Safeway on College needs all-new design after mediation

A mediation sketch of plans for a Safeway reconstruction on College Avenue on the Berkeley-Oakland border, November 2012. This is a view of the rooftop parking set-up; College Avenue is along the bottom of the sketch, and Claremont Avenue is the longest side of the triangle. Cars would enter the parking area via a ramp from College (the rectangle in the lower left) or an entrance from Claremont (see the in-and-out arrows about midway along the structure). A ramp for trucks, requiring back-in parking to a covered loading zone, is pictured in the upper left corner of the drawing. Image: Lowney Architecture

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.”

Next steps

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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  • Greg Merritt

    Hypotenuse? I don’t believe I see a right triangle!

  • emraguso

    Oops! Apparently it’s been way too long since I’ve been in a math class. I just meant the longest side. It’s a bit confusing to describe because of the drawing’s orientation, but I’ll try again. :) Thanks!

  • John Holland

    LOL, it actually looks most like the “base” of an isosceles triangle turned on its side.

  • The Sharkey

    As far as I can tell, rooftop parking requires a retaining wall at the top that will basically make the building at least 1.5 stories tall, and unless very well designed will give it a “top-heavy” appearance.

    For an example of an older building of this style, take a look at this Safeway in San Francisco:

  • Abigail

    Kudos to everyone who participated in the compromise and to Jane Brunner’s apparent skillful facilitation. Wow. Thank you, good work, and three cheers for successful mediation and being willing to budge! What a great story. 

  • Jacob Lynn

    Presumably the support of Berkeleyans for Pedestrian Oriented Design means that the new design is more “pedestrian oriented” that the previous one. The new design has less grocery store space, less retail space, and less restaurant space, but the same amount of parking. I know which design I would prefer (speaking as a non-car owner).

    Was the claim that parked cars for the previous project would overflow the lot provided and spill onto nearby streets? I can see a defensible claim here. But the real solution for this “problem” is appropriately priced parking in high-demand areas, not strict limits on development density.

    In any case, it will be far better than the current situation, and I applaud Safeway for that.

  • Charles_Siegel

    There is also a one-story building with rooftop parking at Berkeley Way and MLK.

    It is an other case where anti-urban neighborhood residents fought fiercely against new development, and the result was an ugly one-story building.

  • Mary

    I don’t have a car either.  I have noticed that many new stores are more and more car-oriented – the entrance may be through the parking lot only instead of from the sidewalk, or the store may be set back from the street with a huge parking lot in front.  This doesn’t exactly encourage people to walk or take public transit to go shopping.  This one won’t affect me since I refuse to shop at Safeway anyway, but I get very annoyed with others that I do shop at, such as the Smart and Final in downtown Oakland.

  • Charles_Siegel

     Searching on the web, I cannot find a web site for “Berkeleyans for Pedestrian Oriented Development.”  I have been active in planning issues in Berkeley for years and never heard of it before.  I suspect it is an ad hoc group that formed purely to oppose this Safeway, that it thought the name sounded impressive, and that it really cares about having a smaller Safeway rather than about promoting pedestrian oriented development. 

    I wish we did have an ongoing group promoting pedestrian oriented development in Berkeley.  There are obvious things we could do, such as locating store entrances facing the sidewalk rather than facing the parking lot, as Mary says.  These are issues that should be brought up in every development decision. 

  • The Sharkey

    I forgot about that one!

    It’s a real shame. The angry neighbors “win” by forcing the store to cut back on its square footage, but the neighborhood loses in the form of an ugly compromise building that will be there for decades.

    On a positive note, the current building is so horribly ugly and anti-pedestrian that the new building will almost certainly be an improvement no matter what they do.

  • David D.

    Where was this group when the new Dollar Tree opened at San Pablo and Gilman? If they’re all for pedestrian-oriented development, they should have protested a new store that closed off all the entrances to an existing building and created a new one accessible only through the parking lot.

    Considering this “compromise” plan does less good for pedestrians than Safeway’s original plan, it sounds like the group used the naming model developed by those political committees we hear about before each major election. Clearly they’re just a NIMBY group who managed to fool local politicians into supporting their low-density nonsense.

    Berkeley and Oakland are urban, and all new urban form should follow that model with true pedestrian, bicycle, and public transit orientation. Want quasi-suburban sprawl like the compromise plan? Move to Concord or Pinole or Brentwood…

  • guest

     Is this the same guy who wrote the op-ed and owns property in the area?

  • Planarch

    The original design was great. Mediation turned a silk purse into a sows ear. I hope the Berkeley NIMBY’s like driving west on Claremont and seeing a sea of cars on the roof. The College Avenue access ramps will congest the street due to shortening the distance to the Alcatraz light. What was wrong with the right in and out at 63rd Street?. If Safeway goes out of business, what will happen with an underground vault. At least with an above grade store you could redevelop the store for various uses.  All of this in exchange for a 10 percent reduction in the store area. Big deal. You saved Safeway a lot of money. Thank you Jane Brunner, and good riddance. If you wanted a camel for a design, you got one. Let’s reject this design and go back to the old one with a 10 percent reduction of floor area and avoid looking at a sea of cars.

  • Agurarye

    It ain’t over till Jane Brunner sings the blues. For a lawyer, she has made a gross blunder here. This scam mediation will be  torn apart starting tomorrow morning when a complaint of gross unethical behavior will be presented to Oakland’s Public Ethics Commission. It is a most skillful dissection of everything unethical that Jane Brunner did, and is doing, to make a grandstand effort to reclaim her dignity and standing in the political community, after the fiasco of her bid (unsuccessful) for Attorney General. If this investigation is successful, she’ll have no standing or dignity at all. wish us luck folks, we’re going to have to ride this thing out. In about 3 or 4 days, we’ll know whether the Commission thinks the complaint deserves to go through a thorough review.

    By for now, 


  • Anonymous

    Planarch, you comments are spot on.  The parking on the roof design was offered back in 2007-8 and was rejected by the neighbors.   The ramp off of College Ave…..well it looks like the East Bay Rats motorcycle club requested that!  Wheeeeeeeeeeeely 

    One of the key elements of Safeway’s strategy was that they would be able to build Lowney’s expensive plan and take advantage of the lower construction costs brought on by the recession.  After so many years and such high up-front costs the new plan appears to be an effort to reduce construction costs.     

  • David Denton

     No, its not.  Are you the paranoid individual that strews the comments section with conspiracy theories rather than judging the posts based on content?