Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Day in North Oakland-South Berkeley

North Oakland-South Berkeley is an eclectic mix of progressive desires to improve the community and resistance to change; the past and the future; the good, the bad, and the ugly. We Fight Blight took a Christmas Day stroll and this is what we saw. We think it's a good representative cross-section of our North Oakland-South Berkeley neighborhood. We Fight Blight is always looking to make a better North Oakland-South Berkeley. Happy Holidays..

Friday, December 19, 2008

Blight in Downtown Oakland

Blight is a significant problem in Oakland creating an impression of a run down community that is rife with crime. First impressions are everything. It is no wonder that Oakland loses out on so many opportunities when it comes to business investment, tourism and shopping. If the local government cannot get a handle on blight, a very basic issue, why would businesses want to invest in the community, why would tourists want to spend time in the community and why would anyone want to shop and recreate in the City?

While there have been many improvements in Downtown Oakland, due largely to the Brown Administration, significant blight issues remain to be addressed. Mayor Dellums has provided little to no leadership when it comes to revitalizing Downtown. Several basic actions by the local government could help to revitalize Downtown Oakland. These include:

  1. Increasing the number of foot and bicycle patrols. Residents and visitors need to feel safe. Seeing police patrolling the area on foot and bicycle increases ones comfort level about being in Downtown Oakland especially at night. If people are more comfortable visiting the area they are more likely to support local businesses. More patrols in the Downtown area would also serve as a deterrent to those engaging in criminal and anti-social behavior;
  2. Increasing graffiti control. The City should be more pro-active in eliminating graffiti as soon as it appears on public property or within the public right of way and charging private property owners for the cost of graffiti removal on private property if property owners do not immediately remove graffiti. While some may argue that graffiti is art and we need to allow people to express themselves, placing graffiti on public or private property without the property owners permission is called a crime--vandalism--and for the average person creates an uncomfortable and unsightly experience;
  3. Conducting periodic code enforcement and blight sweeps in Downtown Oakland. The City needs to ensure that property owners are aware of the Blight Ordinance and are promptly notified to remedy the problems in a limited amount of time before fines kick in;
  4. Increasing trash collection and trash pick-up. This is self-evident;
  5. Instituting and enforcing a 10 pm curfew. A curfew for those under 18 would be helpful to prevent marauding teenagers from trashing the Downtown. If the City of Long Beach can do this why not Oakland; and
  6. Planting more trees. Trees are needed to soften the harshness of the urban environment. Downtown is so void of trees it feels like an urban prison and contributes to the appearance of blight.
At a very basic level we need to make people feel safe and we need to make them feel like the streetscape is clean and inviting in order for them to visit Downtown and to spend money. Why can't our career politicians and career bureaucrats step up and create a simple Downtown revitalization program aimed at keeping the Downtown from looking like a blighted crime infested Skid Row?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Ashby BART Modernization Moving Forward

Tonight, the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) held its third and last public meeting in South Berkeley at the Phillips Temple CME Church. Approximately 15-20 neighbors showed up to provide comments on a proposed modernization effort for the Station. The meeting focused primarily on pedestrian improvements along Adeline Street, including a bus shelter/seating area and gateway entrances to the stairways leading to the Station below the street. The improvements are intended to create a sense of place and identity for the aging Ashby BART Station as well as a more convenient transit connection. BART Officials used several renderings and a model to facilitate the discussion.

Residents provided comments and suggestions including: (1) providing more landscaping to soften the hardscape in the plaza where the bus shelter would be located; (2) providing small commercial spaces in the plaza, for example the JC Decaux Kiosks that the City of Santa Cruz has incorporated in its downtown, as a way to create a more consistent use of the plaza and prevent it from being used for illegal purposes such as drug and alcohol use and homeless camping; (3) expanding the height and length of the bus shelter and signage to more appropriately match the scale of the Ed Roberts Campus and the four lane roadway; (4) providing flashing lights/crosswalks to allow pedestrians to safely cross from the Ed Roberts Campus to the plaza/bus shelter; (5) incorporating restricted parking or permit parking along Woolsey and Tremont Streets to eliminate overnight car camping; and (6) providing more appropriate lighting that minimizes light pollution.

BART has allocated approximately $2.5 million for the modernization efforts. While acknowledging that the funding will not go far, BART Officials noted that due to the economy they are in a bid friendly environment and that it is a good time to construct public works projects. BART does not plan on any additional public meetings, but will begin incorporating public comments, finalizing the design concepts and prioritizing the modernization improvements. The modernization of the Ashby BART Station, in conjunction with the Ed Roberts Campus, will provide a much needed face lift to the aging facility.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The High Costs of Blight

Eight years ago the Office of the City Auditor published its findings on a citizen's survey of blight issues in Oakland. Not surprisingly only 32% of those surveyed at the time were even aware that the City of Oakland had a blight ordinance. Only 24% of the respondents rated the cleanliness of the City as being good to excellent. Only 21% of the respondents had reported a blight problem and nearly 50% of those who reported a complaint were dissatisfied with the City's response.

