By Barbara Grady
Safeway Inc. has tentative plans to tear down its Albany store and reconstruct one twice the size with a parking lot underneath the building, according to an application to the Albany Planning and Zoning Commission.
The grocery chain, whose Solano Avenue store is a mainstay of Albany commerce and the only full service grocery store in the city, would build a Safeway supermarket to better match the needs of the local market, said Todd Paradis, head of real estate negotiations for the company’s Northern California properties, at a commission meeting last week. The current store is only 25,600 square feet and doesn’t carry some merchandize that Safeway sells elsewhere, he said.
However, the proposed 52,000 square foot retail store for Albany – which is scaled down from a plan Safeway proposed two years ago – is regarded by many of Safeway’s neighbors as too large for a lot that’s next to residential homes and families with kids.
Dozens of residents of Curtis and Neilson Streets, the side streets of the Safeway property, spoke or wrote to the Commission recently to object to the plan. Along with size, their other main concern is that Safeway’s proposal places its main entrance driveways on Curtis and Neilson streets rather than Solano, a commercial street.
“While we are sympathetic to Safeway’s desire to remodel, update and improve the store, Safeway’s recent development proposal for their property on Solano Avenue has major flaws that are extremely detrimental to our neighborhood and to Solano Avenue and our local businesses. The traffic planning would create dangerous conditions,” wrote neighbors, Kyle Kosup and Elke Berger who live in a house on the same block of Curtis Street as Safeway.
At a hearing June 3, the concern about traffic generated by a large store was echoed by about a dozen other neighbors who worried about big trailer trucks coming in and out on a street where children are walking to school. They also about noise and pollution.
“Safeway would do well to listen to the objections of its neighbors,” said one man who added that he has lived across the street from Safeway since 1981.
But at least one person welcomed the plan and the prospect of replacing the circa 1964 store with modern amenities.
Albany Mayor Joanne Wile listened to testimony at the hearing but declined to voice an opinion saying she needed more information. “People are doing a good job of raising their concerns,” she said. Asked if she worried that Safeway would close down if it didn’t get permission to expand, she said, “You always have that concern.”
Safeway Inc., based in Pleasanton, is one of the largest food retailers in North America and operates about 570 stores in California and 1,770 nationwide. Its revenues in 2009 were $40.9 billion although it recorded a net loss. A public company, its stock is traded on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol SWY.
The Albany Safeway pays $91,000 in annual property taxes to Alameda County. Because the bulk of its merchandise is food, it pays relatively little in sales taxes to the city. But it pays about $7,000 a year in school parcel taxes.
Albany Planning and Zoning commissioners said at the June 3 hearing that they were in no rush to vote on the Safeway project until the public has had numerous chances to comment.
“There still is a question of whether the store size is appropriate for the site. What if it is too large for the economy of Albany is a question,” said Commission chair Andrea Gardner
Safeway has scaled back its plan even in the past month, however,
so it no longer exceeds height limitations for the area, includes more on site parking and is slightly smaller than a plan submitted in April. These changes mean it no longer needs a zoning exception but simply needs Design Review approval, noted commissioners.
They said the remaining issues are traffic circulation and landscaping buffers and interaction with neighbors.
Paradis, the company’s real estate negotiator, said that most Safeways are considerably larger than 25,600 square feet. However he also acknowledged that some are around 43,000 square feet such as the Safeway in Berkeley.
Two years ago, Safeway had proposed replacing the store with a 59,000 square foot building that would have been three stories high at its south end. The commission sent Safeway back to the drawing board to scale down its plans and make sure the truck loading docs were not adjacent to residential properties. This spring, Safeway came back with a proposal for a 55,000 square foot building that wasn’t quite so high. But at a hearing April 27, many objections were raised to the new plan, which caused Safeway to redesign it once again to be a 52,000 square foot building lower in height with entrances and exits closer to Solano.