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Lucky's at Alma Plaza

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Want to know more about historical supermarket architecture and why it matters? See David Gwynn's cool "Did You Bring Bottles?" site

American Stores has systematically worked to kill this center. Read the San Francisco Chronicle on how innovative managers save older supermarkets and make them invaluable community assets.

This Web page is dedicated to — of all things — a former Lucky's supermarket located in Palo Alto, California. The supermarket, located near the intersection of Alma and East Meadow, dates from January 1956, and is today most likely the oldest and smallest in the Lucky Stores chain (once Peninsula-based, but now a part of Albertsons, based in Idaho).

Alberton's banner up over the Lucky's sign NEWS AND COMMENT:

  • My spcial interest in saving the Alma Plaza store is architectural. Planners need to recognize that historical commercial structures — not just old residences — add value and significance to a community.
  • But, even if you don't care about the history of supermarket architecture, recognize that destruction of the store will cause serious traffic problems.
  • The property owners have already displaced numerous small businesses, left property vacant and rundown at a time of overall economic boom, and dealt with the issue mendaciously.
  • The property owners have blackmailed the community by stating that if they do not get their way, they will close the store and refuse to sell or lease it to another grocer. This unnecessary aggression belies their efforts to seem interested in Palo Alto.

American Stores, the owner of Lucky's, was taken over in 1999 by Albertson's of Boise, ID. This company's corporate ego mandated the destruction of the Lucky's brand, a part of the San Francisco Peninsula for more than 60 years. The venerable Alma Plaza store accordingly had its Luckys signs ripped off, though you can see what they used to look like in the pictures below.

The City of Palo Alto Planning Commission was to again take up the issue of Alma Plaza at a August 30, 2000 meeting, during which American Stores likely discussed its latest plans for razing the store I show here and constructing a new one.

In 1999, their architect and property manager showed the following plans for a 37,000 square foot Lucky/Sav-On it wished to build. As you might be able to see from these pictures, that design would have retained the same basic shape as the original plaza (which would be totally razed), but would be built almost to the southern edge of the property. The design resembles a mini-mall you would find most anywhere else in America.

As a letter to the paper (printed June 16, 1999—thanks, Weekly) points out, Palo Altans who don't necessarily share my concern about architecture nonetheless oppose an Alma Plaza expansion for many different reasons. Lucky's owner American Stores has been using "divide and conquer" tactics to win over various subgroups, for example by playing on the fears of neighbors that their supermarket will close if it can't be expanded. They have also wooed people in the Barron Park neighborhood who recently lost their local supermarket, and now find that the Alma Plaza store is their "local."

Barron Park resident Dorothy Bender has seen through this tactic and circulated a petition that more than 200 neighbors have already signed; contact her to find out how you can join them. ("Draw the line" anti-expansion petitions are also available at the Palo Alto Co-op and JJ&F Market.)

Dorothy has also examined Palo Alto's recently adopted Comprehensive Plan and prepared this Q&A on how expanding Alma Plaza would not be consistent with it.

Finally, I'd like to address comments made by longtime Palo Altan Harry Press in a letter to the Weekly, June 9th. He states his concern that Palo Alto is losing sales tax revenue to Mountain View and Redwood City because of its "antique" rules regarding the size of supermarkets. I would like to counter this with several comments. First, it should be noted that sales tax is not charged on food. If the city wishes Lucky's to devote much of its space to selling video cassettes, toaster ovens, coffee pots, cameras, and other taxable items in order to boost tax revenues, this should be clearly stated from the outset, as it is not what neighbors are expecting in a food store. Further, city planners already betrayed the neighbors of Fry's in their eagerness to collect tax on such items. I don't believe a credible case can be made for our being revenue-starved enough to sell residents out again.

New center blueprintAn even more important point is that it is time for planners to think regionally. The antiquated idea that cities must develop in order to steal tax revenue from one another has not served the Peninsula well. Over the decades, it has been responsible for countless tacky strip malls, developments, and the notion that every little town that wants to become a "city" has to have an auto row. Come to think of it, if sales tax revenue is the only concern, why not put a complex selling luxury cars at Alma Plaza? Frankly, the notion of putting an enlarged Albertson's/Sav-on in this neighborhood location, just a couple of miles from where a massive one already exists, is ecologically abhorrent. Traffic, pollution, and waste do not stop at city borders.

Jump to Photo Gallery | Jump to Palo Alto Weekly article on the controversy

The Alma Plaza Lucky's is special in many ways. One of the most interesting things about it is that, for whatever reason, it is in many ways "the supermarket that time forgot." Today, corporations such as American Stores prefer to build supermarkets sized at 50,000 square feet and above. (A prime example is the vast Lucky's recently opened at the San Antonio Shopping Center in Mountain View, which happens to be just a couple of miles away from Alma Plaza.) They do this proclaiming customer convenience, and, of course, many of us do find it useful to shop in a vast store at times; the real issue, however, is that the corporate owners wish to include relatively high-profit-margin departments such as in-store delis, bakeries, etc.

Main view of storeFor whatever reason, the Alma Plaza Lucky's escaped all this. It is still not far over 13,000 square feet in size, and looks much the same as it must have done when it was first opened. Especially notable are the rectangular Lucky's sign (once a trademark of all the chain's stores) and the store's generous glass area. The latter, echoing the architecture of the Eichlers and other '50s tract homes still found in South Palo Alto, brings "the outside in" to the store, making it quite different from the airless, artificially lit boxes that corporations build today. Palo Alto architect K.C. Marcinik stated, in a 1995 letter to the Palo Alto Weekly, that the store design was created by the renowned Raymond Loewy, who designed such things as the Coca-Cola bottle, the original double-deck Greyhound bus, the Studebaker Golden Hawk, and the Shell logo. Be this as it may, the store is a distinguished and important example of '50s architecture.

