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Plans to build grocery store in West Oakland delayed by rising cost of property

on April 13, 2015

Brahm Ahmadi of West Oakland has been trying for years to open the People’s Community Market—his planned 10,000 to 20,000 square-foot grocery store—in the middle of an Oakland food desert.

The People’s Community Market, as envisioned, would focus on serving the low-income families of West Oakland, and in 2013, Ahmadi campaigned to raise initial seed money. Through direct public offerings, or investment crowdfunding, he raised $1.2 million from about 400 shareholders.

Challenges in finding a location for the store have delayed its debut. Ahmadi is pursuing properties located on W. Grand Avenue, between San Pablo Avenue and Adeline Street, in West Oakland, but the prices he’s been offered are what he believes to be several times market value. However, Ahmadi says he now believes he is within months of securing a location.

Brahm Ahmadi, courtesy photo

Brahm Ahmadi, courtesy photo

Uptown and Downtown Oakland have been getting more expensive, but Ahmadi says commercial property in West Oakland is different. “It’s been tough because of the speculative and unrealistic expectations,” he said.

Prices may be high because property owners are speculating about what their land might be worth soon, according to Sarah Filley, co-founder and executive director of Popuphood, which incubates small businesses to revitalize neighborhoods. However, she was quick to stress that Popuphood’s mission is to not speculate.

“It’s better to have a tenant who is taking a risk in a transitional neighborhood than to have it empty for five years until the market catches up with the perceived value of the real estate,” she said.

The City of Oakland Planning and Zoning Commission published a West Oakland Specific Plan in July 2014, outlining steps to revitalize retail in the area. The plan details a strategy to improve what it calls “West Oakland Opportunity Areas,” remove constraints to business growth and encourage the market to respond. “Most likely, the process will go slowly, will need nurturing, and will build up over time,” the plan states.

The major retail establishments in West Oakland were a hardware store, a 99 Cent Store, two apparel retailers, two fast food chains and four restaurants, at the time the plan was published.

“I used to live there, and I remember when the Mandela grocery store opened, and I remember when the 99 Cent Store opened,” Filley said. “I actually talked to a lot of residents about where they shopped—you know, my neighbors—and a lot of them said they couldn’t afford to buy the healthier, fresher food at Mandela. They demanded the 99 Cent Store.”

West Oakland is one of the city’s four census tracts that the US Department of Food and Agriculture has identified as food deserts, or parts of the country that do not have easy access to fresh fruit, vegetables or other whole foods. Food options available in West Oakland now may not be as good for residents’ health as fresh food from a grocery store would be, said Diane Woloshin, MS, RD, and Nutrition Services Director at the Alameda County Public Health Department.

“People who live near a high concentration of fast food restaurants and convenience stores have a higher prevalence of obesity and diabetes than those who live near grocery stores and fresh produce vendors,” Woloshin said.

But West Oakland doesn’t have the residential density or spending power to attract or support a big box retailer or supermarket, according to Ahmadi, who has worked on food access issues in West Oakland for over ten years.

The disconnect between rising Oakland rents and small business owners isn’t unique to West Oakland. Moreover, Ahmadi isn’t the only Oakland grocery entrepreneur who has had real estate troubles. In the Jack London neighborhood, another (albeit wealthier) area without a grocery store, Tommaso Boggia is a resident hoping to open a store called the Portside Community Market.

Tommaso Boggia, courtesy photo

Tommaso Boggia, courtesy photo

Boggia, like Ahmadi, sought to raise money from locals interested in having a market. After his Indiegogo campaign closed in December, he had raised $18,503, indicating a degree of community interest. However, real estate roadblocks prevented the Portside Community Market from opening in late 2014 as he had hoped.

Because of obstacles to opening Boggia’s 7000 square-foot store any time soon, he said he’s currently scaling back his dream, and now plans to start with a pop-up store—several shelves of groceries inside another business’ location.

