Commission votes to restrict large drugstores in Berkeley

If approved by the City Council, a law recommended by Berkeley’s Planning Commission would prohibit a controversial new Walgreens from locating on Solano Avenue. Photo: Luke Chan

Regulation to limit the number of large drugstores in Berkeley was approved by the city’s Planning Commission on Wednesday night, sending the proposed zoning change to the City Council for a final decision.

If approved by the City Council, the law would prohibit a controversial new Walgreens from locating on 1830 Solano Ave., currently the site of a 76 gas station. It would also make it difficult for new drugstores to locate in several of the city’s neighborhood shopping areas. The vote was five in favor, one opposed, and two abstentions.

It could take a couple of months for the item to be ready for the council’s agenda, said city planner Alex Amoroso, planning commission secretary.

The commission, at a packed meeting, made a couple small changes to the “Minimum Distance Between Drug Stores” zoning language, including removing South Berkeley from the list of neighborhood commercial districts recommended for the law.

The ordinance as approved by the commission:

  • Adopts a definition of a drugstore, which includes having a pharmaceutical business and selling licensed pharmaceutical products; this language may get further minor tweaks per the planning commission
  • Prohibits the location of drugstores over 5,000 square feet from locating within 1,000 linear feet of each other
  • Applies this restriction only to some of the city’s “neighborhood commercial districts:” Elmwood, North Shattuck and Solano Avenue, as well as a number of smaller unnamed commercial areas (C-N) dotted throughout the city, such as around Hopkins Street and Monterey Avenue (see a city zoning map)

Before opening public discussion on the item, the commission stressed that the new law is city-wide and not specific to any one business, though it would impact the proposed Solano Avenue Walgreens, sized at a little under 10,000 square feet.

Nevertheless, much of the comment was about the Walgreens, which is winding its way through the building permit process, a usually lengthy series of steps requiring environmental and design reviews, and approval by the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board.

And, while there were striking differences of opinion expressed, the tone of the discussion was civil and calm.

Many against the Walgreens project called it a perfect example of why the new drugstore zoning is needed — to protect the character of neighborhood shopping districts with small-business appeal. Many said the new store would squeeze out already fragile existing, smaller businesses such as Sal’s pharmacy and Pharmaca, located near the Walgreens site.

“I’m here in support of the ordinance,” said Peggy Scott, who said she lives “182 steps” from the site.  “We have a very special neighborhood.”

Some supporters said chain stores such as Walgreens should only be allowed in neighborhoods where they’re a better fit, and not in primarily residential areas.

“We need this to help local Berkeley neighborhoods protect their character and not turn into ‘Anywhere USA,’” said Kitty.

Opponents of the zoning change said the Walgreens is a better option than the existing gas station or years of a potential vacant lot if the gas station closes; can help spur pedestrian shoppers to the area as a magnet or anchor store; and will provide needed jobs.

“It restricts healthy competition,” said Alonso Emilio. “Everyone should have a choice to shop where they want.”

Some criticized the approach.

“It’s unnecessary. It’s way too broad for the city as a whole,” said Rick Warren, who lives a half-block from the Solano Avenue Andronico’s, which is next door to the Walgreens site. Warren said the city should approach such zoning issues on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis, rather than with one fell swoop. “Neighborhoods can deal with it on their own.”

Several Walgreens employees attended the event, with a few speaking in support of their employer.

Berkeley to consider redistricting of large drugstores (03.17.14)
Opponents of proposed Walgreens hope for zoning change (01.15.14)
Walgreens’ Berkeley store plan inches divisively along (12.09.13)
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

    I wish there were a way for the public to know the lobbying the City Council will surely be inundated with in the two months before this comes up for a vote. Walgreens and CVS are going to fight hard, but behind the scenes. The public should know every time a lobbyist approaches one of our representatives, including the mayor. Lots of data but sunlight is the best disinfectant. I want to know when folks try to persuade politicians as a lobbyist even at cocktail parties or lunch. Transparency is good for democracy.

  • J. Cepto

    Is there an easy way to track which council members might be consistently voting to abstain?

