Design Review Committee gets an earful about College Avenue Safeway Project

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Committee members clash with Safeway, city staff on what to do
Friday, October 14, 2011

The October 12th Design Review Committee hearing on the College Avenue Safeway Shopping Center (postponed from October 28th due the Jewish High Holidays) had more than its share of fireworks, as well as a lot of negative comments on Safeway's project.  After a short introduction by Oakland planner Peterson Vollman, Safeway's architect, Ken Lowney, presented the design of the shopping center, emphasizing how well it would fit into College Avenue.  After he finished, the committee (consisting of Chair Madeleine Zayas-Mart, Vice-Chair Chris Patillo, and Commissioner Michael Colbruno) heard from members of the community.  

The vast majority of comments were negative, although there was a smattering of positive comments, mostly asking the Committee (and Planning Commission) to quickly approve the project.  Most of these speakers appeared to have been recruited by Safeway, as they sat together and could be seen talking to one "leader" both before and after speaking.  Many of the speakers opposed to the project were also organized, with the neighborhood group FANS (Friends and Neighbors of College Avenue) taking the lead in setting up the presentations.  RCPC had two speakers -- its chair, Stuart Flashman, and vice-chair, Andrew Charman.  Also speaking was past planning commissioner, RCPC Land Use Committee member, and local architect Glen Jarvis.  RCPC also submitted a formal comment letter, a copy of which is attached to this article.

While some comments dealt with such typical design issues as driveway widths, building heights (and loss of views), and architectural style, many of the comments hammered on how poorly the project fit into the surrounding College Avenue commercial community, with its small shops and pedestrian orientation.  There were also many comments objecting to the project's traffic generation and the unimaginative Claremont Avenue frontage.   Lowney said they would fix that problem by adding more windows.

Colbruno, who had to leave the meeting early, singled out RCPC's comments for praise.  He noted that project opponents often don't propose anything positive, but limit themselves to criticizing the project.  RCPC's comments, after objecting to the Safeway project's lack of pedestrian focus, suggested pulling all the non-grocery functions (florist, pharmacy, deli, meat and fish market, etc) out of the main store and putting them in separate storefronts at the street level, where they would have to compete directly with other College Ave. merchants. This would result in a smaller Safeway store more conducive to College Avenue.  Other comments suggested adding a residential component.  Many speakers urged Safeway to reduce its store from the proposed 51,000 square feet to something in the range of 25,000 to 30,000 sq. ft.  It was pointed out this would still be roughly twice the size of Trader Joes, the other major grocery outlet on College Avenue.  Susan Shawl of FANS presented a slideshow (despite technical difficulties) showing that Safeway itself had rebuilt or refurbished several Bay Area stores in the general "Lifestyle" format but with under 30,000 square feet of floor space. 

Once the public comments ended, it was time for the two remaining commissioners to speak.  Ms. Patillo asked to see Safeway's materials board -- a depiction of the various materials that would be used in the project.  Mr. Lowney said he didn't have it with him.  When Ms. Patillo asked if he could have it brought to the meeting, he answered with a flat, "No."  She then suggested the meeting would need to be continued until she could see it.  After a few more comments on what was lacking in the design, Ms. Zayas-Mart took over.  She expressed a preference for a design that included residential use and indicated that based on the problems with traffic and other issues, she'd like to have Safeway come back with a project alternative that was 10,000 sq. ft. smaller.  At that point, Safeway's representatives stated emphatically that it would NOT consider a smaller project option.  Ms. Zayas-Mart suggested that the Committee continue its discussion of the project to its next meeting, but Scott Miller, Oakland zoning manager, said that rather than hold the item over, he would present the commissioners' recommendations to his boss, Eric Angstadt, for his consideration.

The audience came away with the sense that City staff and Safeway had more control over the process that the citizen commissioners who had been appointed to make the decisions.

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