In July, the Berkeley City Council took up the EIR agreement for the proposed Safeway store on College Avenue in Oakland’s Rockridge district right on the Berkeley border. Buoyed by the protests of the attendees, Mayor Bates summarized the objections of the council, “it’s just too big for the location.”

In the debate about the Rockridge Safeway, there is little understanding of how the 61,000 sq ft design came about. Why is this project so big? Why have they piled shops all along the most congested portion of College Avenue?

The answer is; because the residents of Rockridge wanted it that way.

In the 1970s, after completion of the BART station, the young professionals who were moving into Rockridge wanted a zoning for College Avenue that would preserve its funky and relaxed character.   After extensive meetings with the residents, Oakland announced that future development would be consistent with a “pedestrian oriented retail district,” to be called the C-31 Special Zone.

Like other urban pedestrian districts sprouting up across the country, the C-31 called for a continuous streetscape of shop fronts from the Berkeley city line to Broadway. Things would be built to pedestrian scale so ground-floor commercial space was zoned at its maximum density, with no front or side setbacks and minimum driveways. There would be no offices, real estate brokers, medical services, motor vehicle repair or surface parking lots to lessen the intensity of the pedestrian comparison shopping experience.

However, there was one main difference between the C-31 and the pedestrian retail districts being developed in other urban cities. The higher density residential element, which brings people directly to the streets, was omitted. Under C-31 ground floor retail density is scaled up in support of a residential density that does not exist.

As a result, there has been much confusion about what belongs in the C-31 district. Opponents would appeal each proposed development to the city council, demanding that the pedestrian retail zoning be defended… by turning down fully compliant projects. At the appeal of a proposed 100-seat restaurant with no off-street parking (fully compliant with C-31), an exasperated council member asked “Isn’t this the zoning that staff worked so closely with the neighborhood on?”

During the planning process for Safeway, Stuart Flashman, Chairman Emeritus of the Rockridge Community Planning Council (RCPC), summarized the goals of the C-31 zoning as, “…to develop a continuous shopping area – where people will move around – comparison shopping – linked shopping trip where you visit three or four different stores.” Get people out of their cars and walking from store to store along the attractive streetscape. By creating a dense retail environment with a wide range of goods and services the “comparison” shopping experience is greatly enhanced.

The C-31 zoning has very specific and inflexible rules which dictate much of what can be built on the Safeway site. To understand how the pedestrian retail district works, start with what is NOT permitted. The newly remodeled 45,000 sq. ft. Safeway on Shattuck would not be allowed. Friends and Neighbors of College Avenue (FANS), a group opposing Safeway’s project, offers an “alternative design.”  In their version, a freestanding Safeway is tucked in the rear of the parcel, divided from the retail shops by a central parking area.  Along portions of the College Avenue streetscape the front grills of cars face the pedestrian sidewalk. This nostalgic return to a suburban auto-oriented development is the opposite of the urban C-31 zoning.  This site cannot be developed with the “black asphalt” neighborhood grocery store we all grew up with.

Opponents are wrong when they say that Safeway didn’t listen. They listened very well. At substantial expense, they tossed out the first set of plans and brought in Lowney Architecture. And Lowney gets it. This design is an articulate and technically correct accounting of the C-31 pedestrian retail district.

Upon walking from the project’s enclosed parking area, the shopper is thrust quickly into the hub of the “comparative” shopping experience. The streetscape along College Avenue has a series of small shops including a scaled down pedestrian entrance to Safeway. For the pedestrian, there is unobstructed freedom to go between Safeway and the smaller shops. Public seating on the 2nd level deck and sky-bridge encourages alfresco dining in a way that patrons of North Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto can only dream of (as they sit in the street median). Lowney has presented us with an inspired cut-up of the suburban neighborhood shopping center, transforming it from a sterile, utilitarian place into a place of community. People will meet, dine, shop and linger here. Others cities will study and emulate this pioneering project.

And, the traffic? The opponents have their physics wrong. The traffic is not being drawn from Berkeley along College Avenue by the magnetic pull of Safeway. The increase in traffic is directly due the growth in UC Berkeley’s daytime population, now at about 60,000. During the afternoon rush hours, traffic leaving UC has brought Warring Blvd to a crawl, and now the inundation of commuters is having a similar effect on College Avenue. The traffic issue exists regardless of Safeway. Reducing the size of the Safeway store will have no significant impact on the traffic.

Yes, it’s big, it’s dense and it’s lively. It’s the pedestrian retail district the residents have asked for. It is the way forward for Rockridge and Oakland.

And Oakland hella needs this thing.

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David Denton is a resident of Berkeley and has owned a property on College Avenue in the Rockridge district since 1976.
David Denton is a resident of Berkeley and has owned a property on College Avenue in the Rockridge district since 1976.