Architectural distinction aside, the Alma Plaza Lucky's fits into its surroundings in a way that a new monster store could never do. Visible from nearby cul-de-sacs, it nestles against the adjacent Stanford Villa apartments. Admittedly over-provisioned with parking space (obviously designed for Oldsmobile Ninety-Eights and Chevrolet Bel Airs, not Hondas), Alma Plaza also includes a doughnut shop, a pizza parlor, a shoe repair shop, and other small businesses. The plaza once also included a service station, which was demonlished approximately fifteen years ago. There are vacancies in the plaza, not for any underlying economic reason, but rather because American Stores has bought the entire property and is clearing tenants out as leases expire.

A leafy "back yard" to the Lucky's property insulates neighbors from noise that otherwise might be experienced when supermarket deliveries take place during the night. More important, there is a pass-through so that pedestrian and bicycle traffic can access the supermarket from Ramona Street directly behind it. This feature makes the center extremely useful to the young (such as children from nearby JLS and Fairmeadow schools) or elderly, who can shop without having to have a car and without having to brave busy Alma Street, which has been dubbed the "International Speedway" by Palo Alto police.

You can click on any of these pictures to load a larger (768 by 576) version
The Lucky's sign as seen from a nearby cul-de-sac
The Lucky's sign (last of its type?) is visible from a nearby cul-de-sac
Trees surround the center
Alma Plaza is surrounded by trees and all the parking places shoppers could desire
Alma Plaza has other businesses besides Lucky's
Lucky's is driving out the surrounding small businesses as their leases expire
Picture of the arcade
To the immediate north of Lucky's, this arcade has housed small businesses for more than 40 years
Picture of the closed doughnut shop
The doughnut shop shown here was forced by Lucky's to close in March 1999
Lucky's sign pictured from the north
The Lucky's sign again, as seen from the north side
Picture of store
This photo shows the store's generous glass area
Picture of glass
Both sides of the store have picture windows from top to bottom
Picture of special curved tile
The curved tile over the side door is a great detail. The Lucky Stores label you see here has now been ripped off.
Picture of pass-through to Ramona
Taken at the side rear of the store, this photo shows a Goodwill collection trailer and the pass-through to Ramona
Picture of 1966 Chevy
The store parking lot easily handles cars such as this 1966 Chevrolet
Picture of store interior
Thanks to glass area and a peaked roof, the store interior is light and airy
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American Stores wants to demolish the Lucky's store and the small businesses that have nestled under its benign wing for more than forty years. Naturally, it wants to plant yet another Albertson's/Sav-on flag on the map, building as close to the edges of its property as the city will allow. It wants Palo Alto to pave the way by scrapping the city's limits on how big supermarkets can be. It wants to remove parking spaces, increase traffic at a corner that already backs up regularly during commute hours, destroy a piece of architecture that, incredibly, amounts to a living '50s museum.

And for what? Not because the current Lucky's isn't profitable: I'm told by a source within the supermarket industry that it is actually one of the most profitable (certainly per square foot) in the Lucky's chain. Of course, Lucky's also benefits from Proposition 13 tax breaks and the fact that it has owned the property for so long. The running costs of this supermarket must be minimal. However, corporations wish to stamp out nonconformity, so down the store must go!

This article in the Palo Alto Weekly explained the controversy.

Reader Phil Ritter suggested I add this Weekly article too to provide some "deep background" information

The latest Weekly followup explains what the planning commission has done so far (be very worried!)

If these things go as they so often do, commissioners will cave in to the corporate desire for a zoning change, saying that they "cannot stand in the way of private property rights" (though why not? That's what zoning does, selectively, wherever it is used). This will be kicked upstairs to the City Council, which will nibble away at details of whatever plan Lucky's proposes, scale certain details down, collect money from American Stores to "pay" for the parking spaces it eliminates or the traffic problem it causes, then declare victory and stand aside as a community asset is razed.

What should happen? First, any change in zoning should be denied. There is no compelling need for the city to change its rules for this supermarket, or any other. Enlightened planning suggests that Palo Alto should maintain its unique assets and physical amenities by, among other things, recognizing that we need service that can be walked to or biked to. Planners should also recognize that in an area where real estate prices are frightening, small businesses such as the Chinese restaurant and shoe repair shop in Alma Plaza need a place to exist.

If it is too much of an affront to American Stores' corporate ego to retain this nonconforming store, they could profitably lease the premises to a more enterprising retailer such as Trader Joe's (which does not already have a store in Palo Alto and would be welcomed by many). And the potential of the other retail units in the Plaza is rich given today's need for affordable office and retail space..

 What You can Do:

Planner Nancy Hutar (nancyhutar@ispchannel.com) has promised to forward all comments. Alternatively, write zariah_betten@city.palo-alto.ca.us

E-mail Kevin Nolan, who is in charge of architecture for American Stores and has said he will respond to any reasonable comments.

Write:

Victor L. Lund
Chairman and CEO
American Stores Company
709 South Temple
Salt Lake City, UT 84102
Telephone: 801-539-0112


Author: Jonathan Angel
www.angel.org
Sincere thanks to the Palo Alto Weekly for its great online "morgue" of old articles
This page last updated 8/28/00