The Emeryville Planning Commission reviewed plans for a proposed Bay Street Grocery Store at their September meeting. The anchor tenant is at the center of a revitalization effort by the new owners of the property.
Most agree that the mall is in desperate need of a change of course with high vacancy rates and some high-profile public safety incidents that have tarnished the appeal of the shopping center.
Plans to vote on the Marketplace FDP were delayed as quorum could not be achieved due to the absence of two commissioners and recusals of others due to conflicts of interest. The item will instead be reviewed at October’s meeting.
Study Session: Bay Street Grocery Store
Representatives of CalCenter Properties presented their plans for a 48,446 square foot grocery store at the parcel previously occupied by Old Navy and Elephant Bar. Existing tenants include Kara’s Cupcakes, Pizza My Heart, Red Mango & EQ3.
The new grocery building would include an open rooftop parking lot that will accommodate approximately 139 parking spaces as well as a handful of ground level “teaser” spaces.
Doing so would require removal of the existing plaza area in front of the Barnes and Noble bookstore to accommodate the ground level parking and vehicular circulation. Doing so would require modifying their original PDP and require approval by the city.
The developer explained that the removal of the plaza will be compensated for by the expansion of public spaces in other areas and the activating of additional spaces within the shopping center.
The city staff report aligned with the idea that a grocery store could help stave off the high level of vacancies the center is experiencing. Staff also noted the likelihood of a recommended traffic stop at Ohlone Way & Bay Street although discussion in the study session expressed conflicting support on the necessity of this.
“The headwinds we are facing are significant,” explained CenterCal President Craig Ramey. “Including significant tenant closures and declining occupancy and this started well before COVID-19.”
Ramey painted a grim outlook for the future of the mall if they could not rapidly turn things around. “Existing tenants have given notice that if changes and improvements are not made, they will close. We are doing all we can to assure existing tenants that help is on the way.”
CenterCal discussed the trade-offs which they they noted as expanding the landing area of the nearly complete South Bayfront bridge and expanding other outdoor eating areas. CenterCal expects the presence of the bridge to become a tenant draw at the now vacant upstairs Food Shed.
Representatives explained that the grocery store and expanded plaza at the foot of the bridge would drive activation and attract new retailers to the rest of the mall. “I fear without the grocery anchor there’s decreased viability in the terrace happening successfully,” noted Gensler Architecture Principal Barry Bourbon during his segment of the presentation. “I agree that the existing condition requires a substantial catalyst for change and as we are seeing tonight I think the new anchor grocery proposal really does bring that change.”
The plans also include an improved connection from the bridge landing to the Bay Trail connection on Shellmound that might appease bicycle activists. “We hope there’s a lot of bicyclists coming over the bridge,” Ramey expressed. “There’s no connectivity and we think it’s important to add that connectivity.” Ramey reiterated that the safety of bicyclists was essential and offered to conduct further traffic studies.
While commissioners and members of the public were generally supportive of the project and how it could help revitalize the decaying mall, as expected, they expressed concerns over the plans to remove the existing plaza and additional vehicular thoroughfare.
The reopening of Bay Street to cars is also likely to get pushback from bicycling activists who will need to weigh if the improved thoroughfare to the Bay Trail is an adequate trade off. The “sacrifice” of the plaza community gathering space is also likely to be contentious as it has typically been where events and concerts were held and the only space where kids could run freely.
“There’s several compromises we can make with this but I think through traffic on that part of Bay Street is from what I’m hearing from the Commission and the public is not is a non-starter,” summarized Planning Commission Chair Steven Keller. Keller questioned the need for the teaser parking in front of the entrance and provided alternative ideas for traffic flow that would not require removal of the plaza or additional car thoroughfare.
“Existing tenants have given notice that if changes and improvements are not made they will close. We are doing all we can to assure existing tenants that help is on the way.”
Ramey expressed urgency for moving forward. “Time is not our friend,” and cautioned that a compromise might not attract a grocer tenant if the space proved to be inadequate for them.
City leaders will need to walk a delicate line as pushing back too much and ultimately thwarting the grocery store plans could lead to further decline of the shopping center.
Next steps for the project include a review by the BPAC, an October 19 City Council Study Session and a required community meeting to be held by the applicant.
Read the full staff report on Emeryville.org [PDF] and developer presentation embedded below. View the video presentation in the feature area above [00:25:17].