On a fence in Rockridge, full-color signs show computer renderings of a two-story shopping complex, anchored by a brand new Safeway. The signs—the fence to which they’re affixed surrounds a former Union 76 station that Safeway bought in 2009—are the most visible daily markers of a five year-old conflict over the future of this block between College, Claremont and Alcatraz, at the heart of Rockridge.
Safeway Inc., which is headquarted in Pleasanton, wants to build the complex in the renderings on the site of its current store. Safeway’s controversial proposal could move one step closer to reality if the Oakland City Council denies all appeals on the project on Tuesday, effectively giving the project the city’s thumbs-up.
Safeway wants to demolish the existing store, and build on the site a new, two-story complex of about 62,000 square feet, featuring a Safeway, a two-story parking garage, and nine other retail and restaurant spaces. But the proposed expansion to Safeway’s Rockridge store has pitted the company against neighborhood advocates who oppose the project.
Opponents have retained an attorney, and are poised to take the issue to the courts if the city council gives its-go ahead this week. “From the very start, we’ve been alarmed at these plans,” said Stuart Flashman, chair of the Rockridge Community Planning Council’s Land Use Committee. “We saw this large project and said, ‘That doesn’t fit.’” Flashman says that he’s concerned about increased traffic, insufficient parking, and losing Rockridge’s pedestrian atmosphere.
Distress over the expansion plans was easy to encounter on a recent Thursday morning. Robert McKee, who was having coffee with Chuck Fahrenbach at nearby Cole Coffee, asked his friend about the store. “I don’t know that it’s going to work right here,” McKee said. “You want a monstrosity?” Cole Coffee’s owner, Mike Murphy, worries that during construction “my whole business would shut down.” Carl Davidson, a manager on College Avenue’s Vino! wine store for 14 years, said an expanded Safeway would ruin the neighborhood’s character. “People will abandon this as a shopping area,” Davidson said.
Safeway first released plans to rebuild on the College Avenue site, and raze the half-century-old store, in 2007. The company owns most of a triangle-shaped block bordered by College, Claremont and Alcatraz Avenues, including the now-vacant gas station. The original reconstruction proposal envisioned a 59,000 square foot Safeway store. The plan met with a wave of criticism from residents in Rockridge and nearby Berkeley.
So Safeway revised its original plan. The current proposal calls for an expanded but smaller store of 51,500 square feet. An additional 10,500 square feet are set aside for eight retail spaces, plus a restaurant on the former gas station corner at the intersection of College, Claremont and 62nd Street. The project is also projected to include a parking garage with 171 spaces, an increase of 75 spaces over the store’s current lot.
In July, the City of Oakland released the Final Environmental Impact Report for the project, which city planner Peterson Vollmann says meets regulations. Vollmann says that the report reviewed land use, traffic, air quality and aesthetic issues.
The environmental report also contains 277 written comments from the public about Safeway’s proposed expansion. Of these, more than 220 were critical of the project, with only 50 in support.
“Safeway is being arrogantly presumptuous,” said Claudine Jones, who submitted a comment opposing the measure, and has attended meetings about the project. She said that she is “flabbergasted that we haven’t been able to reach out to Safeway. They’re rebuffing us as a neighborhood.” Jones, who lives on nearby Ross Street, said she is concerned that the new store would drive smaller shops out of business and increase traffic in the area.
A consultant to Safeway, Elisabeth Jewel, said the Rockridge location “is in need of significant updating,” and that more space will allow the grocer to stock more products. According to Safeway spokeswoman Wendy Gutshall, who answered questions about the project via email, “the current store features narrow aisles with merchandise stacked high overhead.” Gutshall says that a new store will contain a range of the company’s “lifestyle departments,” including a bakery, a florist, and a deli, in addition to wider aisles and more organic foods. She said that Safeway has responded to residents’ concerns by reducing the size of the store, and creating amenities like a rooftop plaza.
Many opponents of the project point to a nearby Safeway, on Broadway and Pleasant Valley Road, as a better site for expansion. Safeway is also planning to rebuild that shopping area, which is about a mile south of the Rockridge store. Planning for that project is at an earlier stage. Gutshall said Safeway expects an environmental impact report for the Pleasant Valley site to be published in spring of 2013, with public hearings to follow.
Not all residents oppose Safeway’s plans for its Rockridge store. “The damn thing is way too crowded,” said Bob Sand, a retiree who has lived in the Claremont neighborhood for more than 50 years. He says he can’t recall the store expanding, ever. Sand said that critics of the project have been “overly alarmist,” and singled out as “kind of ridiculous” criticism about the shadows the two-story building would cast.
As Tuesday’s council meeting nears, Stuart Flashman said that Safeway and the Rockridge Community Planning Council are in last-minute negotiations, in hopes of finding what Flashman called a “mutually agreeable project.” He said that if an agreement is reached, the public likely wouldn’t hear about it until Tuesday’s council meeting. Flashman declined to provide further details, saying that negotiations are confidential.
On Tuesday, the Oakland City Council will have the chance to deny pending appeals to Safeway’s project. If the Council strikes down appeals, whatever the status of negotiations between the grocer and the neighborhood group, Safeway will have the green light to begin construction. Gutshall, the Safeway spokeswoman, says the company would like to start construction “as soon as possible,” but that finalizing plans would take another six months.
If the council sides with the appeals to the project, it could stop the project in its tracks, send it back to the planning commission, or ask Safeway to reconfigure the proposal.
If the project gets the go-ahead from the council, Safeway spokeswoman Gutshall said she expects legal action against it. In May, the Rockridge Community Planning Council (RCPC)—an organization perhaps best known to residents for publishing the monthly Rockridge News newsletter—retained attorney Michael Graf. The El Cerrito-based Graf specializes in environmental law. According to the RCPC’s Stuart Flashman, himself an attorney, a lawsuit could allege that the Environmental Impact Report was flawed, and that the project violates zoning requiring pedestrian-oriented shopping.
All litigation would need to conclude before construction could begin, meaning that even if the City Council sides with Safeway on November 13, construction might still be a long way off.