Safeway’s proposal. A Draft Environmental impact report has been published, and tonight the second of two public hearings takes place at the Oakland City Hall at 6. 

Opponents think that the draft is woefully inadequate, especially with regard to traffic impacts. They’ve already made a substantial presentation at the first hearing and they plan another one tonight. They’re urging members of the public to come and comment if they can. 

It is even more important to submit comments on the DEIR in writing, which must be done by August 15. The FANS home page has a single email link set up which will relay letters to all concerned, including the Oakland city planner who’s handling the project, the Oakland Planning Commission and the City Council. Berkeley residents who are concerned should also address their letters to their Berkeley City Councilmember, since adverse automobile impacts in particular are sure to spill over into Berkeley.