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.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

NCPC picks up ball dropped by Dellums

Last Fall, our City leaders announced with great fanfare that Beat 06X (including the area of JAMMI south of 40th St) and another beat in East Oakland had been selected for a special focus to fight crime and improve the neighborhood. Under the direction of the Mayor, City departments were to coordinate resources and work together to solve entrenched problems with a smorgasbord of City services. A committee (which included no community members) was said to be working on implementation. After a few months, nothing more was heard of the program.

The Beat 6 Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council has initiated what Mayor Dellums and his department heads seemed unable to do. On August 14th, the NCPC led a tour of Beat 6 for staff from various agencies. Along for the ride were representatives from CalTrans, Code Compliance, Public Works, OPD, the Alameda County Probation Office, Councilmember Nadel’s office, the Oakland Housing Authority, the West Oakland Project Area Committee and West Street Watch. (The Mayor’s Office was invited to send a representative, but no-one came.) Everyone piled into a van and took a two-hour ride, block by block, through most of the beat.

The group slowed or stopped frequently to discuss problems with individual properties, including graffiti, trash, illegal uses, weeds, crime, toxic contamination, vacant and boarded up conditions, untended yards, loitering, nuisances, potholes, dumping, abandoned cars, noise, stray animals, nonfunctioning streetlights, liquor stores, homeless encampments, litter, broken sidewalks, overflowing dumpsters, theft of recyclables, and the many other characteristics that blight our neighborhood. Participants were given clipboards to take notes, in the hope that the agencies represented would start to address specific conditions under their jurisdiction.

The fact that the leadership is coming from volunteer community members rather than paid elected leaders in itself is a sad comment on the current paralysis in Oakland City government.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Eli's Mile High Club re-opens--but will it rock?

Eli’s Mile High Club, 3629 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, which closed May 1st due to a rent dispute between then-club owner Sam Marshall and the property owners, has re-opened under new management. The club is open M-Th 5 pm – 2 am and Fri-Sun from noon to 2 am. The bar boasts cheap drinks on certain nights, as well as a tasty Tillamook cheddarburger and fries.

But will the club offer live music, as it has for much of the past 34 years? The answer will depend upon the City’s response to club owner Geoffrey Melville’s application for a cabaret permit. A hearing on the application will be held on Thursday, August 28th at 3 pm in City Hall Hearing Room 2.

Several neighbors of the club are opposed to the granting of the permit. One neighbor writes, “The last thing we want is loud shows, loud patrons, no parking and all the other BS that comes with this type of venue.” However, this neighbor predicts “If the club is run well, adequately sound proofed and supplied patron parking they would have no complaints from me and most of the neighbors.”

Another neighbor near the club is taping the late-night noise from patrons’ voices, as heard in his bathroom, to demonstrate the noise impact on his privacy. Much of the neighbors’ ire references transgressions of previous club owners, who apparently ignored valid concerns and allegedly violated various city ordinances.

The club has a rich history as the “home of the West Coast blues,” and in the 1980’s was patronized by celebrities who came to hear national blues artists. It is located in the shadow of the MacArthur freeway maze, and is across the street from the BART railroad tracks. Two AC transit lines run on MLK from 6 AM until as late as midnight—it's a noisy location by any reasonable standard.

Club manager Jason is hopeful that the neighbors will choose to work with the club’s management to find satisfactory solutions to their valid concerns. When discussing these issues recently with a local resident, he pointed out thick soundproofing, said to cost $50,000, that had been installed around the stage some years back in an attempt to alleviate the noise problem. It will be augmented, Jason said, by rubber floor mats that may help to absorb the bass. Jason plans to hold a community meeting at the club in advance of the cabaret permit hearing, to air neighbors’ concerns and start a dialogue to address those issues.

A member of the West Oakland Project Area Committee has suggested that redevelopment funds could be used to further soundproof the club, if indeed noise from inside the club is a valid concern and if soundproofing would effectively resolve the noise issue. City staff responded that such improvements might be considered under the Tenant Improvement Program, but at best the City would only pay half the cost. Other ideas that community members have offered are purchase of a large lot adjacent to the club for parking, limiting hours of operation or ages of patrons, and running a shuttle to BART or another parking lot.

If the club closes, it might well result in yet another boarded-up target for copper thieves, returning neither cultural value to the community, nor business tax revenue to the City. It would seem to be in the best interest of the community to find solutions that would make this historic club a community benefit.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Bike lanes on 40th Street--will they happen?

The City of Oakland’s Bicycle Master Plan of 2007 calls for Class 2 bike lanes on 40th Street between Adeline and MLK (among other places). This route lies within the West Oakland Redevelopment Project Area.

Currently, the street consists of a parking lane, six feet wide; a traffic lane, 12 feet wide; a second traffic lane, 14 feet wide; then the 16 foot median, then the two similar traffic lanes and parking lanes going in the other direction. The total street width, therefore, is 80 feet, not including sidewalks and curbs.

