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Photograph by Ken Larson
Calming Influences: Steve Czarnecki, left, and Mark Andrews hope city officials instate a set of one-way streets in their neighborhood to keep traffic down after the new Safeway goes in.

Supersized Safeway

Objections fly as Safeway prepares to double the size of its Mission Street store

By Steve Hahn

They say size doesn't matter, but Safeway executives aren't fooled so easily. Facing increased competition from gourmet health food stores like Whole Foods and sprawling one-stop shopping centers like Wal-Mart, the company in 2003 drew up ambitious plans to beef up and diversify selections at many of its 1,750 North American stores. Since that time, Safeway has been refurbishing and expanding its properties across the nation at a quick pace, converting 142 stores in 2004 alone to larger buildings with coffee shops, pharmacies, bakeries, banks, sushi bars and a long list of other supplementary services for the busy or lazy yuppie in us all.

In Santa Cruz, Safeway has selected the Mission Street store for an upgrade, which would involve construction of a much larger facility with new "lifestyle" amenities, such as a cafe, pharmacy, aisles of household goods, an outdoor patio and crates of organic produce. The old store is to be demolished and the adjoining dry cleaner and hardware store relocated.

Safeway's plans call for a 60,000-square-foot structure to be built on a currently vacant lot to the west of the store, nearly doubling the size of the current building, which rings in at 35,000 square feet. If everything goes smoothly, construction and demolition should be done next year.

The plan appeared to be breezing through the bureaucracy after Safeway won unanimous approval from the Santa Cruz Planning Commission on July 5 with a mitigated negative declaration, meaning that as long as the construction and demolition crews followed a handful of city-mandated measures the proposal would require no more environmental review.

Or at least that's how it seemed until three appeal letters came across City Planner Mike Ferry's desk later in the month. The letters each expressed a unique concern: one brought up the notoriously contaminated soil at the proposed site of the new store; another took issue with unintended consequences of a stoplight at the Miramar street entrance; and the third, from UCSC, cited inconsistencies and incomplete analysis in the environmental documents.

Now the issue has been rerouted to the City Council, which will debate and vote on the proposal during its Sept. 25 meeting.

Two of the appellants—Frank Zwart, associate vice chancellor of planning at UCSC, and Miramar Drive residents Steve Czarnecki and Mark Andrews—support the Safeway expansion in general but want some snags worked out first.

"I think what we were hoping to see in an environmental document of this sort was a little more consistency and a little more detail," says Zwart, referring to the project's Initial Study and Environmental Checklist. "The Initial Study itself and the project description has some incomplete, and in some cases contradicting, content that really should be clarified before the city can decide [its decision] is appropriate."

In his six-page appeal letter, Zwart spells out the university's argument that the study inadequately addresses water use, chemical runoff, contaminated soil and traffic.

The biggest hurdle to construction of the new store may be the toxic-drenched history of the proposed site. Throughout the 1980s Tobey's Rasp Service used powerful chemicals, including cyanide, copper, nickel and lead, in its tire retreading business. The site was notorious for mismanagement of its hazardous waste and was under the constant scrutiny of government environmental agencies. While the Regional Water Quality Control board has engaged in limited cleanup of the underlying soil since then, the city is requiring Safeway to finish the job, which will involve trucking soil away from the site and receiving clearance from County Environmental Health Services before construction can begin.

Some of Zwart's objections verge on hair-splitting, fueling speculation that he's playing a tit-for-tat game over the city's balking at UCSC's controversial Long-Range Development Plan.

"We were asking if abatement of the soil, or any hazardous materials in the soil, is actually part of the project or is it going to be done as a separate project before construction or demolition starts," Zwart says, adding, "Does anybody know what the soil condition is under the existing building, part of which is going to be demolished?"

In other cases, Zwart points to legitimate inconsistencies. The Initial Study also relied upon the yet-to-be-completed desalination plant as a reliable source of water for the expanded store during drought conditions. Zwart says this sets up a discriminatory double standard.

"The city has said in its lawsuit against us that we shouldn't be able to rely upon that as a reliable source of water," he says. "But if you look at many of the environmental documents that the city has prepared for [other] projects, it's saying that the desalination plant is a reliable source of water and should be online in time."

Zwart was also less than thrilled with the lack of a specific plan to deal with pollution runoff from the new parking lot and insufficient evidence that the traffic impact fees levied on Safeway would actually offset the costs generated by 1,900 new car trips a day.

Many of Zwart's concerns parallel similar complaints brought against UCSC in lawsuits filed by various community and governmental organizations. But Zwart insists the university is not in the revenge business. It's only interested in ensuring consistent standards are applied throughout the city.

"It does feel like private developers are held to a different standard than the university," he says. "But we're definitely not opposed to the Safeway expansion plan in principle."

Safeway press officials declined to comment for this story.

At the same time that Zwart was mulling over inconsistencies in the Initial Study, residents living on Miramar Drive and its surrounding neighborhoods were worrying about the prospect of more cars barreling past their front doors on a daily basis. Residents fear that the new stoplight proposed for installation at the corner of Miramar and Mission, the base of the infamously steep Miramar hill, will create an incentive for students from the university and residents from the upper Westside to bypass the busy Bay and Mission Streets by taking a King-to-Miramar shortcut feeding straight into the entrance of the new store.

"We went out through the whole neighborhood and got about 185 signatures of people saying they don't oppose the Safeway, but oppose the light, which is kind of against the city's transportation plan to begin with," says Steve Czarnecki, referring to the city's pedestrian-friendly Master Transportation Study. "We tried to appeal to the planning commission on that ground and they decided otherwise."

So Czarnecki, known around town as a skilled jazz organist, partnered up with one of his neighbors, Mark Andrews, and drew up an alternative traffic plan that would allow Safeway to install the stoplight, but make it impossible for cars to cut through Miramar from King or Escalona. The plan involves creating a set of five new one-way streets that would essentially cut off the diagonal link between Bay and Mission. Czarnecki's plan is meant as an add-on to Safeway's "traffic calming" proposal, which involves a set of speed bumps and center dividers for Miramar Drive. He plans to bring his proposal for a six- to nine-month trial of his traffic plan to the City Council next month for approval as part of the appeal process.

"We hope it is a win-win," he says. "It allows Safeway to install the light, but it also protects our neighborhood. It would truly mitigate the effects of the traffic light, and it would be fairly inexpensive." Both Czarnecki and Zwart are confident that the loose ends will be tied up at the council meeting and that Santa Cruz residents will be plucking the ingredients of their selected "lifestyles" from the shelves without undue delay.

The City Council will meet on Sept. 25 at City Hall, 809 Center St., Santa Cruz, to hear the appeals. The alternate traffic plan is at

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