A new Safeway grocery store and retail development planned for College and Claremont avenues has gotten the nod from Oakland officials after seven long years in the making, and a hard-won community consensus on the heels of steep resistance from many residents.
The Oakland City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to deny a neighborhood appeal against the project, after representatives from several community groups reached an agreement with the grocery store company earlier this week. (The appeal could not simply be withdrawn, despite the signed agreement, due to procedural rules, city staff said.)
The settlement agreement over the particulars of the College Avenue Safeway project resulted from several intensive mediation sessions, run by Oakland Councilwoman Jane Brunner, between Safeway and neighborhood reps over the past five weeks. The sessions came about in the face of a possible lawsuit from community members who opposed aspects of the development that had been approved by the Oakland Planning Commission.
Tuesday night’s presentation to the Oakland City Council and public comment period lasted for about 30 minutes, and was capped off by cheers and clapping following the vote to move the project forward.
Representatives from both sides said the final project was not exactly what they wanted, but most said the result would be a better fit for the neighborhood than an earlier version. Several residents continued to register concerns during the public comment period.
“It was asked if we could pull this off last time we met,” he told the council. “I wasn’t really sure, but we did it.” He said the project would be a “great community benefit” with an “awesome public plaza” including seating, bike parking and “space for people to do what they want to do.”
The new Safeway store will include a coffee shop and “big windows for people to look into the store,” he said. His firm worked at “getting the materials right, getting the entrance right, and making it feel appropriate” for the neighborhood, to “try to make it sing.”
Stuart Flashman, a land-use attorney and chairman of the land-use committee for the Rockridge Community Planning Council (RCPC), said he was “relieved and pleased we reached this agreement.” (Flashman was one community participant in the mediation.)
“It’s not the project we would have designed, but we’re not who’s building it,” he told the council. “Given all the compromises, we think it’s a good project.”
Attorney Zachary Walton, another of the neighborhood negotiators, who is part of Friends and Neighbors of College Avenue (FANS), said the community had been “up in arms” over the original designs. But as a result of the appeal and mediation, he told the council, “the community has been heard.”
Todd Paradis, a Safeway real estate manager involved in the mediation, thanked Brunner and Lowney for their efforts in the negotiation, which he described as “a monumental undertaking.” He also said he appreciated Oakland city staff, and credited residents involved in the mediation for “all their time without any compensation” to help move the project forward.
Paradis said Thursday morning that Safeway could begin construction as soon as June; construction is projected to last about a year.
Rockridge resident Nancy McKay told the council, during public comment, that she was among the first people to “jumpstart” the conversation, in 2008, about changes she felt were needed in the Safeway project, which she said she now supports.
“It has taken a village to get to this settlement,” she said, calling the results a “true compromise.”
John Chalik, an Oakland landlord who owns the property across College Avenue from Safeway, told the council that he and his tenants, including a popular produce market and flower shop, “feel this is a much better project than what was proposed before.”
He said they were dismayed to learn, however, that Safeway plans to limit parking in its lot to an hour for shoppers visiting nearby businesses. (Safeway has previously taken the position that drivers, even now, can use the store’s large parking lot while visiting nearby businesses, even if they’re not shopping at Safeway.)
Another resident, Joan Ettlinger, told the council she is concerned about safety along Claremont Avenue due to a lack of “eyes on the street.” (That is the rear side of Safeway, which has been designed as a long unbroken wall.) She also said she hopes parking will be made available for shoppers to nearby businesses during construction.
Three other speakers said the project still isn’t a good fit for the neighborhood, due to its large size, parking structure and a deficit in loading docks. One of them said he had filed a complaint with the city alleging a conflict of interest related to Brunner’s involvement with the mediation.
Denny Abrams, a nearby resident and the developer of Berkeley’s Fourth Street shopping district, was another one of the three. He called the project “a very suburban solution to a wonderful neighborhood.” Abrams told the council that he took “great affront” to the prominent “Rockridge” sign on the Safeway store: “That market does not reflect what Rockridge is about. It’s a small thing to ask to not have that sign there. “
(Abrams said the new North Berkeley Safeway store, for example, doesn’t sport the neighborhood designation.)
Brunner acknowledged the neighborhood concerns in her closing remarks.
She said community members fought hard to have the “Rockridge” sign removed, but “we gave up in the end.… I told them: they weren’t going to like the sign in the community. We’re going to approve the sign tonight but that issue’s not going to go away.”
Brunner said Safeway had stood firm on the one-hour time limit for neighborhood shoppers, but had promised not to monitor whether or not community members included Safeway in their rounds. She theorized that the store wasn’t likely to monitor the time limit in the lot “unless it’s jammed.”
She said safety concerns on Claremont are definitely an issue to watch, and that the store had been resistant to add windows along Claremont because that wall is part of a rear work room rather than an area open to customers.
Still, in what was essentially her final meeting after 16 years as a council member representing North Oakland, Brunner said, despite these items, she hoped ultimately the outcome arrived at over the past five weeks is for the best.
“I think that nobody thought there was going to be a solution after all the contentious fighting that went on for years,” she said. “Did we get everything we want? Absolutely not.… Is it bigger than what most people in community want? Yes. But it’s what we were able to get.”
Residents air concerns about College Ave. Safeway plans [12.17.12]
Safeway on College needs all-new design after mediation [11.15.12]
Breaking: Neighbors, Safeway agree on College Ave. store [11.13.12]
Op-Ed: Why I support plans for the Safeway on College [11.12.12]
Revamped Safeway opens in heart of Gourmet Ghetto [10.05.12]
Oakland Planning Commission approves Safeway plans [07.27.12]
Berkeley Council unites in opposing Safeway project [07.18.12]
Berkeley City Council to hold hearing on Safeway project [09.20.11]
Locals protest scale, traffic of proposed Rockridge Safeway [08.01.11]
Safeway buys Berkeley’s Chimes Pharmacy, to consolidate [07.12.11]
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