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Some more on the Safeway saga….

July 22, 2009

[So this is a little late in the game since we’ve been away and I’ve had no time to work on anything….but I at least wanted to get an abbreviated version of this up while it’s still relevant! I also wanted to say kudos to everyone who went to last Wednesday’s Planning Commission meeting—I was very, very worried that we were missing this meeting and afraid that no one would show up. But people did, and they said exactly the right things—yay!]

So, as just about everyone in Oakland knows at this point, Safeway is currently “lifestyling” its Northern California stores. We have two Safeway stores near us: one on Grand that’s already been lifestyled (albeit to a much lower-key standard than the projects currently underway), and one on Pleasant Valley that’s in the throes of the process now. I’ve actually been looking forward to this project for a while, because I hate-hate-hate the Pleasant Valley Safeway and the associated strip mall that surrounds it. It sits at the intersection of two major urban corridors barely two miles from downtown Oakland, and yet it’s designed as if it’s out in the middle of Pleasanton. (Actually, that might be unfair to Pleasanton!)

I guess this isn’t entirely surprising—after all, much of the retail that was built around the time this Safeway went in looks something like a suburban strip mall. Check out the former Safeway (now Grocery Outlet) on Auto Row at the corner of 29th and Broadway, for instance—it was the cat’s meow when it opened in the 1960s, but today it sticks out like a sore thumb with its massive surface parking lot along the street. And don’t get me started on the Kaiser M/B Center, which used to be a suburban-style mall anchored by Mayfair Market, a Bay Area supermarket chain. (Interestingly, the M/B Center was built in the mid-1960s to replace a 1930s-era Arthur Williams grocery store that was one of the first supermarkets to open in California and one of the first in the nation to have a surface parking lot. What a long, strange trip it’s been since then…) Thankfully, the M/B Center is currently being demolished to make way for the new Kaiser Hospital—a little more is gone every day!

So, yeah. Sadly my excitement waned pretty quickly once I got a look at Safeway’s vision for the renovated plaza. Basically, it’s more of the same. I won’t spend a lot of time attacking it, since you can find plenty of good summaries of the problems—along with proposals for alternative designs—in other places in the blogoaksphere. But I did want to take a moment to weigh in on the bike and pedestrian problems with the proposal, since I think we’re in the minority of Oaklanders who currently bike and even occasionally walk to this plaza, and would do so much more frequently if it were actually safe to be a cyclist or pedestrian there.

Currently, there are two places for pedestrians to cross this stretch of Broadway: one at Broadway and 51st on both sides of the intersection, and one just past the College and Broadway intersection at the entrance to CCA. That means that if you’re a pedestrian who’s headed to the Safeway plaza, there’s a good chance you’re doing this:

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Can you spot the pedestrian?


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How about here, en route from from Safeway over to Wendy's?


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Luckily, cars yield to pedestrians here....most of the time.


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If you're gutsy enough, you can just see what happens when you step into the street.

Then there are the bikers. We periodically bike to the Safeway plaza from both Broadway and Gilbert, so I can vouch for the horrible-ness of this entire section of the city for bikers. (As a result, I often end up taking the car if I’m headed to Super Long’s, even if I’m not hauling things back with me.) Some key issues:

