Former Super Longs to close amidst extensive redevelopment plans
on March 8, 2011
Long loved by East Bay residents, North Oakland’s mega-drugstore will close this summer due to plans to demolish and redevelop the shopping center where it is located. For decades this one-stop-shop has been a neighborhood institution, but now the store’s landlord has declined to renew its lease, slating it to close by the end of June.
“We’re disappointed, but unfortunately without a lease we are unable to keep the store open,” says Mike DeAngelis, director of public relations for CVS, the company that currently owns the store. “It’s out of our control.”
At 90,000 square feet, the block-long store off of Broadway and Pleasant Valley Avenue is not your typical drug store. Lining the outside of this shop is a garden market containing hundreds of plants—magnolias, herbs, succulents. At the front door, there’s a shoe repair shop and a Top Dog hotdog stand. Once you get inside, you can buy just about anything, from sporting goods to house paint to automotive supplies.
Up until recently, this store stayed open 24 hours a day, unlike most Oakland retailers, and had long been the haunt of people dealing with medical emergencies in the middle of the night, art students from the nearby California College of Art campus stopping in to visit the well-stocked craft supplies section, and night owls cruising the varied array of other goods.
The store was first built as PayLess Drug in the 1960s, then later bought by Rite-Aid, then by Longs Drugs, earning it the “Super Longs” moniker. It is now owned by CVS Caremark, which took over ownership of the Longs chain in 2008. The entire strip mall where the CVS superstore is located is managed by Pleasanton-based Safeway, Inc., which also has a store in the same mall. The shopping center currently covers 15.4 acres and has 185,000 square feet of retail space and 667 parking spaces.
In 2009, Safeway submitted a redevelopment proposal for the shopping center to the city of Oakland’s Planning Commission, which would entail the construction of a new, bigger Safeway store in the location of the CVS, along with construction of more commercial space.
“We’re excited about this new project and believe our new store will provide a great shopping experience for our customers,” wrote Susan Houghton, Safeway’s director of public and government affairs, in an email.
The benefits of the project, she said, are that it will bring more retailers to the area, create construction jobs during redevelopment and also generate permanent retail jobs. “There is $50 million plus being invested in the community and the city of Oakland—which does not include the investments made by all of the retailers who will eventually be joining the project,” she wrote.
In June, 2009, the company passed out flyers to shoppers and put them in local residents’ mailboxes, answering questions about the impending redevelopment project. “The ‘make over’ will include a new Safeway, a new pharmacy and many new shops that the community has long desired,” the flyer read.
The flyer explained that the typical CVS size is 12,000 to 13,000 square feet, rather than the 90,000 square feet that it now occupies in this North Oakland location. By contrast, the neighboring Safeway store is currently 48,000 square feet.
When residents caught wind of these plans, specifically the closing of the mega-drugstore, they objected in force. Two different “Save Super Longs” Facebook groups popped up and hundreds of letters have been written to Oakland officials begging the city to halt the closure.
Safeway’s initial design proposal was also widely criticized by the community and members of Oakland’s Planning Commission Design Review Committee for being unimaginative, a poor use of space and too “suburban.” Critics said that the new plan would merely replace one boring strip mall with another, using squat buildings set back from the street by a large surface parking lot with difficult pedestrian access.
In July 2010, Safeway redrafted its proposal, pitching a new design that includes two-story buildings, varying facades for a more dynamic feel, more sidewalk access and “green construction.” In this new design, there are more commercial buildings set right along Broadway and much of the parking is within a three-story parking structure on top of the retail stores. Proposed square footage of commercial space is now 296,000 square feet with 961 parking spots. The new Safeway store would occupy 65,000 square feet.
“We have greatly modified our plans to reflect the many comments from the public,” wrote Houghton. “We have worked long and hard with the community, staff, the commissioners and the council to create a project that addresses all interests.”
Still, community groups, like the Rockridge Community Planning Council and Urbanists for a Livable Temescal Rockridge Area, believe there’s even more that can be done. Several of these local groups produced a joint report with critiques and alternative designs for Safeway’s proposal. “The fundamental flaw in this proposal is that it is inward facing and does not respond to or integrate itself with the adjacent urban neighborhoods,” their report stated. Suggestions for a new design included building residential units, making the mall even more accessible for pedestrians and building a restaurant or café that would overlook the quarry lake next to the shopping center.
