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Dad, disabled son fight to save threatened San Ramon grocery store

San Jose Mercury News - 3/16/2021

Mar. 16—SAN RAMON — When Josh Routh was 15 years old he had one goal in mind to work at his dream job at the Nob Hill Foods supermarket.

Routh has cerebral palsy, a disorder that makes it hard for him to stand without support. When doctors first diagnosed him when he was 2 months old, they told his parents he would be a quadriplegic, and if he would be able to speak at all, it would be unintelligible, his father said in an interview.

But he beat the odds, working hard on physical and speech therapy, and he landed his job as a bag boy at the grocery store. Now, after 21 years of working at Nob Hills Foods in the Marketplace shopping center, he's a well-liked cashier known among the community. But he and his father fear he could be out of a job in the future. The store's future is uncertain; a developer wants to tear it down to make way for a proposed five-story, 284-unit apartment building.

Routh and his father, along with others in the community who say the project is too massive for the area, are fighting to keep the store open.

"This job isn't just a job, it's a huge part of his life," said Don Routh, Josh's dad.

It's where he socializes, has friends and is able to support himself. Josh Routh lives on his own, but checks in with his father regularly and has someone who helps him with household chores.

"I'm happy here, and I love working here," Josh Routh said in an interview. "The store is very important to me here because it's family. The employees and my customers are family here."

He saved up enough money after 10 years to buy a specialized car of his own, but sticks to a five-mile radius around his home near the Marketplace shopping center, where his Nob Hill workplace is located. Because of his condition, and potential for seizures, his driver's license doesn't allow him to drive on freeways, his father said. That means if the store were torn down, it would be difficult for him to find another place to work close by.

The potential project has spurred criticism from nearby residents and others throughout the city who say it's just too big and would bring unnecessary traffic to the area. Most of the opposition centers around the height of the proposed five-story apartment building, 58 feet, which would dwarf other residences in the surrounding neighborhood. The 12.47-acre Marketplace shopping center property is located at 130 Market Place, off Bollinger Canyon and Alcosta Boulevard; across the street are apartments and condos.

In January, the San Ramon Planning Commission seemed to agree with the sentiment, telling the developer, TRC Retail, to scale down the project. TRC wants to raze Nob Hill Foods, along with the Starbucks cafe and other retail at the Marketplace shopping center to make way for the apartment building and a 454-space parking garage.

Of the 284 apartments in the San Ramon project, 32 would be designated affordable housing. Because of this, some city officials at the January meeting warned their hands could be tied because of the Housing Crisis Act of 2019. The act, known as Senate Bill 330, authorizes a fine ranging from $10,000 to $50,000 per apartment against a city if it inappropriately denies a housing project that meets its own development guidelines. The law requires cities that reject needed affordable housing to show the projects would negatively impact public health or safety or that there's no feasible way to mitigate certain impacts.

Lauren Barr, San Ramon's planning manager, said the potential developer has not submitted an application, nor have they indicated to the city what they intend to do. They could proceed with the project as proposed, modify it based on recommendations from the Planning Commission, pursue another review by the city with more feedback on a revised plan or abandon the project altogether.

Although it's not clear when or if the project will be reviewed by the city, Don Routh he and other advocates against the project want to get ahead of advocating against it.

"From our standpoint, this is a big effort to fight this project. We can't wait until the developer turns in the application. We're proceeding on the assumption that they're proceeding with the project, until we hear otherwise," Don Routh said.

Both he and Josh Routh are part of the Citizens Against Marketplace Apartment Development, a committee formed of about 60 residents against the proposed development. The committee has been passing out more than 6,000 fliers door to door or near the grocery store to tell residents about the project. They hope the fliers will get the word out, and residents will send letters to the city voicing their opinion on the project, with a goal of 1,000 letters.

The committee is also putting together information on the ramifications the project would have, such as traffic and other environmental impacts, and will present the information to the city.

But Don Routh wants to make clear: They're not opposed to this just because his son works there. The project isn't the right fit for the community, he said. Taking away Nob Hill would mean taking away the only large-scale supermarket in that location. There is a Trader Joe's in the same shopping mall, but Routh said those stores are more specialty stores, and much smaller than a place like Nob Hill.

"Trader Joe's is fine for what it is, but it's not a viable alternative for an affordable full-service supermarket," he said.

In passing out fliers, Don Routh said many in the community heard that Nob Hill is leaving the Marketplace anyway.

Chelsea Minor, director of public affairs for Raley's, a parent company of Nob Hill Foods, said in a statement that Raley's/Nob Hill is "committed to the San Ramon community." TRC Retail and Raley's were unable to come to an agreement for a long-term lease, she said.

"As of right now, Nob Hill Foods will continue to operate at Marketplace at San Ramon for the foreseeable future. Raley's is looking for a potential relocation site in San Ramon," Minor said in a statement.

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