Council delays final vote on Safeway expansion deal, OKs controversial tree removal

Phyllis Bishop, 95, gets the final OK at Tuesday night's City Council meeting to cut down trees in the Oakland Hills that she says obstruct her view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Phyllis Bishop, 95, gets the final OK at Tuesday night's City Council meeting to cut down trees in the Oakland Hills that she says obstruct her view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Final approval of the highly contentious College Avenue Safeway expansion plan that has roiled the North Oakland community since the Pleasanton-based company first announced plans to expand in 2007 was delayed at Tuesday night’s special city council meeting.

Minutes before officials were slated to vote on whether to allow the project to go forward, planners working on behalf of Safeway handed out a list to the public detailing 14 changes to the original proposal. The changes, which were negotiated during a 12-hour mediation session between Safeway and three neighborhood groups and any other entities headed by District 1 Councilmember Jane Brunner last Thursday, were announced to the public earlier Tuesday afternoon.

In the original project, planners for Safeway, which operates 1,678 stores in the U.S. and Canada, proposed a 59,000-square foot grocery, on the bustling College Avenue in Rockridge, along with a nearly 11,000-foot adjacent shopping center. That figure was later amended to 51,000 square feet.

But neighborhood groups have expressed outrage about the proposed building’s size and layout, as well as the effect the new store could have on the neighborhood during and after construction. Over the last six years, neighborhood groups, including the Rockridge Community Planning Council and Berkeleyans for Pedestrian-Oriented Development, have compiled a list of concerns associated with the project, including worries that local shops will not be able to compete with Safeway, increased traffic and pollution, noise during construction and impediments to pedestrian traffic.

The biggest amendments, made in response to neighbors’ concerns, shrink the scope of the project, ease traffic concerns and create pedestrian walkways. Area residents who spoke Tuesday night cheered the part of the new proposal that shaves the size of Safeway down to 45,000 square feet and the adjacent project to 9,500. In addition to resizing the shopping complex, the amended plan would allow just up to 40 percent of the space for national chains, and a future restaurant could be added.

Brunner said another important change that emerged during the negotiations was the decision to relocate parking—which was originally slated to be located at ground level—to the roof. That way, the Safeway store entrance would be at sidewalk level on College Avenue. The number of parking spots would also be reduced to 151 spaces, down from the original 171—which would have been an increase of 75 spaces from today’s lot capacity.

Public reaction at Tuesday night’s meeting was subdued, though many people who packed the council chambers to capacity said they wanted to see final plans from Safeway planners before commenting. About 20 people who had come to speak during the public comments period opted not to when they learned the plans would change.

Councilmembers are expected to make the final vote December 18, either striking or upholding a Planning Commission approval of the Safeway expansion. Appeals by neighborhood groups who were originally opposed to the Safeway expansion have agreed to new terms as of Tuesday late afternoon, but the council still must vote on the agenda item. The council must also vote to certify the environmental review, dealing with building aesthetics, air quality and greenhouse gasses, land use laws noise and transportation. The review is required under the California Environmental Quality Act.

Despite the delay, a remaining dozen North Oakland residents addressed the expansion. Most said they were surprised that Safeway had come to negotiate, but that they were satisfied with the proposed changes.

“This is a huge milestone, after six years of basically being stonewalled by Safeway,” said Smith Weygant, who lives near the proposed grocery store expansion. “We hope that Safeway continues to consult with neighborhood groups, as they’ve been doing, during design and construction, since we’re going to be the most heavily impacted by a big construction project.”

Others urged the company to mitigate problems, such as noise, pollution and traffic, during construction.  “We want to be included in negotiations,” said Patricia Maloney, who lives on Alcatraz Avenue, which borders the store. “We want to be in consultation with the group to review how the impact of this demolition will affect contiguous neighbors. We will have to contend with extreme noise and a variation of debris.”

Anne Rosenberg said she is concerned about the project’s effect on the neighborhood, and that she’d like to be a part of the conversation in deciding what stores are located in the Safeway shopping complex. “Noise pollution, air pollution and traffic congestion are still a concern,” she said. “I don’t think there should be a huge national chain there, like Starbucks or Jamba Juice.”

