RCPC and the Two Rockridge Safeway Projects -- An Editorial Opinion

Two sites demand vastly different strategies
Friday, October 14, 2011

Rockridge is unique, perhaps among all neighborhoods in America, in simultaneously having two proposals for expanded Safeway stores.  These projects are not happening in isolation, and their simultaneity is far from random.  Safeway has nationwide plans to expand stores to fit its “Lifestyle Store” model.  That model calls for minimum 50,000 sq. ft. stores with departments, such as a full florist, deli, bakery, and butcher shop, that go well beyond a traditional supermarket.  Safeway wants its stores, regardless of location and local conditions, to each be the grocery equivalent of a Walmart “superstore.”

Nor are Safeway’s Rockridge projects limited to larger supermarkets.  Each is part of an even bigger shopping center project.  The Broadway/Pleasant Valley store would be part of a rebuild-expansion that would add 110,000 sq.ft., plus some structured parking, to the Rockridge Shopping Center.  The College Avenue Safeway project would also include eight “small shops” totaling about 12,000 sq. ft. of added retail and restaurant space, plus a 175 space enclosed garage to serve these uses.

RCPC’s attitude towards these projects tries to reflect that of the Rockridge community, and, unlike Safeway, to take into account local conditions and what makes most sense for the community.  Our positions reflect input from many community meetings and numerous discussions by RCPC’s land use committee and board of directors, as well as with other community groups.

The College Avenue Safeway Shopping Center

There is little question that the existing 1960s-era College Avenue Safeway store could use updating.  Most other East Bay supermarkets from that era have either been refurbished, replaced, or re-used for other purposes (e.g., the former Safeway store on Claremont Avenue – also in Rockridge – that is now a dialysis center).  However, College Avenue’s general plan designation and zoning (neighborhood center mixed-use and CN-1, respectively) reflect an understanding that College Avenue, as a two-lane street with little potential for expansion, is not a good place for large-scale development.  Consequently, the focus is on pedestrian-oriented comparison shopping, with an emphasis on small, locally-owned specialty retail shops.  That approach has been spectacularly successful, and College Avenue is widely recognized as Oakland’s most successful neighborhood retail venue. 

Safeway’s 62,000 sq.ft. shopping center threatens to kill the goose that has been laying golden eggs for Oakland.  The recently-released draft environmental impact report for the project, even though it grossly understated the project’s traffic impacts, still found those impacts “significant and unavoidable”.  RCPC agrees that the impacts would be highly significant, leading to near-gridlock on College Avenue at key hours and also creating potential safety and local air quality impacts, but they are not unavoidable.  While full mitigation isn’t feasible, there are project alternatives, notably a smaller project with a Safeway more on the scale of its recently-rebuilt stores on Grand Avenue and in the Fruitvale, that would greatly diminish if not eliminate the traffic and other problems Safeway’s proposal would create, while still providing an attractive and functional store more in keeping with College Avenue’s situation and zoning.  RCPC hopes that Oakland, in its approval process, will avoid unnecessarily damaging a successful retail area and, instead, tell Safeway to rethink its plans so they fit into, rather than overpower and destroy, Rockridge.

The Rockridge Shopping Center (and its Safeway)

Safeway’s Rockridge Shopping Center Project is an entirely different story.  The shopping center, on the edge of Rockridge and at the intersection of two major streets, is zoned for larger-scale commercial activity and has actually been identified by Oakland as a “node” for new development.  RCPC believes, as do other surrounding neighborhood groups, that this site is appropriate for and merits a major, urban, transit-oriented development effort.  While Safeway’s revised project proposal has moved in the right direction, RCPC believes it still suffers from major flaws:

  • Its proposed “shopping street” simply doesn’t work well, either as a street or a shopping area;
  • The project turns a blind side to Pleasant Valley Road, leaving that streetscape dead and isolated;
  • The project still has far too much surface parking.  This land is too valuable to be used for parking lots.  Other than a small amount of short-term “in-and-out” parking spaces, the rest of the parking should be in parking structures;
  • The center needs at least one other “anchor tenant” besides Safeway.  Ideally that would be something much like the present Longs/CVS store.  Alternatively, Safeway might look at a large hardware store, like Pastime Hardware in El Cerrito, or an entertainment complex like that at Bay Street in Emeryville;
  • The center needs much better and easier transit connections.  This would be the ideal turnaround site for AC Transit’s 51 A and B lines, especially with an on-site bus station that would also connect to Kaiser’s MacArthur BART station shuttle bus service.
  • In the long term, the site cries out for a residential component.  It would tie together the neighboring residential areas and make for a more vital site.  That’s apparently not possible under the current site lease, but there ought to be provisions to add housing in the future.

RCPC is hopeful that both Safeway and the City will recognize that there’s far more to be gained from working with, rather than against, the surrounding community on these two major projects.  Safeway’s two projects, done right, could offer a tremendous boost to North Oakland.  Done wrong, however, they could damage one of Oakland’s most successful commercial and residential areas.