Safeway on College – The cost of doing nothing is not nothing

19 Nov

Last night’s Planning Commission hearing on the College Avenue Safeway went well overall. Sure, the neighbors showed up in force to try to stop the project or at least to greatly reduce the scale of the project. But it was just a scoping session so staff and commissioners repeatedly reminded them to stick to scoping issues and that the merits of the project would be discussed later.

As I listened to speaker after speaker talk about their grave concerns about an expanded Safeway, I realized that they seemed to believe that the cost of doing nothing is nothing – that if we leave Safeway the way it is, there would be no cost to the neighborhood, environment, or the economy. I’d like to borrow a concept that Robert at the California High Speed Rail blog came up with about HSR – the cost of doing nothing is not nothing. Robert argued that not building HSR would end up costing the state much more in the long run, with increased air and car traffic, needs to upgrade airports and highways, pollution, etc.

In the same vein, we need to ask the question: what is the cost of leaving the Safeway as it is now? John Gatewood from ULTRA came up with these questions, about the environmental impacts of leaving the store as is:

  • How efficient are the existing HVAC systems in the present store?
  • How efficient are the existing refrigeration and freezer units?
  • How efficient is the energy usage?
  • How efficient is the existing loading dock? Do trucks need to idle longer because of lack of space, etc?
  • How efficient is the existing parking lot configuration? Do drivers spend too much time looking for a space?
  • What is the “embodied energy” of the existing structure, the energy that went into producing the materials used in the existing structures?
  • What are the energy and carbon footprint coasts of demo’ing the existing structures and can these be recouped in the energy efficiencies and more environmentally sound new construction?

Beyond environmental impacts, the current store has real negative impacts on the neighborhood that effect quality of life and local business. In my comments to the Planning Commission last night, I told my story of being a pedestrian that frequently goes to that Safeway, as it’s a short walk from my home. Getting to the Safeway on foot is a nightmare – there are multiple opportunities to get hit by cars, and there are multiple times when both car driver’s and pedestrian’s views are obstructed. Part of the reason for this is that there are so many driveways – 9 in total on College and Claremont. Just the fact that the new Safeway will reduce the curb cuts from 9 to 4 will be a huge benefit to pedestrians, bicyclists, and to safety.

I’ve mentioned this before, but the current Safeway and its huge surface parking lot is a blight on the neighborhood that’s quite creepy at night. It is also entirely uninviting – unless I’m going to Safeway I avoid that side of the street entirely and often just go to a different part of Rockridge that’s more inviting to do my shopping.

The cost of doing nothing looks like this:

While doing something looks like this:

To me, the decision is obvious. I’m tired of this dangerous, ugly, and uninviting store being the center of the Alcatraz/College/Claremont shopping district. The cost of doing nothing is high, especially when we have the potential for a beautiful designed Safeway with hidden parking and more small, street level stories to keep the neighborhood dynamic.

If you’re interested in the details of the last night’s meeting, you can see coverage on Twitter #oakmtg. I just joined Twitter this week and will be using it primarily to cover Oakland meetings. You can find me @oaklandbecks.

Previous posts on College & Claremont Safeway:

38 Responses to “Safeway on College – The cost of doing nothing is not nothing”

  1. Eric Fischer November 19, 2009 at 5:31 pm #

    I think the proposed Safeway would be an improvement, but what that intersection *really* needs is a traffic signal that is designed with some respect for pedestrians instead of making them spend two light cycles pushing buttons and waiting just to make it across.

    • Becks November 19, 2009 at 5:55 pm #

      That would be excellent. I hate spending so long waiting for lights. Any thoughts on how that improvement could work?

      • Eric Fischer November 19, 2009 at 10:48 pm #

        I made a drawing a while ago of the changes I would make to the intersection:

        But the important part is for the traffic signal to be timed (with pedestrians always getting a walk signal on every green) instead of demand-triggered, so that when you get to the intersection, you don’t have to do anything special to cross; you just walk if the sign says walk and wait for the next light it if it doesn’t.

        • Concerned Guajolote November 19, 2009 at 11:05 pm #

          Eric Fischer,

          You are behind every incredible urban illustration I see online, in multiple cities, you are out of control. Your flickr stream is productivity kryptonite. Thanks for all the images, your idea for this intersection is very good, I hope it doesn’t join the collection of ignored good ideas that you are doing such an interesting job recording lately.