At-large councilmember Rebecca Kaplan took issue with some of the details of the parking plan for the Safeway lot. She said she wants to talk more about the new proposal that during peak business hours—from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.—company employees will have to re-park their cars on neighboring side streets or perhaps a separate company lot, away from the main one. “That concerns me, that employees will be circling around for parking,” Kaplan said. “We need to discuss that further. It seems like that could make things worse. Employees will end up having to move their cars multiple times.”

Project planners said the new lot design would include five permanent parking spots for employees. Although the new plan is not yet formally drafted, the idea is that Safeway would pay the hourly fee on city-metered spaces, and provide public transportation passes for every employee, said the company’s lead architect, Ken Lowney of  Oakland-based Lowney Architecture.

Brunner said that an expected increase in parking could pose a problem in the neighborhood, noting that the company is seeking to avoid “an increase of 40 to 60 cars from 4 to 5 p.m. and another 40 to 60 cars from 5 to 6 p.m. wandering around looking for parking.”

“Yes, the employees will have to walk from many blocks away,” she added.

But Brunner said the terms of the new agreement are not up for debate by the public or the council. “This is not a deal to be renegotiated,” she said at Tuesday night’s meeting. “This is a deal between Safeway and three community groups and it is representative of what the community wants.”

District 6 Councilmember Desley Brooks and Council President Larry Reid both said they were prepared to agree with the amendments. District 3 Councilmember Nancy Nadel agreed, but said she’d like to see Safeway come to her neighborhood in West Oakland.

After the meeting, architect Lowney spoke with a crowd of Oakland residents who had gathered outside City Hall chambers to ask him questions about the new proposal. Included in the changes settled on late last week is a plan for area residents to draft a list of retailers they don’t want in the shopping center, which Safeway would anchor, Lowney said. “One of the things we’re discussing is for the community to make a list of chains they don’t like,” he added. “We all know there’s no McDonald’s, we know we’ll have no Subway and no Pizza Hut, but it’s the finer points that we’re discussing. That’s where the conversation starts.”

“Safeway wants to have tenants who can pay the rent, but not national chains that impose on the sense of place,” he said.

In other business, on Tuesday night the council unanimously gave the green light for Phyllis Bishop, who is 95, to either cut down or trim city trees that she said over the last 20 years have grown to obstruct her view of the Golden Gate Bridge, and which were present when she purchased in her Oakland Hills property in 1964. The council ultimately rejected an appeal filed against the City of Oakland by two of Bishop’s neighbors, which would have prevented the city from cutting down the trees.

In 2009, the city’s Public Works Agency said it was OK for Bishop to cut down the trees. According to the municipal code, Oakland’s View Ordinance provides a process for residents to restore a “reasonable amount of the view that they had when they purchased their property, whether the trees are growing on public or private property.”

Ernest and Okhoo Hanes and Mary McAllister, who live in the Oakland Hills, filed an appeal to the city’s decision. They made one last plea before the City Council last night, arguing that the city would violate its own view ordinance if Bishop would be allowed to cut or trim the trees, and that the removal of trees would pose a safety hazard, noting that root structures help stabilize land during earthquakes, and cutting limbs could fall and hurt someone. “Cutting the trees destroys the beauty of the Oakland Hills,” Okhoo Hanes said. “We are just asking the city council to keep an open mind. Cutting the trees protects a private corridor, not the public.”

The council voted against the appeal and in favor of Bishop, who is now allowed to remove 15 trees from her property, as well as remove the tops of 21 additional trees that she said obstruct her view.  “Justice has finally been achieved,” Bishop said outside City Hall, as a huge smile spread across her face.

The council Tuesday night also adopted a resolution that would create a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in Oakland, which is the process through which gases are extracted from the ground through drilling. There are no cities in the Bay Area that currently use this practice to extract energy, Nadel said.

“I brought this to the council so we as a city can prevent fracking,” Nadel said, noting that she wants Oakland to join other California cities, including Berkeley, which are making similar statements to urge Governor Jerry Brown to halt or limit the practice.

“States must lead the charge in ensuring that fracking is safe for public health,” Nadel wrote in a statement presented during the meeting. “All over the world, groups are protesting against fracking and demanding more research done before allowing the process to continue.”

Brooks was the sole “no” vote against the moratorium.

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