A recent MacArthur BART bicycle access study evaluated alternatives for bicycle routes to and from the BART station. In February 2008, the City of Oakland’s Transportation Services Division released results of this study funded by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. This synopsis states “On 40th St between Market St and Webster St, the study recommends narrowing the 16-foot median by six feet to add bicycle lanes while maintaining two travel lanes in each direction.[1]

The proposal calls for trimming the median by six feet, three feet on each side, leaving a ten foot median.

The minimum width for a travel lane on a street with buses is 11 feet; 12 feet is preferable[2]. The City of Oakland Bicycle Master Plan states that “with parallel parking, the bicycle lane must be at least 5’ wide and the parking lane at least 7’ wide.”

So, the minimum street width in each direction is: 7 feet for parking, 5 feet for the bicycle lane, 11 feet each for two traffic lanes equals 34 feet in each direction.

Therefore, the plan will increase the parking lane from six feet wide to seven feet. It will add a five foot bike lane. It will trim the first car lane from 12 feet to 11 feet and the second car lane from 14 feet to 11 feet. It will trim three feet off each side of the 16 foot median.

We should support this proposal for many reasons:

The street is already an informal bicycle route to and from MacArthur BART. Striping dedicated bike lanes will make bicycle travel on the street safer.

Reducing the width of auto lanes has been demonstrated to calm traffic. People drive slower in narrower lanes.

Twelve of the 14 street trees in the median along this particular stretch should be able to be preserved. Only two trees will likely need to be removed due to shrinking the median from 16 feet to 10 feet.

Widening the parking lane and adding the bike lane will have the effect of pushing auto traffic away from the curb. It currently is dangerous to get into a parked car when traffic is flowing on the street. It will be safer if the moving cars are six feet farther away from the parked cars.

The sidewalk on much of 40th Street is absurdly narrow for the amount of pedestrian traffic on the street[3]. While this proposal does not directly address this shortcoming, it makes it safer for pedestrians to step into the street to avoid other pedestrians and to walk around cars parked in driveways[4]. It also will reduce the number of bicycles using the sidewalk.

The additional six feet of space between the curb and the first traffic lane will make it easier and safer for cars to park and to enter and exit garages.

Per Hui-Chang Li of the Community and Economic Development Agency (“CEDA”), West Oakland redevelopment funds could be used for bike lanes on the south side of 40th Street between Adeline and MLK[5], but not the north side, because the project area ends at 40th Street. Jason Patton, a Program Analyst with CEDA’s Planning and Zoning Services, estimates that some $250,000 might be needed to create the bike lane on the south side of 40th Street within the West Oakland Project Area[6].

CEDA anticipates tackling the entire project at once, not proceeding in phases. Therefore, design activities need to occur first, and construction is not likely to begin before 2010. It is anticipated that funding will come from multiple sources, including grants, redevelopment funds and BART station access funds.

Considering that the number of pedestrians using 40th Street to go to and from BART currently outnumbers the number of bicyclists, it would be prudent to ask if pedestrian improvements could or should be a part of the project as well. Undergrounding the utilities, which are on the same, heavily trafficked side of the street as the BART station, would free up sidewalk space for pedestrian movement.

(Due to the presence of utility poles, at many points on the south side of 40th Street the available sidewalk width is barely 3 feet, not the “6 to 15 feet” width that the Oakland Bicycle Master Plan trumpets as the typical sidewalk width in the City.)

[1] MacArthur BART Bicycle Access Study, City of Oakland, February 2008, p. 2.
[2] (This is per the minutes of the Oakland Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Advisory Committee, 11/17/05.)
[3] The sidewalk is frequently 60” in width, not counting the curb. The Oakland Bicycle Master Plan draft EIR, March 2007, states “Sidewalks and walkways generally range from 6 to 15 feet in width. . .” (p. 4.A-1) and they don’t count the curb. So why is the 40th Street sidewalk only 60” wide?
[4] “Bicycle Lanes (Class 2) provide an added buffer between the sidewalk and the motor vehicle travel lanes.” Oakland Bicycle Master Plan, p. 4.A-17
[5] Specifically, the West Oakland Project Area’s northeastern boundary is one parcel west of the intersection of 40th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way. The Café Dejena building is in the Broadway/MacArthur/San Pablo redevelopment area.
[6] The entire project includes, of course, the bike lane on the north side of 40th St., but also bike lanes on 41st Street to Piedmont Avenue, and bike lanes on West MacArthur Blvd. Between Highway 24 and Broadway. Total estimated cost of the project is $800,000.

Friday, August 1, 2008

OHA's Step in the Right Direction

Greetings JAMMI!

Oakland has 254 scattered Oakland Housing Authority (OHA) public housing sites (not referring to Section 8). Many of these small public housing properties like those of your typical 4-unit complexes are strewn across all of Oakland, but especially in the flatlands. OHA recognizes the challenge of managing so many properties with limited number of staff from their OHA Police, Maintenance, and other supporting departments. As a result, many of these properties are currently blighted, crime-infested cancers that plague our communities.

West Street Watch (WSW) experienced two of these poorly managed buildings that housed and attracted significant drug and other illegal activities. Through a tedious and lengthy process, OHA was forced by WSW actions to evict the drug dealers and rehabilitate the deteriorated buildings. Our community, like all Oakland communities, deserve peace and should not need to take such extreme measures to resolve OHA problems.