  • If you’re coming from College, your best bet is to turn left against traffic into the Safeway service vehicle entrance and parking lot exit, which means crossing multiple lanes of Broadway very quickly. This isn’t exactly illegal—cars periodically do it too—but it also isn’t exactly safe, and it dumps you into the Safeway service entrance, where there are occasionally huge trucks that aren’t watching for entering traffic. (There is a median on Broadway that is often used as a refuge, but it’s not intended—or wide enough—for bikes and peds, who aren’t supposed to be crossing here.) The problem is that the only other option is to continue through to the light at 51st Street and loop around to the Pleasant Valley entrance. Sure, it’s what cars do with no trouble, but it’s quite far out of the way (and up a hill) for bikers, and it drops you straight into the traffic jam that is the Safeway parking lot, with cars coming at you from five or more directions and no designated pedestrian path. So I’ll take my chances on Broadway, where at least you can see the oncoming traffic.
  • If you’re coming from Gilbert and headed into the Safeway parking lot—the approach I like best—you’re in better shape because you have a light. The problem is that cars are rarely watching for you, and they’re all trying to get into or out of the parking lot (or through to Piedmont or Broadway). On more than one occasion, I’ve nearly been hit by someone not paying attention when there was absolutely no question that I had the right of way and the light. Pedestrians, unfortunately, have similar challenges at this intersection. And, again, you end up in the Safeway parking lot with traffic coming from all directions, and have to cross most of the parking lot to reach any place where you can lock up a bike.
  • Not directly a Safeway issue, but bike access from Broadway to College is something of a mess too. On the upside, there are legal ways to get to and from College—but they’re primarily designed for cars, and if you’re a biker heading north on Broadway or over to College from Pleasant Valley, you need to be brave about taking the lane to get over to College or onto 51st, and I regularly encounter drivers who are unhappy about having bikes in their midst. I often see bikers give up and use the crosswalk instead, which is fine—but which shouldn’t be required in order to get across. Safeway can’t fix this by themselves, but rehabbing the plaza is a key opportunity to make sure that the entrances and traffic patterns are in the right places to facilitate better overall traffic flow for both cars and transit and safer conditions for bikes and peds.

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Go, bike, go!


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Luckily, this isn't a U-turn. Exactly.

In fairness, these are all photos of bikes and peds doing bad, bad things (or at least less-than-safe things)—and there are safer, legal ways to get across if you’re willing to go a bit out of your way. But they’re indicative of some bigger problems—namely, a lack of safe, legal ways to get to and from Safeway along the paths that many, many people want to follow—none of which are addressed by the currently proposed plans.

We should be holding Safeway to a much higher standard than simply maintaining the status quo. Fixing Broadway and Pleasant Valley won’t be fun, but it’s essential—and it’s likely to be the only opportunity to do it that will come our way for another forty years.

At a minimum, we should insist that Safeway work with the City to tackle the traffic by:

  • Reorienting buildings along Broadway to face the street (and taking down the Chase building while they’re at it) and encouraging tenants in these spaces that will draw pedestrians and bikers (e.g., restaurants, coffee shops, retailers whose wares don’t require cars);
  • Creating safe entry and exit points explicitly designed for pedestrians and bicyclists on both Pleasant Valley and Broadway, and creating ways for bicyclists and pedestrians to access bike parking and sidewalks without crossing multiple rows of open surface parking;
  • Integrating structured parking into the plan for this plaza to create space to reorient buildings and provide this safe walking and cycling access;
  • Working with the City and WOBO to integrate bike lanes along this stretch of Broadway that feed into the development where appropriate and aren’t adversely impeded by entering and exiting cars;
  • Working with the City and AC Transit to develop safe bus stops along both Broadway and Pleasant Valley/51st that will serve the plaza and connect to crosswalks and other pedestrian amenities (because every transit trip begins and ends with a walking trip!); and
  • Working with the City to ensure that the lane and signal configurations from the parking areas onto Broadway, Pleasant Valley, and 51st Street adequately accommodate bus routes and cyclist and pedestrian paths, especially paths to and from College and to and from the senior housing developments at the intersection of Pleasant Valley and Gilbert.

Don’t get me wrong—this plaza will always need parking, especially if by some miracle the nursery and other “large item” aspects of the Super Long’s stick around post-CVS transition, as CVS now claims they will. (I’m dubious.) But there are bad ways to do parking and good ways to do parking. We already know that the parking situation in the plaza today is horrific for everyone involved. (Ever gotten stuck trying to drive out of the parking lot while someone is turning the wrong way down the one way aisle by Longs and then trying to back up into the traffic that’s trying to turn out of the parking lot and get away?? And if you inadvertently get into the aisle in front of Safeway and are a good driver who does stop for pedestrians headed into or out of the store as you are supposed to, you can be there for days…)

Suffice it to say that Safeway should not simply be “tweaking” the existing parking configuration—which is effectively what the current proposal does. They should be rethinking it altogether, and identifying creative ways to provide convenient parking while also minimizing conflicts between bikes, peds, and drivers (because it’s no accident that the bumper-fixer dudes in the truck sit in the far corner of the lot waiting for fender benders!) They should spend some time at Whole Foods, which I actually think handled parking quite skillfully given the huge number of constraints they were working with. They should talk with the City of Emeryville to learn more about modeling they recently did to envision a new East Bay Bridge Center (where Home Depot, Best Buy, and such are located—and which, incidentally, is partly in Oakland and jointly planned). The (purely imaginary, at this point) model for a future shopping center there, developed in conjunction with Emeryville’s General Plan Update to help residents imagine what an alternate future for that area could look like, called for reintroducing the street grid and building structured parking where there is currently surface parking in order to integrate housing and finer-grained retail into the existing big-box fabric to create a true neighborhood. That plaza is a much larger area, sure—but the concept would work equally well here, and the modeling helps to explain how and why.

