Friday, August 29, 2008

Crime and Blight They Go Hand In Hand

On the 1800 Block of Harmon Street in South Berkeley there is a problem house. This particular house is by all definitions blighted--though the City of Berkeley exempts owner occupied, single-family dwellings and cannot require the property owner to maintain his property. The house has peeling paint, most likely the leaded variety, its siding is deteriorated, there are several inoperable vehicles stacked up in the driveway, the weeds are overgrown, and there is garbage on the front lawn, the sidewalk and the gutter.

The house is occupied by an elderly man. At least one of his relatives, who is his son, lives at the property. His other son is often observed loitering in front of the house and along Harmon and Adeline Streets. Both of the children are drug dealers. Apparently, both have spent time in jail for drug dealing and have been on parole. Various residents and neighbors have witnessed firsthand the drug dealing. The used little dime bags tossed onto the sidewalk and into the street provide the clearest evidence of their drug use and dealing. Both adult children are out creating havoc in the community and the neighborhood. They are the magnet for pit bulls, boom cars, loitering of gang members, drinking in public, public urination, and crime. The manifestation of their deeds is evident in the garbage they leave behind--drug packets, liquor bottles, high octane beer cans, cigar wrappers, and fast food wrappers.

While some may characterize the condition of this family as a legacy of slavery and racism, others see it as a lack of individual responsibility and lack of respect for community. Others in the community who see this behavior and ignore it by not calling the Police or reporting it to the City simply enable the behavior. Why do South Berkeley residents allow this kind of behavior to persist? Why does the City of Berkeley allow this activity to continue seemingly unabated? Some in the community have suggested that the City of Berkeley intentionally contains crime and blight in South Berkeley. Is this really true? What would be their incentive? We want to hear from you, the residents of South Berkeley. Do you feel that the City and the Berkeley Police are responsive to your concerns? Do you feel they are working diligently to shut down problem drug houses?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Making Progress in North Oakland

The We Fight Blight Campaign is seeing the fruits of its labor in North Oakland. As we drive around the neighborhood, we can see abandoned and inoperable vehicles being towed and properties being cleaned up and repainted. The Vehicle Abatement Unit of Oakland has been nothing but stellar. We have provided them with many, many locations for abandoned and inoperable vehicles. They are steadily working through the list, tagging the vehicles and towing them. As well, the Oakland Public Works Call Center and the online reporting system has been working quite well. We had doubts about the online reporting system being a black hole. Although, we have rarely gotten a call back from the Building Inspectors, we have noticed that several of the problem properties that were reported by residents using the online reporting system are being cleaned up. In following up with the Call Center, residents have gotten updates indicating that the property owners have been notified and given a certain amount of time to remedy the blight problems. One problem house that has been a source of blight and crime for the neighborhood for years is finally being cleaned up. We credit this both to the recent good work of the Oakland City Staff and to the persistence of residents in making multiple calls and sending emails. Fighting blight must be a partnership with the local government.

Berkeley on the other hand has been a bit of a disappointment. As a test, we notified the Environmental Health Services of several abandoned and inoperable vehicles one month ago. In that time we have had no indication that the property owners have been notified, the vehicles tagged and certainly none of the vehicles have been towed. In a month, Oakland has removed at more than 30 abandoned and inoperable vehicles in North Oakland as a result of the We Fight Blight Campaign.

Apparently, the East Lorin Neighborhood Association also reported ten South Berkeley properties to the City Manager's Office for investigation earlier this summer and met with the City staff on July 11, 2008. That effort has gotten mixed results. The City apparently notified the property owners of the blight issues and some have already voluntarily remedied the problems by removing abandoned and inoperable vehicles. However, with other properties there seems to be little or no improvement. Part of this stems from the City's weak blight ordinance that exempts owner occupied, single family dwellings and part stems from the City's lack of organizational structure and well-defined roles and responsibilities to address blight. We will continue to monitor the efficacy of the Berkeley Blight Ordinance and the organizational structure of the City to deal with blight. It is clear that revisions to the Berkeley Blight Ordinance are necessary to address these failings. Such changes can come either through the introduction of proposed changes by a City Councilman or through a ballot initiative.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Oakland's Neighborhood Law Corps

Problem Liquor Store

We recently got a rather slick brochure from Oakland's Neighborhood Law Corps with City Attorney John Russo and Staff looking rather imposing on the front cover. The brochure was sent out to educate the community about the Neighborhood Law Corps which is intended to take on slumlords, shut down problem liquor stores and help make neighborhoods safer.

