OAKLAND -- Shopping in West Oakland can be a challenge despite the options -- corner stores, meat markets, organic co-ops, micro farms and a discount store that sells packaged foods. But few offer the one-stop shopping and bargain prices provided by chain grocers.
A 72,000-square-foot Foods Co. supermarket being proposed near West Grand Avenue could change that. The chain sells mostly packaged foods but carries a selection of fruits and vegetables of the same quality and price as competitors Safeway and Lucky.
The closest Foods Co. to Oakland stands near the foot of Macdonald Avenue in Richmond. But the parent company Kroger has a bid to open three stores in the city -- two in East Oakland as well as the proposed West Oakland site.
The West Oakland proposal, however, has prompted criticism because the city's Community and Economic Development Agency, or CEDA, wants to expand its power of eminent domain over a parcel of land currently occupied by an auto repair shop, tire store and truck repair operator.
Kroger needs the property to make way for the Foods Co. store, which would take up a city block. When one of the owners turned down Kroger's initial offer of $1.2 million, the company turned to the development agency instead of negotiating with the owner.
Foes called that an abuse of power and threatened to boycott the store. But supporters -- including City Councilwoman Nancy Nadel (West Oakland- Downtown) -- argued having the convenience of a full-service grocery store justifies using eminent domain.
"They need to take it," said a woman who lives three blocks away from the proposed site at 24th and Myrtle streets. "We need a grocery store."
The furor over eminent domain has created frustration among members of the redevelopment agency, who call Foods Co. a golden opportunity to fill the neighborhood's retail desert.
Similar eagerness surrounded the 2000 opening of the Gateway Foods Grocery Store in the Jack London Gateway Plaza, which gave way to a Korean market that also stocked non-Asian foods. By 2007, the market stood empty. A member of the store's ownership group was accused of disappearing with millions of embezzled dollars.
The city got close to filling the shopping center again in 2008. But the company, Fresh & Easy, backed out, in part over disagreements about union workers. The decision disappointed residents and led critics to wonder if West Oakland can support a grocery store at all.
City Slicker Farms worker Molly McClary called that a "misconception."
Likewise, a 2006 Alameda County Public Health Department survey concluded that West Oakland residents would buy fresh meat and produce if they had an affordable supermarket in their neighborhood.
"Maybe they closed because they didn't have what people wanted," McClary said on a rainy Saturday afternoon as people arrived at the farm to fill bags full of tomatoes, chard, lettuce and squash grown in the garden behind her.
She said she tries to shop as much as possible in West Oakland but has to buy many of her staples at the Grocery Outlet on Broadway.
The price range offered at the Grocery Outlet would be about right for William Lucas, who lives near the proposed West Oakland site. He has shopped at the Foods Co. store in Richmond, but said its prices are too high.
"That's the wrong grocery store for around here," he said.
Another resident, Joan Wendt, echoed the frustration felt by shoppers forced to buy from corner stores where prices often are higher than elsewhere in Oakland.
"In West Oakland we need regular services," Wendt said.
She was leaving the 99-cent store on Seventh Street with a bag of paper towels and other sundries. Shopping at the discount store takes planning, Wendt said, because the 99-cent store doesn't stock the same items consistently. The store hasn't sold butter for months, she said.
"They have what they get," she said.
One of the rarely stocked items is meat, said Chris Barnes, a regular customer. The closest vendor is Joe's Meat market. The popular store on 12th Street extends credit to regular customers but lacks fresh produce.
"We need that store. Pak 'n Save isn't it," Barnes said. Pak 'n Save is a supermarket in Emeryville where many shoppers in West Oakland are forced to go.
But, as Gregory Hunter of CEDA pointed out in a Sept. 14 report, nearly half of West Oakland residents rely on public transit. Consequently, he wrote, residents have to pay high prices at convenience markets and liquor stores.
Shoppers would have to travel 3 miles round-trip from proposed Foods Co. site to the West Oakland BART station. Residents who live in the newly built Uptown and Old Oakland would also rely on the Foods Co. store as their closest full-service store. They would travel about 3 miles as well.
Meanwhile, a number of people said they favored a variety of several smaller stores scattered around the spread-out district that makes up West Oakland.
But many agreed with how Barnes summed it up.
"Something would be better than nothing," he said.