John Gatewood: Former opponents united in opposition to Safeway plan for Rockridge Center

14 Jul

This guest post was written by John Gatewood, one of the co-founders of ULTRA (Urbanists for a Livable Temescal Rockridge Area), which supports higher density mixed-use development along the major transit corridors of north Oakland. John works in the Graphic Arts Industry and is a resident of Temescal.

I hope all who oppose the construction of another suburban-style auto-centric strip mall in Oakland will come to the Planning Commission meeting on July 15 to voice their opposition to what Safeway has proposed at the site of the Rockridge Center Mall at Broadway and Pleasant Valley in north Oakland. This proposal is so offensive and so disrespectful of our city and our neighborhoods that it has managed to unite in opposition all the neighborhood groups who until now had been on opposite sides of the various development debates in north Oakland these past four years. And for those who have experienced how contentious these debates have been it is indeed a powerful statement that we all oppose this proposal.

A little background – In 1998 the City of Oakland, to its credit, adopted a visionary General Plan. The overarching goal was to steer new mixed-use development to the transit corridors in our city. Certain major transit corridors in Oakland also carry the designation “growth and change” because these are the transit corridors that the city thinks should be the location for higher density housing development in Oakland. The Broadway corridor is designated as “growth and change” from the 580 freeway underpass to College Avenue and the intersection of Broadway, Pleasant Valley and 51st Street has the further distinction of also being the center of a stretch of upper Broadway designated as a; “Target Area for Community and Economic Development.” It is also states that for this Target Area the city should; “conduct land-use study to determine the feasibility of higher density housing.” The city did just that in the Conley Report released in June 2008 that studied all of Oakland’s retail opportunities. This report singled out this intersection as one of only five “finalist nodes” in the entire city as; “an opportunity to redevelop the pattern of land use to one that is less auto-oriented, and supports creation of a pedestrian environment that serves the adjacent neighborhoods.” In the report, there are multiple alternatives presented as to how higher density mixed-use could be built on this site.

After all this quite clear direction from the city as to what its vision for this major transit node in Oakland is, imagine the community’s surprise and anger at being presented with a strip mall proposal that walls itself off from the neighborhoods!

The July 15 Planning Commission meeting is a “scoping” session for this project to help determine what the EIR will study. It is very important that the Planning Commission hear that the community does not want another strip mall in Oakland! Our hope is that the Planning Commission will instruct staff to study multiple alternatives to the proposal but that these alternatives must include housing. The city needs to use the EIR to encourage Safeway to help achieve the vision the city has for this junction where three neighborhoods meet. There is now an opportunity to build a project that could knit Temescal, Rockridge and Piedmont Avenue together instead of continuing to divide them and it is up to us to convince the Planning Commission to make this happen.

The Planning Commission meeting will be held on Wednesday, July 15th at 6:00 pm in Hearing Room 1, City Hall, 1 Frank Ogawa Plaza and the full agenda can be read here.

32 Responses to “John Gatewood: Former opponents united in opposition to Safeway plan for Rockridge Center”

  1. G July 14, 2009 at 11:03 am #

    Look, whether you like Safeway’s project or not, just don’t kill the project. I’d rather have whatever they give us than what’s there right now. Remember, it’s Safeway’s land and right to develop as they think is best for them. They don’t really owe us the kind of things you claim are owed to Oakland.

    Don’t kill the project.

  2. John Gatewood July 14, 2009 at 11:44 am #

    In response to G – It is not Safeway’s land. They are the “master lease holder” for the site and have, I think, a 40 year lease. No one is looking to kill any project. All I am saying and many others are saying is don’t put a suburban strip mall in an urban setting. Also it isn’t a question of Safeway “owing” anything to Oakland. It IS a question of Safeway responding to the market they are in and building a project that reflects that market, which quite frankly would be the more profitable move on their part. For the simple reason that putting housing where your store is will give your store more customers.

  3. carbonxt July 14, 2009 at 11:46 am #


    I agree we shouldn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good, but look at safeway’s current proposal. It’s mostly one big parking lot. It’s an insignificant improvement over the current situation.

    Safeway doesn’t ‘owe’ oakland anything, but if they want to be part of the community, they have to follow the same zoning regulations we all do. And that includes, as explained above, not putting several acre parking lots along primary transportation corridors, of which Broadway is one of.

