Settlement Protects Neighborhood in Important Ways

Saturday, January 5, 2013

It’s done! After a final five-hour session presided over by former District One Councilmember Jane Brunner, Safeway and its former adversaries, Rockridge Community Planning Council (RCPC), Friends and Neighbors of College Avenue (FANS) and Berkeleyans for Pedestrian Oriented Development (BPOD), signed a final settlement agreement on Safeway’s College Avenue Shopping Center project. The next evening, December 18, the City Council gave its blessings to and unanimously approved the modified project that the settlement agreement had created. While a tentative agreement had been reached in November, it took an additional month of negotiating and hard bargaining to convert the deal into a legally binding document.

What Does the Deal Do?

Perhaps most importantly for the community, the settlement agreement shrinks the project by more than 10 percent from what the Planning Commission approved in July. That will reduce, although probably not eliminate, the project’s traffic impacts. It also holds Safeway’s feet to the fire by requiring it to ensure that the project will not outstrip its off-street parking capacity (which has also been reduced, from 175 to 148 spaces). One key to that was removing the project’s full-service restaurant, and requiring the community groups’ approvals before one can be installed in the future.

Another protection for the community is adding (at Safeway’s expense) Residential Permit Parking (RPP) on the Oakland and Berkeley residential streets around the project that don’t yet have it.

The revised project also preserves views of the Oakland Hills from College Avenue. The prior two-story project would have totally blocked those views. Not only is the revised project a bit lower, it shifts the earlier-proposed pedestrian street further north, effectively continuing 63rd Street, and widening it into a pedestrian plaza. Now, 63rd Street residents and College Avenue pedestrians looking east will see, instead of a parking garage entrance, a lively pedestrian area and the hills beyond.

Stepping back a little, we can also ask how the revised project fits into the Rockridge/Elmwood community.

As noted, the new pedestrian plaza should help energize the area as both a shopping attraction and a gathering place. This will be far more beneficial than the current 1960s suburban-style surface parking area. The added shops at the College/Claremont junction will also be more complementary to the shopping area than was the former Union 76 service station. The latter, along with the Shell station across the street, did serve a useful role in the community. That function is now reduced, although nearby Stauder Automotive Service continues to provide auto service and repair, and there are several gas stations nearby on Telegraph Avenue and Broadway.

Parking and Traffic

Parking and traffic will continue to be problematic. Even the revised project may make a bad situation somewhat worse, at least in the short run. Long term, one can hope that Rockridge will continue to point the way to a less auto-oriented community. Safeway can help with that by leasing its new retail spaces to merchants who will draw their business primarily from the local community. The requirement that it cover its own parking needs should provide an incentive for that.

Overall

This is by no means a perfect project. As I said, speaking for RCPC at the Council meeting where the project was approved, “This is not the project we would have designed, but we’re not the ones that are building it.” Overall, however, the project should provide a benefit to College Avenue and Rockridge that is superior to what is there now and to what Safeway had previously proposed.