The Neighborhood Law Corps is an innovative program that bases lawyers and resources in our toughest communities to solve difficult neighborhood problems. Inspired by the Peace Corps, Oakland City Attorney John Russo created the Law Corps in 2002 to put lawyers out in the streets to work in collaboration with residents, neighborhood groups and merchant organizations to improve the quality of life in our community. This is the first program of its kind in the nation.

The Neighborhood Law Corps asks residents to identify and prioritize problems and concerns. Attorneys canvas neighborhoods, conduct town hall meetings, and attend living room gatherings. The program focuses on educating residents about their rights and how to navigate government bureaucracy.

Berkeley Police Making a Stop in Oakland

The Law Corps was created because too many Oakland neighborhoods face public safety, economic and residential social challenges. The overwhelming majority of residents in these neighborhoods are hardworking decent people trying to make a good life for themselves and their families under difficult circumstances. Often, residents who live in these challenged neighborhoods are unaware of their rights under the law. As a consequence, Oakland's more challenged neighborhoods suffer from dangerous and substandard housing, blight, dumping, toxic pollution, and other illegal conditions that provide a crucible for violent crime.

Blighted Commercial Property

The Neighborhood Law Corps improves the community by abating chronic problems such as crack houses, slum housing, problem alcohol outlets and other health and safety issues. If there is a problem with drug dealing, blight, or dangerous housing conditions in your neighborhood, please call John Russo, Oakland City Attorney, at 510-238-3601.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Still Investing in South Berkeley-North Oakland

Green Condo Development on 65th Street, Oakland.
Listed in the low $700,000 and all sold very quickly.
This regionally recognized development replaced a
dilapidated single family dwelling with three condo units.

While this blog focuses on eliminating blight in South Berkeley-North Oakland, we don't want to give people the idea that all is bad in our community. Far from it. Despite the poor economy and real estate slowdown, there is still significant investments occurring in South Berkeley-North Oakland. I credit this largely to our location. We are close to two Bart Stations, Ashby and MacArther, have easy access to Highways 24 and 80 leading into major employment centers and are close to some of the best shopping and entertainment districts the East Bay has to offer--Temescal, Rockridge, Piedmont, Elmwood, Downtown Berkeley and the Gourmet Ghetto. To the east, we have easy access to acres of hiking trails in the East Bay Regional Park District and to the west, the shores of the Bay and the Eastshore State Park. Not unlike Rockridge or Temescal, our historic neighborhoods, which grew around the streetcar trolleys at the turn of the century, are filled with beautiful California and Craftsman Bungalows and Colonial Revival Cottages. Given the reasonably priced housing stock and the proximity to highly desirable areas, our community is on the verge of a major transition, much the way Temescal experienced. For the savvy investor or those looking to purchase a home with upside potential in a down market, South Berkeley-North Oakland is certainly an option to consider. Do you ever wonder what used be located at the current site of the neighborhood defining NOMAD Cafe?

Here are but a few examples of positive investments in our community. Most of these are clustered around the Ashby BART Station. Not only are we seeing condo conversions in Oakland, but homeowners expanding their single family dwellings in Berkeley and Oakland to get more square footage. That is an important sign that residents like their community and are willing to invest in it.

Colonial Revival Cottage on Woolsey completely remodeled.
with an addition. The property was an eyesore with significant
deferred maintenance.

Colonial Revival Cottage on Tremont Street, Oakland.
This home has been completely remodeled and updated
with a first floor expansion.

