Berkeley City Council moves to limit abundance of large drugstores

Cesar Ruiz/Staff

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In an attempt to protect the economic vitality of small businesses, Berkeley City Council unanimously approved an ordinance Tuesday that would require a distance of 1,000 feet between large pharmacies.

The ordinance only applies to drugstores more than 5,000 square feet in size and aims to prevent an oversaturation of chain stores while still allowing local businesses to flourish. Established pharmacies can stay where they are, but additional locations must be at least 1,000 feet apart.

“Already over 60 percent of the existing drugstores in Berkeley are either Walgreens or CVS, two big national chains,” said Councilmember Gordon Wozniak. “We’re in danger of ending up with very little competition other than those two, and that’s not necessarily good.”

But Andrew Sabey, an attorney representing Walgreens Co., has called the action illegal. Sabey alleged in a letter that the council acted specifically to prevent a planned 10,000-square-foot Walgreens location on Solano Avenue from being built.

“This is not a theoretical proposition,” he wrote. “This is an effort to prevent Walgreens from being able to operate a new store it has proposed in an area where there is unmet demand for its products and services.”

The ordinance was proposed in line with the Berkeley General Plan, which is a comprehensive, long-term plan aimed at shaping public decision-making. The ordinance complies with the plan’s goal of supporting local and neighborhood-serving businesses.

In the letter, Sabey stated that the plan “contains explicitly anti-chain store policies.” He referenced a portion of the general plan’s economic development chapter, which states that the city aims to establish zoning that “limits the development of undesirable chain stores.”

According to Berkeley resident Mark Delucchi, the new ordinance is a necessary step toward preserving the draw of Berkeley’s commercial districts.

“In many places, commercial districts are a blight, and people don’t want them there,” Delucchi said. “But people in Berkeley want to live in commercial districts because there are aspects of them that are attractive.”

Councilmember Jesse Arregiun said if Walgreens were to sue the city, the city’s actions are “completely defensible” because they have the legal right to establish the ordinance.

“The city of Berkeley has certain powers to adopt zoning regulations to protect the quality of life and character of our community,” Arreguin said.

Councilmember Kriss Worthington was more skeptical about the ordinance, and said the issues facing small businesses cannot be solved with a single action. He said that ongoing problems, such as high rent and conflict with landlords, need to be addressed as well.

“I think this may help a handful of small businesses, but not really very many,” Worthington said.

City Council will vote on the ordinance again July 1. If the text is approved, the ordinance will go into effect.

Contact Haley Massara and Sophie Mattson at [email protected].