Cole Hardware, Completed Safeway Add New Life to College Ave

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The January openings of Cole Hardware, just south of BART, and the new version of Safeway at Claremont and College definitely cut the post-holiday gloom.

It was hard to miss the smiles on the faces of Cole Hardware shoppers who thronged to the store on its opening days. After all, Rockridge "voted" that a hardware store was the foremost missing ingredient in the mixture of retail and restaurants that is College Avenue. And it already seems that this family-owned enterprise has been there forever, although its formal "Grand Opening" is Saturday, February 21.

"I love this store," enthused Rockridge resident Manny Blackman, who was a Cole Hardware customer when he lived in San Francisco. "I'm excited to see it here."

Even before Cole opened, I wrote down a comment I heard on the street: "We are finally getting a store on College that everyone can use."

Everyone can use the new Safeway, as well, but some may be more grudging than others. Inside, it is beautiful and bright and certainly a vast improvement in depth of product and environment over the old Sixties-era store and its featureless parking lot.

Critics predicted traffic mayhem, but I haven't seen that. However, the building does loom over College Avenue, blocking sun and view. Plus, I don't quite get how its in-store Starbucks and expected tenant, Philz Coffee, are assets to a neighborhood that already has a slew of independent coffee houses, two directly across the street.

Peet's Coffee, down the block, handled it subtly and creatively with a sign welcoming back Safeway employees and offering them 20 percent off on purchases. And two women I spoke to sipping Cole Coffee (no relation to the hardware store) across the street said the coffee is so good they would never go anywhere else. They also mentioned it was easier to park and "you can still see the sky."

Of those I randomly interviewed at Safeway, most were positive, although none happened to be Rockridge residents. Anne Janks, from another area of Oakland, told me enthusiastically, "It looks like a Whole Foods." "I think it's glorious," Virginia Stough of Piedmont said. "I like it - how neat everything looks. It's really pretty to look at," echoed Becky Lee, from Berkeley.

An elderly Berkeley couple, who didn't want to give their names but apparently lived nearby, weren't as happy. "We always shopped at the old Safeway. But this is too big and really disrupts the neighborhood," the woman said, as a live rock band entertained for the store opening. "They should have had a string quartet playing Vivaldi," she added. "They're obviously not after the Berkeley crowd."

I liked it. Moving here several years ago from the suburbs of Detroit where our supermarkets were sparkling and well-stocked (even if the produce and poultry couldn't begin to stand up to California's homegrown quality), I never understood why both Rockridge-area Safeways were so dilapidated. And it certainly provides a window into what the Rockridge Shopping Center Safeway, about to break ground at 51st and Broadway - nearer my house - will look like. Same architect, I am told.

It's obvious that after the rancor with the immediate neighborhood over size and construction, Safeway officials are out to foster good community relations. They started by donating $2,500 each to Friends of the Rockridge Greenbelt (FROG), which maintains Frog Park, and to Peralta Elementary School. Peralta students, under artist-in-residence Ellen Oppenheimer, worked with Safeway to create a series of 45 tiles depicting vegetables and fruits.

Those tiles are now firmly embedded in the new store's faade. Sweet.

"We're required to be local," Steve Bernet, vice president of real estate, told me as he ticked off some of the retailers that will lease commercial space. They include Cream, a Berkeley-based ice cream sandwich shop; the previously-mentioned Philz Coffee, out of San Francisco; and Great Clips barber shop and United Services Credit Union, formerly at the Rockridge Shopping Center.

It was nice to see that the managers of both the new stores are women barely into their 30s. When Daryl Winnick was introduced at the Safeway grand opening, staff members gave her an ovation. As Winnick told me later, "I came from the bottom." She started as a bagger at age 16 and worked her way up over 13 years. She was previously manager of Berkeley's Shattuck Avenue Safeway, before it was renovated, and then of its Albany sister store.

I met Cole Hardware's Rockridge manager Tessa Riley as she was bagging fresh popcorn near the store entryway. Riley also started small, five years ago, as a cashier. She most recently was assistant manager at the Cole Street store in San Francisco.

People I talked to worried about competition with smaller College Avenue stores. When I asked Riley how Cole Hardware is handling merchandise that the boutique Rockridge home-oriented stores also stock, she said: "There are a couple of lines we aren't carrying out of respect for the stores that have been here."

"I'm hoping that Yasai's hangs in there," said Julie Tanenbaum, a Berkeley resident, as she toured Safeway for the first time. "I love Yasai's and Ver Brugge," said Monica Scott, an Oakland resident, while hovering over Safeway's organic bulk food counter.

As I walked into Yasai's Produce Market and Ver Brugge Meat-Fish Poultry, directly across the street from Safeway, both shops were as busy as you might expect for a weekday afternoon. The Trader Joe's lot was perhaps a little less crowded than usual.

"I'm very pleased to see the Safeway project coming to a finish," said Rockridge District Association (RDA) operations manager Chris Jackson. "It's nice to see the foot traffic back, which is good for all. The feedback I have received has been positive thus far. They still have a few things to work out but it's open with more to come. Folks are saying we have the best Safeway around.

"And Cole Hardware is a great fit for Rockridge and our neighborhood," added Jackson, a strong supporter of getting the business to consider opening its first store in the East Bay. "It's so good to see the vibrancy they bring to the Avenue."