Sunday, February 22, 2009

40th Street Underpass improvements fall short

The 40th Street BART Streetscape project underscores the difference between promise and fulfillment--and what happens when heightened expectations meet funding realities.

The 40th Street underpass improvements were planned to bolster community support for the MacArthur BART transit village. It promised obvious, immediate benefit to existing community residents and business owners, while the transit village itself offered more nebulous, long-term effects such as increased neighborhood serving retail at the expense of parking and congestion. To gain buy-in from the community, a series of community workshops were held in late 2003 and early 2004. At these workshops, the design team refined concepts based upon input from community members. To foster support, no suggestion was disparaged, regardless of how improbable it might be. There was even renewed talk of drilling a tunnel from 39th and MLK to the BART station, an absurdly expensive non-starter. Meanwhile, a Technical Advisory Committee, made up of transit agency and city staff, was meeting to discuss technical, jurisdictional and implementation timing issues, including details of street changes, regulatory requirements and engineering limitations.

On January 21, 2004, community members voted on the priority of 17 individually implementable projects. The final design plan was presented to the community on February 18 of that year. It tantalized neighbors with visions of tiled walls, beacons shining into the sky, trees and plantings, colored lights extending across the ceiling of the underpass and washing its walls. CEDA staff managed to secure grant funding to realize some of the ideas. Five years later, what has actually been delivered?

Construction has been ongoing for months, and a preliminary walkthrough with the contractor was held on February 6th. The reality is some improvement to the underpass, but—when compared to the promises of what could be—the result seems disappointing. Here is a list of the projects that were talked about, and what we actually got:

Bike Lanes– Don’t see them yet, but they are supposed to be forthcoming. Bike lanes one block long remind one of Alaska’s famous “bridge to nowhere.” But, extension of the bike lanes along 40th Street is a possibility still being discussed.

Bulb-outs at Martin Luther King, Jr. Way and Telegraph Avenue -- These are in place on the Telegraph side. MLK did not get any bulb-outs.

Sidewalk Widening and Overall Improvements – The median strip was narrowed and ADA-compliant ramps were cut. But, if there was widening, it was so modest as to be unnoticed, and the proposed replacement of fencing apparently devolved into fresh painting of existing fencing.

Intersection at BART Frontage Rd. – New traffic lights and a crosswalk here have improved pedestrian safety and were long overdue.

Pedestrian Lights – New, decorative streetlamps were installed but have remained dark throughout the winter, causing pedestrians to resort to flashlights to illuminate evening walks to BART.

Color Wall-Wash Lighting in Underpass Area – New lights have been installed on a strip that seems designed to provide nesting areas for pigeons. They have not yet been turned on.

Paint in Underpass Area – This is the most controversial improvement, because the light gray, monochrome solution provides a tempting canvas for graffiti artists. It appeared to initially be covered with a high-gloss, graffiti resistant coating. Immediately before the walk-through, someone remediated graffiti on the wall by painting over it instead of scrubbing the graffiti off. What point was there in paying for a graffiti-resistant coating if the responsible agency simply paints over it?

Street Trees and Median Planting – Didn’t happen.
Street Furniture – Didn’t happen.
Neighborhood Monuments – Didn’t happen.
Beacon-Lights – Didn’t happen.
Ceiling Light Tubes in Underpass Area – Didn’t happen.
Area Lighting in Underpass Area – Didn’t happen.
BART Vent Light Fixtures – Didn’t happen.
Planting at Slots – Didn’t happen.
Tiles in Underpass Area – Didn’t happen.

In addition, black steel arches were added to the walls as an “artistic wall treatment” that was not documented as a suggestion from any of the community meetings.

Well, the community got something – attention to what has been a dreary, sometimes frightening link between two neighborhoods divided by a massive freeway system. But it is not enough to entice BART patrons to cross into the neighborhoods west of the freeway and revitalize the business community on MLK that was devastated when the freeway was constructed. Nor will the eventual transit village nourish businesses on the western side. Soon, BART plans to wall up most of the median in the name of earthquake retrofitting, which will increase the "tunnel" effect, with fewer avenues of escape if one is mugged. It will take a critical mass of new construction on the west side – “spillover” from Emeryville, perhaps – to reach the tipping point where neighborhood-serving businesses can thrive on MLK.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Security cameras: how effective are they?