  • Peggy

    Thank you for posting this story. I would like to point out that Planning Commissioner Jim Novosel asked that each speaker identify him or herself, and to say where they lived. More than half of the speakers did so. Only one person who identified himself as a neighbor spoke against the ordinance; all others were firmly in favor of it and articulately spelled out different reasons why. All the rest who spoke against the ordinance were clearly Walgreen’s employees or their developer. None of those individuals mentioned their city of residence. Walgreen’s has packed the two meetings that have occurred so far with their employees. I do not know if these employees were paid overtime to attend the meeting, or if they were pressured to attend without pay. Both positions seem unfair. I sincerely hope that when this issue comes before council, that speakers will have to be Berkeley residents. Walgreen’s seems to have a limitless supply of employees from all over the Bay Area who are either willing or pressured into packing these meetings. Speakers at City Council should have to identify their place of residence. Period.

  • Sonya Violet

    This particular vote was made by Planning Commission members, not City Council members, just in case confusion.

  • Readbastiat

    I am all for maintaining the character of the neighborhoods. The problem that I see is that there are so many rules and regulations and laws and filings and audits and inspections and insurance and… That it takes to operate a small business, that to be in business means you have to get comfortable with the idea that you can’t possibly do everything to the letter of the law, and be willing to roll the dice on behaving illegally. A lot of these items become operational requirements because of the efforts of the same people that want to maintain the character of our neighborhoods. The only entities that can possibly comply are the giant chains because they have the resources to do so. If you want small business to thrive, let’s work to get the boot of the state off the neck of business people.

    By the way, what do you think is going to happen when minimum wage goes to $15 an hour? We are going to make it even harder on small business people as they will lack the scale to install automated checkout systems. So, we’ll have less small business, less people working, more people on the dole and less choices because the only thing left will be large chains with self checkout aisles.

    Like all good intentions there are tremendous unseen consequences.

  • bgal4

    Maybe they are just folks who need a job.

  • EBGuy

    Draw a circle with a 1.8 mile diameter. There are no drugstores within this circle. Where is the center of this circle located?
    I may go to the city council meeting just to yell at the Walgreens rep.

  • bgal4

    Bizarre logic, Walgreens is good enough for south Berkeley but not north Berkeley. Recently Walgreens tried to open a store at the dead corner of Alcatraz and Adeline. Councilmember Anderson shot it down claiming beer and wine sales would harm south Berkeley. How many years has that building, formerly Guitar Center been empty ? 15?

    What is the logic based on defensible city planning practices justifying this ordinance? Looks to me like more of the same pandering to special status for some neighborhoods.

  • guest

    You make a good point about minimum wage and small businesses.
    However, you sound like you are defending the giant corporations…?
    I’m not sure what the defense is, though…

  • Eliza B.

    Isn’t FIVE Walgreens and FOUR CVS enough big box corporate drug stores for our community? Let the little merchants and pharmacies survive! Let these stores open in neighborhoods that NEED them.

  • ZK

    What a ridiculous move by the Berkeley planning commission. Can anyone actually articulate a REAL benefit of prohibiting Walgreens from opening a store here? Do we really prefer for a storefront to remain vacant and not creating any jobs or social benefit? The 1920s era “mom and pops” drugstores are never coming back folks – they’re too expensive and don’t have enough customer demand.

  • Readbastiat

    I’m not defending large corporations. The large corporations love all the rules including increasing the minimum wage, as they help reduce competition. I’m for making it possible to viably operate a small business without breaking some law, which is pretty much impossible. If you intend to dispute that, please include the type of business you operate.

    Have you ever employed or supervised someone at the minimum wage skill level? I can assure you as someone who has and does, that without job experience there is no floor for what a persons ability to create value is. The higher you make the number the more difficult it is to get people off the corners and into the work force. If you can’t get a foot on the ladder you can’t climb it. Prison Industries Inc, legally employs people at hourly wages starting at $0.xx. This is where they end up.

