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.
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.
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.”
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