  4. raphael tran July 14, 2009 at 11:47 am #

    born and raised in oakland. went to safeway’s with my mom & dad since the days of strawhat pizza. that being said–the current mix of buildings along with that defunct hick’ry pit needs to be thoroughly revitalized. less autocentric? that’s not going to happen anytime soon, esp with the macarthur maze and CA-24 / I-580 nearby. as with the previous poster, like it or not, it’s their land. i would envision the plans would include more trees and sidewalks with tables and benches for general use. heck, it might even be a destination. arguing for smaller mom & pops stores falls flat–since i’ve been going to safeway for 30+ years. those existing small shops found a niche and managed to work.

  5. Becks July 14, 2009 at 12:23 pm #

    I think some of the commenters above don’t understand city planning. Just because someone (or an entity) owns land, that doesn’t just mean they can do whatever they want with that. The city (and not just Oakland, but any city) has a huge amount of discretion over what gets built and they exercise this discretion for the good of the community, not just for the good of the particular owner.

    Also, for more background on this subject, you can check out my last two posts on this project:

  6. Len Gilbert July 14, 2009 at 12:25 pm #

    Looks like El Cerritto plaza to me…not the right thing for this area. This is a cookie cutter design. Safeway is not the problem, but the focus on a suburban parking lot surrounded by chainstores is a waste of this large piece of land.

    Yes, the current setup is basically “Big Longs” and Starbucks, but do we really to rebuild what’s already there? It’s time to take the opportunity to make something for the future. Include housing, bike and bus facilities, easy pedestrian access. Decrease the parking lot and keep it on the Safeway roof and/or underground. Put in more greenspace.

    • PRE July 15, 2009 at 11:15 pm #

      Greenspace!!! Hosusing?? No body is going to build housing anyplace in Oakland for years – have you seen the empty units in Uptown? What Oakland needs is more places to buy things rather than having to go to SF, Emeryville or WC to buy anything. This place was a QUARRY for goodness sakes and will never blend into the street scape like the surrounding areas. Can all the complainers please concentrate on the Claremont Safeway and leave this project alone.

      • John December 28, 2009 at 2:54 pm #

        Thank you! If you look around this neighborhood it looks more like an older suburb, much like alameda and piedmont. For goodness sake lets just do this without someone complaining all the time.

        As I stated elsewhere on another blog, the people who live in this area should be glad they have this opportunity to have such a nice center being considered. The people around The Foodhill Shopping center lost a lucky’s store as well as other retail stores. They would be grateful to have the chance you spoiled brats have.

  7. John Seal July 14, 2009 at 12:36 pm #

    I’m all for less traffic and pedestrian-friendly development–I use rapid transit and my feet to get where I’m going–but I just can’t imagine how the Piedmont/Rockridge/Temescal neighborhoods could be ‘knit together’ considering the scale and width of Pleasant Valley/51st and Broadway. These are wide transit corridors that scream ‘drive a car’, and are quite risky for those of us on foot.

    I live on Thermal Hill above the quarry, so I will definitely be affected by this project. Before condemning it, however, I would like some basic information: okay, so Safeway envisions 304,000 square feet of commercial space and 1,006 parking spaces. How does that compare to what we have now? If this is simply a case of constructing new buildings (hopefully not as ugly as the old ones) and rearranging the parking lot, I’m inclined to support the project. If this is a case of adding a bunch of fast food restaurants and doubling the parking spaces, maybe not. I need some context, and something more specific than ‘we need housing’ (and yes, I support urban infill) before I’m going to get my dander up.

    • Becks July 14, 2009 at 12:39 pm #

      I don’t have the exact numbers in front of me, but their current plan includes adding hundreds more parking spots, which is completely unnecessary. You can see the site plans in the link above to get a sense of what this will look like.

  8. Max Allstadt July 14, 2009 at 12:53 pm #

    The current proposal is an abomination, and would do little to help the area.

    If we are in the midst of a discussion about Broadway and Auto Row already, this site is critical. It represents a link between College Ave. and whatever is to become of broadway.

    I want to see the site establish pedestrian links in all directions, even if it requires building a bridge across the water to the east. For that matter, is there any reason why the city can’t work with safeway to facilitate a development that embraces and uses that body of water (what the hell is it called, anyway?)

    I want to see a development which engages CCA campus on Coronado Street if possible. And I also want to see something tall. That corner is far enough away from residential areas that at least on the corner, it could handle a 5 story building if financing permits.

    This is an opportunity to create a major economic and urban motivator on upper broadway. We should make sure Safeway does the right thing for Oakland, not just the right thing for Safeway.

    • PRE July 15, 2009 at 11:20 pm #

      That sure is a lot of “I wants” going on there. Why don’t you buy the land and then you can build whatever you want?

