In response to pressure from neighbors, Safeway has scrapped years of work and agreed to a smaller, street-level store for its site at the junction of College and Claremont avenues, with enough parking, store reps say, for all of its customers.
When the project comes back before the Oakland City Council on Dec. 18, officials and community members will see a whole new set of plans, said architect Ken Lowney of the Oakland-based Lowney Architecture. Tuesday night, Lowney presented the council with rough sketches for the 45,500 square foot store, which is set to open onto College Avenue just north of a plaza separating it from a new, 9,500 square foot retail space.
As for all the site plans, renderings and videos for the project (viewable on the store’s website), “it’s all out the window for now,” said Lowney. Coming up with a whole new design in the next few weeks could pose a major challenge. The previous design took his firm about six weeks to complete. But, he said: “We’re just going take a run at it.”
How it happened: open minds and good faith efforts
New design efforts came about following a 12-hour mediation session last Thursday, Nov. 8, spearheaded by Oakland Councilwoman Jane Brunner, between Safeway officials and seven neighborhood residents representing three community groups.
Lowney said the outcome of Thursday’s session was “a total surprise.”
“We thought we were going to take a couple thousand square feet off the back of the building, but that the building would look the same,” he said Wednesday.
Instead, as a result of what participants on both sides described as open minds and good faith efforts to find middle ground, a new plan emerged from the dialogue.
A new Safeway in the area has been in the works for seven years. It has faced steep opposition from nearby residents concerned about store design, traffic, noise and parking issues, among other worries. In July, Oakland’s planning commission approved Safeway’s designs. But two neighborhood groups appealed the decision, and the threat of a lawsuit that might have tied up the project for another several more years loomed.
In the wake of rising tension, Brunner, an attorney who said she has handled numerous mediations related to her work, met with Safeway representatives and neighbors, and offered to try to help facilitate an agreement.
Brunner said, prior to the mediation, she secured commitments from both sides that they were willing to compromise on the scale of the project — she asked Safeway to agree to make the store smaller, and asked neighbors to be open to something larger than their ideal.
“Nobody believed we were going to get an agreement”
The mediation took place last Thursday, starting at 9:30 a.m. After a 45-minute discussion about ground rules, which also was attended by several other Oakland City Council members, Safeway reps and neighborhood delegates split off into separate rooms to begin the formal process of the mediation.
“Nobody believed we were going to get an agreement,” said Brunner. “We knew it could have lasted an hour, and then they’d all say ‘thank you’ and go home. I don’t think any of us thought we’d be there until 10 o’clock at night.”
Joel Rubenzahl, a member Berkeleyans for Pedestrian Oriented Development (BPOD), who was part of the mediation, added: “We didn’t expect Safeway to budge. If they hadn’t, we would have said, ‘Sorry, we’ll see you at City Council. If we lose the City Council, we’ll see you in court.’ That was the threat hanging over them. I think none of us really were optimistic that we would get there.”
(Representatives from the Rockridge Community Planning Council (RCPC), Friends and Neighbors of College Avenue (FANS) and BPOD were invited to the discussion by Brunner, after RCPC and BPOD filed their appeal. The groups then chose their own delegates.)
After her introduction, Brunner began “shuttle diplomacy” efforts, shifting between the two groups, presenting ideas and collecting feedback. Lowney, too, went between rooms doing drawings to help determine if the neighborhood vision could become a reality.
Lowney said Safeway reps in attendance — who included Todd Paradis, a real estate manager, and Steve Berndt, a real estate vice president with decision-making authority — essentially asked themselves: “Can we do what they’re suggesting? …. They looked at it and said, ‘Oh, I guess we could do it.’”
A turning point, and a long day
A breakthrough came somewhere in the middle of the day, said Brunner, after neighbors expressed concern about the store design. Safeway had planned for its grocery operations to be on the second floor of the structure, above other retail spaces on the first floor. Safeway customers would take an escalator up from the street to do their shopping. Neighborhood delegates said they worried the design would discourage people from visiting nearby businesses, as customers would be resistent to cross the street or shop around after making the trek up to another level.
Brunner said she presented the issue to Safeway, left for an hour and, upon her return, Safeway reps said: “We’re willing to move it to the first floor.” The other retail space has been moved to the corner of Claremont and College, with parking and a truck loading zone on the roof of the Safeway store.
Once the ball got rolling, Brunner said she knew it would be a long day: “If you’re going to resolve something, you don’t leave the room. You stay there until everybody signs.” Brunner said her focus throughout the process was helping both sides come to an agreement, rather than trying to inject her own ideas.
Neighbors also said they were concerned about parking issues, with earlier documents noting the possibility of 40-50 customers circling the neighborhood to find spots during peak shopping hours. Safeway ultimately agreed to limit the store’s size based on parking demand, taking the approach, “If we can’t park it, we can’t have it.”
Stuart Flashman, a land-use attorney and chairman of the land-use committee for the Rockridge Community Planning Council, was one participant in the mediation.
“We went in there and we were not sure whether Safeway was at all serious about making changes and listening to residents,” he said Wednesday. “But we came up with a project that I think is going to be a lot better for the community than what was originally proposed. It will reduce traffic. It’s 15% smaller. The parking will fit the project, which will further help traffic. They’re bringing the store down to the street level, which will help in terms of integrating Safeway into the whole shopping area.”
Flashman and other participants credited Brunner for her work toward the compromise.
“She kept things going,” he said. “She let us know when she thought we were being unreasonable. She pushed both sides together, which I think is precisely what a mediator has to do.”
The Oakland City Council is set to continue its public hearing about the project on Dec. 18, and Berkeley city officials also will have to sign off on some aspects of the plan, as the store site is just over the Berkeley border and will affect traffic over the city line.
Safeway consultant Elisabeth Jewel, of AJE Partners in Berkeley, said both sides will come up with a binding settlement between now and Dec. 18 that is based on the guiding principles set out in the terms agreed to last week. (See the full terms here.)
Safeway also will work with Berkeley city staff to come up with a package of traffic mitigations that reflect the new store design; Oakland and Berkeley officials will then come to an understanding about that part of the settlement agreement.
For now, however, project participants are still enjoying the fruits of last week’s labors.
“It kind of felt a little unprecedented to a lot of us,” said Jewel. “We had very low expectations going in. There’s been such a wide gulf between the two sides. Speaking from Safeway’s point of view, we very much wanted to avoid litigation.”
Architect Lowney said one of the high points for him came after Tuesday night’s council meeting, seeing the emotional outpouring that followed from the hard work of the mitigation discussion.
“It was great to get hugged and kissed, literally, by people who have been arch-adversaries of the project,” he said. “They were saying, ‘Wow, it is so great. Our neighborhood is going to be better, better in a way that works for all of us.’”
Clarification: This article was amended to correct the proposed square footage and the fact the process so far has taken seven years, according to Safeway.
Breaking: Neighbors, Safeway agree on College Ave. store [11.13.12]
Op-Ed: Why I support plans for the Safeway on College [11.12.12]
Revamped Safeway opens in heart of Gourmet Ghetto [10.05.12]
Oakland Planning Commission approves Safeway plans [07.27.12]
Berkeley Council unites in opposing Safeway project [07.18.12]
Berkeley City Council to hold hearing on Safeway project [09.20.11]
Locals protest scale, traffic of proposed Rockridge Safeway [08.01.11]
Safeway buys Berkeley’s Chimes Pharmacy, to consolidate [07.12.11]
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