        • Becks November 19, 2009 at 11:34 pm #

          Closing the through traffic from 62nd is a great idea! Actually, all of this is a great idea. Do you mind if I share it with Oakland’s bike/ped staff and the Safeway reps? I’m sure there are roadblocks to making this happen, but it’s worth trying.

        • Daniel Schulman November 20, 2009 at 8:51 am #

          Closing off 62nd St would be excellent. I used to live on 62nd 1 block down. That intersection is not even good for motorist going up 62nd to College.

          If we wanted to drive North, it made no sense to go up 62nd and turn left on College. The light took forever and you get caught in those couple of really congested blocks.

          To drive South, it always made more sense to go down Hillegass or Colby and then turn on Claremont.

          Simplifying this intersection really seems to make sense from a Bike/Ped perspective, and I think motorists would like it too.

        • Andy K November 20, 2009 at 10:16 am #

          This is fantastic – Oakland needs to do more of this. Make these closed off areas pedestrian plaza, with tables etc. Reminds me of what they are doing in NYC.

      • Eric Fischer November 20, 2009 at 10:40 am #

        Becks, please share it with anyone who you think will be interested! I’m glad you think it’s a good idea.

        And thanks, Concerned Guajolote! I’m glad you like the stuff I’ve been posting to flickr.

        (Sorry to be replying to the wrong message in the thread, but there’s no “Reply” link on your comment, for some reason.)

    • jarichmond November 19, 2009 at 10:42 pm #

      Unfortunately, that intersection is just terrible for everyone. I hate walking through it, but I also hate being on the bus through it (I can’t say that I ever drive through, but it can’t be any better). I’d have a hard time supporting changes that make it better for pedestrians if it means I have an even longer bus ride to get home in the evenings than I do now.

      • Becks November 19, 2009 at 11:35 pm #

        Closing car traffic from 62nd would alone make it better for everyone – pedestrians, bicyclists, buses, and cars.

        • jarichmond November 25, 2009 at 6:26 pm #

          This is a brilliant plan! I still think traffic would be rough (just look at how slow it is at ashby), but at least there wouldn’t be as crazy of an intersection. I’m sitting at the bus stop here right now marveling at how much trouble the combination of all the streets from Alcatraz to Claremont causes for timing.

      • Andy K November 20, 2009 at 10:23 am #

        I love biking down College – car traffic is so backed up, I can cruise right by all the cars. Way to many cars on this street. It is a joke. Ashby and College is just as bad, if not worse.

  2. ralph November 19, 2009 at 6:52 pm #

    From what I have seen, the new Safeway is a huge improvement. First, it is a walking deathtrap. Second, the small capacity increases the chances of either unstocked or non-stocked items. (Not as bad as Grand Ave Safeway but still bad) As a result, it requires a car trip somewhere else.

    As to the lights, can you solve the pedestrian problem with protected lefts. I am trying to recall how that intersection works.

  3. Milt November 19, 2009 at 10:25 pm #

    The problem is that there is always someone who complains about everything. NIMBYs can gum up any project. There is no question that this would be a huge improvement. Somebody always wants more and they don’t care what it costs, ’cause it doesn’t cost them…

  4. david vartanoff November 19, 2009 at 10:48 pm #

    First, a BAD project is NOT better than no project in every case. In my 39 years here, there have been several bad proposals which lickily we nlocked with the resukt that a more useful one came along soon after. Example on Telegraph–when a miniature golf gave up, Taco Charley (the chain has since died) wanted to build. The neighborhood made enough noise to prevent them. Instead we got a couple storeys of medical offices–more jobs no min wage junk food proliferation. On College there was a similarly bad proposal for the lot where we now have a two storey retail/food space which only got thought up after the neighbors beat the previous proposal. In both cases the real estate value was higher in the as built case than it would have been with the first attempt.

    Second, precisely because this IS the dominant space at this end of the commercial district, it is even more important to get it right, so IMHO until Safeway’s plan is improved enough, NO is better than wrong. From my first contact with this project, I have said the building should include housing. Equally critical is ending auto access from College–the current situation is a zoo, and assuming an improved store brings more customers College will become impassable. If one reads AC Transits 51 Route (how can we fix this messed up bus route) Report
    the Alcatraz to Claremont area is a major delay generator. The programming of the traffic signal at Claremont makes it worse, as Eric and others have said. A few relatively simple improvements could make this work much better for transit, autos, and pedestrians.
    So, bottom line, while I am not charmed by the obsolete store, I am not despairate enough to go for a bad replacement. Abort, retry, reboot.

