Berkeley officials, residents discuss Oakland Safeway expansion near border

Derek Remsburg/Staff
The head architect for the Safeway expansion attended the Berkeley City Council meeting on Tuesday night.

The Berkeley City Council addressed concerns Tuesday night over the potential greenhouse gas emissions and congested intersections that would result from the proposed expansion of the Safeway that closely borders Berkeley on the corner of College and Claremont avenues in Oakland.

During public comment at the special meeting, community members from both Berkeley and Oakland expressed concerns regarding increased traffic and parking issues in an area already known for its crowded transit. Council members shared their worries while also pointing to potential environmental impacts.

The proposed building plan would add another story to the currently single-story Safeway and increase the size of the structure from 24,260 square feet to 62,167 square feet, with 51,510 square feet for Safeway on the second level and an additional 10,657 square feet for retail space below.The existing 106-space surface parking lot would also be replaced with a two-level parking structure of about 171 spaces, according to the project’s draft Environmental Impact Report.

Two years into the planning process, the company and Oakland’s Planning and Zoning Division staff have been faced with a large amount of community opposition, largely stemming from the assumption that the project would greatly increase traffic congestion in the area.

“Safeway has not been a good neighbor to Berkeley residents,” said Berkeley resident Meri Simon during the public comment period.

Simon, who lives on Alcatraz Avenue — the street that runs adjacent to the north side of the property — brought up Safeway’s failure to respond to complaints in the past concerning trash from the store accumulating along Alcatraz. Simon also cited the company’s continued plans to expand its store despite objections from the community.

Councilmember Gordon Wozniak, whose district borders the area where the Safeway is located, said at the meeting that he has been concerned about the environmental footprint of the project as well as the parking and traffic concerns.

In August, Wozniak wrote a letter to Oakland’s planner for the project, Pete Vollmann, commenting on the project’s draft EIR.

“The goal should be a store with zero-energy operations and substantially reduced (greenhouse gas) emissions from transportation,” Wozniak said in the letter. “With a proper redesign, Safeway can create both a green store and one that enhances the ambiance and enriches the ecology of this jewel of a business district.”

Despite several requests for an extension on behalf of Wozniak and Berkeley city staff, the city of Oakland closed public comment for the draft EIR on Aug. 16.

Principal architect for the project Ken Lowney of Lowney Architecture presented the plans for the Safeway expansion at the meeting, giving a detailed walk-through of the building and surrounding structures while emphasizing the effort to complement the existing architecture on the surrounding streets.

“This part of Oakland is a real treasure,” Lowney said at the meeting.

Due to concerns about noise produced by trucks at the Safeway’s loading dock,  the expansion plans include an enclosed loading dock area in order to mitigate the noise.

Oakland Planning Commissioners were also present Tuesday to answer questions about the anticipated traffic increase resulting from the new structure in an area that already suffers from congested streets.

Community group Friends and Neighbors of College Avenue argued that a store of the same size would maintain the quality of neighborhood.

As of Sept. 8, more than 1,400 of the people who had taken a poll on the group’s website expressed their support for a building plan with only a modest increase of the current size.

At the same time, Safeway’s website for the project on College has a list of 750 signatures in support of the expansion plans.

Councilmember Max Anderson said he is worried about the uneven ratio of benefits and impacts from the expansion in terms of tax revenue and pollution.

“We work very hard on greenhouse gas emissions here,” Anderson said at the meeting. “It seems like the counter impacts of this project would be fairly large.”

Plans to enlarge another existing Safeway on Pleasant Valley Avenue and Broadway in Rockridge have led community members in both Oakland and Berkeley to question the necessity of two large expansions within relatively close proximity of each other.

In the end, the Berkeley City Council can only make suggestions to the Oakland City Council regarding the project. At the meeting, Mayor Tom Bates suggested that the city manager and transportation manager work together to synthesize the council’s concerns and return with a draft of suggestions by the council’s Oct. 11 meeting to be sent to Oakland City Council.

Oakland City Councilmember Jane Brunner said that Berkeley’s opinion regarding the project could be significant, because some of the traffic adjustments needed for the project fall under Berkeley’s purview.

“The final decision is Oakland’s,” said Brunner. “But Oakland needs Berkeley to change some of the traffic signals at intersections near the store in order to mitigate traffic.”

Vollmann said the final EIR for the project is expected to be released in the early part of next year.

Once the EIR has been approved, the project will go before Oakland’s Planning Commission sometime next spring. The major topic at that time will be size concerns, although traffic flow will also be an ongoing issue, according to Brunner.

Adelyn Baxter covers city government.