I had expected Thursday night’s community meeting on the Rockridge Safeway proposal to be contentious, but I don’t think I was prepared for just how heated and lopsided it was going to get.
I arrived at the meeting about 10 minutes late and walked into Peralta at the same time as another woman approached. We started talking and she asked me what street I lived on. When I answered that I lived on Telegraph, she responded, “Oh, I didn’t realize people over there cared about this.” Pretty obnoxious considering I live about 6 blocks from the Safeway – it’s not like I said I lived on MLK or in downtown.
As I walked up to the room, I ran into another nice wake up call about what this meeting would be like. In front of the door, a few people were standing behind a table with clipboards. I assumed it was the place to sign in and get info so I approached. Then I saw that they were all wearing these stickers:
(Image from OaklandNews.)
And they didn’t have sign up sheets – they had petitions aiming to stop the Safeway project because of its size. I didn’t feel like engaging and was already late so I turned to walk inside, but it was so crowded it took me a few minutes to make my way through the door and then find a spot to stand at the back corner of the room. The place was packed – I’m sure we were breaking some fire code. Michael at OaklandNews reports that 300 people were there, and that sounds like a pretty good estimate.
The representative from Safeway, Todd Paradis, had already begun his presentation. I’m not sure, but it seemed like he was only given 15 or maybe 20 minutes to speak and Brunner was rushing him along, telling him he was running out of time. Paradis showed a bunch of slides, most of which were pictures that can be found on the project website, of current plans and future plans.
People in the crowd interrupted Paradis several times and gasped and laughed at some of what he said. I think the entire room gasped and chattered when he put this slide up:
(Image from Safeway’s project website.)
To his credit, Paradis kept his cool during the presentation, which I thought was very professional and made a good case for the need for change. He explained several times throughout that this was a work in progress and that there would be many more opportunities for community input. Strangely, there was no opportunity given for audience members to ask him questions, which I think would have been the most useful way to make the meeting productive. Instead, the meeting quickly devolved into a venting session.
Three community groups were then given 5 minutes each to discuss their feelings on the project. Someone from the Rockridge Community Planning Council (RCPC) used most of his time denying that RCPC supported this project, since his comments to the Chronicle made it seem this way. Inexplicably to me, RCPC NEVER supports projects. Sometimes they oppose and sometimes they are neutral, but they never support! Which to me means that they never want to see Rockridge changed in any way, even if it’s clearly to the benefit of the community.
A rep from the Claremont-Elmood Neighborhood Association (CENA) spoke next. CENA’s a Berkeley based group, but I take no issue with them taking a stance on this project since it’s only a few dozen feet from the Berkeley-Oakland border. Unsurprisingly to me, they’re opposing this project – they think it’s too big and doesn’t fit in with the rest of the neighborhood.
Rounding out the trio of opposition groups, Susan Shawl, a community member who’s led the opposition to the project, spoke next and tried to rile up the crowd. She went on and on about how the project is too big, how Safeway hadn’t listened to community input, and how the proposal, if carried out, would completely ruin the neighborhood.
Her sentiments were echoed again and again by the vast majority of the 80 audience members who signed up to speak. We were all given one minute, which seemed like plenty of time for people in opposition to the project, since most of them were repeating what others had said. Here are some of the complaints that came up:
- It’s too big – both in square feet and because it’s two stories high.
- It doesn’t fit in with the rest of the neighborhood and threatens to turn Rockridge into another cookie-cutter suburban area.
- The increased size would lead to a huge increase in traffic, and there are already traffic problems on College.
- The design is ugly (too cliche, too suburban, too corporate, etc.).
- The increased offerings would compete with the locally owned stores across the street and threaten to shut them down.
- The bigger Safeway wouldn’t attract enough customers and it would shut down, leaving a huge empty space and empty parking lot.
- The two-story design would block the sunlight. Someone went further to say that the fact that he wouldn’t be able to sit in the sun across the street at Cole Coffee and drink his coffee was reason enough to oppose the project.
- The design doesn’t include enough public space. One woman had the audacity to say that the current parking lot offers open public space that would be lost in the redesign.
- Safeway’s just a big corporation that doesn’t care about the neighborhood.
After the second group of ten had finished speaking, I started to get a bit worried. Would I be the only one who had something positive to say about the project? Don’t get me wrong – I’m not afraid of having or voicing a minority opinion, but I can’t recall even one instance when I was so outnumbered.