    • Becks November 19, 2009 at 11:31 pm #

      I never said that a bad project is better than no project in every case. I never even said that a decent project is better than no project in every case.

      I think housing would be lovely, but David, if you believe that is politically viable in this neighborhood, you clearly haven’t been to any of the community meetings on this project. To have housing make sense, you’d need at least a couple stories of it, and the neighbors are freaking out about a 2 story building (even though it is the same height as most of the surrounding buildings). I’m all for housing at this site, but I still think Safeway’s plans are a huge improvement over what we have now.

  5. JHorner November 20, 2009 at 9:58 am #

    Eric’s proposal is the way to go, for sure. Just by eliminating the cycles for 62nd and whatever that alley is called would do wonders. Still something must be done about all the pavement in the middle. Roundabout?

  6. david vartanoff November 20, 2009 at 11:12 am #

    @ Becks. Yes, I am aware that many of the nearby neighbors are apoplectic about 2 stories let alone 3. OTOH, Gatewood said “But one of the project alternatives studied MUST include a housing component. ” so at least one other person thinks housing should be considered. You are probably correct that the best we can get is more or less the current plan, I just think it is inadequate, and a waste of the land.

    • Andy K November 20, 2009 at 11:49 am #

      What is the background on the need/desire for housing on this site? Is it just to make this a more walkable community?

      • Becks November 20, 2009 at 11:54 am #

        Almost no new housing has been built in Rockridge for the past couple of decades, and this site makes as much sense as any for new housing to be built.

        • dto510 November 20, 2009 at 1:58 pm #

          The supply of housing in Rockridge has actually decreased since Market Hall opened in 1987, due to conversion of small apartments into large houses.

  7. G November 20, 2009 at 11:22 am #

    Thank you for this post!

    Finally! a real look at what doing nothing brings. Since Safeway is going to rebuild and they are paying for the whole thing, let them do it! They’ve already bent more than backward to accommodate most complaints. You CANNOT tell a property owner what to build or not build on the land (housing, less square footage, etc). this new Safeway looks beautiful!

    Looking forward to it!

  8. G November 20, 2009 at 11:29 am #

    This housing issue is a non-starter.

    Safeway has never been in the housing development business and they are not going to start now.

    Stop demanding it. Once again, if you want housing, buy land yourself and build housing on it.

    The square footage thing is also a non-starter. Safeway paid a premium for the land and they have every right to build as largely as the city lets them. So far, all their architecture plans comply with environmental, traffic, etc studies.

    • Collegio November 22, 2009 at 3:42 pm #

      Absolutly Correct. Flashman lied when he said Safeway had done senior housing in Mission Bay. The leased a first floor condominium in a building 100 yards away from the Mercy Housing project, a low income tax credit deal for 130 units. The RCPC is just being obstructionist. They would never allow residential on top of Safeway. They have fought every residential project that has been proposed. They were born fighting apartments over the Market Hall project right next to BART. Didn’t like the idea of renters in the neighborhood. Bigots is what it’s called. They got Psychotherapy offices, which they need.

  9. Eric November 20, 2009 at 12:41 pm #

    You’re so right, G: it’s never worthwhile to try to make things better, the status quo is immutable, women will never vote and black people will always have to sit at the back of the bus. Kudos to you and your realism, it’s people like you who rightly remind us that ideals only matter if you think you can win.

  10. david vartanoff November 20, 2009 at 2:27 pm #

    Thank you, Eric! I am reminded of a great Herblock cartoon showing Barry Goldwater sneering at a street person. caption “Why don’t you go out and inherit a department store?” FWIW even the Safeway update I received in the last hour gave lip service to the housing idea. Several items in their design purport to reduce truck idling time(yay), employ energy efficient systems(also yay), and various other issues raised by the neighbors(good). The traffic/parking access issues are alluded to, but Safeway still wants a College ave entry/exit. ULTRA’s entry plaza seems to me a better idea.

  11. Tillemans November 20, 2009 at 3:10 pm #

    I can not imagine approving anything that puts more traffic on college. It is a nightmare to drive down. I have lived close to college and Claremont for over 15 years. I have no interest in a larger safeway in my neighborhood. The roads were built here with very narrow widths, excepr for Claremont, and Claremont traffic moves so fast it is becoming a mini-freeway, with lots of pedestrians getting hit trying to cross Claremont and college so congested it slows to a standstill between ashby and claremont, how can putting a huge expanded grocery store at thus corner be good for me?

