Safeway Community Meeting Turns into Public Venting Session

22 Jun

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.

19 Responses to “Safeway Community Meeting Turns into Public Venting Session”

  1. The Overhead Wire June 23, 2008 at 1:06 am #

    Sounds Messy. I really wish people would not start out so oppositional to many of these projects. This is really what all our planning boils down to, not really planning but public perception. It drives me crazy.

  2. MFB June 23, 2008 at 10:07 am #

    Sorry to hear this. I like your characterization of RCPC never supporting any project. Very typical. I also find it funny/sad that in a city where eight people were shot this weekend, seven of them fatally, people would actually take the time to organize protests around a grocery store remodeling. It’s not just that city government has their priorities all screwed up, it’s quite clear that a lot of Oakland citizens do as well.

  3. Becks June 23, 2008 at 12:19 pm #

    I thought about this a bit more last night and this morning and realized what frustrated me most about this meeting – it could have been very productive. There were hundreds of engaged, intelligent community members there, many who had constructive ideas for improving the plan. We could have had a group brainstorm, a question and answer session, and broken down into groups to discuss issues and report back to the larger group.

    Instead, people just vented and probably went home feeling upset. This was the first community meeting I’ve been to that was organized by Jane Brunner, and I was extremely disappointed. It seems that the meeting was set up in a way as to avoid having anything productive come out of it.

    MFB – Yup. Sometimes I wish it was just that our elected officials were out of touch, but often it’s community members too.

  4. CLH June 23, 2008 at 1:27 pm #

    I’m not quite sure how you can make the argument that the meeting was “stacked against” Safeway? Nobody was forced to attend the meeting, nor was anyone told what to say. Individuals attended that meeting; some individuals belong to groups, some do not. If a majority of the people in a room are opposed to a development of that size, scale, and aesthetic, how is that unfair? Unfair to what? Unfair to whom? I’m really confused by that framing. I’m certain it would be frustrating or uncomfortable to be in a minority point of view (and I can empathize with that), but that doesn’t make it unfair or stacked.

    I don’t know if you failed to mention this, or if you don’t know it, but Safeway has been meeting with people in the immediate neighborhood for over a year, and the vast majority of comments you heard in the room are comments that have been suggested to Safeway repeatedly and civilly in that year by the other people they’ve been meeting with. There are a lot of flexible, creative, pragmatic people in the area, and they have been trying to impact the size/scale/look direction in a mutually beneficial way, but to no avail. There is legitimate back story to the brewing tensions . . . Safeway reached out to the neighborhood for conversation and dialogue. The problem is that they seemed not to like what they heard & the major consenus issues have been ignored. They have openly stated that they want partnership and that things can change, yet they have also not pursued real community partnering and have stated plainly that they will not reduce the footprint from 59,000 square feet. How is there room, then, to co-create a middle way, which many neighbors do, in fact, support.

  5. Becks June 23, 2008 at 1:41 pm #

    CLH – I appreciate your comments and your perspective on this.

    I think the meeting was stacked against Safeway’s proposal because after the Safeway rep spoke, three community groups that oppose the project were each given 5 minutes to speak. Also, the “greeters” at the door were opponents and there was no proponent or neutral information to be found when walking into the meeting. That really set the tone for the entire meeting. I believe there were many people in the audience that supported parts of the project or were neutral who were probably a bit scared to get up and say that because of the initial tone of the meeting. And after the response I received, I can see why they would be too scared to voice their opinions.

    I understand that this meeting is part of a larger process and that some in the community are upset with Safeway. I do hope that Safeway will listen to some of the more constructive comments given on Thursday and will work further on their project plan before submitting it to the city.

    My main problem with Thursday’s meeting is not really what was said but how it was said. I wish we could have had a constructive back and forth conversation (as I had with some community members after the meeting ended). I do think that progress can be made. Ultimately, not everyone will be happy with the project plan, but hopefully we can move towards something the entire community can live with.

