Walgreens’ Berkeley store plan inches divisively along

A rendering of the proposed Walgreens on Solano Avenue. Drawing courtesy Charles Kahn Architect

A rendering of the proposed Walgreens on Solano Avenue. Drawing courtesy Kahn Design Associates

A rumor circulating among those following the path of a proposed Walgreens on upper Solano Avenue that Berkeley architect Charles Kahn is no longer with the project is true. But extrapolations that this means efforts to build the store are in trouble are far from accurate, Khan said.

“Oh no, they’re full steam ahead,” said Kahn, who designed a building for the proposed project at the corner of Solano and Colusa avenues, the current site of a 76 gas station.

Confusion around Kahn’s role is just one of many emotive issues swirling around the controversial project, which is igniting strong opposition, including a Keep Walgreens Off Solano moveon.org petition with 1,401 signatures.

The stance of the Solano Avenue Association, a merchant’s group of 200 businesses, is also stirring questions, with media reports that the group polled its members on the project finding an even split, pro and con. Some association members say they have never been polled.

Meanwhile, project developer, Gary Eisenberg of Agree Realty Corporation, a Detroit-based real-estate company that builds and leases Walgreens nationwide, said he’s received encouraging support for the project, and isn’t deterred by the opposition. “We’ve had lots of input from residents who are looking forward to a really great design that’s helping to create a village feel at this intersection,” Eisenberg said.

So, what’s what?

Kahn’s departure follows a common procedure in building development, where a design architect creates a building, passing the architectural baton to a project architect who takes it from there, Kahn said.

“The design architect is the person who does the initial design work; the functional building, the appearance of the building, the context,” Kahn said. “The production architect has to do the heavy lifting that makes it works as a building and meet all the health and safety codes.”

That heavy lifter in this case is Oakland architect Ken Lowney, whose local work includes the recently renovated Safeway on Shattuck Avenue in North Berkeley. Lowney will press on with building engineering and mechanics.

Kahn said he believes he’s accomplished what he set out to do, working with Berkeley landscape architect John Roberts. “We accepted the job on the condition we could create a beautiful design.”

Agree Realty’s application for a city building permit is imminent, Kahn said. This sets in motion the city’s approval process which includes planning commission and design reviews with community input. (See Berkeleyside’s earlier story for details.)

As for the Solano Avenue Association, Allen Cain, the association’s executive director, said last week his members haven’t been polled about the project. The association’s board of directors has had informal conversations, and many have an open mind, he said.

“We sat around the table and discussed this stuff.  We’re not pro-Walgreens, but we’re open to the idea and don’t want to see them demonized improperly.”

The board thinks there could be a better fit for the site, but at the same time isn’t vehemently down on national chain stores in the vein of some opponents, he said. “Let’s at least be welcome to the idea that people are interested in coming into the town. I think by having large corporations invest in a district, it shows the outside world that the district is worth investing in.”

The economics of Solano is tough on small businesses, Cain said, and the gas station site in particular could require expensive soil clean-up that takes “deep pockets.”  “Who has this kind of money? It’s going to take someone with resources like Walgreens.”

But Cain’s view isn’t shared by many merchants near the site. A resident of the area who launched a No Walgreens on Solano website, (which links to the MoveOn petition), shared a list of nine upper Solano businesses opposed to the project. The resident declined to be named.

The owner of one of the businesses, Sal Nassar, of Sal’s Pharmacy across the street from the site, said a chain store will clash with the appeal of the neighborhood, increase traffic, and drive out small businesses that can’t compete with chain pricing, including his.

“It doesn’t contribute any good thing to this area; they might deteriorate it. I guarantee you’ll see more vacancies. I look at these decent mom-and-pop places. But when a big chain comes like this, it’s just a money game,” Nassar said, emphasizing that he’s worried for all area merchants.

Shelly Alvarez, the manager of Greetings, a nearby gift and card shop, agrees. “I think it’s a terrible idea for the neighborhood. I feel we’ve worked hard to preserve a neighborhood feel, and I feel it really threatens a bunch of us.”

Alvarez said she has nothing against Cain, and agrees to disagree. In years past, upper Solano was plagued by vacancies and she understands the emotion behind embracing any viable business interested in the street.

But things are better now, she says, and Solano isn’t as desperate. “That’s not the space we’re in now. Now the block is almost completely full.”

Related:
Testy response to proposed Walgreens on Solano Avenue (10.28.13)
Bates: City needs another grocery store, not pharmacy (12.14.11)
Will pharmacy war lead to new restrictions in Berkeley? (04.18.11)

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  • Tizzielish

    Why not? Build five or six stories of affordable housing, plenty of parking for residents and customers and put retail on the street level — heck, even retail for a Walgreens on the street. Why the heck not?

    Oh, that’s right, Safeway wanted to build housing above it’s N. Shattuck renovation and NIMBY’s opposed that housing.

    It’s hard being democratic, eh?

  • Solano Loves Drug Stores!

    Enough saturation? Hardly! The community loves patronizing these stores as is evidenced by their continuing success despite a tough retail climate. Another Walgreens would shorten lines and improve access for seniors, children, and those with limited mobility who might have difficulty getting to other locations.

    This Walgreens will be a welcome addition to the community that will provide vital products and services for those in need.

  • National Chains Are OK!

    4th Street has multiple National chain stores, and still manages to keep its charm. Apple, Crate & Barrel, CB2 (which is another Crate & Barrel store right across the street), MAC Cosmetics, Benefit Cosmetics right across the street, etc.

  • Mysterious reasons? That’s the best you’ve got? LOL

  • Mbfarrel

    Safeway did NOT want to build housing above the North Shattuck store and repeatedly said so.

  • No Solano Walgreens

    How about a guard and liquor? You want that too?

  • Solano Loves Walgreens!

    A guard in a store = more jobs in the community.

    What’s wrong with liquor? Many of the bars and restaurants already on Solano serve it. I hope you aren’t saying you want them shut down!

  • 3rdGenBerkeleyan

    and neither do you speak for the community

  • Marilyn McPherson

    At first I was opposed but recently I was on Upper Solano and thought that a full-service pharmacy like Walgreens in this area would offer items that I can’t get at small pharmacies. Otherwise, I’m going to CVS on Shattuck. I think such a development would contribute positively to the neighborhood. I know rents are ridiculous in Berkeley, but how is keeping out Walgreens going to help with that? Unfortunately, I’m not sure that a small pharmacy like Sal’s is going to make it anyway. I went in there for cough drops the other weekday morning and it was empty of customers. A note of caution: the traffic engineers need to look at the whole Solano/The Alameda/Colusa corridor about ways to divert commuter traffic to Colusa without going through the upper blocks of Solano. That area is too congested as it is. Parking for a Walgreens should be accessed only from the back and exit only towards Marin.