Remodel of deteriorated home on Wheeler Street,
Berkeley, with new fenestration.

Condo conversion on Alcatraz Avenue, Oakland.
Beautifully remodeled and listing in the $500,000's
for each very large unit.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

We Fight Blight--Geographic Scope and Focus

Several people interested in fighting blight have asked me to clarify the geographic scope and focus of the Fight Blight in South Berkeley-North Oakland effort. Understandably, the terms South Berkeley and North Oakland are a bit amorphous. To start, we have limited our geographic focus as follows: (1) Ashby to the north; (2) Telegraph to the east; (3) Sacramento/Market to the west; and (4) 52nd Street to the south. We picked this area for several reasons. The most important being that we live and travel within this area and became increasingly dissatisfied with the blighted conditions that were affecting the quality of life in our community and the apparent lack of community knowledge or interest in fighting blight. Because of our desire to create a safer community, we also wanted to address the connection between crime and blight, something that did not appear to be actively and comprehensively addressed by any of the existing community groups or neighborhood associations.

Within this geographic area of South Berkeley-North Oakland, we want to provide resources and tools for residents to address blight themselves. Essentially, by arming residents with information on the city processes and giving them an understanding of the laws governing blight, residents will be able to solve blight issues on a block by block basis. Importantly though, this requires an interested citizenry. In addition, we have several people who are actively identifying and reporting blight issues within this geographic area.

Our primary focus at the moment is to identify all the abandoned and inoperable vehicles within South Berkeley-North Oakland and have them removed by the owners or the Cities of Berkeley and Oakland. We are also identifying the most blighted single family dwellings and apartments. This mostly includes those residences with peeling paint, deteriorated siding, large amounts of debris/litter in their yards and on their porches, and overgrown weeds. Next, we will work on commercial properties with deteriorated facades. Of particular interest are the large number of liquor stores/markets that serve as a magnet for loitering, littering, public drunkenness and drugs. BAPAC, the Berkeley Alcohol Policy Advisory Coalition, has been working tirelessly to address the oversaturation of alcohol outlets in South and West Berkeley and to provide the City of Berkeley with the tools that will allow it to systematically and quickly address alcohol-related public nuisance problems before they get out of hand. Our efforts are not intended to supplant those of BAPAC, but to be complementary by actively monitoring and reporting code and blight violations. This will help BAPAC and others develop the evidence for shutting down nuisance alcohol outlets.

In our efforts, we are always trying to partner with neighborhood associations and crime prevention councils. Naturally, these organizations are a great way to help educate the community on the existing tools for fighting blight as well as the necessary policy reforms to assure fair, efficient, and effective reduction of blighted properties.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Asbhy BART Station to Undergo Possible Modernization

Bart Plaza Along Adeline Avenue

BART recently announced that it is holding a public meeting to address potential modernization of the Ashby BART Station. This is an exciting opportunity for the Community to step forward and identify positive ways to improve the Ashby BART Station. The meeting is to address: (1) security; (2) customer convenience; (3) cleanliness; (4) and other priorities.

The meeting will be held on Tuesday August 19th from 6-8 pm at the Philips Temple CME Church on 3332 Adeline Street, Berkeley. For more information you can contact June Garrett, BART Community Relations, 510-464-6257.

Dead Landscaping at West Parking Lot

Hopefully, this process to modernize the Ashby BART Station will not become derailed as was the Ashby BART Task Force that was investigating options for developing the west parking lot, including mixed uses. In addition to the current modernization effort, the east parking lot is being shut down starting August 18th for 18 months to allow for the development of the Ed Roberts Campus.

Planters Serving as Garbage Bins

Clearly, the Ashby BART Station, which was put into operation on January 29, 1973, has suffered from its location in an urban area in South Berkeley. Urban abuse along with significant deferred maintenance leaves us with a station that contributes to the problem of blight in South Berkeley and North Oakland. As with many stations, BART has struggled to keep up with maintenance as its highest priorities are focused on seismic safety and upgrades of the track infrastructure, particularly tunnels and the elevated structures, rather than on the aesthetics and comfort of the stations. The Ashby BART station is a pseudo-classic suburban station model with a sea of parking surrounding the station. The development of the Ed Roberts Campus will push the station towards a more appropriate transit oriented site with higher densities and intensive uses. Arguably, the more intensive uses of the station may counter some of the negative activities that often occur at the Ashby BART Station, such as vandalism, public drunkenness, homeless encampments and crime.