    • Collegio November 22, 2009 at 3:52 pm #

      More cars on the streets is caused by small specialty shops. A Safeway is a neighborhood serving store. Thats why they can have one at Broadway/51st and one on Grand Ave. In contrast, people come from many miles around to go to Ver Brughes. George Schultz, the republican bigwig came over to Rockridge to order a wedding cake from Katrina Rozelles.
      BTW, Lucky’s stores is now owend by Theo Albrecht who also own Trader Joe’s. He’s doing some interesting things there. You can find the closes one in El Cerritto. So do you want to drive there for a different grocery experience? NO. But rockridge people drive over to the Cheese Board for pizza! Get it?

      Large stores are generally neighborhood serving, small shops must draw people from miles around to be successful.

  12. G November 20, 2009 at 6:36 pm #

    The Safeway plans ARE an improvement to what’s there.

    If anyone doesn’t like College Ave traffic as it is right now, I suggest you not visit the area. Because even with no change, it’ll stay the same.

    There is NO reason Safeway has to put housing there. Housing is a HUGE liability. You guys have obviously never followed housing developments. there are liabilities that are very expensive to carry. If Safeway doesn’t want to do it, they don’t have to.

    In other words, they can give you all the lip service they want.

    The traffic issue is exaggerated. Do any of you recall the West Berkeley Bowl traffic complaints? People like you were complaining right and left. Well guess what, the huge parking lot and the traffic lights installed made traffic flow FASTER. That’s right. It did not turn into the mess people made a big stink about.

    Lastly, I laugh at anyone who starts a civil rights tangent to a neighborhood development. If you were in court, the judge would say loudly, “IRRELEVANT!” This is purely a neighborhood urban issue. Let’s not spin something out of it. That’s rude.

  13. We Fight Blight November 21, 2009 at 8:37 am #

    We believe that a two story structure at this site does not fully take advantage of this corner lot. Housing, as part of a mixed use development would be entirely appropropriate and keeping with urban village that is Rockridge. However, as someone noted, Safeway is not in the business of providing housing and housing arguably may not achieve their project objectives . Moreover, there are some limitations in CEQA on the evaluation and consideration of alternatives.

    CEQA Guidelines Section 15126.6 provides direction for the discussion of alternatives. This section requires:

    • A description of “…a range of reasonable alternatives to the project, or to the location of a project,
    which would feasibly attain most of the basic objectives of the project but would avoid or
    substantially lessen any of the significant effects of the project, and evaluate the comparative merits
    of the alternatives.” [15126.6(a)]

    • A setting forth of alternatives that “…shall be limited to ones that would avoid or substantially lessen
    any of the significant effects of the project. Of those alternatives, the EIR need examine in detail only
    the ones that the lead agency determines could feasibly attain most of the basic objectives of the
    project.” [15126.6(f)]

    • A discussion of the “No Project” alternative, and “…If the environmentally superior alternative is the
    “no project” alternative, the EIR shall also identify an environmentally superior alternative among the
    other alternatives.” [15126.6(e)(2)]

    • A discussion and analysis of alternative locations “…that would substantially lessen any of the
    significant effects of the project need to be considered for inclusion in the EIR.” [15126.6(f)(2)(B)]

    Since the most significant problem raised in the EIR will likely be traffic that can be mitigated through the use of any number of reasonable and creative traffic management strategies, housing as an alternative may get nothing more than lip service.

    It’s crrazy that these vocal neighbors are complaining about a two-story structure when nearby buildings along College and Claremont are taller.

  14. david vartanoff November 21, 2009 at 11:16 am #

    In older posts I suggested some efforts to mitigate traffic, for instance having employees on the site not commute by car. It is clear that the two blocks between Alcatraz and Claremont need re design although this will require some cooperation from Berkeley. Critical to the design is off street Claremont access for the College storefronts to receive merchandise. Part of my concern is that once this project is done we will not have another opportunity to fix things there for years if not decades.
    Two points about housing, In general we have an ever expanding market. Secondly, Safeway has been involved in mixed use buildings before.

  15. gravity14 November 22, 2009 at 3:10 am #

    Wait—did I just read that “You CANNOT tell a property owner what to build or not build on the land (housing, less square footage, etc).”?

    That’s the funniest thing I’ve read all year.

  16. Collegio November 22, 2009 at 4:04 pm #

    First RCPC said the 55,000 project is too big, but please add four more shops. The project goes up to 66,000 square feet. RCPC say’s that’s too big, but please add a 130 unit low-income senior citizens building on the roof. OK, now it’s 150,000 square feet.

