Update, 01.22.13: The 7-Eleven hearing has been postponed and will not be heard at the Jan. 24 Zoning Adjustments Board meeting. We will report on the new date when it is set.
Original story: A group of west Berkeley neighbors is mounting a vocal opposition to 7-Eleven opening a 24-hour convenience store at 2000 San Pablo Ave. on the corner of University Avenue. Residents fear that a store open throughout the night would be a magnet for crime and anti-social behavior, and would threaten to reverse what many see as significant improvements to the neighborhood’s quality of life over the past few years.
Around 60 local residents and merchants gathered on the evening of Tuesday, Jan. 8, at the vacant corner store for which 7-Eleven submitted a use permit application to the city Planning Department in September.
The meeting was convened after local resident of 31 years Susan Black met Katie Schardt, a consultant from Compass Commercial who is working on behalf of 7-Eleven on the proposed opening. Schardt had met with merchants, principally on University Avenue, but not with local residents, and offered to organize a meeting with the community after hearing from Black about community concerns.
The neighbors who attended Tuesday were near-unanimous in voicing their opposition to a 7-Eleven coming into the area. The main concern is the fact that the store is applying for a 24-hour permit. (It does not need to apply for a use permit as the space is zoned for retail. The other parts of the application involve wanting to put in an ATM machine and making some interior design changes.) People spoke of how prostitution and crime had always been a factor in the neighborhood, but that efforts by residents, as well as the arrival of new businesses such as the Local 123 café at 2049 San Pablo, and new restaurants such as Gaumenkitzel, had helped to make the area feel safer and more vibrant.
Richard Graham, who has lived locally for 25 years and sits on the University Avenue Association, said he was worried that although 7-Eleven is not seeking an alcohol license now, it could do so down the line. Acknowledging that it was still hard to get good tentants for the vacant storefronts in the area, despite the area’s revival, he noted that there were already four liquor stores nearby.
Black told Berkeleyside she believed local residents would be relieved if the 7-Eleven retracted its application to be open 24 hours, although ideally they would rather not have the store at all.
Black said she didn’t believe the city cared enough about west Berkeley. “They just want to dump a 7-Eleven on us,” she said. “We’ve seen murders, drive-by shootings, drug sales and prostitutes here and we’ve worked for years to make the area safer. We don’t need people coming to a store at 3 a.m. bringing in trouble we don’t need. It’s a dead zone [now] and we would like to keep it that way.”
Taj Johns, a local community organizer, described the area as “fragile.” “We are fighting to keep an equilibrium,” she said.
Schardt said 7-Eleven’s typical late-night customers are students and shift-workers. The store always removes trash and would provide new exterior lighting, she said, as well as a cleaned-up exterior. The company also has a policy of removing graffiti around its stores within 24 hours.
Berkeley beat police officer Cesar Melero, who had conducted a pre-safety audit of the property with 7-Eleven, said generally speaking police would rather see a well-lit corner than a dark corner. “A well-lit, occupied building with a good neighbor is a good thing,” he said.
Schardt was accompanied by Sid Wiener, of Illinois-based SKW Capital Management, who is in the process of buying the building and would be 7-Eleven’s landlord should its application be successful. Wiener said he had marketed the site extensively but had no takers until 7-Eleven got involved. “I tried to bring in local tenants but nobody was interested,” he said. A lease for a second part of the property is still available, he said. The space has been vacant on and off for several years. It was occupied by Bombay Music at one point.
There are currently three 7-Elevens in Berkeley, including one that is four blocks away from the site in question, at the intersection of University and Sacramento. That store does sell alcohol but is only open in daytime hours.
Many attendees spoke of the competition 7-Eleven would pose to local businesses and how it would “cheapen” the neighborhood. Jesus Mendez, the owner of Mi Tierra Foods at 2082 San Pablo, said at the meeting that he shared the concerns of the group.
Black told Berkeleyside she had recently counted 19 or 20 ethnic restaurants in a three-block stretch of San Pablo. “A few years ago the city declared the area an International Food District, and we had street fairs and so on — which makes this development even more insulting,” she said.
West Berkeley is not alone in standing up to the world’s largest convenience store chain, which is currently in expansion mode and estimated to be opening a new store every two hours. In San Mateo, a group of neighbors are working to shut down a 7-Eleven that opened last month in a mostly residential area near a high school. [Update, 01.15.13:. In San Mateo, the property at issue was zoned residential, whereas the proposed Berkeley site is zoned for retail use.]
Similar controversies have been seen in Florida, Connecticut, Oregon and other states, according to the San Mateo County Times.
The 7-Eleven that would go into the San Pablo space is one of a new prototype of stores that would offer more fresh produce and healthful food than the typical 7-Eleven model, according to Schardt. “When people think of 7-Eleven they think of Slim Jims and soda pops,” she said to the meeting, “but the new store will have a greater emphasis on fresh foods such as sandwiches and fruit salads.” The move is part of a nationwide change of tack for the retail group. By 2015, 7-Eleven aims to have 20% of sales come from fresh foods in its American and Canadian stores, up from about 10% currently, according to the New York Times.
A petition signed by more than 40 people at Tuesday’s meeting is being submitted to the Zoning Adjustments Board, which is set to review the application at its Jan. 24 meeting. “We plan to get more signatures and to turn out en masse for the meeting to make our voice heard,” said Black.
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