Basically, we should be pushing Safeway to think outside the box on this one—and to understand the many ways in which developing this plaza more intensely but more intelligently will benefit both Safeway and Oakland on many levels.

There are still a few days left to submit comments to the City on the current proposal. Let the Council and Planning Commission know what you think by Monday, July 27, when the 30-day public comment period on scope of the draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) ends. For more information or to offer any thoughts, critiques, or ideas, you can contact Darin Ranelletti at the City of Oakland by phone at 510-238-3663 or by email.

*All photographs in this series were taken by Paul Rosenbloom in conjunction with a Walk Oakland Bike Oakland (WOBO) project, and are used with his permission. Visit WOBO’s website to learn more about their current Bike Broadway campaign for bike lanes on Broadway between downtown and Highway 24.

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11 comments

  1. The thing is, except for where Gilbert turns into the parking lot driveway, none of the things you mentioned are Safeway’s fault, nor are they in Safeway’s design power to fix. I agree that all of them could use fixing, but it is up to the city to figure out how it wants to make pedestrian and bicycle traffic/access safer and more convenient. Once the city has a plan about how to fix up the streets, then you can ask Safeway to work to that plan, and you can probably get Safeway to pony up some money to do some of the fixes.

    Safeway works toward what the city has laid out in its design standards for pedestrian, bicycle and auto access. So if those are inadequate, lean on the city to fix them, not Safeway. The city needs to tell Safeway what it wants, not make Safeway guess so that their proposals can be shot down.


  2. I agree that the City needs to play a major role in fixing these concerns. But I don’t think you can say that Safeway doesn’t have the power to contribute to the solutions (or that they aren’t Safeway’s fault, because most of the problems on that list were created by the flawed original design of the plaza). They absolutely could reorient buildings, move and redesign access points, build structured parking, and provide better bike and ped facilities within the development. They may not want to, but they certainly can. Once you step off of the sidewalk into the plaza, you’re in Safeway’s jurisdiction and they have a great deal of control over (and responsibility for) design.

    I also don’t have a lot of sympathy for Safeway having to “guess” at design. They had an initial meeting for this site two years ago to float ideas, and promised to be back to talk further with residents. That didn’t happen (unless you count this round of meetings, which I don’t, given that the plans are essentially final in their eyes)—so it’s not too surprising that their plans aren’t being terribly well received. They skipped a pretty major step in the process.


  3. You are right about one thing. It has been two years since Safeway first started talking about this. And in that 2 years, the city has yet to come up with any traffic management plan for the intersection.


  4. (Just to clarify, a traffic management plan typically follows, rather than precedes, a development proposal like this one. Traffic patterns will change based on the new design and content of the site, and traffic impacts will be studied extensively in the EIR process that’s about to begin. The EIR will likely propose a number of traffic mitigations and changes to offset these impacts; hopefully these will include some bike/ped improvements to the intersection in addition to other traffic flow solutions.)


  5. What you are talking about is mitigation, a reactionary process to fix problems. What I am talking about is planning, a proactive process to establish goals and avoid problems. In an infill development like this there is going to be overlap between the approaches, and maybe it is easy to confuse the two, but they are different approaches.

    For example, planning would be deciding how Oakland wants traffic (peds, bikes and vehicles) from College and B’way to enter this site, directly from B’way or from Pleasant Valley. That then allows a decision about whether to close the vehicle access from B’way. Or maybe it says that the median cuts on B’way should be filled so that bikes no longer can cross from College into the site. This is part of planning. While some of it can be accomplished as part of mitigation, it is too late then to make fundamental shifts to the site.

    Planning can’t take place in a vacuum, but there is not a vacuum there now. There is an existing development there now, and broad outlines of the future are also there (more retail and maybe with housing). This is sufficient to do the initial planning, and give Safeway the guidance it needs to plan out its development activities.


