Why Berkeley Can't Do the Right Thing 

A real-life tale of two cities: Albany can build a new Target faster than Berkeley can approve a much-needed grocery store.

Once upon a time -- September of 2002, to be precise -- officials from Target approached the city of Albany and asked to build a 160,000-square-foot department store near the freeway. Ten months later, the city said yes, and shoppers are buying Michael Graves toasters and teakettles there today. Meanwhile, in the spring of 2003, the owner of the Berkeley Bowl -- arguably that town's most beloved institution -- asked to build a second store in West Berkeley, thereby relieving the gridlock at his original location and offering low-priced, high-quality food to residents who have spent decades begging for a nearby grocery store. Two years later, the location is still a weed-choked lot, and the architect who designed the store estimates that owner Glen Yasuda won't be able to start construction until at least September 2006 -- if at all.

When the greatest grocery store in history asks to build an outlet in a neighborhood that desperately needs one, the host city typically says, "How can we subsidize your project?" But this being Berkeley, the proposed new Bowl has been delayed by a pack of interest groups and may not even happen. And thanks to Berkeley's ridiculous interpretation of a state law that requires city officials to keep an open mind on cases that may come before them, Mayor Tom Bates cannot openly say what all but a handful of residents think: that the Bowl's expansion would be the best thing to happen to West Berkeley in years.

Yasuda himself is partly to blame for the project's delay. Mere months after he approached the city with plans for the new Bowl, employees at his Oregon Street store began a union organizing drive, supported by Bates and other elected officials. Yasuda temporarily withdrew his proposal to build a new store. Bowl officials were either worried that the city would hold his new store hostage until union organizers got what they wanted, or they were threatening to kill the store unless Berkeley's leaders butted out of their affairs. The battle came and went after the National Labor Relations Board found that managers had engaged in clumsy anti-union tactics and Yasuda agreed to make the Bowl a closed shop.

But store managers have since spent more than a year finalizing remarkably generous and progressive plans for the new Bowl. Although the store would build 51,000 square feet of shopping space, it would actually be a two-story building to use land more efficiently. Yasuda plans to build expensive underground parking and has even included a "community center" for public use. So what's the hold-up?

The answer is that, technically, you can't operate a store there. The site is in an area nostalgically zoned for manufacturing. City officials created a plan years ago to guard Berkeley's fragile light-industrial sector from the encroachment of high-tech and retail. Before Yasuda can build a store on the corner of Ninth Street and Heinz Avenue, he'll have to get the city to rezone the site. And that's where the problems start.

For opponents of the Berkeley Bowl, including former planning commissioner Zelda Bronstein and rough-hewn neighbors such as Urban Ore, the new Bowl is the camel's nose poking into the tent. They claim a zoning change could spell the end of West Berkeley's funky blend of factories and arts and crafts studios. If the Bowl gets an exemption, they argue, other industrial landlords will be encouraged to drive out their tenants and then seek the same exemption Yasuda got. "This is part of the gentrification vision that Mayor Bates and others have been pushing," Bronstein says. "You already have a petition signed by property owners urging a change in the zoning, because they understand this is the beginning of the end."

Not that any manufacturing now occurs on the land, which has been vacant for years. "I don't see light industrial clamoring to move into that site," City Councilman Darryl Moore says. "People need and want a grocery store to be able to shop."

At least you can understand why the proprietors of Urban Ore might be nervous about the Bowl. In 1999, during the dot-com boom, their old landlord booted them from their original site, inspired by visions of a gleaming office park. Thanks to the dot-com bust, that location has instead become a parking lot for the school district's buses. But stopping the expansion of the city's most popular store in order to preserve the hope that union manufacturing will return to the Bay Area looks naive at best. Bronstein, the project's most vocal critic, is careful to point out that she doesn't actually oppose the Bowl moving to that site -- she just wants a smaller store. But why else bring up gentrification if she is just worried about the store's size?

The other big concern is traffic. Yasuda hopes his new store will double the shopping space of the original, and critics claim that means lots of cars driving through a neighborhood with narrow streets and gridlocked arteries. Kava Massih, Yasuda's architect and liaison with area residents, says Yasuda just wants the space to stretch out and build the kind of store he has always dreamed about. "He doesn't want the same inefficiencies that create issues at the other store," Massih says. "After having an operation for so long, he knows what works and what doesn't." You're free to believe Massih if you want, but a 51,000-square-foot store right next to the freeway fits the classic profile of a store seeking customers from across the Bay Area, and I bet you already know someone in San Francisco who shops at the Bowl.

So yes, in theory, shoppers could cruise through a nest of side streets, running down children walking to the nearby school or blocking the truck traffic of neighboring businesses. But here's where it gets a little silly. The Bowl's plans include three separate entrances, two of which feed onto a piece of Ninth Street that leads straight to Ashby Avenue. As for people worried that drivers will cram residential streets looking for the Bowl's third driveway, there's a simple solution that will probably never be realized. City officials could buy a block-long stretch of abandoned railroad and use it to connect the Bowl's third driveway with Ashby. Unfortunately, they're buying it to build a bike path to nowhere.

In 1995, when the city was considering a Lucky store at the same site, residents of Ninth Street -- yes, all twenty of them -- signed a petition opposing the connection of the street with Ashby Avenue and the resulting car traffic. Since then, the city's transportation department has begun negotiating to buy old railroad land on either side of Ashby to create an oddly truncated four-block-long bicycle path. Berkeley acts as if its hands are tied because it already has spent so much time on this plan. But why not use city money, possibly along with a contribution from Yasuda, to buy one block of that land and turn it into an access road for the Bowl?

The answer is politics and inertia. The bike lane is already going forward; the Ninth Street residents want to keep cars off their precious, quiet street; and activists are nostalgic for manufacturing that is unlikely to return. As a result, thousands of residents may have to keep dropping their food stamps at the local liquor store. It's Berkeley at its finest, in which a few dozen noisy citizens get what they want at the expense of thousands getting what they need.

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