      • Max Allstadt July 16, 2009 at 8:44 am #

        If you want to think about development in terms of free market economics, clearly my strategy makes sense. I want a better city. I can’t afford to buy the city. So instead, my fellow citizens and I use the political system to get at least some of what we want. It’s free! Much much cheaper than becoming a land baron. Therefore a better option.

        • PRE July 16, 2009 at 10:44 am #

          It’s certainly not “free” by any stretch of the imagination. A certain amount of input from the people who will eventually shop at or use a parcel of land makes sense for everyone concerned, but what goes on here in the Bay Area is something else entirely.

          All the delay and re-work and frankly bitching and moaning adds to the cost for Safeway, any other store that might eventually want to go into this spot, as well as the eventual shoppers who pay more because a process that should take 6 months takes 3 years. Ultimately, everyone in Oakland pays from reduced taxes, fewer services and reduced places to shop.

          What you’re actually saying is since you can’t buy the city (I was only talking about this parcel, but those are your words) you’re going to use the broken “political” process to get what you want – hence all the I wants. That sounds more like throwing a tantrum than anything else.

          The perfect case in point has been all the angst over cutting some trees around the Lake as part of Measure DD work. All that did was delay a good project, ramp up the cost and push out and end date to who knows when. But by golly – “they’re cutting some trees!!!” We’ve got to stop it! And this project, and the Claremont Safeway are the same silly tempest in a teapot.

          But no matter what you think – it’s not free, and in my opinion YOU make what is a worse city.

        • PRE July 16, 2009 at 10:53 am #

          If you want the ultimate example look at the Oak to Ninth project. That thing was killed outright by all the “activists” who had their wants. Way to go! Oakland end up with thousands of fewer housing units, worse bay access – such a success for making Oakland a better place!

    • John December 28, 2009 at 2:59 pm #

      Do you really know what abomination means? Or are you just throwing words around to impress people.

      I don’t find this project offensive at all. This part of town might be in an urban area but it has a pleasant older suburban feel to it; like Alameda or Piedmont and don’t think they are bad areas. I would generally agree if in fact the area was densely populated like SF, but its not!

      Just build it and you’ll probably be one of the first people there buying stuff.

  9. Rob the Planner July 14, 2009 at 12:53 pm #

    The plans for the Broadway/Pleasant Valley site should have no open parking. This site should have ground floor retail maximized, housing above maximized, and minimal parking. The developers should contribute to improving pedestrian amenities in the area

  10. david vartanoff July 14, 2009 at 1:02 pm #

    First, YES we who live in this city DO have a right to insist on a better/more useful to us/greener project.
    Second, just because 51st/PV and B’way are badly laid out is no reason not to correst them.
    So, if Safeway wants to “improve” this obsolete shopping center,, GREAT! The present plan is not acceptable. As to killing it, yes, if Safeway is unwilling to do a much better and different project, then, y by all means it should die.

  11. raphael tran July 14, 2009 at 1:03 pm #

    hah, there’s a lot of self-righteous, arrogant, selfish and downright pretentiousness going on with those against the development. i agree, there shouldn’t be a total paving over of the area. but it is what it is–this is pretty much a strip mall, albeit one that’s been grandfathered in. i understand y’all want to have more housing–but guess what–that’s going to create more traffic anyways. plus, is everyone living in that new super dense housing going to be taking public transportation or walk? no way, not with 580 & 24 minutes away. a bunch of lofts sprung up around my area in the last few years…and sure, there’s the emery-go-round, AC transit & BART…..but come on around to the corner of 40th & adeline….look at the parking lots–they’re all full!!!! so i get it, more dense housing (ok by me) and less parking (stupid!). the development doesn’t look that bad, OK? it’s about high time safeway and the adjoining buildings in that lot get redone. get over yourselves.

  12. John Seal July 14, 2009 at 1:17 pm #

    I suppose whether or not the new development is an abomination is in the eye of the beholder. Is the old shopping center an abomination? I’d say so. I’m having a very, very hard time imagining its replacement being worse, however. There will still be lots of cars and big box stores that no one professes to like (but lots of people use). The smaller shops currently in the complex are neither very Rockridgy or Piedmont Avenuey: they’re useful but completely unglamorous sources of retail tax income for the city.

    As for the ‘body of water’, it’s the quarry, and it’s owned by the Claremont Country Club. I doubt they would approve anyone building anything across it, and frankly, I wouldn’t WANT them to build anything across it. Where would the outlet be? There’s no space for one unless you tear down a house. Though I wish the Country Club would do something about the grove of eucalyptus that stand between my house and the quarry, the trees and the quarry are an effective ‘break’ that deadens light and noise from the current parking lot.

    Plus the quarry also supplied the water that extinguished the fire that broke out in my back yard during the firestorm, so I’m inclined to keep it!

