Tuesday, January 25, 2011

North Oakland Under Attack by Taggers

North Oakland appears to be under attack by taggers. Telegraph Avenue, Shattuck Avenue, and Martin Luther King Jr. Way have recently seen a significant spike in graffiti. Graffiti is a way for gang bangers and others to mark their territory--not unlike a dog pissing on a tree. If your property is tagged, please make an effort to remove the graffiti as soon as possible. Graffiti attracts graffiti. If you see graffiti on private or public property please use the links on our blog to report it to the City of Oakland. CEDA can address graffiti on private property as a violation of the City Blight Ordinance and Public Works can remove graffiti from public right of ways, telephone poles, utility cabinets and other street furniture.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

North Oakland and South Berkeley Continue to Be Hot Real Estate Markets

North Oakland and South Berkeley have a distinct advantage when it comes to location. From a transit perspective, they benefit from two BART stations, an abundance of AC Transit service along Shattuck, Telegraph and San Pablo and multiple access points to freeways leading to essentially every major destination point in the Bay Area. Culturally and intellectually, the area benefits from the vibrancy of  UC Berkeley, the College of Arts and Crafts, the Expression College of Digital Arts in Emeryville and the new Ed Roberts Campus in South Berkeley. Some of the best and most walkable neighborhood serving commercial districts in all of the Bay Area are within walking and biking distance of North Oakland and South Berkeley including Rockridge, Temescal, Piedmont, Telegraph Avenue and the Gourmet Ghetto. There are an endless list of excellent restaurants nearby including Oliveto's, Bistro 5, A Cote, Pizzaiolo, Chez Panisse, and Commis, not to mention an abundance of take away food options at Berkeley Bowl, Whole Foods, Market Hall, Trader Joe's and several farmer's markets. Neighborhood institutions such as La Pena, the Starry Plough, Lois the Pie Queen, the White Horse Bar, the Black Repertory Theater, and the Ashby Stage Theater provide ample opportunities for entertainment and relaxation. Pixar, UC Berkeley and the biotech industries in Emeryville and West Berkeley provide significant local job opportunities.

Given the diversity in North Oakland and South Berkeley, and the fact they are sandwiched between Rockridge, Temescal, Emeryville and Downtown Berkeley, all very desirable areas, it is no wonder North Oakland and South Berkeley are seeing significant investment, new land uses and demographic changes despite the so called "great recession".

Portions of the 94609, 94608 and 94703 zip codes have home prices that are bargains compared to surrounding areas, hovering in the low to mid $300,000. Like many parts of Oakland, there have been a significant number of foreclosures here. However, such properties in these areas are sold quickly to professionals, young families and hipsters seeking their first home purchase, or to contractors who are completely remodeling and flipping. The 94608 zip code was considered to be one of the hottest in the country at one point last year.
Because of the strict lending requirements, only those who have steady employment, income and reserves in the bank are able to purchase. These tend to be professionals who are rapidly changing the demographics of what once were predominantly working class neighborhoods.

North Oakland and South Berkeley provide potential opportunities for generating sweat equity--something that seems unheard of in this market--for those willing to find the bargain and make the investment. As well, there are opportunities to purchase completely remodeled homes for less than $450,000. Many realtors are predicting that the 94609, 94608 and 94703 zip codes will continue to be hot in 2011 and into the foreseeable future primarily because of their location.

Seeing the value of location, many long-term residents are also investing in new paint, roofing, foundations and landscaping, or are adding square footage via additions or lifts. Just drive through the 94609, 94608 and 94703 zip codes and you can see the change happening.

In essence, these areas are gentrifying because investors are seeing market opportunities and buyers are seeing value based on location. With gentrification and changes in the socio-economic base of these neighborhoods, new businesses such as Addie's Pizza Pie, the Actual Cafe, the Sacred Wheel, Tribu Cafe, Earthly Coffee and Tea, and Emilia's Pizzeria are following the income and opening up to respond to consumer demand.