In a recent crime summit between the Oakland, Berkeley and BART Police and local community leaders, Captain Toribio of the Oakland Police Department referred to the Ashby BART Station as a target rich environment. BART Patrons leaving work or going to local music venues such as the Starry Plough and La Pena have been targeted by armed robbers in the past several years. The Crime Summit was intended to facilitate better coordination among the three police departments and local community groups to improve public safety in and around the Ashby BART Station.

Overgrown Weeds Along Tremont Street

As of yesterday, there were several BART Employees fixing the long defunct irrigation and assessing the overall conditions of the station in anticipation of the upcoming meeting.

Some of the improvements that we think should be considered as part of a modernization effort include:
  • Bulb-outs at cross walks approaching the station to facilitate safer pedestrian access. The BART Station is surrounded by major arterials and crossing them is daunting for children and the elderly.
  • Additional bicycle racks to facilitate non-vehicle access to the station. Casual observation indicates that the bicycle racks are heavily used on a day to day basis.
  • Drought tolerant landscaping and replacement of the dead and dying landscaping. Much of the landscaping has died due to poor maintenance practices and damaged sprinkler systems.
  • Installation of additional street trees along the sidewalks along Woolsey and Tremont. Some additional trees may be provided by the Ed Roberts Campus.
  • Removal of chain link fences and replacement with wrought iron fences, particularly along Ashby Avenue. The chain link fences are damaged from people constantly climbing over them and aesthetically they contribute to an appearance of blight.
  • Landscaping of the planters at the westernmost plaza along Adeline Avenue with Japanese Maples or other trees tolerant of being in planters. All of the planters have not been planted for years and simply serve as garbage repositories.
  • Relocation of formal pathways to the location of informal pathways. Some of the landscaping has been destroyed because patrons take the shortest route to the street and do not use the existing sidewalks/pathways.
  • Installation of JC Decaux Kiosks, similar to those in downtown Santa Cruz, at the westernmost plaza along Adeline. The Kiosks could be leased to small vendors, coffee shops, cafes etc. to bring additional life and eyes to the Plaza and Adeline Street. They simply need a water and power source, both of which are readily available at the station.
  • More coordinated and aesthetically pleasing sign program that provides a sense of place to the station. Currently, the signs are outdated, ad hoc or filled with graffiti.
  • Tighter parking controls along Tremont and Woolsey including limiting the parking to a 2 hour limit and eliminating overnight parking. This would minimize the overnight parking of large trucks, campers and those storing inoperable vehicles.
  • A better maintenance program that includes trash, weed and graffiti removal to the curb. For some reason, BART does not provide maintenance outside of its fence line. Most cities, including Berkeley, require that property owners maintain the sidewalk to the curb face.
  • Continued support and participation in the ongoing Crime Summit with Oakland and Berkeley Police.
Of course, there will be many other ideas from the community and there will be limitations on what BART is able to do based on the available funding. Combined with the Ed Roberts Campus, we see this as a great opportunity for South Berkeley and North Oakland. Hopefully, this opportunity will not be squandered like the Asbhy BART Task Force effort.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Fight Blight--Request a Free Tree From the City of Oakland


If you would like to have a tree planted for free in front of your house or apartment building (in the "planter strip" portion of the sidewalk), fill out the City of Oakland Tree Planting form. Your property owner or apartment manager's signature is required.

