WALNUT CREEK -- There is no plan, or even a proposal yet, for development on the 25-acre Safeway-owned site at the corner of Oak Grove and Ygnacio Valley Road. And it's clear some eastern Walnut Creek residents want to keep it that way.
For more than eight months, an 11-member advisory committee appointed by the City Council, chaired by Mayor Bob Simmons and Mayor Pro Tem Kish Rajan (both of who are up for re-election in November), has worked to create a "specific plan" for the site. Owned by Safeway, the 11 acres adjacent to the grocery giant's offices sit vacant.
Safeway wants to build a new 55,000-square-foot store with a pharmacy and other development at that location. The company asked the City Council last year about changing the land zoning from commercial to retail and agreed to foot the bill -- estimated at $600,000 -- for an advisory committee process to come up with a specific plan that would rely on community input.
But after meetings and market and traffic studies, some neighbors in the Woodlands and Northgate areas of town say the development is not needed or wanted. Concerns range from increased traffic to the new store's economic effect on two nearby aging strip malls, Encina Grande and Citrus Circle. A vocal group of around 40 residents showed up to a committee meeting Wednesday night geared toward hashing out community concerns.
The owners of Encina Grande, across Ygnacio Valley Road from the proposed new Safeway site, recently said they offered Safeway an opportunity to expand its existing store there, but were rebuffed. At an earlier city meeting, they said other grocers would want the existing Safeway space.
"Safeway can expand right where they are," resident Steve Elster said. "That would preclude all of these issues."
Elster went onto say that the market can't handle three grocers in one area.
Committee member Bob Pickett said that if the owners of Encina Grande and Citrus Circle were truly worried about the impact of a new center they would be showing up to these meetings airing their concerns -- and they are not.
Other members of the committee, such as Rocco Biale owner of Rocco's Ristorante and Pizzeria in the Encina Grande center, have come forward saying they don't see the value of any development on the corner.
"From a purely business perspective, I viewed this as a chance to develop increased business," Biale wrote in a letter to the committee. "I was caught up in the excitement of seeing something new develop and didn't factor in the concerns of the nearby residents. Big mistake."
Such statements by Biale and others leave serious questions as to whether the committee can even create a specific plan which would detail new zoning and uses on the site, for the council to consider. If no plan is created, it will have been an expensive exercise for Safeway's development arm, Property Development Centers.
But no plan doesn't necessarily mean no project. PDC -- like any other developer -- could would file an application with the city outlining a specific project, likely using information gathered by the committee.
Safeway officials say some residents support the project.
Rajan said understands and shares some of the neighbors' worries. But it's clear, he said, the lack of a specific project plan makes it hard for people to see the benefits development could bring.
There aren't many places on this side of town to bike or walk to with one's family, he said. And activating that corner may help the struggling Shadelands Business Park, which has a 20 percent vacancy rate that, projections show, could shoot to 40 percent in the coming years, Rajan said.
"I cannot envision how that can be anything but a detriment for the neighborhood," he said Wednesday. "I don't think we can lose sight of that."
Tentative proposals call for around 225,000 square feet of development on the site. When Deborah Karbo with PDC on Wednesday listed possible uses on that site including senior housing, volleyball courts, parks to an outdoor amphitheater, some in the audience groaned.
The committee will meet again Sept. 26, its location yet to be determined.
Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.