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:
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.
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.