City Council approves Rockridge Safeway expansion, ties vote on Lake Merritt Dog Park

Opponents of a planned dog enclosure at Astro Park near Lake Merritt in Oakland said at Tuesday night's City Council meeting that public backlash has increased exponentially in the last two years. They showed up in force to protest the dog park.

Opponents of a planned dog enclosure at Astro Park near Lake Merritt in Oakland said at Tuesday night's City Council meeting that public backlash has increased exponentially in the last two years. They showed up in force to protest the dog park.

During a marathon meeting Tuesday night, the city council debated two contentious issues that have long divided Oakland neighborhoods: Negotiations on the Rockridge Safeway expansion, and the dog park enclosure at Astro Park. The eight-hour council session was something city officials said is normal for council sessions that precede council breaks, in the summer and winter.

The debate over the proposed Astro Park dog area reached a boiling point midway through the session, when after an hour of debate, the votes among the councilmembers were tied. Four said they did not want to allow a dog park to be built on a half-acre patch of grass, one of the city’s only open spaces that is available for public use. The other elected officials said the location, at MacArthur Boulevard and Lakeshore Avenue, is the most sensible one for a dog park with its proximity to the freeway, availability of parking and its distance from other proposed locations that may be harmful to Lake Merritt’s sensitive habitat.

The city’s Planning Commission had previously decided to disallow the dog play area, but supporters, led by the group Oakland Dog Owners Group, or ODOG, filed an appeal in May, 2012. A council meeting earlier this month to consider the appeal took in nearly four hours of testimony from both dog park advocates and critics, but no vote was taken.

On Tuesday night crowds from both sides packed the chamber, holding signs reading “Save Our Park,” “Kids Need Space,” and “Another Taxpayer for Off-leash Space.” Throughout the meeting, supporters yelled out, “Vote, vote, vote!”

During the public comment session, dog park opponents said it would take away open space from kids who want to use the field, that it could pose a threat to the playground area in Astro Park, and that wood chips and a fenced-in enclosure would be an eyesore in the neighborhood. Supporters said they’d host educational activities for kids to learn more about pets, and suggested compromises, such as using green groundcover instead of wood chips.

Supporters of the dog park said they’d be willing to look at alternative dog park sites, even if the council approved the Astro Park location. One of the locations floated for an alternate park was at Bellvue and Grand avenues, near Children’s Fairyland.

“Tonight we did ask for the vote to go forward becaue it has been 13 years,” said Rena Rickles, speaking on behalf of ODOG. “We have agreed to work with the mayor to find an alternative site. But, if none of these sites work, then maybe we’ll have to look at Astro Park.”

Councilmembers Patricia Kernighan and Jane Brunner said that they would prefer an alternate site, noting massive public opposition of a dog area, which has grown significantly in the last two years. “It became clear to me that this was not something that was going to be good for the neighborhood, because the opposition is huge,” said Kernighan, who represents many of the neighborhoods bordering the park in Oakland’s Grand Lake neighborhood. “Initially, it was about half and half, now there are way more people against it. For the people who actually live in those neighborhoods I’d say it’s about 3-1 against it.”

Brad McCrea, who spoke against the dog park, said a fenced-in enclosure would take away recreation opportunities for the city’s kids. “The city’s guiding principles lay out a vision for recreation around Lake Merritt—it says that Oakland’s youth should especially benefit,” McCray said to councilmembers. “But a fenced dog park would take that away. The proposal has not built community; it’s tearing our community apart.”

Ultimately, the council vote tied: Desley Brooks, Brunner, Kernighan and Council President Larry Reid voted against the appeal and the formation of the park. Ignacio De La Fuente, Rebecca Kaplan, Libby Schaaf and Nancy Nadel all voted in favor of allowing the park to go forward.

Now, the tie-breaking vote goes to Mayor Jean Quan. She is expected to make her final decision at the February 5, 2013, council meeting, representatives from the city clerk’s office said Wednesday morning.

“Not everyone is going to be happy,” Quan said. “I can’t believe that we can’t mediate and get an alternative back here to the council that won’t divide the community.”