  13. David Herr July 14, 2009 at 2:32 pm #

    I am a commercial real estate broker, and have long supported adding medium to high density housing along transit corridors. I used to live at the corner of Grand and Oakland Avenues, and have long thought that the Broadway/Pleasant Valley complex would be ideal for housing over retail.

    The problem with that is that in this real estate market, and for the next several years, adding housing supply would be economically suicidal, and impossible to finance.

    Perhaps a compromise would be to allow redevelopment of the current site as single story retail, but with two caveats: 1) to the greatest extent possible, push the footprint towards the street, and reserve above-ground parking for the rear of the site; and 2) design and build it in a way that housing can be added on top later, when it becomes economically warranted again.

    In this fashion, Safeway and CVS could get new and more modern stores, and the community could get more appealing a more appealing structure and layout than currently exists, while preserving options for the future.

    The only thing worse than what’s there now, would be if what’s there now goes dark. And as far as traffic goes, there really is no such thing as a supermarket without parking, since, especially in that hilly area, it’s not practical for the vast majority of people to walk or bike to the supermarket. So the driving is already baked into the cake. Indeed, adding medium to high density residential would require MORE parking space, since each unit MUST, to be saleable, have a parking space.

  14. Robert July 14, 2009 at 3:53 pm #

    First, this is not a “new” strip mall. The current Safeway/Longs are very much a suburban strip mall concept. Even the current Safeway proposal is an improvement from the current situation, and with the bilevel parking and the parking on top of the store is a major step away from the strip mall that is currently there. Could it be still better, sure. But get rid of the parking? It is at the intersection of two major streets, and is in the perfect location to accomodate those customers that need to drive to get their errands done.

    It looks like the property is not currently zoned to accomodate any residential. Why on earth would Safeway want to get the zoning changed, and doing the environmental impact studies, which would be required. Studying housing was something the general plan suggested, but the city has not done. Safeway can build it’s desired mixed commercial development without any zoning changes. This property is actually in the North Hills planning area of the GP, which was pretty much glossed over in the GP without changes. The citation for growth and change is for the North Oakland area, which excludes this property anyway. (It is not clear why it was not in the NOrth Oakland area.)

    Safeway is not going to make major changes to the intersection. If you want to “correct” 51st/Pleasant Valley/Broadway, get the city to do it. It is ridiculous to ask the developer to do it.

    There is nothing wrong with pushing Safeway to make it more pedestrian and transit freindly, but people are not going to walk to it, because there is no connections to any surrounding neighborhood, and Safeway is not going to be able to fix that.

    Finally, the Conley Report, at least the version on the cities web site, studied Auto Row almost exclusively, and made only passing mention to the Rockridge Shopping Center. Unless you can provide a link to some other report, citing this to say that there should be housing there is just false.

    • V Smoothe July 15, 2009 at 1:47 pm #

      The General Plan marks this spot as Community Commercial, which allows for a FAR of 5.0 and residential density of 125 units/acre.

      Re: Conley, you can read the report here (PDF). The section specifically about 51st and Broadway begins on page 53.

      • Robert July 16, 2009 at 7:23 am #

        There would appear to be 2 totally different Conley reports, one of which discusses auto row and this one which discusses other retail. Very confusing.

  15. James F July 14, 2009 at 8:55 pm #

    I may be mistaken here, but if Safeway controls the land via a ground lease with only 40 years remaining, I don’t see how for-sale residential can realistically be built here, at least right now. The cost of building high density residential over retail makes this product type impractical in the current market even with traditional land ownership rights, let alone at prices reduced to compensate the homeowner for only having the use of the property for 40 years. And requiring Safeway to foot the additional costs necessary to construct the ground floor retail buildings to a specification that would support residential units above them, residential units which might not ever be built, could be a project killer in this market.

    As for the comments about an expanse of parking, the linked site plan indicates the City Zoning Code requires 1,017 spaces. As proposed, the project includes 1,021 spaces, just four more than the City mandates. If the community truly feels the project includes too much parking, perhaps changes need to be proposed to the parking ratios mandated by the current Zoning Code. I feel quite certain Safeway would gladly reduce the number of parking spots if the community supported it and the City would allow it. I also think it is worth noting that of the approximately 1,000 spaces included in the project, 501 are located out of site – nearly a third of them on the roof of main building, and approximately 200 below ground and behind the buildings – resulting in fewer parking spaces visible from the street than the current configuration of the site (667 stalls).

    In some respects, allowing the property to be redeveloped for retail and office use as currently proposed, will provide an opportunity for subsequent redevelopment of the property, possibly to include residential uses, when the current ground lease runs out and control of the site reverts back to the landowner.