Boggia said that his business plan and finances looked great two years ago, when he and supporters started planning the store. Now, however, rent has risen too high. “Rent can really make it or break it,” Boggia said. “And the area’s gotten a lot more desirable recently.”

Oranges photo “Fresh Fruit” by Eric Vasquez is licensed via Creative Commons License


  1. Monica on April 14, 2015 at 7:24 pm

    I think it’s great that people are interested in opening grocery stores in West Oakland. I grew up in West Oakland and was actually one of the worker owners of Mandela Foods who fought to open Mandela Foods coop. I was probably about 20 years old then. This was when West Oakland was REALLY a food desert. At that time we were aiming for the 99 cent store space but got rejected by Bridge Housing. The community at that time really didn’t want a cheep 99cent store. We wanted access to food not lead infested cheap rejected products. And grunt jobs that leave no place for growth. But money talks and we ended up with the much smaller space which was better than nothing I suppose (mind you it wasn’t just handed to us, we struggled for it for a very long time). I wouldn’t call West Oakland a food desert anymore and I wouldn’t say that all the community prefers the 99cent store over Mandela. Don’t you find it strange how the 99cent store began selling 99 cent groceries right next to this grocery store were people from the community were able to come together to build a business that was not only beneficial for its community but also for it’s employees? A place were we can grow and be more than just cashiers. A place that we actually have ownership of. You want to change a community, let them know it IS their community. They own it. I question who are these people that say that they prefer the 99 cent store over Mandela. Mandela has been a great addition to the community. And I don’t see why you would want to include them in a negative way in your plea for support/ funding. If you really care about the community you wouldn’t be trying to slander it’s contributions to the community. West Oakland is a hipsters dream. I’ve seen a lot of young grads and others come into West Oakland and make a comfortable living off of playing the “community activist”. You really want to help the community, don’t bash what we’ve accomplished. I look forward to your grocery store and the affordable prices that you say will beat Mandela Foods. I hope that it is organic and locally grown because whether people want to believe it or not, low income people WANT organic, pesticide free and local foods. If the community really didn’t want Mandela it wouldn’t be standing right now.

  2. thorn on April 15, 2015 at 11:06 am

    what monica said times 1000–while i take a more the merrier approach to places to buy produce in west oakland and i have respect for people’s grocery and all they do for food justice etc in the west but i feel like the is the umpteenth article about how they can’t find a place despite having a million bucks in the bank. they’re so focused on grand at adeline but that’s about the same distance for folx in the bottoms as to pak n save on 40th. there are number of empty warehouses down towards the bottoms, maybe they should consider a revision in their desired location. 99 cents store has some fresh fruits/veg but carries mostly processed foods. even the cheese they sell isn’t just milk+rennet+salt but mostly a shit ton of chemicals. it is cheap, but its not really food, just calories. also, why does no one mention the meat market at like 34th and market? or produce pro on 24th and san pablo? or tom henderson’s plan to open a place on market at 7th?

  3. Adrionna on April 20, 2015 at 8:30 am

    What’s in a name?

    This piece mentions a“Mandela grocery store” for which there is no such place. I am a co-owner of Mandela Foods Cooperative, 1430 7th Street across from the West Oakland Bart Station. To omit “Cooperative”, the operative word in our worker-owned grocery store, then, failure provide any context for the quote in which the store is mentioned, is misguided and misses the point – of everything.

    Promoting Justice – the real work.

    What is credible journalism? And what qualifies a story as a mere publicity stunt? How do writers, activist, entrepreneurs, community, etc. create meaningful work for ourselves – that serves our visions for serving community needs and actual“demands?”

    Truth telling. Due-diligence. Compassionate story telling.

    This article serves nothing.

    Service is being part of solutions. Connecting with others. More others. Especially, others promoting justice.

    Find and engage alternatives that work, feed and unify. Let us participate in and co-create culture(s), present and future, that reproduce care, love and cooperation.

    Let us focus less on nurturing markets and focus more on nurturing ourselves – our families, our communities, and the Earth.

    Let us connect and cooperate.
    The time is now.

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