On December 3rd, 2008, a West Oakland Project Area Committee (“WOPAC”) panel supported using taxpayers’ redevelopment money to fund private security cameras at three locations in West Oakland, including one at West MacArthur Blvd. and West Street. Are security cameras a shrewd investment in crime reduction, or an ineffective waste of scarce public funds?

Publicly accessible security cameras have been present in our neighborhood for several years, with a mixed track record. A camera atop a local liquor store is credited with helping to solve a drive-by shooting, and for aiding in the arrest of a parolee violating conditions of his parole. Another camera above a local café, however, appears to be nonfunctional after two years of service, and has contributed nothing despite a persistent graffiti problem in its immediate area. Purchase of both cameras was assisted with public funds.

In 2007, the WOPAC recommended to the City Council that $200,000 be spent to fund, for one year, 10 cameras throughout the West Oakland redevelopment project area. These cameras would be at the disposition of the police department, who would determine where the cameras would be placed, and would have exclusive access to them. The cameras would be moveable, so they could be relocated at minimum expense as crime patterns dictate. Images would be recorded and available for seven days. The cameras could be remotely monitored and controlled by the police, who could pivot them and zoom in or out as desired.

A year and a half later, the money remains unspent. Personnel changes at OPD, concerns about image quality holding up in court, controversy over the appropriate technical specifications and software best suited to the goal, and bureaucratic inertia all have contributed to the delay. The latest projection is that the cameras will be up and running by April 2009. Meanwhile , several community groups have opted to fill the void by asking the WOPAC to fund specific camera solutions under the Neighborhood Project Initiative program.

The South Prescott Neighborhood Association, fed up with chronic illegal dumping and prostitution at a specific site near 3rd and Lewis Streets, wants a four-camera system that will record activities in high definition, late at night, for later review. The goal is to obtain license plate numbers of illegal dumpers, with the acknowledgement that this type of criminal activity is not viewed as critical enough to elicit timely police response. The camera, an Arecont AV8180, offers much higher resolution (1600x1200 at 24 frames per second) than do the cameras specified in the two other proposals.

The Oakland Technology Exchange West wants four cameras on its roof to alleviate customer safety concerns when people attend evening computer classes. An additional target is illegal dumping and crime in the Willow Park area, on Willow St. between 14th and 15th. The camera images would be recorded on existing computers at the school, rather than be monitored. The objective is to create a deterrent effect more than to pursue arrests or convictions. The cameras support low light video capture and could be set up for remote viewing on cell phones, but the resolution (704x480 at 30 fps) is problematic.

The West Street Watch proposes to install a single camera atop a sign in front of a business on the corner of West and West MacArthur, where two shootings have occurred in the past year. This camera would be accessible from remote over the internet by both the police and neighborhood watch members, who could swivel its position, change the angle and zoom in and out. Recorded footage is stored for seven days on a hard drive at the sponsoring merchant’s place of business. The SNC-RX550 PTZ camera offers 640x480 resolution at 30 fps.

Rather than invest in three different camera systems, the WOPAC asked OPD Lt. Freddie Hamilton if he would accept three additional cameras in the WOPAC’s police camera proposal, under a stipulation that they be placed at the three locations of concern to the neighborhood groups who had submitted camera proposals. Lt. Hamilton responded that he is always receptive to offers of additional resources; however, in order to ensure the pilot camera program can be evaluated according to the agreed upon standards, cameras should be placed at locations that, statistically, are considered high-crime areas, and only the Willow Street location meets that criteria.

The police camera program will be evaluated after one year to determine its effectiveness, and if additional funding should be provided to continue it or to expand it to other locations in the city. How effective have other surveillance camera programs been?

