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Rockridge residents still unhappy with Safeway expansion

on September 23, 2008


SEPT. 23 — The Safeway Supermarket at College Avenue and Claremont is 44 years old and looking it. Every chip, stain and scuffmark in the speckled-grey linoleum floor stands out in the fluorescent light, and the aisles are so narrow it’s a struggle for two shopping carts to pass each other.

Shoppers, neighbors and Safeway management all seem to agree the store is ready for an update. But exactly how the update should take shape has been the subject of intense controversy. In June, Safeway released a building plan that called for a complete rebuilding of the store, more than doubling its floor space to 59,000 square feet. The proposal was met with a wave of protest from community members who objected that the expansion would threaten local businesses, intensify traffic problems on College Avenue, and damage the urban, pedestrian-friendly feel of the block.

Faced with widespread opposition–and the implicit threat of a lawsuit if they tried to push their plans through the city planning commission–Safeway announced it would abandon the proposal. In July, the company asked neighborhood groups, local merchants and owners of adjacent properties

to choose representatives to help develop new plans at a series of professionally facilitated meetings.

The heart of the current plans are what Safeway calls “Lifestyle departments” – a bakery, an elaborate produce section, an upscale florist and full-service meat and fish counters. And while the company is reluctant to label these departments as non-negotiables, Safeway real estate manager Todd Paradis described them as “near and dear to what Safeway thinks will make a successful store.”

In general, adding these kinds of sections may be the best way for mainstream supermarkets like Safeway to stay in business, said John Stanton, professor of food marketing at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “Thousands are going out every year,” he said. “Average doesn’t cut it. There are no longer supermarkets that everybody likes a little. There are only supermarkets that somebody likes a lot.”

Stores can only survive if they find a niche, Stanton said, and Safeway’s opportunity lies in stocking specialty products that discounters like Wal-Mart and Costco lack and while still offering branded items like Coke or Nestle that Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and other high-end grocery stores don’t sell. “Safeway is saying ‘we have a good variety of all-natural and organic produce, but on top of that we have all the products you’re trying to buy,’” said Stanton.

In a neighborhood like Rockridge, though, the kind of changes Safeway has proposed can come at a price. “If Safeway can offer the same or better quality meats than butchers, than the butchers are going to go out of business,” said Stanton. “Do I hate to see the local butcher go out of business? You bet I do,” he added. “But if they can’t compete, they can’t compete.”

Not everybody agrees. “All this crap we don’t need, because our neighborhood already has it,” said Susan Shawl, pointing angrily at the “Lifestyle departments” depicted in the Safeway blueprints spread on the dining room table of her Rockridge home. Local businesses like Ver Brugge butcher, Yasai produce, The Meadows flower shop and La Farine bakery already provide all the services the expanded Safeway promises, Shawl said. Worried that Safeway’s proposed expansion would destroy the atmosphere of College Avenue’s shopping area, Shawl joined with her friend Nancy McKay to found a group called Concerned Neighbors of College Avenue Safeway.

McKay made it clear she’s not against Safeway—she runs over to the 24-hour store so often Shawl jokes the store is “Nancy’s pantry” and she supports the idea of a renovation to update the store’s appearance while keeping it as a “satellite store” for larger Safeways nearby. “There’s no reason why we need a mega-store in our intimate pedestrian neighborhood,” she said.

Todd Paradis, Safeway’s real estate manager, contends that the neighborhood is underserved. The company’s market research shows $2.2 – $2.3 million in “leakage,” he explained, dollars that Rockridge residents are projected to spend on groceries that are not being spent in the district. “Do we want to sell more groceries? You betcha. That’s a given,” he said at a community meeting Monday night. “A lot of it can be accomplished by having customers buying things that weren’t available prior.”

Paradis’ statement, like most things said at the meeting, was met with a murmur of muttered comments from neighbors seated in a semi-circle of wooden and metal folding chairs in Claremont Middle School’s gym. At the center of the semi-circle, Paradis sat at the table with delegates from six neighborhood groups, plus two new delegates Safeway had invited without any community input.

The main item on the agenda was the store’s size, but more than half of the tense, two-hour long meeting was spent debating the legitimacy of the representatives Safeway added to the panel and trying to determine whether the working group had any decision-making authority.

“Are you for real up there?” shouted one grey-haired observer, losing his patience and rising from his chair. “It’s a joke. It’s a sham.”

The session was adjourned without reaching any decisions except to resume the discussion at the next meeting, but Stuart Flashman, representative for the Rockridge Community Planning Council and a long-time veteran of zoning debates, said he still has hope for the process. “I don’t see a level of intransigence such that it’s reaching impasse,” he said. “At least not yet.”

Some delegates, however, were less composed. Patricia Maloney, whose house directly abuts the Safeway, had lost her temper by the time the session descended into post-meeting chat. “We want a solution,” she shouted as she left the gym. “Not a meeting.”||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||


  1. baffled on October 10, 2008 at 11:17 am

    “It’s a joke, it’s a sham”- what, replacing this tired old store with ugly architecture? What a bunch of baby’s. Do they also want Safeway to provide free childcare, mow their lawns, and pay for their kids college education? A 59,000 square foot store is not a ‘mega store.’ The existing store doesn’t fit in with the pedestrian feel of the area. It would be a shame if these crazy old people convince Safeway not to rebuild this ugly, auto-oriented store.

  2. Kinder Words on November 24, 2008 at 11:13 pm

    […] Oakland North: Rockridge residents still unhappy with Safeway expansion […]

  3. baffled on May 10, 2009 at 7:32 am

    …Some vocal Rockridge NIMBYs also opposed BART.

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