    I am right now in the process of closing my small construction business that at its peak had 8 guys in the $25-$30 an hour range because I am so tired of all the rules, and paperwork associated with those rules. AND most importantly tired of losing jobs all over Berkeley to unlicensed contractors working for homeowners with 2 prii in the driveway and Mother jones magazines on the coffee table. Look inward friends, maybe we shouldn’t be so eager to tell people what to do.

  • Readbastiatdanmcdunn

    Wow! What about mom and pop? To h e double hockey sticks with them and their livelihoods.

  • AnthonySanchez

    Remember when Council voted this down? We tried, but some people just don’t want the public to know who they meet with:

  • John Freeman

    A mom and pop store that employs one person at less than a living wage
    is not necessarily preferable to a Walgreens that has a lot of automated
    checkout stands, but also employs three people at 15 bucks an hour.

    You want to put mom and pop, owner proprieters, along with their one employee out of work. Destroy mom and pop’s equity. You think that it’s “not necessarily” bad so long as Walgreens hires three poverty-wage workers. And while Walgreens transfers any additional profit far away. And offers service that is less responsive to local demand. And increases infrastructure strain, and makes the area less attractive as a higher end residential area.

    And you paint this as somehow mysteriously better for retail workers as if their plight was the key to fixing the economy.

  • John Freeman

    Do we really prefer for a storefront to remain vacant and not creating any jobs or social benefit?

    You have assumed that expanding the economic dominance of big retailers like Walgreens nets more jobs and “social benefit”. Perhaps instead the expansion of such companies will, overall, reduce the demand for labor and increase poverty among the working class.

    That worse alternative seems to be the general trend. As efficiency has increased (Walgreens, Amazon, etc. and their supply chains) even while the economy’s capacity to productively expand has been hampered, the only thing left to “give” to create profit is to reduce the overall demand for labor. Prices keep inflating while wages in aggregate stay flat or fall and its the direct result of increasing efficiency without a corresponding expansion of real production.

    I agree with you that 1920s era stores aren’t “coming back” real soon but there’s no obvious advantage to us actual people to help the big firms accelerate what they’re doing. I suggest taking a longer view.

  • EBGuy

    Pharmaca does stock items not available at CVS or Walgreens. An argument could be made that less diversity in the drugstore ecosystem drives some dollars out of Berkeley. But I’m not going to make that argument (I’ll leave that up to JF).

  • Doug

    Berkeley continually masks a blatant “not in my neighborhood” attitude for some sort of righteous cause. It is a different kind of gated community we are building, but a gated one non-the-less.

  • Emily Wanderer Cohen

    I used to fill all my pharmacy needs at Elmwood Pharmacy. Anyone remember when that corner was Ozzie’s and Elmwood Pharmacy? The owner couldn’t stay open, does anyone know why? It was because she couldn’t compete with the guaranteed hours and benefits of Walgreen’s and CVS. I’m honestly not sure that, even if we cap the number of Walgreen’s and CVS’s in Berkeley at the number it is today, that ANY “mom and pop” pharmacies could make a go of it anymore anyway. Elmwood Pharm went out of business several years ago. I don’t buy the argument.

  • Guest

    Do you think the one at-will employee at the corner liquor store, or the little place that sells supplements and homeopathic remedies, getting paid 9.00 an hour, is better off than the Walgreens employee making 15.00? Yes or no?

    Do Mom and Pop pay more in property taxes than Walgreens?

    Do any local people at all have Walgreens stock in their retirement accounts?

    Do you think the oh-so-local-and-independent (and now defunct) Elephant Pharmacy on Shattuck, with its miserable, sullen employees who never seemed to last more than a few weeks, was more responsive to local demand than the Walgreens that moved in to the same space? Would you rather have another poorly run, arts-fartsy locally owned business there again?

    Would you rather live next to a Walgreens or a Starbucks, or the Black and White Liquor Store?

  • John Freeman

    Do you think the one at-will employee at the corner liquor store, or the little place that sells supplements and homeopathic remedies, getting paid 9.00 an hour, is better off than the Walgreens employee making 15.00?

    It rather depends on their individual circumstance, of course.

    Yes or no?,

    Oh my.

    Do Mom and Pop pay more in property taxes than Walgreens?