However, with socio-economic changes also come potential conflict. The fight over the Nic Nak Liquors was a bruising battle, reflecting changes in community values and an unwillingness of many residents to support certain land uses they believed to be detrimental to their quality of life. Charges of racism flew fast and furious, as well as accusations that newcomers were trying to take away land use rights of long-standing property owners.

However, both newcomers and old timers do agree on one thing--an intolerance towards crime, gangs and blight. The work of the Shattuck Crime Prevention Council, spearheaded by Don Link, has been instrumental in tackling problem properties, addressing crime hotspots, and improving the quality of life in North Oakland. Their crime fighting efforts have been so successful that portions of south Berkeley have joined their efforts and have encouraged the new Berkeley Police Chief to seriously consider community policing in Berkeley.

Changes to North Oakland and South Berkeley neighborhoods, which are happening at both micro and macro levels, are now aggregating to such a point that a trend towards gentrification is evident. Some believe these changes are intentionally targeted at the less fortunate or those of color. On the contrary, these changes to the very fabric of these North Oakland and South Berkeley neighborhoods are a result of many individual economic and market decisions, the direction of which is not controlled by any one person, group, organization or governmental body. In fact, we would argue that these changes are happening in spite of the City of Oakland or the City of Berkeley who have not invested much in infrastructure or community needs. These changes are the cumulative result of each of us making our own individual decisions as to where and how to invest. But, there is no doubt such economic changes are both good and bad depending upon which side of the fence you sit and where your economic interests lie.

Some do not want to see such changes and view them as detrimental to diversity and to those who might be priced out of the neighborhoods. But change is inevitable. The challenge is to embrace change, while still maintaining the essential diversity that attracts new investment to these areas. The City of Oakland needs new investment both in its housing stock and in commercial areas. Such investment and revitalization generates new taxes that support important public services and improves our quality of life. The history of cities is one of change and prosperity, decline and decay, boom and bust. North Oakland and South Berkeley's time has come, again. Get ready. Change is happening...

Monday, January 17, 2011

Oakland Public Works Cannot Get it Right

In February 2009, We Fight Blight noted a large amount of debris, furniture and household items on the sidewalk along the cul-de-sac at 656-665 53rd Street. This was immediately reported to Oakland Public Works with a request to remove the illegally placed or disposed debris, furniture and household items.

Upon returning to the location on March 7, 2009, we noted that most of the "stuff" was still on the sidewalk and again reported the problem to Public Works hopeful the removal would occur expeditiously. As of May 9, 2009, most of the "stuff" was still on the sidewalk, though it appeared that some items had been removed and some replaced with additional "stuff".

We Fight Blight again reported the problem to Public Works on June 17, 2009. On July 21, 2009 and November 4, 2009, We Fight Blight conducted field inspections which to our disbelief continued to reveal that Public Works had not removed the "stuff".

After conducting additional field inspections on December 6, 2009 and May 6, 2010 we found the"stuff" had yet to be removed. This despite mutiple written complaints, requests and phone calls to Public Works.

We Fight Blight visited the site again on January 9, 2011 and much to our dismay the "stuff" is still there. Why on earth does it take two years of repeated complaints to the City to have essentially no action and no response. Who's minding the shop?

Again on January 17, 2011, We Fight Blight reported the issue to the Public Works Department. The report number is 357686. Perhaps the Acting Public Works Director, Brooke Levin, can help us out here?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Oakland Public Works Routinely Violates Migratory Bird Treaty Act and CEQA

Each year the City of Oakland, Public Works Department, removes, by their own account, several hundreds of mature trees throughout the City of Oakland. Approximately 25% of all trees removed by the City are located in the area north and east of 580 in the Oakland hills. The remainder of trees are within the flatlands. Oakland trees are removed either by the City within the City right-of-way or by private parties that obtain discretionary, tree removal permits from the City. These trees, public and private, are removed during all times of the year, including during the bird nesting season which occurs between approximately February 1 and August 31.