    As proposed, the project includes space for a garden center and nearly 30,000 square feet of office uses which could bring living-wage jobs to the neighborhood (and I think everyone agrees Oakland could use more of those), so calling the project a strip center is an over-simplification and somewhat disingenuous. Taken as a whole, the project appears to meet the General Plan’s stated goals of Community and Economic Development for this stretch of Broadway. Lets just hope Top Dog stays.

  16. Gerald V July 15, 2009 at 3:17 pm #

    “Suburban Style – Auto-Centric” ???
    Well not completely, after all current center ( and remodeled version) is reachable by A.C. Transit from all areas of Temescal, Rockridge and Piedmont Areas (try 12,51 and 59 bus routes plus on the way home from San Francisco CB line). So which suburban mall has this amenity? Also for those who like to save gas and walk and because we have good sidewalks the current center is accessible. Again which suburban mall has this feature? I would agree that the planning department needs to promote and emphsis the walkable anc accessible feature. I would also agree with what James F. has written above. Oh and one other issue to mention.
    Do people seriously believe that Longs Nursery is that good. I have had better luck with plant material from Nursery at ACE and the one on Broadway Terrace. Also realize that that building(“Big Longs”) and in fact all the buildings in the center were built to 1964 Building Code Standards. We have had 3 major earthquakes in the state since then and all were followed by stricter building code requirements for seismic. So I am not sure I can bemoan the fact that “Big Longs” is coming down. Perhaps as a salute to green building movement they will recycle the concrete walls and floor. Also note that CVS now owns Longs and has much smaller footprints for their stores.

  17. Max Allstadt July 15, 2009 at 10:48 pm #

    The current plan has a parking lot almost as vast as the existing site. As it is, you can’t see from one side of the lot to the other because of the curvature of the earth. That is auto-centric and suburban. So is creating architecture that creates a main entrance that is inviting to cars, while the pedestrian entrances are treated as secondary.

    We can meet the needs of drivers without letting them hog all the surface area. No surface lots.

    • PRE July 15, 2009 at 11:28 pm #

      You buy it and build what you want.

      • Max Allstadt July 16, 2009 at 8:37 am #

        That isn’t how it works PRE. Read the City Charter and Planning Code. The residents get a say.

  18. James F July 16, 2009 at 11:17 am #

    The community should absolutely have the opportunity to provide input on the project. In just about every case, a dialogue between the community and the project applicant results in a stronger and more successful project and a reduction in time and cost for everyone involved (City, developer, community) in the approval process.

    Since the amount of parking and pedestrian orientation appear to be the major issues, perhaps determining what the community feels are acceptable levels or attributes of both would be good starting points. Goals of “less” and “better” are notoriously difficult to achieve. Keep in mind the City zoning ordinance has minimums for number of parking stalls and design requirements for vehicular entry/exit and internal circulation that influence the project design more than most might realize. Lane width, number of turn lanes and presence of deceleration lanes are all driven by City traffic planning and circulation guidelines. Ignore those, and you may wind up with El Cerrito Plaza…

    I would also caution that retail tenants generally avoid centers that they feel are ‘under parked’, because we as consumers tend to chose the path of least resistance and don’t like circling endlessly in search of parking when we drive. A center that cannot attract or sustain quality tenants won’t do the community much good in the long run, no matter how good some may think it looks.

    It also appears there is a plaza area and pedestrian entry located along Pleasant Valley, opposite the existing higher density housing at the intersection with Gilbert. It stands to reason much of pedestrian traffic to the site will likely come from this direction, and it would appear the site planners have recognized this and located the plaza and pedestrian entry accordingly. Granted, these are conceptual plans and I have no idea how this area will be laid out or amenitized, but it seems thought has already been given to pedestrian usability.

    • Becks July 16, 2009 at 11:31 am #

      About parking requirements, I believe Safeway’s plans incorporate 100 more parking spaces than are required by zoning.

  19. DS July 21, 2009 at 10:37 pm #

    Max –

    I ‘m not sure what you are smoking, but if there is no parking we’re going to have to import alot of sherpa’s to bring peoples groceries up the hills. Like it or not it has to be mostly “auto-centric” there is no way even a fit person can carry a weeks supply of groceries home on their bike and i dont see too many fit people who shop at that Safeway now that would be walking or riding their bike there.

    I agree that walking through the parking lot now sucks but the plan looks to include some good walk ways through the parking lot and especially along the reservoir.

    Make it better but be realistic, any redevelopment there will be good for the neighborhood.

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