In the third group of ten speakers, though, I was saved from being the lone supporter of change. One person got up and simply said that he didn’t think the project was too big. No one in the audience leaped up to attack him so I felt a bit better after that. A few speakers later, Zak Unger had some even more pointed words:
Zac Unger said a larger store would present an opportunity to shift shopping dollars from Berkeley to Oakland.
“I think we shouldn’t fear change,” Unger said. “I remember all the gnashing of teeth when Market Hall came in. I remember when Trader Joe’s came in. … They’re adding 15,000 square feet of shops. They’re probably the kind of shops we like.”
I joined maybe three other people in clapping for him, as he had said much of what I planned to and added some much needed perspective on the history of fights about other neighborhood projects. After he spoke, I listened to several more people speak against the project, and then my name was called.
As I waited in line at the front of the room for my turn, I started realizing how angry I felt at how unfair the meeting seemed to be and how I couldn’t possibly say all the positive things about this project in the one minute I was given in the way that the opposition had in the more than an hour and a half that they had. Though I’ve spoken in front of larger crowds and even crowds as hostile, I was getting pretty nervous and my heart was beating quickly.
When it was my turn, I started out by saying I agreed that the project needed some work. But I said I was shocked by how some people were talking about the current building and lot as if they were an acceptable part of our neighborhood. Specifically, I referred to the comment about the parking lot being public space, and then I said that I thought the current corner was atrocious and did not fit in with the character of the neighborhood. At that, the crowd gasped and I heard some negative sounds, though I couldn’t make out exact words.
I continued, saying that Safeway attracts people from outside of Oakland to spend money in Oakland, to which someone in the crowd screamed out that I was lying. I, as calmly as I could, put my hand up and asked everyone to let me continue. (The heckler continued to shout but I kept going.) I said that UC Berkeley students depend on this Safeway and you could see dozens of them there any day. I told my own story of going to UC Berkeley and shopping at Safeway and how I spent money at other businesses too and that those were some of my only trips into Oakland. I said that students go to Safeway because it’s cheap and convenient and that these students wouldn’t otherwise venture to this neighborhood because the stores were more expensive. I then said that the neighborhood could use more retail, particularly a hardware store, and that this plan would attract more shoppers to the neighborhood.
My minute was up more quickly than I had hoped and I didn’t get to say that though traffic is a concern, the current parking lot is never full, which makes me think that most people arrive there by foot, bike, or bus. I also didn’t get the chance to remind people that we weren’t talking about a new corporation coming in, but an existing store that has been party of our neighborhood for decades.
After I spoke, several more spoke in opposition to the plan, but several people also spoke in favor of working with Safeway to improve the proposal and to make this plan work for the neighborhood. Also, about five people came up to me individually and said they agreed with most of what I had said.
The meeting ended and I spoke to a few of the people standing near me. I spoke to one woman who was wearing one of the It’S too B-I-G stickers, and we had a very nice conversation. She appreciated my perspective and hadn’t thought about some of the arguments I had brought up. I asked her if she was opposed to any increase in size, and she said that she was not, but that she didn’t like the current project. She shops at Safeway and appreciates the convenience but is concerned about the changes it will bring to the neighborhood. My guess is that most of the people in the crowd who didn’t speak felt much like this woman – they’re scared of what they see of as a big corporation taking control of the future of their neighborhood, but they’re willing to compromise and to accept some changes.
As I was speaking to this woman, the owner of La Farinne (the bakery across the street from Safeway) interrupted our conversation and yelled at me that I was wrong. He glared at me and said that his loaves of bread were a dollar cheaper than the loaves at Safeway. I tried to explain that I was not talking specifically about his store and that UC Berkeley students wouldn’t know that his store was cheaper, but he cut me off and said, “A dollar cheaper, our loaves are a dollar cheaper,” as he waved his finger at me.
I’ve only bought bread at La Farinne a couple times because I usually get my bread at the farmers market, but I’m never going back there. I really couldn’t believe how rude the owner had been to me. It was completely unnecessary.
On that note, I finished up the conversation I was having and walked home. I left feeling extremely frustrated and like this meeting had been stacked against the Safeway proposal by how it was organized and carried out.
Safeway plans to submit an initial proposal to the city by the end of July, and there will be many, many more meetings on this plan. Hopefully future meetings will be more productive than this one. Until then, I at least feel a bit better (and less alone) reading some of the positive and more level-headed critical comments left at the Safeway proposal website or Eric’s analysis of the project at Transbay Blog.