Safeway on College: Round 2 at the Planning Commission

3 Aug

I know I promised a long breakdown of the Safeway draft environmental impact report (DEIR) in my last post, but after reading the DEIR again and thinking about it some more, I realized I’d need more than one post to cover anything substantive. So this first post will cover a couple of the issues that were discussed at public comment at the July hearing and mitigations the DEIR offers to many of these issues. I’ll write a second post discussing project alternatives after tonight’s continuation of the DEIR hearing (at the last hearing, the Planning Commission ran out of time and continued the hearing).

The hearing a couple of weeks ago was quite interesting. There were so many people there that the hearing had to be moved from Hearing Room 1 to Council Chambers! When I arrived, I surveyed the room and feared that as at so many past Safeway meetings and hearings, the room was dominated by opponents. As the night went on though, the comments seemed to be fairly evenly split by opponents and proponents. Even with such a mix of project perspectives in the room, people were generally very civil and respectful throughout the comments. It was quite refreshing, especially thinking back to the first community meeting on this project that I attended back in 2008, when I was one of the few people who expressed any kind of support for the project and I got heckled while speaking!

The complaints haven’t changed

Looking back at that blog post, the concerns of the opponents haven’t changed much, even though the project size has shrunk and the architecture is a huge improvement over what was being proposed at the time. Here is what I listed back in 2008 as their concerns:

  • 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 cliché, 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.

A couple of these issues have been directly addressed, and so some of these complaints were not brought up at the recent hearing. People are no longer complaining about how ugly the building will be, since the project switched architects. Opponents aren’t complaining anymore about lack of pubic space, as the project adds a public rooftop plaza and a walkway between College and Claremont.

But the other complaints remain basically the same, three years later: the project’s too big, it will endanger neighborhood stores, it will cause too much traffic, and there won’t be enough parking.

I think it will come as no surprise that I don’t think the project is too big. As was pointed out at the last hearing and as I covered in a photo post two years ago, the proposed building is actually shorter than most of the buildings surrounding it. Here’s one example of a building across the street from that post:
The beloved Cole Coffee, that neighbors opposed to the project constantly talk about as being endangered by a larger Safeway, is housed in this three-story building on College and 63rd, across the street from Safeway.

So I was not very sympathetic to the one speaker who compared the proposed Safeway wall on Claremont to a prison wall (seriously).

The answer to reduced traffic & improved air quality is not more parking

In the Rockridge Community Planning Council (RCPC) newsletter, here’s what they recommend talking about at the hearing:

Talk about the things in the DEIR that bother you the most. Concentrate on items like:

    • Traffic – discuss the ramifications of such a large store on the surrounding neighborhoods, like parking, intersections and additional visitors to the store.
    • Air Quality – What will happen when traffic increases and shoppers cannot find a parking place?
    • Parking at the store – Not enough parking spaces are included for all shoppers. (For example, no allowance has been made for the 8 retail shops Safeway is planning to sell to vendors.)

RCPC’s concerns about traffic, air quality, and lack of parking are quite interesting because they are in direct conflict. If one is interested in improving air quality and reducing car traffic, the best idea is to have less car parking and add more amenities for transit, walking and biking. Safeway proposes to do just that in its environmental mitigations.

The project will include 68 short-term bike parking spots and 15 long-term bike parking spots (I’m assuming those are for employees). Safeway also proposes adding pedestrian bulbouts on the east side of College at 63rd. If you’ve ever walked across that intersection, you know how scary it can be. Bulbouts won’t solve all the pedestrian problems but shortening the street crossing distance and making pedestrians more visible to cars would be a big improvement. Another plan is to remove the diagonal parking on College (on the Berkeley side of the border), which should help improve the bicycling experience and bicycling safety on College.

The project would also make some improvements for the 51 bus line, improvements that were suggested in the 51 study done a couple of years ago but that haven’t been implemented by AC Transit due to lack of funds. These improvements include:

  • Adding a bus bulb-out on northbound College Avenue just north of Claremont Avenue and move the existing bus stop from south of Claremont Avenue to north of Claremont Avenue (after the signal),
  • Moving the northbound and southbound bus stops at Alcatraz  from before to after the signal, and
  • Adding bus shelters (which would be really nice for folks standing in the rain or hot sun with groceries).

To further decrease car traffic, Safeway is also developing a transit demand management program that could include offering their employees pre-tax commuter benefits and other incentives to urge employees to ride transit, carpool, bike or walk.

No matter what Safeway does to attract bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit riders though, it’s clear that this project will cause car traffic impacts. So Safeway also plans to make improvements to car infrastructure to move cars through the area more quickly. They’ll be adding left turn lanes at 63rd, reducing driveway access on College from three driveways to one (which would divert some car traffic to the much wider Claremont), and optimizing signal timing.

Competition or neighborhood enhancement?

One of the big fears expressed by project opponents is that the expanded Safeway will compete with their beloved stores across the street and could force them out of business. It’s true that Safeway is expanding its grocery, deli, wine, flower, and other sections so people fear that the local butcher, wine store, produce store, florist, and bakery might be endangered.

I understand what it’s like to lose a small local business you depend on so I do sympathize with these fears. However, I do not think they will come to fruition for a couple of reasons.