Unfortunately, the Public Works Tree Services Program, which is managed by Deputy Public Works Director, Brooke Levin, has consistently violated state and federal law that protect nesting birds by removing trees on City right-of-way with nesting birds and active bird nests during the nesting season or by permitting the removal of trees by private parties without any conditions requiring the property owners to comply with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act or the State or Federal Endangered Species Act to protect threatened or endangered birds.

The Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (MBTA), which is administered by the California Department of Fish and Game and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, implements various treaties and conventions between the U.S. and Canada, Japan, Mexico and the former Soviet Union for the protection of migratory birds. Under the Act, taking, killing or possessing migratory birds is unlawful. Over 800 birds are currently on the protected list--this includes a significant number of birds in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Unless permitted by regulations, the Act, among other prohibitions, provides that it is unlawful to pursue, hunt, take, capture or kill; attempt to take, capture or kill; possess, any migratory bird, part, nest, egg or product. To enforce the Act, authorized Department of Interior employees may arrest a person violating the Act and a person, association, partnership or corporation is guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to a fine up to $500, jail up to six months, or both.

One might ask why the City of Oakland is subject to such laws in urban areas like Oakland. It is because birds know no bounds and they fly. California and particularly the San Francisco Bay Area are integral routes along the Pacific Flyway that supports the migration of millions of birds, many of whom nest in the San Francisco Bay Area, including within urban areas adjacent to San Francisco and Suisun Bays.

The Deputy Public Works Director, Brooke Levin, and the current City Administrator, Dan Lindheim, have been notified by members of the public that the Tree Services Program she administers is not following state and federal laws related to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. A Public Records Act request of Ms. Levin reveals the City of Oakland has no active or ongoing training program to inform its staff of the requirements of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, routinely removes trees without any established protocol to survey trees by a qualified biologist or ornithologist prior to the removal of trees, and has failed to implement construction work windows to avoid the nesting season or work arounds to prevent the removal, disturbance and abandonment of nests due to tree removal activities and/or other Public Works construction activities in the City. Other public entities, such as the California Department of Transportation and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, routinely implement strong measures to protect nesting birds and have even curtailed or delayed construction activities to ensure compliance with the MBTA.
These measures to protect migratory birds are often included as part of avoidance and minimization measure or even mitigation under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Caltrans and the SFPUC also routinely replace the removal of trees at a 3:1 or even higher ratio to offset the cumulative visual and biological effects of tree removal. However, the City of Oakland has never undertaken a comprehensive CEQA review of its tree removal program and its tree removal permit program to assess the cumulative effects of removing hundreds of mature trees on an annual basis, over many years, and to ensure its actions are consistent with the MBTA and other environmental laws such as the State and Federal Endangered Species Acts. Instead, the City has piece-mealed the removal of individual trees by generally declaring them to be exempt from the requirements of CEQA or not conducting any CEQA review at all. The City has routinely failed to document in writing its determinations justifying the removal of trees or its rationale for exempting CEQA review.

It is hard to understand how the City of Oakland can simply ignore the requirements of CEQA. Particularly since its tree removal program qualifies as a project under CEQA, the City exercises discretionary permitting authority in issuing tree removal permits, and the program has the potential for direct, cumulative affects to wildlife, as well as affects to visual and aesthetic resources, and the removal of trees within and outside the public right-of-way without adequate conditions routinely results in the violation of the MBTA by City staff under Ms. Brook's leadership, as well as by private parties. 
Once again, Brooke Levin seems to think that she and her staff in the Department of Public Works are above the law. This seems to be a recurring theme with her. Loss of staff or reductions in staffing, as she seems to believe, are not an excuse to skirt or violate state and federal laws or fail to adequately document the legal rationale for removing trees in the City of Oakland as required by the City's tree ordinances.

As we move towards the nesting season and the chainsaws of public works begin trimming trees or removing trees, Brooke Levin and the City should be aware that it could be subject to complaints to the California Department of Fish and Game and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service for violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Our new Mayor, Jean Quan, would do well to review the management and oversight of the Tree Services Program.

Bird Photos: Living with Wildlife http://blogs.marinij.com/living_with_wildlife/