Many studies have been conducted in the past ten years about the effectiveness of public security cameras. The general conclusion is that the cameras may to some degree deter premeditated property crimes, may reduce injury because they result in faster police response, and assist in solving crimes, but have little deterrent effect on violent crime.

In 2002, a British survey of 22 such programs concluded that they reduce crime to a small degree. The main impact was on vehicle crime (e.g. running red lights), but there was little evidence that they prevented violent crime. A study in Injury Prevention Journal in 2003 found that camera surveillance reduced the severity of injuries in street brawls, but had no deterrent effect. Melbourne, Australia, voted to dump its network of 23 cameras in 2004 after it became apparent the system did not deter crime, despite a consultant’s finding that they played a significant role in crime detection. Research in both Leceistershire, England and Cardiff, Wales in 2005 found that cameras did not reduce crime, but reduced harm because police response was faster. It was argued that the cameras “increased” crime in the sense that monitoring police observed criminal activity more frequently, so crime statistics went up as a result. A study in Brisbane, Australia, in 2006 found that cameras help solve crime but do little to prevent it.

London has over 10,000 security cameras, out of 4 million cameras in England, at a cost to the public of over $400 million dollars. But in 2008, the head of CCTV in the Association of Chief Police Officers stated that CCTV had little impact on the level of late-night violence, and that the public had been misled into believing cameras would have a big impact. Also in 2008, a Detective Chief Inspector with London’s Metropolitan Police Force called the camera program an “utter fiasco” that solved only 3% of London’s street robberies. And a UC Berkeley study of cameras in San Francisco in 2008 found a decrease in property crimes in the immediate vicinity of the cameras, but concluded that the cameras “had little overall effect” on violent crime. Surveillance cameras have been tried and abandoned in Miami Beach, White Plains, Mt. Vernon, Newark and Times Square.

In 2002, the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) wrote a letter to the chairperson of the Council of the District of Columbia, calling D.C.’s camera program “a bad idea that should be rejected outright.” The ACLU was concerned about the right to privacy, the enforcement of social conformity, and the potential for abuse by government agencies or rogue cops.

Improvements in technology offer hope for increasing the effectiveness of cameras in preventing violence before it occurs. Some cameras now utilize software that attempt to predict and thwart crime. For example, cameras are now available that can count the number of people on a street corner. They can recognize patterns or abnormalities like people loitering in areas that most people walk quickly through, someone climbing a fence that others walk past, or people stopping someone who was walking. The cameras can then send an alert to a police officer’s computer or to a monitoring center. It remains to be proven if such software can be fine-tuned to the point that “false positives” are reduced sufficiently to make it a reliable tool.

Social networking may also increase cameras’ effectiveness. The San Francisco Chronicle reported on December 6th that a camera established at a private residence overlooking a busy intersection in that city’s Tenderloin neighborhood had become an internet sensation, with 25,000 visitors in three days. The web site ( now features views through two high-resolution cameras with live audio feed and a popular chat room, with contests to see who can be the first to read a license plate. The result is the street is now under constant surveillance, with viewers calling in crimes at the moment they occur.

Will a new camera in our neighborhood be a similar success?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Effect of Eli's Mile-High Club on crime in the neighborhood

One of the less intuitive assertions by Hearing Officer Barbara Killey, at the August 28th hearing to assess whether or not Eli's Mile High Club should receive a cabaret permit, was the concept that the club would be held responsible for all crime in the vicinity. Even if a crime occurred on someone else's property, during hours when the club was closed, it would be assumed to be due to the presence of the club. The rationale was that the club would attract people, and therefore criminals, to the area. However, statistics on crime in that neighborhood now indicate that the open club has little if any effect on criminal activity.

At the time, it strained credulity to believe that a business owner should be held accountable for criminal activities he neither condones nor profits from, by individuals he does not know, on property he does not own or control, even during hours when his business is closed. But the concept fit in perfectly with the City's anti-business posture that has spurred many community-serving establishments to flee Oakland for more friendly, neighboring communities. It also helped to expose the ongoing hyprocisy in a City that repeatedly funnels scarce resources into youth-oriented arts programs (most recently Measure OO) whose benefits are difficult to measure, while at the same time denying mature artists the venues, funding and programs that would allow the arts to flourish here. Now, however, crime statistics around Eli's make it clear that the presence of the club has no measurable effect on crime in the neighborhood--which, incidentally, is in police Beat 6, acknowledged through OPD measurement of "stressors" to be the most high-crime area in the City.