Most people who are stopping in to La Farine or Ver Brugge for bread or meat are simply not going to get those products at Safeway. No matter how much Safeway improves their offerings, they simply cannot compete with the quality and service offered at the stores across the street.

More importantly, an improved Safeway and the addition of eight new retail stores will greatly increase foot traffic in the area, which could lead to increased business for the shops across the street.

The first time I ever came to Oakland was back when I was in high school. I frequently drove up with a friend of mine to the Bay Area for the weekend to visit my sister, who at the time lived in San Francisco. On this particular trip, we went to hang out with some friends just over the Oakland border in Berkeley and from there we walked with them to Great Wall (we were all vegetarian so it was very exciting).

When I was reading the DEIR, I remembered this trip and remembered how odd I thought the neighborhood was. On one side was this great strip of small stores and tons of people walking around. It epitomized much of what I had come to love about the Bay Area. On the other side was a huge parking lot and an ugly Safeway, epitomizing what I had come to loathe about the suburban community in San Fernando Valley that I grew up in (and at that time was desperately ready to leave).

After that trip, I basically forgot about the neighborhood and wouldn’t return for a couple of years, and then, only to go to Great Wall. It just wasn’t a neighborhood that stuck out to me in the same way as some of the San Francisco and Berkeley places I had explored that made me want to come back again and again. Later on when I got to know the neighborhood, I fell in love with it, but that took several years.

This was of course just my personal experience, but I think most would agree that the current Safeway does not fit in with the neighborhood and in fact detracts from business and foot traffic in the area. This redesign is an opportunity to mimic the other side of the street with foot traffic attracting businesses and elegant architecture. Plus, the addition of the roof top plaza will be a huge bonus to the immediate area that doesn’t have much public space suitable for sitting down for a meal or congregating with friends.

Is the proposed Safeway project perfect? No, definitely not, and I’ll get to more of that in my next post. But it will be a huge improvement to what’s there now and will help keep the neighborhood vibrant and active by attracting more foot traffic (and customers) to the area.

Have thoughts on the project?

Join me tonight, Wednesday, August 3rd at the continuation of the DEIR hearing (if you didn’t sign up to speak last time, you can still sign up tonight). The Planning Commission meeting starts at 6pm but the item likely won’t be heard 6:30 or 7pm. The meeting takes place at Oakland City Hall in the Council Chambers.

If you can’t make it to the hearing, you can submit comments on the DEIR until August 15th  to planner Peterson Vollman at I’ll be tweeting the meeting so you can follow along by following me @oaklandbecks or follow #oakmtg.

Previous posts on College & Claremont Safeway:

5 Responses to “Safeway on College: Round 2 at the Planning Commission”

  1. Leila Gough August 3, 2011 at 4:38 pm #

    thank you for such a reasoned response. As someone who shops as Ver Brugge and Ysai AND Safeway I can assure you that I will continue to buy my produce at Ysai and my meat at Ver Brugge (although I was VERY discouraged to see their sign against the project – makes me want to walk to Markethall and buy meat at Sun Farms).

  2. marginwalker August 3, 2011 at 5:47 pm #

    Thanks for writing the blog post that I almost created a blog to write. I agree completely, which never happens on the internet.

    I think it’s also worth noting even more explicitly that the existing ground-level parking lot is pretty much the most inefficient use of land possible. It’s basically wasting an incredibly valuable community resource. The proposed project at least makes better use of that resource by, as you point out, adding additional retail spaces that will allow the existing use pattern in the neighborhood to expand. I’d like to see some multi-family residential on top of the store to really maximize the use of the land, but I realize the planning and economic hurdles that that would represent.

    Further, although I understand the opponents’ concerns about change, I can’t agree with it. The neighborhood as it is now isn’t what it was 15 year ago and isn’t what it will be in 2025. This project, I think, increases the chances that the changes will be more like what residents want by, again, allowing for growth of the current pattern. Without creating more space for more businesses, there’s a very real risk that the retail pattern will stagnate and collapse. It’s a risk either way, but I’d rather err on the side of opportunity for more of what’s great, as opposed to foreclosing any chance for other desirable retailers and service providers to move into the neighborhood.

  3. Art August 3, 2011 at 7:07 pm #

    I was also really sad to hear that Yasai may be closing because the owner of that stretch of buildings is jacking rents on all of the spaces (independent of Safeway). I’d love to see some of the Safeway energy redirected to keeping the small businesses in the neighborhood in other ways, too. (Or, crazy idea—maybe Safeway agrees to give Yasai moderately-priced space in the new development if it’s approved?!?)

    • Rebecca Saltzman (aka Becks) August 3, 2011 at 10:51 pm #

      Oh no, that’s horrible!

      Your idea might not be so crazy – I wouldn’t be surprised if Safeway was open to renting to Yasai or any of the other retail stores that are in danger of closing.

      And I agree completely about wanting to see some of the neighborhood opposition energy directed to something productive to help the local businesses. These neighbors are organized and dedicated – if they focused on it, I’m sure they could save Yasai.

  4. Safeway on College August 4, 2011 at 11:38 am #

    For more information please visit us at

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