West Oakland Property Prices Threaten a Food Activist's Dream
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.
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.
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.