While the design is still being hammered out, the city’s Planning Commission Design Review Committee definitively approved Safeway’s proposal to redevelop the land in a 2 to 1 vote earlier this year. Now, the Design Review Committee is preparing a draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to analyze the potential environmental implications of the project, after which there will be a public review period and a hearing at which members of the public can voice opinions.
“These types of large projects can be subject to a pretty lengthy review process,” says Darin Ranelletti, a case planner for the city of Oakland on this project. “That’s typical.” He says the draft EIR should be released for public review sometime in the spring. Afterwards, there will be another round of reviews and the report and design will be sent to all of the Planning Commission for a decision.
“The project is still in the review process and there’s been no decision yet,” Ranelletti says. “Safeway submitted the [design] proposal. The city can approve, deny, or modify it.”
Ideally, Houghton wrote, Safeway’s directors would like to see the project break ground by late summer and hope to keep the process moving along. “We will respond to the comments of the Design Review Board and we are anxious to present this project at the Planning Commission level as soon as possible,” she wrote.
Despite the new design proposal, shutting down the CVS mega-store is still unpopular among some shoppers and neighbors. “I’m heartbroken,” said Ellen Cohler, as she recently shopped at the CVS. “This was an incredible service to the community and it’s despicable that they’re going to shut it down.”
Cohler said that she has shopped here for 39 years and once had a prize-winning garden created with plants purchased at the store. “Since CVS took it over, it’s gone downhill at an alarming rate. And now they’re going to close it?” she said. “I have nothing good to say about CVS or Safeway, for that matter, but I’ll not stoop to that language.”
Many locals agree that the store isn’t what it used to be. Stuart Flashman, chair of the Rockridge Community Planning Council’s board, said that ever since PayLess Drug sold the original store decades ago, none of the subsequent companies were set up for this style of mega-store and have not quite known how to handle merchandising. “Longs was probably the best at it,” says Flashman. “CVS is at a loss of how to run it. They are already starting to close it down. They’ve got aisles closed down and cleared.”
Since the CVS acquisition, rumors have flown among residents that CVS never had any interest in maintaining the store and may have engaged in an inside deal with Safeway to close it down. However, CVS’s spokesman says that this store has been very successful for the company. “The only reason that we’re closing is because our landlord wasn’t re-leasing,” says DeAngelis. “We apparently don’t fit into their plans.”
Alvin B. Chan, Inc., a San Francisco-based real estate business, owns 95 percent of the entire strip mall’s property; the other 5 percent is owned by the Claremont Country Club. In 2001, Safeway signed a master lease to the property, which gave the company control of the site for 40 years. Since Longs was already in the location when Safeway signed the master lease, it’s likely some type of pre-existing lease was passed onto CVS, says Flashman.
People who have been watching the proposal develop have speculated that there may be friction between two such similar stores. “It’s been pretty clear, in recent times, that Safeway would like to see the CVS gone,” says Flashman. This might be because of competition, he suggests. “The CVS store has a significant grocery department and that competes directly with Safeway,” he says. Then there are over-the-counter medicines, housewares and cleaning agents—both stores carry these items, he says.
Houghton says that Safeway hasn’t ruled out relocating CVS to a smaller space that carries fewer items within the redeveloped center. “We are talking to many different tenants for the redevelopment of the site—including CVS,” wrote Houghton. “It’s too early to know the exact outcome as we still don’t have an approved project.”
In the meantime, CVS has already begun the process of shutting down its superstore by June, and the company is planning its next steps. Store representatives say they will transfer all of their pharmacy operations to their store on 41st Street off of Piedmont Avenue. CVS operates six other stores in Oakland and customers can use the pharmacy at any of those other locations, too.
Even though shoppers can find another, smaller CVS just a few blocks away, the loss of the 24-hour mega-store is still a blow to its longtime fans. “It’s one of the most upsetting things to people in the whole of North Oakland. People love that store,” says Flashman. “It’s the modern equivalent to the general store.”
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