The "Crimewatch" tool at allows one to filter crime reports within 500 feet of an address, by month. Since the club reopened in early August, I searched for the crime reports in August, September and October, then compared them to June as a "control" month, when the club was closed. Compared to eight incidents logged in June, there were five in August, five in September and six in October. November is half over and there has only been one reported incident on Crimewatch. Obviously, there is no "blip" here, no spike in crime caused by the presence of an active business in the neighborhood.

Could it be time to admit that the City's anti-business stance is without merit, and grant the club the cabaret permit it seeks?

Sunday, October 5, 2008

City to update neighborhood zoning

The City of Oakland is updating zoning to conform to the General Plan adopted in 1998. This provides the opportunity to align zoning with the actual current uses on existing parcels, as well as to steer streets and neighborhoods toward optimal future uses, depending upon their location and needs. Public meetings were held on September 25th and October 4th to explain what the rezoning is and why it is being conducted now.

With the exception of quasi-commercial streets like Martin Luther King Jr Way, West MacArthur and parts of Market Street, our neighborhood is largely zoned currently as “R40 – Garden Apartment Residential”. This is a denser designation than would be the case for, say, single-family detached homes in the hills, but still allows only two dwellings per parcel. Should the neighborhood strive to preserve private open space (back yards), or should we aim to create more housing by increasing density?

In the 1940’s and early 1950’s, the City advertised itself nationwide as an “industrial garden”—where contented workers could live happily in modest bungalows, near plentiful jobs, enjoying beautiful weather in their backyard gardens. That dream quickly soured when wartime jobs evaporated, freeways and government subsidies drew skilled whites to the suburbs, property values declined and inner cities like Oakland became containment zones for the poor. In our neighborhood, many gardens have been paved over or lost to second (or third) units as absentee landlords attempt to squeeze additional income out of their investments. Shouldn’t we attempt to preserve what we have left?

Per a study by the Trust for Public Land, Oakland has 9.5 acres of parks and public land per 1,000 residents. By comparison, San Francisco has only 6.7 acres per 1,000.

The JAMMI neighborhood (Census Tract 4010), with less than seven acres of parks and public space for 5,709 residents, has about 1.22 acres per 1,000. We need to preserve our backyards to augment this open space.

Affordable housing advocates would point to the Association of Bay Area Governments’ affordable housing allocation for Oakland of 3,998 units affordable to low or very low income families to be created between 2007 and 2014. They might argue that higher density is needed to achieve affordable housing goals, regardless of the impact on our quality of life. They might point out that people today have more indoor recreational opportunities (cable, computers) and need parks less.

The R40 designation appears to have been widely abused. Many lots in the area have three or more units. When asked how zoning restrictions are enforced, Eric Angstadt acknowledged that there is only one inspector for the entire city, and legal actions take a long time. As additional units, legal or not, fill in the neighborhood year after year, more on-street parking is needed to support these units. If left unchecked, congestion increases and quality of life decreases.

Should we press for zoning that limits build-out, or should we encourage higher, denser residential properties? What types of commercial and retail should we encourage, and at what locations? Leave a comment here with your opinion. Let’s make our voices heard or others will decide the future of our neighborhood for us.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

What's to eat in JAMMI

Eli’s Mile High Club
Step into Eli’s on a sunny day and your eyes need a moment to adjust—the walls are painted matte black and the bar is dimly lit. On a Sunday afternoon, the place is deserted and it may take some doing to rouse a bartender. The bar seats ten on stools upholstered with a variety of red vinyl, none of it new. Small tables inside the club will seat perhaps two dozen; a similar number could find chairs in the backyard patio, half of which is covered. Photos and posters around the pool table recall perhaps grander days when the club was the “home of the West Coast blues,” as the tiled bar still proclaims. A proclamation the wall, from the administration of Mayor Elihu Harris, honors the late Troyce Key, who owned the club in its heyday. His legendary “orange booth” remains, but the orange vinyl is deeply torn.

