When the new Burlingame Safeway opens in October, it will mark the end of a long and contentious chapter in the city’s history.
The Howard Avenue supermarket served as a rallying point for residents frustrated with local government and even helped remove one incumbent from office in 2003. The more than decadelong approval process for the renovated store helped change local politics, and even altered the way Safeway does business, according to those involved in the fight.
The project, first proposed in 1997, was rejected twice by the community before it was finally approved in 2010.
The objections centered largely on the store’s size and its relationship to Burlingame’s prosperous downtown.
“Really, the plan was more suited to the suburbs, we thought, than for a very busy and pedestrian-friendly downtown like we have in Burlingame,” Mayor Terry Nagel said.
In 2002, there appeared to be a three-member majority on the City Council ready to approve the revised plans, despite objections from residents. Charles Voltz and others formed the Citizens for a Better Burlingame to fight the plans and mobilize residents.
At the same time, Nagel was leading a fight with PG&E over repeated power failures in the city and preparing to run for office on a platform of open, accessible government.
When an election occurred in 2003 amid the growing uproar over Safeway, the result was an upset for both the council and the grocery chain — Nagel defeated incumbent Mary Janney, and the next year the council rejected the Safeway project 3-2.
Nagel said the city has since seen civic participation from residents surge and has taken steps to closely seek out and monitor issues and concerns in the community.
“I think that did change the politics, in the sense that people realized that they could change the politics, and get the community behind them and get the council to respond,” Voltz said.
Perhaps more importantly, the community now has a model for hashing out divisive issues. When Safeway and the city finally sat down to work on a new proposal, they made use of a working-group process that involved multiple stakeholders and a facilitator paid for by Safeway.
The end result includes a fountain gateway feature at the entrance to Howard Avenue, a smaller store with more mixed use than was initially proposed and pedestrian-friendly walkways connecting to downtown.
Nagel said the process was such a success the city has adopted it for other projects, including a downtown plan and a redesign of the Caltrain station at the foot of Burlingame Avenue.
And it’s not just Burlingame that views the process as a success. Safeway has since adopted aspects of it for use in other cities, said Susan Houghton, Safeway’s director of public and government affairs.
“We essentially went back to the drawing board [in Burlingame] and we’ve done that on other stores since,” Houghton said.
Burlingame residents have traveled up the road to do their shopping at the Millbrae Safeway while the Howard Avenue store is closed, but come spring, traffic will begin to flow in the opposite direction when the Millbrae supermarket undergoes a reconstruction project of its own.
The Millbrae store on El Camino Real, currently around 37,000 square feet with 92 parking spaces, will be rebuilt at around 59,000 square feet with 181 parking spaces.
While the retailer had initially hoped to begin construction in January and open in time for the busy Thanksgiving shopping period, delays in the approval process mean construction is now slated to start in March. The store, approved in July, is expected to open in February 2013, Safeway officials said.
The project was appealed by a City Council member, but officials have said that was primarily to allow the council to review it. The approval process moved much more quickly than in Burlingame. There were some concerns about traffic, especially on the Broadway side of the project, said Farhad Mortazavi, the city’s community development director.
“That’s the continuation of our downtown district; there’s a lot of foot and vehicle traffic in that area,” Mortazavi said.
The store’s new building is expected to be an improvement aesthetically, and the store’s “lifestyle” features, such as a cafe, should bring more foot traffic to the area — a key concern for the city, Mortazavi said.
Safeway is remodeling and rebuilding stores around the Bay Area and on the Peninsula.
San Mateo: The Peninsula Avenue store recently underwent an internal remodel
Millbrae: Complete store reconstruction; will expand 37,000-square-foot store to about 59,000 square feet; construction expected to start in March 2012 with the store opening in February 2013
Los Gatos: On-site reconstruction of 24,000-square-foot store to about 43,000 square feet; store opened in August
Daly City: Construction began on expansion project last year and should be complete by mid-September