A rendering of the proposed Walgreens on Solano Avenue in Berkeley, a work in progress, and a project may be impacted by a proposed new zoning decision. Image: courtesy Agree Realty Corporation

Berkeley is set to consider whether to limit the number of larger drugstores in the city, at least in certain neighborhoods, which may put a halt to disputed plans by Walgreens to open a new store on upper Solano Avenue.

The issue will be discussed at the city’s Planning Commission meeting Wednesday, March 19.

If the commission, a citizen’s group that advises the Berkeley City Council, approves drugstore zoning recommendations proposed by city staff, it will move Berkeley closer to legally prohibiting the proposed new Walgreens — a project that set in motion the city’s renewed examination of chain drugstore locations.

Walgreens 3
A rendering of the latest design, not set in stone, of the Walgreens on Solano Avenue. Image: Agree Realty Corporation

At Wednesday’s meeting, a public hearing, the commission will consider three staff recommendations, according to planning commission secretary and senior planner Alex Amoroso. They are:

  • Adopting a definition of drugstore, which includes having a pharmaceutical business and selling licensed drug prescriptions, as well as general merchandise
  • Prohibiting the location of drugstores over 5,000 square feet from locating within 1,000 linear feet of each other
  • Applying this restriction only to the city’s “neighborhood commercial districts”: Elmwood, North Shattuck, Solano Avenue and South Area (see the city zoning map)

The commission can approve or reject all or any part of the recommendations, or ask staff for further refinements or changes.

The Walgreens proposal for 1830 Solano, controversial from the get-go, triggered a new round of city attention to larger drugstores or pharmacies. In 2011, Mayor Tom Bates asked the council to pursue a similar 1,000-foot drugstore buffer zone, but it never gained traction to become law.

The Planning Commission at its Jan. 15 meeting directed city staff to revisit the 2011 proposal and hone new language to prevent neighborhood saturation of drugstores. According to the staff report for the March 19 meeting, the City Council directed the planning commission to review the issue this year, citing concerns about a proliferation of alcohol sales and redundant services in certain areas. Many drugstores sell alcohol.

Amoroso said he wasn’t aware of any other city or jurisdiction with drugstore zoning similar to the proposal before the planning commission. In researching the recommendations, Amoroso said staff looked at a variety of ways cities, including San Francisco, approach regulating commercial uses.

The proposed Walgreens on Solano, currently a 76 gas station, is just under 10,000 square feet. The project is winding its way through the city’s building permit process, an often-lengthy series of steps that requires environmental and design reviews, as well as approval by the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB). The zoning regulations on the books when a building permit is approved govern the project, said Eric Angstadt, Berkeley’s planning director. The planning commission makes recommendations to the City Council for another public airing and final ruling.

Supporters of the Solano Walgreens, and those against the project, are gearing up for Wednesday’s meeting, promising a lively discussion.

Rendering showing the landscaping and seating proposed for the new Walgreens on Solano Avenue. Designs are still a work in progress. Image: Agree Realty Corporation

Opponents of the project, many of whom have organized under a group called No on Walgreens, claim it’s out of character with the neighborhood, will increase traffic, and isn’t needed, with several other pharmacies nearby including Sal’s across the street from the site, and Pharmaca a couple blocks west.

Proponents say the claims of increased traffic aren’t proven, that a drugstore is an environmentally cleaner use than a gas station, and that the proposed Walgreens is better than what could be years of a fenced empty lot, because gas stations require pricy cleanup for new uses.

The two sides squared off last week at a meeting of the Thousand Oaks Neighborhood Association (TONA).

Kurt Beleck, vice president of operations for Michigan-based Agree Realty, which builds and leases Walgreens stores nationally including Berkeley’s, is keenly following the zoning issue, as the company moves ahead with the building permit process. Last week, it held a design charrette on the proposed store, getting neighborhood input on what Beleck described as an evolving architectural design.

He questions the need for zoning controls to prevent chain store saturation, saying the market takes care of this. “But the real impact of reactive zoning restrictions similar to this is that they stifle opportunities for future development and investment by selectively regulating certain types of uses,” Beleck said. “Other retailers will ask, ‘who’s next?’”

The Berkeley Planning Commission meets at 7 p.m. at the North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst St. (The relevant meeting agenda section is Item 10, “Minimum Distance Between Drug Stores.”)

Opponents of proposed Walgreens hope for zoning change (01.15.14)
Walgreens’ Berkeley store plan inches divisively along (12.09.13)
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,...