The menu is limited to a “Tilamook cheddah burger” ($5), “battered fish and chips ($6), and a “bacon-wrapped hot dog” ($3), while a side order of fries is a buck. The bar offers a choice of 15 different beers, most imported, and well drinks, as well as Beck’s non-alcoholic beer ($4). During happy hour on Fri-Sun from noon to 5 pm, beer is $1 and well drinks $3. The place is open Mon-Thurs from 5 pm to 2 am, and Fri – Sun from noon to 2 am.

The Tilamook cheddah burger was not huge but was definitely tasty, and we would order it again. For an extra dollar, it came with a generous order of fries, which were freshly made and not greasy.

The battered fish and chips turned out to be three pieces of fish with fries. The fish was hot but a bit tough and chewy. The fries were great but not as ample as we got with the side order.

The jukebox offers an eclectic mix running from the Troggs to Sam Cooke to the Bleach Boys to Lowell Fulson. However, it was turned off; the sound system instead churned out some “alternative rock” at a volume that allowed conversation if one was determined to be heard.

In short, the place is a dive with a lot of atmosphere and history.

Eli’s Mile High Club is at 3629 Martin Luther King Jr. Way in JAMMI. Ample parking is available under the nearby freeway or by the park across the street. The MacArthur BART station is within a five-minute walk.

Las Palmas
Las Palmas Super Burrito and Seafood is a take-out restaurant specializing in Mexican cuisine. Generally, street parking is available in front of the door. A large glass-front window allows one to see who’s inside before you enter.

Upon entering, one orders at an ominously reinforced plexiglass window that probably wouldn’t stop a bullet, but serves as a barrier between the customer and the staff of four. Therefore, you may have to strain to be understood when placing your order. Corrugated aluminum wall decorations, partially covered with cement and accented with sporadic orange, diamond-shaped tiles, add to the edgy urban feel of the place, as do the exposed wiring and florescent lights. The paint job is purposely whimsical. A large brick-framed painting of Dr. Martin Luther King, wearing a gold watch, dominates one wall. A security camera is evident up near the ceiling, but the monitor is switched off.

Ten or twelve chairs at four small tables allow you some comfort while waiting for your order. In the corner, a small TV plays a Spanish-language station from atop the garbage bin.

Portions are huge enough to challenge even a ravenous teenager. Fortunately, the place also sells half-orders if asked. The menu is varied and prices generally fall under $10 per item, although large orders of fish run higher.

The burritos are a good bet, as the leftovers can be refrigerated for tomorrow’s lunch. The enchiladas were buried somewhere in a Styrofoam platter, under beans, rice, sour cream and the usual sauces. Having everything tossed in together kept one from enjoying the individual flavors. Somehow, the enchiladas weren’t as tasty as the burritos.

Las Palmas is at 3817 Market Street. For faster service, phone your order ahead at 547-1249. That may also free you from having to shoo away panhandlers who approach you while you wait or order. The restaurant is open from 11 to 9:30 Mon – Thu, and 11 to 10:30 on Fri – Sat.

Manzanita Restaurant
If you are in the mood for organic, vegan food, the Manzanita Restaurant is the place to go. Macrobiotic head chef and Kushi Institute graduate Julie Ong has created a unique and healthy dining experience.

While offering ample seating indoors, the restaurant also features an enclosed outdoor patio on quiet Linden Street, next to a wire mesh unicorn statue by Mardi Storm. I waited in a short line at the front counter to inform the maitre d’ I wanted lunch, expecting to be given a menu or a list of specials. Instead, his question was “large or moderate?” I chose moderate. He offered me some tea, which I gratefully accepted, and went to sit on the patio.