  6. You may find some of what you’re looking for in the Oakland Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plans, which give broad direction to where and how bike and pedestrian routes should be planned, including for this intersection. To get to the level of detail you’re talking about as far as entrances and lane configurations go, though, we would need a streetscape or area plan for the Pleasant Valley/Broadway area (much like what’s happening right now around Lake Merritt BART and on Auto Row). I agree that it would be terrific if we had such a plan to give to Safeway, and would save everyone a lot of headaches—but that’s a costly undertaking, and not something I would expect of the city for every area where a proposal is being developed. (The other plans currently underway are at a much larger scale and are funded through outside sources with specific goals, e.g. transit-oriented planning, MTC grants, etc.) So I don’t think the City is dropping the ball on that front—although they should certainly be pushing hard to get the improvements and standards already identified in the bike and ped plans integrated into this (and every) project proposal that impacts bike/ped access now that those plans have been adopted.


  7. It’s notable that the design changes you and many others are suggesting (which I agree with) are very much like the plans Safeway has for their College/Claremont project (reorientating the buildings along the street, additional retail)–which many of the neighbors oppose!


  8. Steve, that’s definitely true—and one reason to believe Safeway can get it right if they try. While I generally support the College/Claremont plan a lot more than some of the neighbors do—I have no issue with a higher building there, for instance, since as far as I’m concerned it fits into the College Ave fabric quite nicely—I also hear their concerns, especially around traffic, which is already pretty awful and liable to get worse with a bigger Safeway. I’m also not convinced that they need a bigger store there, though, especially with Pleasant Valley nearby; it seems like the perfect place to do a small, tailored store catering to neighborhood needs, since the Rockridge store is one of the few neighborhood Safeways that remains. (Most closed in the 1980s as they switched to more regional models—you can still see many of the distinctively Safeway buildings around town, which gives a sense of just how many stores there were when neighborhood groceries were the norm.) The Pleasant Valley store, in contrast, is really a regional draw, although of course it doubles as the neighborhood store for those who live nearby. So I do think there’s a much greater need for adding housing and diverse retail oriented to the street there (although, again, I think adding this to the College store, as Safeway has proposed, is also a good idea).

    It will be interesting to see how designs for each of the two stores pan out!


  9. artemis, I think you and I have different concepts about what the roles and responsibilities of a city government are. I beleive that the city does need to take the leadership role in fixing existing problems of the street grid, and that Safeway is responsible for mitigating new problems caused by it’s development. (Which does not say that they should not be pushed to make improvements to the site design, and it doesn’t say that Safeway shouldn’t be pushed to pay for some of the improvements to the street grid identified by the city. But internal design to the site is not going to make it safe for bikes and peds crossing the street.)

    Also, the inclusion of housing, while it may be desirable for other reasons, will not, by itself, help mitigate any of the problems you have identified. In fact, it will make all of them worse, if for no other reason than the increased traffic (auto, bike and ped) associated with the housing.


  10. I’m just so sad that Big Longs is going away and I’ll be losing the nursery section. Heck, the whole darn thing! Where else can you go at 1am and get a mango, a fishing pole, shampoo and a hydrangea? Nowhere! Oh wait, Wal-Mart.


  11. Becky, CVS is actually currently saying that they will keep the nursery and potentially some of the other departments open—I’m not sure I believe this since I don’t really see how that works with their business model (and the nursery seems to be selling down its inventory) but we’ll see! When we were there a few weeks ago, there was a team of CVS folks doing a full inventory and (from all appearances) recording what customers were looking at, though, so that could be promising. Watching them trail people with notepads was actually a little creepy! 🙂

    And Robert, I don’t disagree that the City should be as proactive as possible. I think where we differ is that I also feel strongly that Safeway should be responsible for correcting existing problems related to the development as it begins work on the area, not just new problems—much like the City requires me to correct existing problems with my house when I begin renovations, even if they’re not directly related to my project and I didn’t create the problems personally. Otherwise, it’s a missed opportunity. (And you’re right that adding housing creates a number of new challenges, especially on the traffic front; it would mean a completely new plan, but if you check out some of the links above you’ll see a few takes on how that could potentially come to fruition. I suspect it isn’t feasible without underground or at least structured parking.)



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