City Council approves eminent domain option to land West Oakland grocery store
on October 6, 2010
Members of the public burst into applause at the Oakland City Council’s Tuesday meeting when council members unanimously agreed to allow use of eminent domain to bring a large grocery store to West Oakland.
Those who could not find seats for the meeting stood against the back wall of the crowded chamber as the council debated whether or not eminent domain—the government’s ability to appropriate private property—should be an option in turning an industrial space in West Oakland into a new Foods Co supermarket. Two other Foods Co stores are planned for construction in other parts of Oakland. All eight council members approved the motion.
“I’m tired of Oakland residents continuing to subsidize the surrounding cities at our expense,” councilmember Larry Reid said. “I’ll tell you, we are in for a treat when these three stores get built.”
The issue was brought forward by Oakland’s Community and Economic Development Agency in an effort to eliminate what economic development advocates refer to as the city’s “food deserts,” areas without access to full-service grocery stores. Council President Jane Brunner said the item has been fellow councilmember Nancy Nadel’s project for more than a decade. “For 14 years, we’ve been trying to get a food store,” Brunner said. “I think Ms. Nadel’s patience has been phenomenal.”
The desired location of the new West Oakland supermarket is a two-block parcel between West Grand Avenue, 24th Street, and on either side of Myrtle Street. Though the owner of the parcel and a Foods Co representative have exchanged offers for the land, the council’s unanimous vote on Tuesday would give council members an option to compel the property owner to sell the parcel at market value.
While Nadel acknowledged that the idea of property appropriation might concern residents, she reassured the audience that the policy would not lead to the seizure of homes in the name of eminent domain. “The language of the amendment is specific to a very small two-block area,” Nadel said. “Only for commercial, not residential, property. I’ll say that again: not residential property.”
The crowd was filled with advocates for each side of the issue, who periodically voiced either support or protest when a speaker touched on a contentious point. Though some attendees ceded their time, 43 speakers were registered to make a public comment on the item.
Ron Mohammed, an Oakland resident with family close to the proposed new supermarket site, said the lack of grocery stores in West Oakland requires an immediate fix, and eminent domain is a suitable option. “We don’t have a single damn grocery store in the whole district of West Oakland,” Mohammed said. “I have to go get my truck to take my mother shopping in Emeryville, to outsource my money to Emeryville. How long we going to keep on doing this?”
Gwillym Martin, who lives near the proposed store site, was opposed to the use of government authority over private enterprise and said less controversial solutions should be tried. “Using eminent domain to force a transaction between private property owners is wrong,” Martin said. “If the city wants to encourage a grocery store in west Oakland they should do it like other cities and give them free permits, give them property tax relief, not eminent domain.”
As Martin reached the end of his comments, Mohammed called from the crowd, “What’s your zip code?” The two men shouted back and forth until they were called to order by Brunner. “The passion’s great, but let’s just respect each other,” she said.
Many attendees cheered as the council voted unanimously to allow the city to use eminent domain. Sean Sullivan, an Oakland resident and former candidate for city council, said he was pleased the council had taken a step in support of grocery store access in Oakland. “Everyone on the council shares the long-term vision,” Sullivan said. “Allowing Foods Co in is not surrender, but the first step toward victory. It’s a clear win for all West Oaklanders.”
For Nadel, access to a grocery store has been a personal project several years in the making. She said her constituents have been “clamoring for a grocery store” for 14 years. Nadel cited past attempts to bring healthy food to Oaklanders, pointing to past subsidies afforded to the Mandela Food Cooperative, a successful but small-scale attempt to bring fresh produce to West Oakland. Though she said she understands constituents’ reservations about possible use of eminent domain for this project, Nadel said the new Foods Co will help to meet West Oakland’s needs as quickly as possible.
“I think if we always wait for the absolute perfect project, we will always be waiting,” Nadel said. “West Oakland is tired of waiting.”
Image: Oakland resident Gwillym Martin urges the city council during Tuesday’s council meeting to reject the use of eminent domain on Oakland businesses.
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