Soup was brought immediately. It was a satisfying lentil broth with a scattering of green onions and carrots. It was promptly followed by a five-course plate. A scoop of rice and bulgar wheat in the middle was circled by a salad of baby romaine with Tahini, summer vegetables with a turmeric sauce, black beans and a second leafy dish. Each was tasty and, combined, satisfied the appetite.

I later learned that the menu for each meal is posted daily on the website. On a later visit, I ordered the full meal, which was identical to the moderate selection except, of course, larger portions. This particular day featured Red Lentil Carrot Celery Soup, followed by a wheel of Rice-Millet-Quinoa Balls w/ Cashew-Spinach Sauce, surrounded by the spokes of Black Eyed Peas w/ Onions, Saute' Daikon, Carrots & Red Beets, Steamed Kale Greens and a Mixed Green Salad w/ Tahini-Mustard Dressing for $12.75. For those on a budget, a “simple meal” is offered for $8.25.

On the corner of 40th Street and Linden, the place is open seven days, serving lunch from 11:30 to 2:30 and dinner from 5:30 to 9:00.

Café Dejena
Café Dejena offers breakfast and lunch. The lunch menu consists primarily of standard fare such as soups, sandwiches, burgers, pastas, salads, with a handful of Eritrean dishes, and fruit smoothies added for the mildly adventurous. The Caesar salad was ample but hardly remarkable, romaine lettuce with croutons and grated cheese. The menu said “served with bread” but I didn’t find any. The presentation helped--on a green plate with a scattering of bits of purple cabbage around the edge. The Black Beauty smoothie contained berries and yoghurt; the straw was too tiny to handle the blackberry seeds.

Breakfasts are also unassuming, omelets and pastries. The Eritrean fit-fit was an interesting departure if you want “something else.” The Café provides a spot to loiter over expresso and pastry and chat with friends, also offering free Wifi service, and a large-window view of the busy intersection. The simple wood-seated chairs do not themselves invite one to linger, but two padded armchairs in the back are available and service is not rushed.

Café Dejena is located at 3939 Martin Luther King on the corner of 40th Street, and is open 7 – 5 on weekdays and 9 – 5 on weekends.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Cabaret hearing for Eli's club is inconclusive

The cabaret permit hearing for Eli’s Mile High Club, held August 28th at City Hall, was inconclusive. Various inspections need to be completed, testimony reviewed, and conditions proposed before any permit will be issued.

The twenty or so people in attendance appeared to be divided between Eli’s neighbors and those with some financial interest in the club (owners, employees, contractors, vendors, booking agents), with a few other interested parties thrown in. The half dozen immediate neighbors who attended expressed concerns about noise, parking, blocked driveways, loitering, rowdy behavior, tobacco smoke and misdeeds of prior owners. Sgt. Kyle Thomas of OPD voiced three concerns of the police department: diversion of resources to respond to problems typical of nightclubs, issues of compatible use with a club located in a residential neighborhood, and a concern the club would adversely boost crime statistics in the area (and thereby make Captain Toribio look bad). Supporters of the club pointed to its rich and long history as an entertainment venue and restaurant, the efforts the new owners are making to address residents’ concerns, and the jobs and tax revenue a successful nightclub would generate.

The new club owner, Geoffrey Melville, son of a blues musician, expressed his fervor to host live entertainment and his commitment to accommodate the neighbors to make it happen, while admitting a total lack of experience. Head of security Jason Herley, with some prior experience working at nightclubs back east, described the management’s response to recent incidents involving a blocked driveway, noise complaints and unruly behavior in a nearby park. The club will clear the patio area after 10 pm if it gets noisy, and will station doormen to monitor patrons as they exit. Plans are to have one security guard for every 45 patrons. Soundproofing professional Brian Hood stated that existing soundproofing had been poorly installed and that he would dramatically improve the noise situation, but that it was unrealistic to think that anything could completely block all noise.

