Almanac

News - February 10, 2010

Appeal of routine permit reveals bitterness over Safeway

by Sean Howell

A public hearing over a routine administrative permit at the Safeway complex on El Camino Real turned into a debate over state law, quality of life, the online shopping habits of senior citizens, the aesthetic merits of palm trees, the safety of mothers with young children, and how long it takes to load a truck — among several other issues — at Menlo Park's City Council meeting Tuesday, Feb. 2.

None of those topics were related to the subject at hand: whether or not Peet's and Rubio's, two of the businesses in the complex, should be allowed to provide outdoor seating, and whether Rubio's should be awarded a license to sell beer and wine on-site. There was little discussion or disagreement over those issues, as the council voted unanimously to award the permit.

Instead, the hearing turned into an airing of grievances over what some view as the deteriorating relationship between Safeway representatives and at least one member of a neighborhood group that has been working with the company over the past decade on plans to remodel the grocery store.

While both sides were pleased with the conditions they had agreed to when the City Council approved plans for the remodel in 2005, Elizabeth Houck of Middle Avenue said things have not gone the way she expected since construction was completed in 2007. She appealed the permit partly to voice her dismay over several unrelated issues, including Safeway van parking, traffic congestion, landscaping, and the habits of smokers in front of the complex.

"There seems to be a lack of accountability, and there seems to be a degrading of the original intent of this project," Ms. Houck told the council, noting that she doesn't oppose outdoor seating. "What we're really concerned about is upholding the quality of life in Menlo Park."

Council members assured Ms. Houck that they were sensitive to her concerns, and added a few more of their own.

Councilwoman Kelly Fergusson said she didn't realize she had signed off on allowing the developer to plant feeble-looking palm trees in the parking lot, rather than redwoods, which she prefers. Councilman Heyward Robinson questioned Safeway's assertion that the vans Ms. Houck complained about serve elderly residents and shut-ins, brainstorming on how Safeway could make the service more available to senior citizens.

Councilman John Boyle briefly investigated the logistics of loading those vans. And some council members took up Ms. Houck's concern about the safety of mothers with small children crossing the parking lot.

But they also said they felt Safeway was working in good faith, and that some amount of disagreement is inevitable in situations like this one.

"So far I've seen nothing but effort on the part of Safeway to work with the city," said Councilman Andy Cohen. "I think there has been a little bit of slippage here, but the intentions are still noble."

"It's clear there have been some compromises, it's clear that not everybody's happy, but I think that to some extent that's the nature of these things," Councilman John Boyle said.

Council members encouraged Ms. Houck and others to continue working with Safeway. Mayor Rich Cline said the experience could serve as a reminder that, while people may be happy when the council takes its vote, that doesn't mean there won't be conflict later.

"We put 10 years of our lives into this project, and one of the reasons we (agreed to) conditions of development was that we didn't have to put in 20," Ms. Houck told the council, responding to suggestions that she continue to work with Safeway.

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