  6. art June 23, 2008 at 3:13 pm #

    I do think it’s worth noting that there may have been few proponents/neutral folks there because, well, there just aren’t many of them. Don’t get me wrong–I think the current use of the Claremont Safeway/gas station parcel is pretty awful, and would love to see a two-story mixed use development, which they ought to be able to design easily in a way that doesn’t block sunny tables at Cole’s. But pretty much everyone I know in this neighborhood is opposed to the current design (and that includes lots of progressive-minded types who generally support intensifying uses in this area and don’t have an issue with the bigger building footprint itself). However, the congestion issues at that intersection are very real, and the neighbors are right–there’s really no need for a bigger Safeway there, as there are plenty of local grocers (and chains, and even another Safeway, also slated for being lifestyled!) in spitting distance. I’d love to see this one stay a smaller store, with the extra space shifted to housing instead–something the area really does need.

    It’s unfortunate that Safeway didn’t start with the Broadway store, which is an easier sell (close to freeways and major transpo corridors already, and a dedicated retail space, rather than part of a neighborhood fabric)–they might have had an easier time in Rockridge with a model already in the ground. In Berkeley, the Solano and Shattuck (N. Berkeley) stores are also being rebuilt as part of this campaign–worth following all of these projects since they’ll face similar challenges along the way. Might be some shared solutions, too.

  7. PM June 23, 2008 at 6:19 pm #

    I think it is important to note that the meeting wasn’t intended to be a brainstorming discussion, or even a Q&A. its objective, as set out by Jane Brunner, RCPC, and CENA, who sponsored the meeting, was to gather community impressions about the project. One minute commentaries create little more than the chance to voice broad perspectives (as you noted, you don’t get to say everything you want to). Many people in that room were aware of the meeting’s format and the limitations, and so chose to be emphatic in their opposition. These same people have created very well-reasoned arguments for their opposition, and, as CLH mentions, offered extensive, thoughtful commentary to Safeway about this project’s impact, only to find the size of the store increased and more inflexible traffic patterns created. From my perspective, it doesn’t seem to be the neighborhood that is unwilling to negotiate.
    The constructive back and forth that you are looking for is present in other forums, especially in neighbor-organized discussions. I’d encourage you to participate in those.

  8. Becks June 23, 2008 at 8:56 pm #

    PM – I guess I’m just not sure I see the value in what I experienced as a public venting session. Can someone tell me what was gained from this community meeting?

    I’d be happy to participate in neighborhood discussions about the project, as I do recognize that the people who spoke have more nuanced opinions than they were able to share in one minute. If anyone knows of any upcoming discussions, please let me know.

  9. soldier2writer June 23, 2008 at 11:32 pm #

    Meeting of the type described do nothing but cause and feed anger. The best way to gather public opinion is to list both pros and cons during one public meeting, then discuss them at a following meeting. This will give people a chance to put together their thoughts and present them in a rational manner. Meetings that degrade into shouting matches or personal attacks solve nothing.

  10. Eric June 24, 2008 at 7:36 am #

    art wrote:
    It’s unfortunate that Safeway didn’t start with the Broadway store, which is an easier sell (close to freeways and major transpo corridors already, and a dedicated retail space, rather than part of a neighborhood fabric)–they might have had an easier time in Rockridge with a model already in the ground.

    Actually, I would argue that this is the exact reason why they should have started with the Rockridge Safeway. The current use of the College & Claremont site is entirely out of character with the neighborhood — much more so, actually, than the design Safeway has proposed. I’m not saying I totally dig Safeway’s design, because there is plenty of room for improvement. But it’s clear that a building of this sort should definitely be built, though I (probably contrary to many neighbors, I imagine) would like even better to see a couple stories of apartments above.

    In terms of urban design, the Broadway Safeway is already a “lost cause,” so to speak, because it’s a huge strip mall with many stores. I would really like to see that site redeveloped into something more urban as well, with lots of apartments and pedestrian alleys, maybe a park, and so forth. But it would also take a master planning effort beyond what Safeway can do on its own.

  11. art June 24, 2008 at 12:11 pm #

    Eric, your master planning idea is an interesting one–since the Broadway Safeway plaza is indeed getting a complete overhaul (I’ve heard that Safeway is even considering giving Long’s the boot, which will make for an interesting public process!), it’s a prime opportunity to do just that. (Safeway is the master developer for the entire plaza in that case.) I suspect the challenge on all of these is that Safeway is overseeing and will then own the projects, and they don’t want to be residential landlords. Identifying some good precedents or partnerships that have worked in other similar situations could go a long way in encouraging designs that could include housing above (or other non-retail services and amenities). I think the Broadway store is set to follow closely on the heels of the College store (website is already up and they had an initial public meeting last fall), so now’s a good time to start collecting models, etc.

