Ban That Could Block Walgreens on Solano Bounced Back to Staff

Amid controversy over a proposed Walgreens on Solano Avenue, the Berkeley Planning Commission on Wednesday asked city staff to bring back more information, including an assessment of an alternative approach defining drugstores as department stores.

A rendering of the proposed Walgreens at Solano and Colusa avenues in Berkeley, submitted in the store's Jan. 9, 2014 use permit application. Source: Lowney Architecture
A rendering of the proposed Walgreens at Solano and Colusa avenues in Berkeley, submitted in the store's Jan. 9, 2014 use permit application. Source: Lowney Architecture
A Berkeley proposal to ban new drugstores within 1,000 feet of existing ones – supported by opponents of a proposed Walgreens on Solano Avenue – was sent back to staff for further investigation by the Planning Commission on Wednesday night.

The referral included examination of an alternative plan to classify large drugstores like Walgreens as department stores, which are limited to 3,000-square-feet maximum size in the city's main commercial districts.

The commission was asked by the Berkeley City Council in April 2011 to draft a zoning ordinance to ban new or expanded drugstores within 1,000 feet of an existing one.

The panel did not take the matter up until Wednesday night, in the wake of a recently launched "No Solano Walgreens" campaign targeting a Walgreens proposed to replace an existing gas station on Upper Solano at Colusa Avenue. It would be across the street from locally owned from Sal's Pharmacy.

An use-permit application for the Walgreens was filed with the city on Jan. 9 by the firm Agree Berkeley Solano, LLC, based in Farmington Hills, Mich.

About 20 speakers spoke on the issue at the commission meeting, with nearly all opposed to the Walgreens, except one man who said he favors removal of the gas station though not necessarily by Walgreens, according to city senior planner Alex Amoroso, who is the commission secretary.

The commission is seeking more information about how a drugstore would be defined and how the 1,000 foot distance would be measured, Amoroso said. Would a drugstore include a supermarket that has a pharmacy? Or a Walgreens that does not have a pharmacy?

The commission wants information also regarding an alternative proposal from Berkeley resident Mark Delucchi that would classify drugstores as "department stores" under the city zoning code. The code bans department stores over 3,000 feet in main commercial districts, including Solano Avenue.

The contested Walgreens would be 9,972 gross square feet, according to the application. The project also calls for a 22-space subterranean parking garage accessible from Colusa.

In a three-page proposal submitted to the commission, Delucchi said the 3,000-square-foot limit in the zoning code reflects the city's progressive General Plan, which includes a policy to “promote community-serving commercial diversity and…limit development of undesirable chain stores, formula businesses, and big-box developments without limiting the ability of local businesses to grow and expand…”

He said large modern-day drugstores fall within the zoning code definition of a department store: "A Retail Products Store selling several kinds of merchandise, which are usually grouped into separate sections, including but not limited to, apparel, housewares, household hardware, household appliances, household electronics and gifts."

Even though the Walgreens application has already been filed, it wouldn't necessarily be exempt from a future restriction on new drugstores, Amoroso said. He said his understanding is that projects aren't exempt until they've received a building permit.

Amoroso said no date has been set for when the issue will come back to the commission.

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