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 Kahn Design Associates

A rumor circulating among those following the path of a proposed Walgreens on upper Solano Avenue that Berkeley architect Charles Kahn is no longer with the project is true. But extrapolations that this means efforts to build the store are in trouble are far from accurate, Khan said.

“Oh no, they’re full steam ahead,” said Kahn, who designed a building for the proposed project at the corner of Solano and Colusa avenues, the current site of a 76 gas station.

Confusion around Kahn’s role is just one of many emotive issues swirling around the controversial project, which is igniting strong opposition, including a Keep Walgreens Off Solano moveon.org petition with 1,401 signatures.

The stance of the Solano Avenue Association, a merchant’s group of 200 businesses, is also stirring questions, with media reports that the group polled its members on the project finding an even split, pro and con. Some association members say they have never been polled.

Meanwhile, project developer, Gary Eisenberg of Agree Realty Corporation, a Detroit-based real-estate company that builds and leases Walgreens nationwide, said he’s received encouraging support for the project, and isn’t deterred by the opposition. “We’ve had lots of input from residents who are looking forward to a really great design that’s helping to create a village feel at this intersection,” Eisenberg said.

So, what’s what?

Kahn’s departure follows a common procedure in building development, where a design architect creates a building, passing the architectural baton to a project architect who takes it from there, Kahn said.

“The design architect is the person who does the initial design work; the functional building, the appearance of the building, the context,” Kahn said. “The production architect has to do the heavy lifting that makes it works as a building and meet all the health and safety codes.”

That heavy lifter in this case is Oakland architect Ken Lowney, whose local work includes the recently renovated Safeway on Shattuck Avenue in North Berkeley. Lowney will press on with building engineering and mechanics.

Kahn said he believes he’s accomplished what he set out to do, working with Berkeley landscape architect John Roberts. “We accepted the job on the condition we could create a beautiful design.”

Agree Realty’s application for a city building permit is imminent, Kahn said. This sets in motion the city’s approval process which includes planning commission and design reviews with community input. (See Berkeleyside’s earlier story for details.)

As for the Solano Avenue Association, Allen Cain, the association’s executive director, said last week his members haven’t been polled about the project. The association’s board of directors has had informal conversations, and many have an open mind, he said.

“We sat around the table and discussed this stuff.  We’re not pro-Walgreens, but we’re open to the idea and don’t want to see them demonized improperly.”

The board thinks there could be a better fit for the site, but at the same time isn’t vehemently down on national chain stores in the vein of some opponents, he said. “Let’s at least be welcome to the idea that people are interested in coming into the town. I think by having large corporations invest in a district, it shows the outside world that the district is worth investing in.”

The economics of Solano is tough on small businesses, Cain said, and the gas station site in particular could require expensive soil clean-up that takes “deep pockets.”  “Who has this kind of money? It’s going to take someone with resources like Walgreens.”

But Cain’s view isn’t shared by many merchants near the site. A resident of the area who launched a No Walgreens on Solano website, (which links to the MoveOn petition), shared a list of nine upper Solano businesses opposed to the project. The resident declined to be named.

The owner of one of the businesses, Sal Nassar, of Sal’s Pharmacy across the street from the site, said a chain store will clash with the appeal of the neighborhood, increase traffic, and drive out small businesses that can’t compete with chain pricing, including his.

“It doesn’t contribute any good thing to this area; they might deteriorate it. I guarantee you’ll see more vacancies. I look at these decent mom-and-pop places. But when a big chain comes like this, it’s just a money game,” Nassar said, emphasizing that he’s worried for all area merchants.

Shelly Alvarez, the manager of Greetings, a nearby gift and card shop, agrees. “I think it’s a terrible idea for the neighborhood. I feel we’ve worked hard to preserve a neighborhood feel, and I feel it really threatens a bunch of us.”

Alvarez said she has nothing against Cain, and agrees to disagree. In years past, upper Solano was plagued by vacancies and she understands the emotion behind embracing any viable business interested in the street.

But things are better now, she says, and Solano isn’t as desperate. “That’s not the space we’re in now. Now the block is almost completely full.”

Testy response to proposed Walgreens on Solano Avenue (10.28.13)
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,...