West Oakland Property Prices Threaten a Food Activist's Dream - KQED

The property market in West Oakland is booming, but from the corner of West Grand Avenue and Market Street you cant tell that.

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

Ahmadihas 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.Its one of West Oaklands major intersections, is served by public transportation and already has plenty of potential customers living nearby. But Ahmadi hasnt 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.

Opening afull-service grocery store looked like a promising venture in 2011.

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

Ahmadis 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 Ahmadis offers werent even close to what Kim wanted, he says. Recently, he says he was offered more than $9 million for the land. Ahmadi couldnt 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 its finished before deciding whether to sell.

Ahmadi says he doesnt blame property owners for holding out for more cash.He says thats 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 Ahmadis Peoples Community Market spun off of a West Oakland community food organization he founded called Peoples 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.

Peoples 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 afull-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 theNew York Times.

The Times article was written in the summer of 2013. Ahmadis 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. Itwas just bad timing, he says.

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

The Citys 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.

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That would set an amazing precedent for future projects like Brahms 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 useeminent domainto secure property from owners who wouldnt 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?

Thecity has to be careful about what steps it takes to help local businesses and cant take too many risks, says Ben Mangan, who teaches at UC Berkeleys Haas School of Business.

Thats good sometimes and thats deeply frustrating at other times, he says.

Manganhas researched the types of people who do take these risks. Theyre called impact investors, and theyre 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.

Youre 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 hes 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 wont name him, but he says this potential partner, who would act as landlord until hes repaid, is willing to pay well above market rate for land the grocery store needs. But it would be in a cheaper location than Ahmadis dream spot at West Grand and Market.

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

But the area comes withmore risk. Across the street, theres 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.

Ifeel 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 aretwo 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 hasnt been easy. Hes had no luck contacting the owner, and the city isnt helping out, he says. If he fails tosecure the second property, Ahmadi says, his longtime campaign to bring a full-service grocery to a community that badly needs one could be over.



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