    Talk nets, not line items.

  • ZK

    So, in a nutshell, we should artificially support inefficient businesses to prop up demand for labor?

    By the way, I don’t buy into this dichotomy that either Walgreens will move in or an independent pharmacy will. I doubt we’ll be seeing an independent pharmacy either way – look around, they just don’t exist anymore. If this decision holds, it’s just going to force Berkeley residents to travel farther (creating additional traffic, pollution, expense, wasted time, etc.) to find a pharmacy.

  • guest

    Just wait until commercial properties with the mom & pop’s get re-assessed as prop 13 is voted away by all the Dudley-Do Rights. Corporations will be all that’s left. Enjoy

  • Eliza b.

    Find a pharmacy in Berkeley? Turn your head and there’s one!

  • Zingy

    Well said…

  • Doug F

    Walgreen’s isn’t even efficient. The one in downtown Berkeley has the slowest checkers I’ve ever seen anywhere. It merely has shared-monopoly (with CVS) name recognition & purchasing power.

  • Guest

    C’mon. Elephant was fantastic while it lasted. The place was always packed, and they kept changing it around to suit what people wanted. I can’t believe nobody else has adopted their yogurt and yoga mats style. I’m convinced that the reason they went belly up had more to do with their expansion around the Bay Area and debt, than it did with the profitability of that one store we cherished.

  • david

    So I take it that you believe that small businesses with low profit margins provide better wages and benefits and lower prices. Evidence?

  • John Freeman

    I’ve sorted out your question below but first, some comparisons of mom & pop vs. big corps:

    Corporations tend to be more exclusively concerned with their rate of profit.

    Mom&pop tend more often to be concerned with long term survival and personal goals.

    For mom&pop, the necessary profit margin to make it worth staying in business is largely a matter of their personal choice.

    For example, mom&pop may be willing to accept a lower profit margin if it yields them greater longevity and sufficient personal income.

    For corporations, the necessary profit margin to keep a store open is determined by capital markets. Within those capital markets, corporations compete to expand more rapidly than competitors or, in some segments, to pay higher dividends than competitors.

    Mom&Pop can choose to be committed to local markets for the long haul. This can create all kinds of (I hope pretty obvious) win-win benefits with the community whose business they need!

    Corporations are rewarded for being nimble enough to get in and out of local markets easily: In when the profit and expansion opportunities appear big enough; Out whenever capital can be more profitably deployed elsewhere.

    Mom&Pop have incentive to be loyal to the people in the local market.

    Corporations have incentive to be much more fickle.

    So I take it that you believe that small businesses with low profit margins provide better wages and benefits and lower prices.

    On the contrary:

    A firm’s rate of profit does not determine the firm’s wages. Of course all else being equal if the rate of profit increases, wages fall, and vice versa — but things are rarely so simple.

    Similarly a firm’s rate of profit does not determine the firm’s prices except insofar as it sets a floor on prices: Prices are never less than the least amount of profit the seller is willing to accept. All else being equal, a higher rate of profit means higher prices — but again, real life tends not to hold other factors constant.

    From the public perspective a local or national economy is worse off if an extractive firm has significant revenues and a high rate of profit. Economies generally are worse off when extractive firms profits fuel speculative bubbles.

  • Snead Hearn

    Berkeley city government has an anti-business obsession.

  • EBGuy

    That’s, right, the former Andronicos (now Savers store) on University Avenue. Sigh…

  • Mrdrew3782

    The main argument against the Walgreen’s going in on Solano is that it’s removing the 76 station. The 76 Station is used by everyone in the community and is the only other gas station in North Berkeley besides the Chevron. So we are replacing something we do need with something we don’t need.

  • guest

    Vague junk with no specificity in implementation or enforcement. Little more than a brain fart.

  • Guest

    Yet another comment from “John Freeman” that is a response that doesn’t actually respond to the meat of the comment. Seems like this is becoming a regular thing.

  • guest

    I would rather have another Walgreens or CVS than another empty storefront.

  • In a nutshell…

    So many wild assumptions based on personal bias, so little actual evidence.