A rendering of the proposed Walgreens on Solano Avenue. Drawing courtesy Charles Kahn Architect
A rendering of the proposed Walgreens on Solano Avenue. Drawing courtesy Charles Kahn Architect

A proposed Walgreens on upper Solano Avenue is meeting feisty resistance from neighbors, even before the developer has started the city’s official permit process for the project.

About 50 people showed up Thursday, Oct. 24, at an informal public meeting on the plan held at La Farine Bakery, which is across the street from the proposed site at 1830 Solano, at the intersection with Colusa Avenue. The site is currently a 76 gas station.

And by Friday morning, inboxes filled with the gathering steam of an organized opposition to the concept.

“Well, that was an interesting meeting tonight…! As a small business owner for the last 20+ years, I know this type of big box retailer is all about money and the bottom line, not about what the community truly needs,” read the start of one message from No Walgreens, which encourages people to join in fighting the project.

A proposal to build a Walgreen's to replace the 76 station at Solano and Colusa Avenues has drawn a testy response from neighbors. Photo: Google Street View
A proposal to build a Walgreens to replace the 76 station at Solano and Colusa avenues has drawn criticism from neighbors. Photo: Google Maps

The meeting, which was organized by developer Agree Realty Corporation, was a first step in sharing architectural drawings and seeking public reactions in what’s expected to be a long process of shaping the project, said Charles Kahn, a Berkeley architect hired to design the new store.

And while some attending had specific feedback on the drawings, such as finding the building too “blocky,”  “lovely,” or needing more outdoor seating space, many also said they don’t support any Walgreens at that site, regardless of its design.

“No one is saying we don’t like Walgreens. We’re saying we don’t want it here,” said Pam Zelnick, a neighbor.

A chain store on a residential shopping strip known for smaller shops and eateries clashes with the personality of the neighborhood, many said. Neighbors also expressed concern about parking, traffic congestion, and industrial noise.

“I’m aware there’s change in the air. But I hope it will fit in with the character of this charming area,” said Randy Hussong, who lives on Fresno Avenue. “What is Walgreens going to provide that makes it not redundant with other businesses in the area?”

Solano Avenue already has several pharmacies: Sal’s, directly across the street from the proposed site; Pharmaca, a few blocks west; and CVS on the Albany end of Solano Avenue, as well as other shops selling at least some of the merchandise typically found at a Walgreens.

Walgreens  and CVS have been locked in an expansion battle around Berkeley the last few years, often locating stores near one another. Currently there are five Walgreens stores in Berkeley and three CVS stores.

In April 2011, Mayor Tom Bates proposed a law that would restrict the opening of so many chain pharmacies. The proposed law, which has not been adopted by the City Council, would have prohibited any pharmacy opening up within 1,000 feet of another pharmacy.

Architect Kahn, who was hired by Agree Realty, a Detroit-based development company that buys property and builds Walgreens stores nationally, retaining ownership in a tenant relationship with the retailer, said he isn’t surprised by the concerns, some of which he shares.

But, Kahn says, in his years of developing buildings in Berkeley, he has learned that some projects can’t legally be stopped, and he believes this is one. It’s better to put energy into creating a project with as much community-appeal as possible, he said.

“The community has power to extract concessions from this large corporation. They know if they’re coming to Berkeley, they’re not going to get a free ride,” Kahn said. “We want to know what you want. This isn’t  a conventional building we’re talking about. We’re getting permission from Walgreens to go way beyond.”

The proposed store is just under 10,000 square feet and includes underground parking, a second floor for storage only, lots of windows, and sustainable landscaping with sidewalk seating.

A few at the meeting said they were open to the project, and lauded the developer for bringing people together so early in the process. “I’m glad people have a place to express their feelings,” said a woman who identified herself as working at a nearby Solano business, and not opposed to the project.

Developer Gary Eisenberg of Agree, also at the meeting, said the property sale to his company is in escrow, and won’t close until the project is approved. If all goes well, he hopes the new Walgreens will open in 2016.

The goal, Eisenberg said, is for the building to “create a village feel at this intersection, instead of a 50-year history of putting petrochemicals into the ground.”

According to Eric Angstadt, Berkeley’s planning director, the city hasn’t received an application for the project, though he has heard that something is in the works.

Normally, a builder applies for a use permit from the city, setting in motion a multi-stage review process under the Zoning Adjustment’s Board (or ZAB), which approves or denies the project. This decision can be appealed to the City Council for a final ruling.

Part of the zoning board’s process is evaluation by the city’s design review committee, which looks at the architectural and visual aspects of a project. It can also include environmental and other reviews, depending on project details.

The zoning board evaluation and the design review include public hearings, and it is is common for projects to get tweaked and altered in response to public input as and the results of  reviews and studies.

Angstadt said without an application, he doesn’t know the scope of a Solano Walgreens zoning review process. But all proposed building on Solano falls under the Solano Avenue Commercial District special building requirements for the street, or City Code Chapter 23E.60. Special relevance is Section .090 or findings of the code, which list the exact requirements for zoning board approval.

The developer’s email address for those with questions or comments on the project is 1830solano@gmail.com.

The email address of the community group organizing opposition is nosolanowalgreens@gmail.com

Bates: City needs another grocery store, not pharmacy (12.14.11)
Will pharmacy war lead to new restrictions in Berkeley? (04.18.11)

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Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as a daily news reporter for the East Bay Times,...