Oakland Planning Commission approves expansion of Safeway on College Avenue

Lowney Architecture/Courtesy
The plans for the renovated building include a design that is two stories, with retail space on the bottom floor and a new Safeway located above.

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The Oakland Planning Commission approved plans for the expansion of the Safeway on College Avenue last Wednesday, despite opposition from neighbors and the Berkeley City Council.

The renovation has been in the planning stages for a number of years. Although the College Avenue Safeway is in Oakland, its proximity to Berkeley worries residents of surrounding neighborhoods due to the potential for increased traffic and pollution in the area, prompting the City Council vote to send a letter to the city of Oakland listing its concerns for the project.

According to a planning re-submittal released on July 3, the proposed plan includes expanding the 24,258 sq. ft. site to 62,152 sq. ft., or about 120,000 sq. ft. if, as the plan indicates, a two-story building is approved. More than 50,000 sq. ft. will be utilized as floor space for Safeway itself and the rest as restaurant and retail space.

According to Berkeley City Councilmember Gordon Wozniak, the new building will cover 90 percent of the 2.1 acre lot instead of the previous 30 percent.

Wozniak added that congested traffic on College Avenue will worsen if the number of customers and store employees increases. He also said the Environmental Impact Report indicates that insufficient parking is being provided, which could lead to spillover parking into surrounding residential neighborhoods.

“The design is well done,” said Jane Brunner, Oakland City Council member for District 1, where the site is located. “But the issue is the amount of traffic. I don’t want it to turn our residential streets into freeway entrances.”

Brunner said there is no set date yet for when the project will be presented to the Oakland City Council for approval.

Berkeley resident Joel Rubenzahl said he is also concerned about traffic, as its implications are directly related to pedestrian safety, bicycle safety and local air quality. Competition affecting local businesses was also a concern expressed by Rubenzahl, who fears that options such as an in-house bakery will negatively impact small businesses.

“The proposed Safeway is way too big for such a small parcel of land, and out of character for the area,” said Larry Henry, also a Berkeley resident. “Walkers will not be drawn into this ‘contraption’ of a store where you have to go into an elevator to do your shopping.”

Oakland’s planning commission unanimously certified the final Environmental Impact Report and approved the project last Wednesday, according to a statement released last Thursday by Aroner, Jewel & Ellis Partners, the consulting firm serving Safeway. The statement also said that the Oakland Planning Commission “did not agree with the opponent’s assertions that our project violated zoning, or that traffic was unmitigatable.”

Beneficial aspects of the project include the proposed 10-foot buffer between the store and the adjacent residences on Alcatraz Avenue and the fact that the loading dock and trash compactor will be enclosed in the building so as to reduce noise and odors, according to Wozniak.

“Though there is opposition, there is also vast support for the building of this Safeway,” said Elisabeth Jewel, a partner in the consulting firm. She said that the remodeled site will offer an improved shopping experience to the 1964 building which currently houses the store.

“The energy efficiency of the building will also be revised,” Jewel said. “The new building would be a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) -certified building meeting the highest qualifications.”

To reduce the impact of the opening, Wozniak said Safeway offered to enter into a contract with Berkeley to fund the traffic mitigations at the four intersections expected to be most impacted by a larger store.

According to Jewel, the city decided not to accept this offer, as it did not want to show any kind of approval for building this proposal.

Friends and Neighbors of College Avenue, a coalition of Oakland and Berkeley groups concerned about Safeway’s expansion, has been actively working to prevent this expansion from taking place.

“Safeway is selling jobs and tax revenue and doesn’t care if they ruin a wonderful thriving neighborhood,” said Susan Shawl, a coalition board member.

Rubenzahl said it would be great for the city of Berkeley to appeal the planning commission decision and also to be prepared to file suit under the California Environmental Quality Act.