For decades, West Oakland residents have made do without a major chain grocery. Corner markets and liquor stores are the main local source for groceries.

For decades, West Oakland residents have made do without a major chain grocery. Corner markets and liquor stores are the main local source for groceries.

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The property market in West Oakland is booming, but from the corner of West Grand Avenue and Market Street you can’t tell that.

“We looked at that site. That one. That one. The one that’s now been demolished,” says Brahm Ahmadi. There are seven sites he points to, all of which he’s failed to purchase. The cost is just too high, he says.

Ahmadi has worked for years to bring a full-service grocery store to West Oakland — where most food sales in the neighborhood are apparently at liquor and corner stores. Meanwhile, wealthier people are moving in, causing rents and property prices to rise.

Brahm Ahmadi says he will not be able to develop a grocery store at his first choice location at West Grand Avenue and Market Street in Oakland.
Brahm Ahmadi says he will not be able to develop a grocery store at his first-choice location at West Grand Avenue and Market Street in Oakland. (Devin Katayama/KQED)

Ahmadi says West Grand and Market would be ideal for the market he envisions. It’s one of West Oakland’s major intersections, is served by public transportation and already has plenty of potential customers living nearby. But Ahmadi hasn’t been able to swing a deal with potential sellers.

“We were almost every time floored by the counteroffer and how dramatically more they were asking for their properties,” he says.

Some land in the area is going for three times the amount he offered — well above its assessed value, he says.

Ahmadi’s offers were sad, says George Kim, who helps manage the West Grand Shopping Center owned by his parents — one of the seven properties Ahmadi tried and failed to purchase.

Kim sympathizes with Ahmadi and agrees that the neighborhood needs a grocery store, but Ahmadi’s offers weren’t even close to what Kim wanted, he says. Recently, he says he was offered more than $9 million for the land. Ahmadi couldn’t offer even half of that.

A housing development is going up across the street from his shopping center, and Kim says he will probably wait until it’s finished before deciding whether to sell.

Ahmadi says he doesn’t blame property owners for holding out for more cash. He says that’s the “American way.”

“The problem is, it has a greater negative impact on the community,” he says.

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

The idea for Ahmadi’s People’s Community Market spun off of a West Oakland community food organization he founded called People’s Grocery. The organization focuses on food justice programs and has brought cooking classes, produce deliveries and a community garden to West Oakland.

People's Grocery has offered West Oakland food justice programs, including this community garden. Ahmadi says the next obvious step, to him, was to open a full-service grocery store.
People’s Grocery has offered West Oakland food justice programs, including this community garden. Ahmadi says the next obvious step, to him, was to open a full-service grocery store. (Devin Katayama/KQED)

Opening a full-service grocery store looked like a promising venture in 2011. Ahmadi raised $1.2 million from nearly 400 Californians, most of whom were East Bay residents, he says. His efforts were even featured in the New York Times.

The Times article was written in the summer of 2013. Ahmadi’s fundraising campaign successfully ended later that year, around the time West Oakland property prices and rents were just taking off. Ahmadi has been trying for the last 18 months to find property to buy or lease, but he has failed. It was just bad timing, he says.

“What we did was shift to accepting that we’re going to have to pay an exorbitant price to get a piece of land in this neighborhood,” he says.

The City’s Role

The city could help pay for a site. But that would be controversial, says Renee Roy Elias, a volunteer with the Oakland Food Policy Council.

“Do we want taxpayer dollars to go towards this very, very overpriced piece of land?” she asked.

Elias would like to see the city get creative with how it supports equitable access to food and possibly offer more incentives, like tax breaks, to local healthy food projects.

“That would set an amazing precedent for future projects like Brahm’s project,” she says.

The city could also assume a stronger role as mediator between entrepreneurs and property owners, says Elias. A few years ago the city worked aggressively to get a large Foods Co. store to move into West Oakland. The City Council even voted to use eminent domain to secure property from owners who wouldn’t sell. The deal never panned out. But Ahmadi says he would like the city to work just as hard to help his project.

