The Safeway and 76 gas station, at the northeast corner of College and Claremont Avenues in Oakland, together occupy a site whose layout is entirely inappropriate for an urban setting, particularly for the intersection of two major avenues. The large parking lot, which fronts directly onto parts of both College and Claremont, is a (sub)urban design error I have long hoped to see corrected — particularly in the Rockridge commercial district, which features a mostly uninterrupted frontage of buildings that open onto the street and contribute to a pleasant pedestrian experience. (Unfortunately, the Highway 24 overpass, which is the neighborhood’s most intrusive interruption, is much less easily corrected than this Safeway parking lot.) Good thing, then, that Safeway has released its latest plans to transform the current site, which is essentially a strip mall. The new plan has more parking (212 spaces) than ideal for a supermarket a few blocks from BART and located in an eminently walkable neighborhood — Safeway’s newer lifestyle stores are not quite farsighted enough to attempt changing the lifestyle of driving. The first floor will feature several small retail spaces (totaling 16,000 square feet) fronting onto College and a small section of Claremont. The 59,000 square foot grocery store will be located on the second floor, so that the parking would at least be hidden behind the retail and under the grocery store. The plan’s weakness looks to be the Claremont frontage, which will feature little retail. All in all, the plan is an improvement over the current auto-oriented store and gas station. Constructing the new building right to the property line will make this wide intersection more attractive by emphasizing its non-perpendicular angularity. For more design images and renderings like the one pictured above, check out the project website.
Local criticism notwithstanding, the building, while quite a bit larger than most in the area, is not necessarily inappropriate for the neighborhood. The height is certainly consistent with the surroundings. The building also visually clarifies subdivisions, giving the impression of multiple smaller storefronts, on a scale more in keeping with the narrow storefronts lining most of College Avenue between Broadway and Alcatraz — though this effect could be more pronounced than it is in the rendering. Yes, there will admittedly be a “huge corporate Safeway presence about it,” but that will be rather difficult to avoid as long as the site is occupied by, well … Safeway. The current site may not seem corporate simply because the offensive Safeway is behind the parking lot, set back from immediate view — but that hardly justifies maintaining a parking lot as the prominent feature of this intersection. It will be encouraging to see this site rebuilt in a way that activates the street and improves the pedestrian experience. We can only hope that the building that is ultimately constructed will not look quite as cookie-cutter suburban as that rendering.
UPDATE (15 June 2008): David, from the Brooklyn Avenue blog, has brought to our attention in the comments a critique of the Safeway. The critique alleges that this two-story structure will essentially destroy Rockridge as we know it:
It’s a parade of structures of varied heights, allowing Sun to reach the street and giving a small-town-in-Oakland feel.
But Safeway’s current proposal will destroy that feeling in my view. It calls for a building that does what’s not cool: hugs the street and looms over it. It would drastically alter Rockridge and make it seem more like a retail downtown suburb in Oakland with constant traffic problems.
Reading this, you might guess the building in question was twenty stories or more, and I’m not sure how “looming over the street” fits with “suburb,” since your average suburban building does the exact opposite. But please note that this observation is about a two-story building. Incredible.