The City will:

* Inspect your property for a qualified location
* Cut open the sidewalk and remove the concrete
* Backfill the tree well after cutting
* Select an appropriate tree species (you can help choose the species)
* Install a free 15 gallon tree
* Classify the tree as "Official" and provide the necessary future maintenance

You must commit to:

* Watering the tree for three years (when it does not rain often enough)
* Keeping the tree well free of weeds and litter
* Keeping wood chips or mulch on the soil around the tree

See the City of Oakland Tree Planting Program below for more information and a Tree Planting Form.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Urban Litter Forum Examines Links to Crime and Economic Development

By Jennifer DeLong

"Litter and illegally dumped materials attract crime and repel economic development in urban areas" concluded a group of more than 80 attendees at an Urban Litter Forum. They agreed that blighted areas in the nation's cities are more impacted by crime and economic decline.

The Urban Litter Forum, which convened in Hollywood, Florida, January 11-12, was sponsored by the recently established Urban Litter Partnership between The U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) and Keep America Beautiful (KAB). Commissioners, solid waste directors, enforcement officials, educators, and KAB staff, representing more than 20 cities, came together to address the impacts of urban blight and share solutions. This forum, the second of two conducted by the partnership, was designed to exchange information about urban blight and develop best practices for urban litter prevention programs.

On the first day of the forum, attendees participated in two roundtable discussions to explore the impacts of litter and illegal dumping in urban areas. Participants identified several impacts they had observed in their cities, including the following economic and crime-related problems:

* Litter repels economic development, investment, and location of businesses

* Litter decreases property values and increases urban decay

* Decreased tourism in certain communities due to litter and urban blight

* Decline in revenue for littered business districts

* Increasing costs for cleanup programs requires additional financial resources taken from revenues received by businesses, local governments, taxpayers, and property owners

* Related crime activities are more likely to occur in blighted areas (drug deals, prostitution, gang violence, loitering, vandalism, etc.)

* Litter & illegal dumping are often committed by those wanted for more serious crimes

* Littered areas indicate lack of concern and loss of local pride in obeying the law

Participants discussed the need for additional research to measure both the impacts of urban blight and the improvements that are made through prevention and cleanup programs. John Schert, Executive Director of the Center for Solid and Hazardous Waste Management at the University of Florida, discussed their research program to analyze the economic impacts of blight to businesses and municipalities. He emphasized that both social and economic indicators will be assessed carefully for accurate measurement of the impacts to urban areas. Once the real costs of urban blight and benefits of cleanup are measured, additional resources could be allocated to provide effective solutions for it.

During the two-day discussions, attendees identified components to help prevent litter and illegal dumping and establish cleaner, more livable cities. Participants emphasized that clear lines of responsibility must be established for identification, response, and clean up of litter and illegal dumps. Cooperation among city agencies, the private sector, and residents is helpful in developing a coordinated approach for prevention of urban blight.

Participants pointed out that separate approaches should be developed for litter and illegal dumping, claiming that litter is primarily driven by behavior, while illegal dumping is driven by economic costs of disposal. Education and media campaigns help prevent littering, while strong enforcement programs help decrease the occurrence of illegal dumping in urban areas.

Attendees agreed that a combination of factors contribute to successful urban litter prevention programs. These factors include establishing partnerships, setting up coordinated local sanitation services, garnering stronger enforcement of local ordinances against litter and illegal dumping, educating residents about local programs, providing rewards and incentives, and measuring the effectiveness of programs.

Philadelphia Deputy Commissioner Clarena Tolson, Keep Houston Beautiful Executive Director Robin Blut, and West Palm Beach Commissioner Jeff Koons introduced local programs to address urban blight and shared their successes in enhancing livability in their communities.

The Urban Litter Partnership includes supporting partners from the American Plastics Council, Anheuser-Busch Companies, EIA Foundation, Florida Center for Solid and Hazardous Waste Management, Grocery Manufacturers of America, ITW Hi-Cone, McDonalds' Corporation, National Soft Drink Association, Philip Morris U.S.A., Polystyrene Packaging Council, Procter & Gamble, and Tenneco Packaging. The Urban Litter Partnership plans to unveil its Best Practices Guide to mayors at a National Summit scheduled for late October of this year.