If Not the Government, Then Who?

The city has to be careful about what steps it takes to help local businesses and can’t take too many risks, says Ben Mangan, who teaches at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

“That’s good sometimes and that’s deeply frustrating at other times,” he says.

Mangan has researched the types of people who do take these risks. They’re called impact investors, and they’re usually philanthropists or others willing to put their money on the line for the public good, even though it could involve making a risky investment.

“You’re often competing in a marketplace where you may be the only one seeking that extra bottom line, and you have to work harder to achieve social impact while your competitors are just looking for a return on investment,” says Mangan.

Ahmadi says he thinks he’s found his impact investor — a former Oakland resident who went to Wall Street, made some cash, retired young and now is back and wants to help. Ahmadi won’t name him, but he says this potential partner, who would act as landlord until he’s repaid, is willing to pay well above market rate for land the grocery store needs. But it would be in a cheaper location than Ahmadi’s dream spot at West Grand and Market.

About a half-mile from that ideal location, at San Pablo Avenue and 32nd Street, Ahmadi is looking at a couple of properties where his market might be built.

But the area comes with more risk. Across the street, there’s St. Andrews Plaza, a compact concrete triangle sporting a few eucalyptus trees. Ahmadi says there is drug use, prostitution and violence around the park. Community groups have been trying to work with the city to find a solution to clean up the area, he says.

“I feel if this problem is here and we try to open our doors, the sense of a lack of safety will be a major deterrent to a lot of people shopping here,” he says.

Still, this is his best shot, he says. There are two property owners he needs to convince to sell in order to have enough space for his grocery store. One deal may be signed this week, he says.

The second property hasn’t been easy. He’s had no luck contacting the owner, and the city isn’t helping out, he says. If he fails to secure the second property, Ahmadi says, his longtime campaign to bring a full-service grocery to a community that badly needs one could be over.

  • thorn

    i’ve never understood why they don’t lease a space like most other retail/commercial operations. i recognize there is the fear that they could be evicted in 10-15 yrs but there is also the reality that they could spend all their money building/buying and then not have an operational budget. there are many warehouses up for grabs in the west oakland that are going for $8-9 sq ft/yr that could be turned into grocery stores, why not go after one of those?

    • Brahm Ahmadi

      We’d be happy to lease and have tried exhaustively to lease a retail space. In each instance we have encountered the same untenable expectations from potential landlords — way too high of rents and way too short of lease terms. We’re not willing to locate in a warehouse district because those areas aren’t close enough to the higher density residential areas to meet the needs of thousands of residents who rely on walking and public transportation. Our goal is to neighborhood serving and walkable, which means locating in a higher density residential area.

      • Mitchell

        There’s an elephant in the room — the huge Pak-n-Save at San Pablo and 40th St., just a few steps away from the proposed location at 32nd. Though technically over the city line in Emeryville, that store’s in a prime location at the convergence of public transit lines from throughout the East Bay, and its clientele clearly reflects the diversity of West Oakland (including its communities of color) — to which that store is immediately adjacent. In the past couple or so years, it underwent a massive renovation (including the addition of a pharmacy), and the owners at Safeway (who evidently know their territory) seem pointedly to keep it stocked with relatively affordable groceries. It’d be crazy for anyone to take on such well-capitalized, head-to-head competition.

        Then there’s Tom Henderson’s project for opening an affordable grocery in the Jack London Gateway strip mall, on Market between 7th and 10th, that he claims “will make Safeway look like a 7-Eleven” — and that would provide an anchor for West Oaklanders’ food needs at the opposite end of the district.

        For the fully budget-driven, there’s also the Grocery Outlet at Broadway and 29th — a stone’s throw from the failed attempt at Grand and Market. Then, too, there’s even a Trader Joe’s furher up in Emeryville — a short hop from much of West Oakland on the freebie Emery-Go-Round.

        People may continue choosing to buy junk food at the corner delis, but the “food desert” meme is by now absolute nonsense.

