Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Sacramento's Oak Park Neighborhood Association Files Appeal On Design of Proposed Neighborhood Fresh & Easy Store; Hearing Set For Oct.15

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Dustin Littrell, a member of the Oak Park Neighborhood Association and a resident of that Sacramento, California neighborhood where Tesco plans to build one of its 19 confirmed Fresh & Easy small-format, convenience oriented combination grocery and fresh foods stores in the Sacramento Metropolitan region, has filed a design review appeal on behalf of the group with the city over the store's design and related locational elements. The Sacramento-area Fresh & Easy stores are set to begin opening in 2009.

The appeal prevents Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market from doing any work on the site in the Oak Park neighborhood at Broadway & 34th until a hearing is held by the city of Sacramento Design Review Commission and a decision is made on the appeal, according to Matthew Sites, the design review team lead on the development for the city.

The neighborhood association met earlier this year regarding the design of the Fresh & Easy store in Oak Park, which is to be built on land owned by former NBA basketball star and current candidate for Mayor of Sacramento Kevin Johnson, as we've reported and have written about previously in Fresh & Easy Buzz.

Mr. Johnson faces incumbent Sacramento Mayor Heather Fargo in a winner take all election on November 4.

Kevin Johnson was born and raised in Sacramento's Oak Park neighborhood which historically has been a low-income neighborhood but is going through a gentrification process. When Mr. Johnson returned to live in Sacramento after retiring from the NBA a few years ago, he started his own development company, which included a non-profit community development division. He also founded the HOPE foundation non-profit for youth which is headquartered in Oak Park. Johnson also owns numerous rental houses and vacant land in the neighborhood, including initially owning the property the Fresh & Easy store is to be built on.

The outcome of the meetings held earlier this year by the Oak Park Neighborhood Association was a decision by the group to prepare its own version of what they wanted the Oak Park Fresh & Easy store to look like in terms of how it would and should fit into the style and scale of their neighborhood.

The neighborhood association then created what they call the "community's plan" for the store.

At its July 3 Oak Park Neighborhood Association meeting the plan was presented to the members in attendance and "was chosen unanimously by the members present over the Tesco Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market plan" and design for the store in the neighborhood, Mr. Littrell told Fresh & Easy Buzz. A professional designer who lives in the neighborhood and is a member of the Oak Park Neighborhood Association then created a professional drawing of the group's design for the neighborhood Fresh & Easy store.

Mr. Littrell says the Oak Park Neighborhood Association met with representatives of Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market and presented the association's "community plan " to them. The company disagreed with the neighborhood residents version. The Oak Park neighborhood group then revised the plan, according to Mr. Littrell, taking into consideration some of the things in the plan that the Tesco Fresh & Easy representatives said they disagreed with from their perspective.

The neighborhood group then met with the Fresh & Easy corporate representatives a second time, presenting the revised plan to them at the meeting and hoping for some sort of compromise, according to Mr. Littrell and others who were in attendance.

Tesco's Fresh & Easy rejected the neighborhood group's revised plan, stating they decided to go with their original plan, which is the Fresh & Easy built from the ground up prototype store.
Tesco Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market representatives then presented their original plan with some minor changes such as landscaping and a couple others to the city of Sacramento Design Review Board. That plan for the Fresh & Easy store was approved by Bill Crouch, who is the city of Sacramento's Design Director.

According to Mr. Littrell and other members of the Oak Park Neighborhood Association, the chief concerns the neighborhood residents have about the Fresh & Easy store design include: the store's size or footprint; the way it's located (the facing to the street) on the lot; the parking layout; and how the store area is landscaped. Each of these issues was addressed in their group's "community plan" for the neighborhood's Fresh & Easy grocery market. Fresh & Easy Buzz has read a copy of the neighborhood groups design plan.

The city of Sacramento has a design review process in which citizens like Mr. Littrell and groups such as Oak Park Neighborhood Association can file a formal appeal with the city's Design Review Board if they feel their concerns haven't been satisfied in meetings with developers or companies and businesses proposing new commercial developments like the Fresh & Easy grocery store in the Sacramento neighborhood.