    The author meant that cannot tell a property owner what to build if you are so confused that you contradict yourself at every turn.

  17. Robert November 22, 2009 at 6:05 pm #

    Re housing, Safeway doesn’t want it, the neighborhood will fight it, and it will increase the negative impacts in the EIR due to traffic. Regardless of whether if would be good in the regional scheme of things, it is going to be a losing fight because Safeway will just say that the neighbors don’t want it. Save the energy for a fight you might have a chance of winning.

  18. G November 23, 2009 at 9:03 am #

    Traffic is the real concern with this project, not scale. Safeway is not building a tower here, folks. As for blocking sunlight (a legitimate concern) there are enough paths through the building for sun to get everywhere.

    If you’re concerned about traffic, ask for more mitigation. I’m not sure what that may be, but it can involve more parking, more bike racks, more zipcar slots, etc. But yes, inevitably with a project this size, there will be more people and more cars.

    Accept it and turn it to your advantage. Ask for a greater public plaza, landscaping, lighting, etc. Places to sit and talk, eat. All this makes the place more favorable to everyone. It doesn’t have to be a nightmare. It can be beautiful and something to be proud of.

    As for mixed use – this is not as simple and easy as David Vartanoff believes. Building housing requires a different developer – mixed use often requires greater development staffs, much bigger budgets, housing consultants, and a LOT of lawyers to cover housing liabilities. All those pro-tenant laws in California has made the cost of building housing very, very expensive. There are solid reasons why housing developers versus commercial developers don’t mix together. Building housing these days from scratch even requires different building materials. Whatever mixed use projects Safeway had in the past were probably extremely complicated, expensive, and even involved different landowners.

    If you want Rockridge housing that much, I suggest you buy single family homes and turn them into duplexes or triplexes. This is a fantastic way to increasing housing stock by going through an established route. Another way is to purchase single family homes and try to make way for apartment complexes. I realize there are city rules against this, but you can certainly wage a reasonable campaign for exceptions. It’s been done before.

    • Eric November 23, 2009 at 12:37 pm #

      “Housing developers versus commercial developers don’t mix together?” Maybe not, but have you somehow missed all the mixed use projects of the past few years? TJ’s in Berkeley is a potential example. I’m not saying it would be easy, but I think people should push for it, if they feel strongly.

      If the pro-housing faction puts half as much energy into advocacy as you put into ranting and raving about how it is utterly impossible, they might actually stand a chance.

      • G November 23, 2009 at 1:50 pm #


        Mixed used buildings by law in Berkeley and Oakland have to have retail frontage on the ground floor to break up the pedestrian facade (instead of a concrete wall) I am not saying it’s impossible. I’m saying that people should not be advocating for something Safeway clearly does not want to do or even want to go into. There is no indication that Safeway would even consider it. Both plans that Safeway submitted have zero housing.

        What irritates me is that a small group of affordable housing proponents (who don’t live in Rockridge) are pushing for this. I’m telling them to shut the hell up and go into the affordable/senior housing business themselves if they want it so badly.

        My great concern about this Safeway is architectural beauty, traffic, and the kind of pedestrian amenities that will enhance Rockridge overall, not detract from it. Personally, I’d like to see more landscaping, fountains, art, etc. to give the whole place a more New York neighborhood feeling.

        That’s really it.

        Plus, the TJ building was designed for housing. The developers (descendents of Panoramic Interests) sought to maximize housing units. They are in the housing business and they are using the TJ space to fulfill retail component requirements. The Safeway project is purely commercial. This whole debate is like the Market Hall issue twenty years back. But look at Market Hall now! It’s a gem!

  19. Eric November 23, 2009 at 3:59 pm #

    I certainly agree with your emphasis on a good project over all, and I’m not a housing hard-liner. I actually adhere more closely to your position than to Mr. Vartanoff’s, in that I think a no-housing project is better than no project. I suppose I improperly misconstrued your doubts as firm opposition to housing or even advocating housing.

    My main point was that, politics aside, more housing would be a good thing to have, generally speaking. Thus, if Mr. V wants to try to drum up support, he might as well try. Whether it turns out to be a picnic or a funeral–well, I’ll leave that alone. On the other hand, I don’t support obstructionism in the event housing is not included.

    You are correct that TJ’s was a different sort of project, I was merely trying to show that grocery stores and housing can still get married, Prop 8 notwithstanding.

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