        For that matter, if Ahmadi waits for the Central Station area to get fully built out, it’ll undoubtedly become prime territory for a Whole Foods. LOL!

        Meanwhile, it’s no longer 1990. What’s he thinking?

        • dirk

          Having a full service grocery store in West Oakland has been the number one development priority for West Oakland residents for many, many years. This article focuses on that need by looking at the difficulty that a local activist/businessman is having in trying to fulfill that need. It shows, for example, how the city went to great lengths to pave the way for the giant Kroger/Foods Inc. corporation, but for the local guy, much less so. So it is an appropriate story within the context of the series about West Oakland. The competitive environment that PCM may be faced with is an important consideration for PCM, but it is a different story, and one maybe best left to a business reporter with some retail savvy.

          • Mitchell

            The “competitive environment” involves the fact that full-service groceries already exist in the area and that others are already being developed. This isn’t some sort of technical consideration best left to a business reporter — and moreover, this is, after all, a story about a business. If it’s an investigative story, it lacks any investigation. I’ll stand by what I wrote — none of which is addressed by Dirk’s response.

          • dirk

            There’s many more things this story could have had in it besides and including the competitive environment. For instance, it could have said that Mandela Foods was denied it’s chance to be a more full service store after it had been promised the larger space that Bridge Housing turned around and leased to the 99 Cents store. But that’s not what the story was about. It was about the struggle of West Oakland to secure a full service market as seen thru the eyes of one party attempting to build such a store. And so it is a legitimate story and much less of a puff piece than you would find in 98% of SF Gate, for instance.

          • Mitchell

            Are you claiming that the Pak-n-Save isn’t a full-service store (and then some!) that serves a big chunk of West Oakland (basically the same area that would be served by a store at 32nd and San Pablo)? Are you aware of Henderson’s project, in the very area that’s in far more need of such a store? Such facts are part of the story, even if not “seen through the eyes of” a failed entrepreneur or a specific clique of activists.

          • dirk

            I’m not sure what your argument is. Is it that West Oakland did not need a grocery store? Is it that because there were other stores in the area there may not be a need for a store? For me the story was about the perceived need by many in West Oakland to have a full service store that they considered their own, and the efforts by one man to achieve that. It doesn’t mean there are not other stores around or that other people may be working on the same goal–this story is just the 3rd part in a series about some of the struggles taking place in West Oakland, of which this was one.

          • Mitchell

            Please re-read my preceding post — especially the last sentence. That should clarify what I find problematic about a story focusing on the self-perceived (and self-serving) “struggle” by “many in West Oakland” for “a store they considered their own.”

          • dirk

            I think it was an informative story. I think it was an accurate story. I don’t think it was a puff piece. I guess we disagree about what else should have gone into the story.

          • Mitchell

            I suspect that our disagreement is at least somewhat ideological – that the focus on this particular effort was (in that regard) a dog-whistle, lending itself to a long-standing narrative of “struggle” on the part of certain activists not just for a grocery, but for one they could consider “their own.”

            That implies a much larger discussion, of course; I merely found the bias here so blatant that the story failed to reflect even the most basic aspects of the objective conditions it purported to address.

Author

Devin Katayama

Devin Katayama is a reporter covering the East Bay for KQED News. Previously, he was the education reporter for WFPL in Louisville and worked as a producer with radio stations in Chicago and Portland, OR. His work has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, The Takeaway and Here and Now.

Devin earned his MA in Journalism from Columbia College Chicago, where he was a Follett Fellow and the recipient of the 2011 Studs Terkel Community Media Workshop Scholarship for his story on Chicago's homeless youth. He won WBUR's 2014 Daniel Schorr award and a regional RTNDA Edward R. Murrow Award for his documentary "At Risk" that looked at issues facing some of Louisville's students. Devin has also received numerous local awards from the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists.

Email: dkatayama@kqed.org Twitter: @RadioDevin Website: audiocollected.org