Hearing Officer Barbara Killey questioned how club management would judge when the patio noise level was inappropriate or not. She rebuked property owner Mike McDonald for not taking responsibility for excesses allowed by previous club owners, and noted that the property owner was ultimately responsible for noise violations, with a $1,000 per day penalty possible. Mike’s note that he had spent some $80,000 in the past on soundproofing upgrades was brushed aside. Ms. Killey informed the owners that Oakland’s noise ordinance does not allow noise from a business to be heard over 50 feet away in any direction. She questioned the experience and capitalization of the new club owners and expressed doubt that a permit could be granted without a good track record being first established.

What was missing from the process was any sense of responsibility on the part of neighbors for their own welfare. Some houses in the area are over a hundred years old, with single-pane windows and no insulation—barely better than tents at blocking noise. The Hearing Officer stated that Eli’s must upgrade to meet current standards; the fact that it has offered entertainment for decades at that location in its current condition (or worse) is insufficient. But neighbors, apparently, have no responsibility to upgrade their own dwellings if they have problems with noise. Nor does one’s decision to live in a neighborhood in the shadow of a major freeway interchange, next to the BART tracks on a street with AC Transit buses, seem to bring with it any expectation that one should tolerate a high noise level.

It seems unlikely that a permit will be issued – or that the club will survive. A few neighbors are determined to close it down. The City’s attitude, as usual, is that businesses must meet ever higher standards regardless of cost, although City officials routinely wonder aloud why Oakland has little retail, a shrinking business tax base, and one of the nation’s highest percentages of consumer dollars spent in neighboring communities. The winners here may be a few close neighbors who bought property cheaply due to location, and likely will get a boost in value if condos are built on the land instead. The losers, as usual, will be the citizens of Oakland, who will lose an iconic cultural treasure.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

City graffiti clean-up fast but uncoordinated

Recently, a local resident documented 16 fresh “tags” that had appeared on Martin Luther King Jr. Way and reported them to the public works via their online form, as well as by e-mail to the public works call center. Most of the tags were painted over by Public Works within four business days.

To report graffiti, determine the address of the property, then call Public Works at 615-5566, or e-mail them at, or by filling out an online form. To find the online form, go to

However you report the problem, you will be given an incident number that you can use to inquire about progress in addressing your issue.

Councilmember Brunner’s office seemed confused about the scope of Public Works’ duties regarding graffiti. Copied on the request mentioned above, Ms. Brunner’s office (Geoffrey Johnson) contacted the resident who had reported the graffiti and stated that Public Works would not take action because the tags were on private property. Mr. Johnson volunteered to forward the matter to Code Enforcement, who would then determine who the property owners were, contact them, and give them 30 days to clean up their properties. That effort became moot within days, when Public Works painted over most of the graffiti.

A graffiti abatement supervisor at Public Works could not be reached for comment about the appropriate scope of Public Works’ efforts.

While the speed of Public Works response was excellent, the quality of their remediation was spotty. Frequently, colors were poorly matched. Graffiti that was clearly visible from the locations of reported tags, but which was not included in the complaint, was not addressed. Graffiti on brick or tile was not remediated.

Public Works needs to update their techniques for graffiti removal. The anti-graffiti industry has made significant strides in recent years. Simply painting over graffiti with poorly matched paint leaves our neighborhood a patchwork crazy-quilt of colors.

The City needs to initiate a program of prevention that incents business owners to apply graffiti-resistant coatings to high-risk areas. Various coatings and compounds are now available that allow most graffiti to be easily washed, wiped or scrubbed off.

For example, SEI’s GPA-200 Graffiti Proofer Anti-Stick claims to allow easy removal from brick or masonry surfaces. The surfaces must be blast-cleaned before sealants are applied.

Graffiti Solution’s MaxAll is a non-stick coating the manufacturer recommends for all surfaces except those with low-gloss paints.

American Polymers claims its Graffiti Solution System will last 25 years and is easily removable itself, yet protects various surfaces, including brick.

JJB Solutions sells Power-ite, a graffiti removal gel and other removers that it states are effective on a variety of surfaces.

Due to issues with color matching, painting over graffiti should be the last resort, not the de facto response. Public Works needs to move into the 21st Century and apply new methods. The City needs to work proactively with business owners to prevent and respond to graffiti attacks.