  12. PM June 24, 2008 at 12:16 pm #

    What you describe as a public venting session I would like to think is a healthy part of the democratic process. I subscribe to the idea that conflicting interpretations are more compatible with democratic values and democracy than undifferentiated consensus. While agitation might arise from publicly voicing dissenting opinions, it also enables the means by which allegiances – freely undertaken -are formed. I’ll take the voicing of angry opinions any day as it evidences the security of right to individual expression. And for the record, the meeting did not devolve into a shouting match. People who spoke out of turn were chided for their disrespect.

  13. Becks June 24, 2008 at 6:58 pm #

    PM – It’s not that I’m against any kind of “venting”. I think it’s important to share opinions and to hear opinions of others. However, I don’t appreciate venting for the sake of venting.

    At the AC Transit hearing last month about price increases, there was a lot of venting, but I left the meeting feeling good. Why? Because after the public spoke, the AC Transit directors responded and talked about next steps. They made it clear that they had listened. (And that became clearer recently when they decided not to raise fees.)

    In contrast, Jane Brunner only said a couple words after the public spoke, and she sounded pretty disinterested. She didn’t sound like she had listened to anyone and she didn’t say anything about next steps (except for that Safeway would submit a proposal). So I left the meeting feeling like nothing had changed and having no idea what would happen with the comments we had all shared.

  14. oakie June 29, 2008 at 7:31 am #

    i’m a proponent of “voting with your dollar”… imho, the rockridge safeway is a deplorable shopping experience: too small, too dated, too dusty, too dismal… i drive to alameda to do my shopping at the safeway/TJ combo, diverting much-needed tax dollars from oakland but also saving my sanity.

  15. Joanna July 1, 2008 at 4:47 pm #

    Like Oakie, I head to Alameda to shop, or almost as often to Berkeley Bowl. If I’m really ambitious I’ll go to the Monterey Market. (just wish it wasn’t closed on Sundays)

    It cracks me up that Rockridge residents are so upset over getting a new grocery store. And if LaFarrine thinks that they’ll be competing with Safeway, I’d bet that they’ll actually get MORE business with the added foot traffic. I know I’d be more likely to pop in for a pastry or a loaf of bread since it’s right there.

    Meanwhile, here in the Jack London District we’ve begged and pleaded for a grocery store. Even a Safeway would be better than nothing. Yeah, I’d prefer a Trader Joe’s, Andronico’s, or Piedmont Grocery but trust me, I think down here people would be really, really happy to see Safeway.

    I’m not sure what the reason was for moving the store from it’s current location – it seems that a 2-story building on the existing location with more parking and a few extra shops, would be good. But maybe they have some particular reason for wanting to move down a few blocks?

    I’ve been listening to Jane Brunner in various meetings lately. I think she’s beyond ready for the summer break. She’s letting her frustration show way too easily and doesn’t appear at all interested in what folks have to say. (imho)

  16. Becks July 1, 2008 at 4:59 pm #

    Joanna – the proposed two story store is in the same location. It is quite ironic that while many neighborhoods in Oakland are begging for a grocery store, some Rockridge residents are rejecting one. I too think that the smaller stores on the other side of the street will benefit from increased foot traffic, but change scares some people, especially in the midst of a recession.

  17. Ken February 15, 2009 at 10:16 pm #

    The proposed store IS out of scale to the local shops and it’s unnecessary. The current store is sufficient in size. We don’t need mega stores that will block the view of the hills. Of course many of the local residents are pissed off with Safeway’s all or nothing attitude about this project. Safeway isn’t listening to the community members on this one. If you actually lived in the area, right near the store, this would be a no brainer…

  18. dto510 February 17, 2009 at 6:36 pm #

    Ken, how is the Safeway proposal out of scale? It’s across the street from a four-story building. What is out of scale is the enormous surface parking lot. By the way, since you played the NIMBY card, my parents live who have lived in Rockridge since the 1970s, are just blocks from the store, right off Claremont, and they support its expansion. Safeway, like other grocery stores in Rockridge, serves more than just the immediate area, and the customer demand for a larger store shows that’s what people really want.

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