Several basic recommendations were made including a public information campaign to educate the public about the blight ordinance and shoring up the appropriate City departments that respond to blight complaints by making sure they are full equipped and staffed to handle the complaints in an efficient and expeditious manner.

We are not aware that any of the recommendations were taken to heart or that any specific outreach efforts have been undertaken by City staff. It is unclear to us why the City has not made a more concerted effort to invest in blight reduction. The reduction, control and/or elimination of blight is a significant missed opportunity for the City to invest in the stabilization and improvement of neighborhoods and reap the financial benefits. Relatively small investments in blight reduction by ensuring appropriate and efficient staffing and enforcement could have big dividends. Blight costs the City in significant ways. This includes:

  1. Lost investment opportunities. When looking to relocate prospective tenants, homeowners and businesses do not want to locate in areas that are rundown with blight and may choose other communities over Oakland;
  2. Foregone property taxes. Blight has a downward pressure on property values and the amount of property taxes the county is able to collect for blighted properties and neighborhoods is limited;
  3. Foregone transfer taxes. Blight has a downward pressure on property values and when properties transfer the properties are discounted because of blighted conditions;
  4. Increased costs to fight crime. Blight and crime inextricably linked and blighted conditions in our neighborhoods reinforce and support criminal behaviors and lawlessness that requires more significant crime suppression activities;
  5. Increased costs to fight fires and provide other city services. Blighted properties that are used as crack dens, homeless encampments and other illegal activities require more service calls to put out fires, clean up garbage, and eliminate graffiti;
  6. Lost tourism dollars. Many of those living outside of Oakland perceive our City as blighted and overrun by crime. Consequently, they choose to take their tourist dollars to safer, cleaner communities; and
  7. Lost shopping dollars. Many residents, despite recent private investments, see downtown Oakland as dirty, blighted and unsafe. Consequently, they choose other easily accessible shopping opportunities in San Francisco, Walnut Creek, Concord or Marin that have more pleasant shopping environments.
While we understand and appreciate that there are many competing needs and demands for City services in Oakland, we are surprised that our elected representatives and City bureaucrats seemingly do not understand the significant costs associated with blight and have done little to implement the recommendations of the November 2000 City Auditor's report. Where is leadership when you really need it?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Resolution of Blight--A Complaint Driven Phenomenon

One of the most frustrating aspects of resolving blight in Oakland and Berkeley is that it is largely complaint driven. Neither the City of Oakland nor the City of Berkeley appear to be taking pro-active steps to identify and resolve blight issues. Rather, their systems rely largely on complaints from concerned residents. When pressed to address complaints in an efficient and effective manner, both Cities complain they simply do not have enough staff.

The use of City staff to deal with blight only on a complaint basis seems highly inefficient. Some residents, due to socio-economic factors and lack of outreach, may not realize that there are resources available to deal with blight in their neighborhoods. Some may not have the time or are not able to navigate the local government bureaucracies to ensure adequate service and follow-up by City staff. Rather than targeting high need areas or neighborhoods that could use a little stabilization through code and blight enforcement, both Cities rely on a shotgun approach driven by complaints. The City of Berkeley does not even have a basic system to track blight related complaints and provide simple written status updates to the community. If you cannot track the complaints and provide quick status updates, how on earth can you measure success and ensure adequate follow-up.

V. Smoothe's Blog, A Better Oakland, has a great discussion about blight in downtown Oakland. Familiar and consistent criticism, however, emerges in the comments to her article. "Why isn't the City doing something about blight in Downtown Oakland?" "Why aren't our City Council members and the City staff aware of these seemingly obvious blight problems?" We hear these criticisms all of the time at neighborhood meetings.

Everyone seems to be looking to someone else to solve the problem. Resolution of blight, like community policing, requires the active participation of the community to let the bureaucrats and the politicians know that we expect basic community standards to be enforced. For the time being, resolution of blight is complaint driven. Consequently, each of us must make a pro-active effort to report blighted properties every chance we get. Get the properties in the investigation queue. Otherwise, little will be done by the City to enforce the blight ordinance. This is evident in Downtown Oakland as well as other neighborhoods.

Members of the We Fight Blight Team have the relevant blight numbers for Oakland and Berkeley stored in our cell phones. When we see a dilapidated property, graffiti, potholes, illegal dumping or other forms of blight we immediately report it. We also let our City Councilperson(s) know during budget time that we want to maintain and increase staffing for investigation and resolution of blight related issues and that this is a critical aspect of stabilizing neighborhoods and maintaining an adequate property tax base. If just one third of all Oakland and Berkeley residents took these simple actions, we could put more pressure on Oakland and Berkeley to address blight and possibly increase the staffing to deal with the influx of service calls.

Blight is complaint driven!! Stop complaining on blogs about blight and start picking up the phone and reporting blight to the City of Oakland and Berkeley.