Mr. Littrell filed such an appeal against the approved design of the Oak Park Fresh & Easy store. He says he did so, with the backing of the Oak Park Neighborhood Association's members, because at this point it is the neighborhood residents' only recourse.

A hearing on Mr. Litrell's and the group's appeal was set by the city of Sacramento Design Review Board for September 17. However, according to Matthew Sites, the board's team lead, Tesco's Fresh & Easy requested the hearing be postponed until October 15, which the city's Design Review Board agreed on, according to Mr. Sites in a letter he sent to Mr. Littrell.

The new hearing has been set by the Design Review Board for October 15.

Along with representatives from Fresh & Easy and the Oak Park Neighborhood Association headed up by Mr. Littrell, representatives of Holloway Land Company, the developer of the parcel where the Fresh & Easy store is going in the neighborhood, also will attend the October 15 appeal hearing, according to the the design board's Matthew Sites.

Once each side is heard at the appeal hearing, the city of Sacramento Design Review Board will then weigh the Oak Park Neighborhood Association's arguments against the existing Fresh & Easy store design plan, along with those of Fresh & Easy in favor of its original plan, then arrive at a determination. Since its an appeal, the neighborhood group probably needs to make a stronger argument against the plan than Fresh & Easy likely has to make for it, since the city department previously approved the Fresh & Easy plan.

Sacramento's Oak Park neighborhood currently isn't served by a grocery store that offers basic groceries and fresh foods at affordable prices. Members of the neighborhood and Sacramento city officials have been trying for a number of years to bring such a grocer to Oak Park. When it was announced earlier this year that Fresh & Easy would build a store at the location, the news was greeted with much fanfare initially in the neighborhood, and city officials took credit for helping to bring the Fresh & Easy grocery store to the "food desert" neighborhood.

The big question now though is if Fresh & Easy wins at the appeal hearing and goes forward and builds the Fresh & Easy store in the neighborhood as planned using its original design without compromising with the neighborhood residents, what sort of loss of good will might that create in the neighborhood for Fresh & Easy?

For example, might residents of the neighborhood boycott the market because they feel it's design, street facing, parking and landscaping don't fit into the neighborhood properly? Such a boycott could hurt store sales dramatically, as well as become a major negative from a community and public realtions perspective.

Additionally, Mr. Littrell and other members of the neighborhood group argue the way the Fresh & Easy plan is at present creates a traffic safety problem. Could this become a major issue if there isn't some sort of compromise between Fresh & Easy's position and that of the neighborhood residents who desire changes in the store's design and siting, including some traffic mitigation measures?

The issue is a serious one from a local Sacramento and neighborhood perspective. Oak Park is one of the city's oldest and most historically rich neighborhoods. Many of its current residents moved into the neighborhood because they want to be part of turning it around. They've purchased abandoned houses and remodeled them. Other residents have started small businesses in the neighborhood.

Volunteerism also is big in Oak Park, ranging from arts programs for kids to other neighborhood-centered programs. Neighborhood localism and an appreciation for the neighborhood's history and culture is very important to most Oak Park resident and can be seen in various ways throughout the neighborhood, including public murals and in paintings and photographs in public buildings and businesses.

We will be following up on this story, reporting anything of interest prior to the appeal hearing on October 15, as well as reporting on the outcome of the hearing itself.

This is the first Fresh & Easy store development thus far we are aware of that's been opposed by a neighborhood group. A group of residents and city officials in Southern California's San Fernando Valley did recently oppose the selling of beer and wine by a Fresh & Easy store in their neighborhood. Fresh & Easy recently stopped selling beer and wine at that store, which is the only one of the current 90 stores that doesn't offer those beverages for sale.

[Note: The letter regarding the continuance of the appeals hearing from September 17 -to- October 15 is at this link: Broadway and 34th Continuance.pdf (459KB).]

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