Supporters of the dog park near Lake Merritt said they were disappointed that the park wasn’t approved Tuesday night, because it has been on the drawing board for more than a decade.  “We’re very disappointed,” said Emily Rosenberg, co-founder of ODOG. “We wanted a positive vote tonight.”

The council also unanimously approved a Safeway expansion deal that has long embroiled neighborhood groups in North Oakland. The plan, a compromise between Safeway developers and neighborhood groups, finalizes plans initially proposed at the November 18 council meeting. One of the most significant changes is a reduction in the size of the proposed project, down to 45,000 square feet for the store itself, along with 9,500 square feet of space for other retailers. That’s down from a 51,500 square-foot grocery and 10,500 square feet of additional retail. Other changes include rooftop parking instead of ground level, an outdoor seating plaza that will be open to the public, and some restrictions on the number of national chains allowed in the complex.

Neighbors have long expressed concerns that a large retailer would suck up competition from smaller businesses, and that the grocery store would create traffic and other safety problems along College Avenue in Oakland’s Rockridge district.

The unanimous vote was preceded by a plea from outgoing District 1 Councilmember Jane Brunner, who currently represents the area, to approve the plan that was presented Tuesday night. She said representatives both for and against the Safeway expansion spent long days in the last week negotiating the new proposal, and that both sides agreed to settle on the final details Tuesday night.

“Did we get everything we want?” Brunner said to the council. “Absolutely not. Is it bigger than what most people in the community still want? Yes—but it’s what we were able to get, to get it done.”

Negotiators from Safeway and from the three groups in opposition to the grocery’s build-out spoke briefly, saying that they both gave up things they wanted, but that they were happy to finally have a project that they could live with. “We are very relieved that we’ve reached this agreement,” said Stuart Flashman, who represents the Rockridge Community Planning Council, one of the groups who has fought Safeway from the introduction of this plan in 2007. “There were many icebergs in the way that we avoided. It’s not perfect, it’s not the project we would have designed, but we’re not the ones building it.”

Other North Oakland residents said they were satisfied with the deal that was reached, but they were still worried about parking limitations in Safeway’s lot, restricting parking for neighborhood shoppers to one hour, instead of what neighborhood groups wanted—two hours.

“One of the primary concerns I still have is for the welfare of the small merchants who are my tenants,” said John Chalik, who owns the properties in which several nearby businesses are located, like Yasai Market, Vino!, the Wood Tavern, and Ver Brugge Meat, Fish and Poultry. “It is troubling for us somewhat that Safeway will restrict parking for non-Safeway customers.”

Chalik said the neighborhood was designed for customers to browse, and that the one-hour parking restriction would take away business. “It is of some serious concern for us,” he said.

Brunner responded, saying that the parking was an issue during the negotiations, which she mediated. “We fought hard for that two hours,” Brunner said. “In the end, we were not successful.”

Brunner also responded to concerns about the size of the “Rockridge” sign that is planned to be placed atop Safeway, which would read “Rockridge Safeway.”

“It is a suburban mall addition to our wonderful neighborhood,” said area resident Denny Abrams. “That’s not what we’re about.”

Brunner agreed that the sign will likely be a point of contention for years in the future.  “We told them that people weren’t going to like that sign, and that it was going to be a big issue,” she said. “We gave up in the end.”

The council also bid farewell to the three outgoing council members, including De La Fuente, who lost his run for Oakland’s at-large seat on November 6 to Kaplan; Brunner, who was defeated by Barbara Parker in her bid for city attorney; and Nadel, who is retiring. Replacing De La Fuente in District 5 is Noel Gallo,  and Dan Kalb in District 1.

In other business, the council delayed a vote on whether or not to extend Oakland’s pilot program allowing food trucks to operate in the city, and tabled an agenda item that would have restructured the way Oakland collects taxi fees.

A spending plan for how to spend money from Measure Y reserves was also approved. Measure Y was approved by voters in 2004. It provides about $20 million every year for 10 years to pay for violence prevention programs, more police officers on the streets, and fire services.  

The council also OK’d a motion allowing the expansion of a cellular tower for Sprint in the Oakland hills, and heard items dealing with extending leases at the Oakland Army Base, and how to bring more jobs there for the Army Base development.

The next council meeting is scheduled for January 22, 2013.

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