East Bay, NIMBY, Oakland, Streetscape

A Facelift for the College Avenue Safeway

SafewayThe 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.



13 thoughts on “A Facelift for the College Avenue Safeway

  1. I agree entirely. I’m often surprised (although you would think I would know better by now) that some people in Oakland oppose anything that remijnds them that they actually live in a city. For instance, this reaction to the plan at Oakland Focus yesterday: “It calls for a building that does what’s not cool: hugs the street and looms over it.” Huh? What’s “not cool” about an urban commercial district that actually resembles an urban commercial district? This certainly won’t be the most charming building in Rockridge, but it sure beats the current sprawling parking lot and gas station.

    Posted by David | 15 June 2008, 2:25 pm
  2. David, thanks for linking to that post. I didn’t even see it, or else I would’ve linked to it — I might still update the post, in any case. If you didn’t know anything about the building when reading the post, you’d think it was talking about a skyscraper blocking out the sunlight! We’re talking two stories here.

    I’d like to see them push the design of this building into something more interesting and appropriate for an older urban neighborhood. But as much as we may quibble about the design, it’s clear that something like this building will be a nice improvement.

    Posted by Eric | 15 June 2008, 2:31 pm
  3. several quibbles.
    1 frontage on College should be pulled back at least one traffic lane width to accomodate an improved bus stop.
    2. certainly no objection to two stories although I would prefer three. Housing on such a good commute to the Cal campus shuld be useful, and ultimately we need to make commercial corridors in Oakland denser (Berkeley too)
    Let me say in passing that I havbe been a loyal customer of Yasai across the street since they opened.
    3. jeez the drawing is ugly. I don’t want a zero detail box as now but the rendering shows what I think of as strip mall kitsch.

    Posted by david vartanff | 15 June 2008, 7:17 pm
  4. Yeah, the rendering is not so great. A better depiction (or maybe just a plain better building) might sway at least some of the opposition. And, of course, agreed on the housing. As controversial as it might be, we really ought to be adding 2-3 stories of housing on avenues like College.

    I’ve heard good things about Yasai from a few people. I expect I’d probably go there too if I lived in the ‘hood. Here, I often get produce from the Civic Center (“Heart of the City”) farmers market, since it’s conveniently located, reasonably priced, and obviously better than the slim pickings at the liquor stores which surround me on all sides.

    Posted by Eric | 15 June 2008, 7:37 pm
  5. The nicest thing about that area of College Avenue is the foliage. There are trees completely covering the west side of the street from Alcatraz to 63rd, helping the transition to the surrounding residential areas. The rendering seem pretty skimpy on the greenery, hopefully they just haven’t finalized that part of the plan yet.

    Also, the actual store looks like it will be gigantic.

    Posted by tr5e80026b | 16 June 2008, 2:27 am
  6. It would be a really big store: I think the current one is 23,000 square feet. I’m not really a big fan of Safeway, and personally, I would rather see two dozen small independent shops lining College and Claremont instead, if we had that kind of choice to make, because it would contribute to the public life of the street more than people moving between the 2nd floor grocery store and the parking lot tucked in the back. Surely this project can be honed into something better — this short thread of comments here has already produced a few ways to do that — but even in it’s current incarnation, it’s an improvement over the status quo.

    Posted by Eric | 16 June 2008, 7:13 am
  7. Also, just in case anyone was wondering about this: the whole length of the Oakland portion of College Avenue, from Alcatraz on the north to Broadway on the south, is zoned C-31, which, if I’m remembering my Oakland planning code correctly, carries a 35-foot height limit.

    Posted by Eric | 16 June 2008, 7:32 am
  8. so here’s my question. How dumb is Safeway given that one of these days a newer better webvan will emerge and combined with more farmer’s markets that might finish large markets w/ long checkout lines? My major Safeway purchases are the few canned items neither availsable at Costco nor at TJ which means maybe once a quarter. They would need to be a totally different operation to draw me away from Yasai,Ver Brugge,La Farine across the street.

    Posted by david vartanoff | 16 June 2008, 9:34 am
  9. David^^^

    I don’t Safeway is that dumb. Yes, I do most of my shopping at TJ’s and local produce/meat/etc markets, but the VAST majority of people still shop at Safeway-type grocery stores. Long lines would be an indication of succes, I would assume. Costco isn’t at all convenient to me, so I still have a need (at least a couple times a month) for a regular old grocery store.

    Posted by Chris | 16 June 2008, 2:10 pm
  10. I’ve long thought that this suburban style grocery store should be replaced by something that fits the urban character of the neighborhood. The “blocks the sun” argument about a two-story building is absurd–leafy green trees block the sun also, but no one objects to more trees. And while cute neighborhood markets are nice and all and serve a niche (I shop in them from time to time), they’re not practical for most people with families or who don’t have the time to walk to the market every day.

    Posted by Steve R | 18 June 2008, 9:16 am
  11. so last night a large mtg @ Peralta School w/majority wearing it’s too BIG stickers. Other interesting notes. The Safeway flack was gushing abou how the bigger store could have a real butcher counter(like the one it had when he was in diapers!) Others called for more open space at ground level. A further thought, Safeway bragged a doubling of “union” jobs to 200 but 28 parking slots. How about zero emp parking and full transit pass/ticket for each employee at Safeway’s expense as a conditon of the permit?

    Posted by david vartanoff | 20 June 2008, 10:23 am


  1. Pingback: Rockridge Safeway Proposal Community Meeting on Thursday Night « Living in the O - 18 June 2008

  2. Pingback: Safeway Community Meeting Turns into Public Venting Session « Living in the O - 6 July 2008

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