It’s been a long time coming. But, as of this week, People’s Community Market (PCM) has finally secured a location for its West Oakland grocery store. CEO Brahm Ahmadi — who came to West Oakland more than 14 years ago as a community organizer and quickly realized it was a food desert in dire need of access to fresh, healthy food — made the announcement in blog post and email to shareholders on Monday.
The store will be at 3103 Myrtle St. (at San Pablo Avenue) and will clock in around 14,000 square feet, just over a quarter of the size of the original Berkeley Bowl.
“This is a major milestone and a significant accomplishment in the overpriced and competitive real estate market of the Bay Area,” wrote Ahmadi. “It took our team — which included community development experts, real estate brokers, attorneys, and financial advisors — two years to secure a site, with the last six months involving significant negotiations, due diligence and site assessment.”
Ahmadi founded People’s Grocery in 2002 as a collection of programs and experiments whose underlying, long-term goal has always been the creation of a brick-and-mortar grocery store — when the time seemed right. Getting the project off the ground and funded hit some bumps along the way.
However, when PCM opens, it will include a full-service market and social hall with an emphasis on providing healthy grocery items at affordable prices. Ahmadi told Nosh in February 2015 that he plans to adopt a two-tiered pricing model similar to Mandela Foods Cooperative in which fresh fruit, vegetables and healthy staples are priced at a discount, subsidized by a higher-than-usual prices on less-crucial products, such as organic unbleached paper products. The center aisles of the store — where chain supermarkets typically house vast swathes of packaged sweets, sodas and snacks — will be shrunk to make room for larger offerings of produce, dairy and other fresh foods.
While PCM is a for-profit company, its central mission is to improve the neighborhood’s health and economy. It also aims to stem the tide of displacement spurred by gentrification. And Ahmadi hopes to eventually transition PCM to an employee-owned business. Employees’ loyalty, as well as their value to the community and the business, will be increased through extensive trainings in nutrition, cooking, and financial literacy.
Ahmadi spent the better part of the past two years trying to secure a store closer to public transportation on West Grand Avenue. Ultimately, he couldn’t secure any of the deals because of the rising cost of West Oakland real estate, despite raising over $1 million in funds through a direct public offering (DPO) in 2013.
The purchase of the land for PCM was made possible through an angel investor, who loaned funds to the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBALDC), which purchased the property and will ultimately serve as PCM’s landlord.
“The role of the angel investor in enabling a cash purchase of the property was essential as we could not have secured a loan from a bank because, as is the case with most real estate in the Bay Area, the selling price of the property was well over its market value,” wrote Ahmadi.
Ahmadi chose to partner with EBALDC because it, like PCM, has a mission of promoting “healthy and stable neighborhood development,” he said. It will be charging PCM only $1 per year in rent for the first three years, “giving us a big edge in provide good food at affordable prices and living wage jobs,” wrote Ahmadi.
“Having a landlord that is more interested in our long term success than in making a quick buck by raising the rent or selling the land gives us the long-term stability necessary to build a successful business and to place our social mission at the center of that business.”
In addition to the deal with EBALDC, PCM had to make two crucial additional agreements — one with the neighboring church, St. Matthew Missionary Baptist Church, and a second with the City of Oakland.
PCM will be leasing a 20,644-square-foot parking lot from St. Matthew. The lot currently connected to the site of the actual grocery store isn’t large enough to meet the needs of the store, so leasing additional parking spaces was required. PCM will be paying a “fair market rent,” for the property and will be making improvements, such as re-paving and re-striping the lot, as well as adding lighting, greenery and security cameras.
Ahmadi is particularly excited about partnering with St. Matthew because, as a historically black church, it “presents unique opportunities to deepen PCM’s community engagement and impact,” he wrote. Further, he hopes that the increased traffic and activity at the grocery store will “present St. Matthew with the opportunity to increase their own visibility and to conduct outreach to grow their membership.”
PCM’s deal with the City of Oakland involves St. Andrew’s Plaza, the nearby park at San Pablo and 32nd Street. Ahmadi said that PCM couldn’t have proceeded with its location if the city didn’t “take certain steps to address the public safety concerns,” such as drug use, associated with the park. Fortunately for Ahmadi, the city agreed that it would demolish the park in February, convene a community planning process for its redesign, and re-open the park in summer 2017 with an increased focus on public safety.
Troubles at the neighborhood park were likely part of the reason for the 2015 closures of B-Side BBQ and later, B-Side Baking Company, both owned by West Oakland restaurateur Tanya Holland. While she never cited the park as a direct impediment to business, she did say that B-Side at least never found its footing in the neighborhood.
Ahmadi wrote that these challenges are part of the reality of doing business in an under-served urban neighborhood. “The complexities and costs of real estate can be a major barrier to ensuring that all communities have access to good food,” he wrote. “It also demonstrates the creativity, tenacity and partnerships that it takes to overcome these challenges and complexities.”
Ahmadi has so far hired a project manager, architect, interior planner and legal counsel for the PCM site, and is now moving forward with detailed site planning, government approvals and permitting, and institutional financing. He told the East Bay Express that he hopes to fund at least part of this process with a second DPO. Unlike the first round, in which investors were required to put up a minimum of $1,000, he hopes to work with a foundation that will subsidize these investments so that potential shareholders could buy in for much less, around $100.
Ahmadi hopes to break ground by the end of 2016 and complete construction in fall 2017.
3 efforts aim to build West Oakland’s healthy future (02.27.15)
For Oakland food desert: A people’s grocery store (12.18.12)
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