WSW is encouraged to see new OHA leadership like Eric Johnson take control and move to create positive changes. One of his initiatives is to request from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to remove a restriction tied to OHA public housing properties that require that they be used solely for public housing. As reported by Mr. Johnson at the NCPC Beat 6X July 24th meeting, removing the restriction will allow OHA to consolidate the number of their properties that they would have to manage. Possibilities include demolishing some properties or selling others to developers. Furthermore, any displaced OHA public housing tenants will be provided Section 8 vouchers which can be used throughout all of the United States, excluding Hawaii.

WSW believes that OHA is taking a step in the right direction. WSW supports this innovative idea to reduce the number of scattered, uncontrollable OHA public housing properties. This will result in a manageable number of remaining properties. Please see below this post OHA's Frequently Asked Questions. A draft Application can be found at:

Please provide your endorsing comments to remove the public housing requirement to Ann Dunn, OHA Senior Policy Analyst at Comments are due September 6, 2008 and will aid in the approval of OHA’s application to HUD.


Regarding the Planned Disposition of Public Housing Scattered Sites

Question: What does Disposition mean?

Response: Disposition is the transfer or sale of a property from one entity to another. For the purpose of the proposed scattered site disposition, OHA plans to sell the scattered site properties to a non-profit corporation. The non-profit will be an affiliate of the Oakland Housing Authority and the Oakland Housing Authority Board of Commissioners will have a role in the decision making process with regard to the properties in the future.

Question: Why is the Oakland Housing Authority considering the disposition of its scattered site units?

Response: To increase and preserve the affordable housing opportunities for low-income families in Oakland. Over the last several years, the Oakland Housing Authority has received far less money from HUD to operate its public housing units than the actual cost of operating such units. One major goal of removing the units from the public housing program is to have enough income from Section 8 to manage, maintain and repair the properties.

Question: Why is OHA going to transfer the units to a non-profit corporation?

Response: The transfer of ownership to an affiliated non-profit organization is a necessary step to take the units out of the public housing program. The OHA Board of Commissioners will still have a role in making decisions about the properties.

Question: Why is ORA submitting a Disposition Application first and then submitting a request for vouchers only if the Disposition Application is approved? Why not ask HUD for both disposition approval and vouchers at the same time?

Response: HUD regulations require that the request for Section 8 vouchers be made only after a Disposition Application has been approved.

Question: What is the timeline for the disposition process and how soon will OHA know whether its application to HUD has been approved?

Response: There is no way to predict how long HUD may take to respond to the Disposition Application. As a very rough estimate, OHA has been advised that it may take three months or more before there is a decision. If HUD approves our application, it may be another year, or more, before vouchers are issued.

Question: What happens i f HUD does not approve the Disposition Application?

Response: If HUD does not approve of the disposition application, the units will remain in the public housing program and nothing will change.

Question: What happens if HUD does approve the Disposition Application but does not approve the request for Section 8 vouchers?

Response: OHA is making clear in its application to HUD that it will not move forward with the disposition if Section 8 vouchers are not provided. If the disposition application is approved, but the request for vouchers is not, OHA will not move forward with the disposition and the units will remain as public housing.

Question: If the disposition application is approved, and vouchers are issued, will current residents of the scattered site properties be required to move?

Response: No! No one will be required to relocate. Any family in good standing (current on their rent and in compliance with their lease) who wishes to remain in their unit after vouchers have been issued may do so.

Question: Who will be responsible for the management and maintenance of the units after the disposition?

Response: The non-profit corporation will be responsible for management and maintenance of the units.

Question: What do scattered site residents need to do now to get a voucher?

Response: There is nothing that needs to be done now. There is no application to complete, nor is it necessary to get on a waiting list.

Question: What if scattered site residents missed the public meetings where the disposition application was discussed? Will this hurt their chance of getting a Section 8 voucher?

Response: The purpose of the public meetings is to share information about the planned disposition and to hear resident feedback. Attendance at the meetings is not required and missing the meetings will not affect your ability to get a voucher in the future.

Question: If a family decides to stay in their current scattered site unit after they have been issued c Section 8 voucher, will the family be responsible for additional costs?

Response: No. Currently public housing residents are responsible to pay for their PG&E bill and OHA pays for water and Waste management (trash) costs. This will not change if vouchers are issued.

Question: What resources will the Oakland Housing Authority provide to families who wish to move after vouchers are issued?

Response: For a period of time after vouchers have been issued, OHA will pay for reasonable moving expenses for any family who wishes to move.
Question: If a resident chooses to move, will OHA provide money for security deposits?

Response: OHA will not provide money for security deposits_ OHA will provide information about organizations that may help with security deposits, but residents should be aware that help with security deposits is very limited. If a family remains in their current unit, no additional security deposit will be required.

Question: If a family decides to stay in their current scattered site unit after they have been issued a Section 8 voucher will their rent increase?

Response: Like public housing, Section 8 rent is based on income. However, unlike public housing, there are no flat rents in the Section 8 program. If a family decides to stay in their current scattered site unit, OHA will continue to calculate rent utilizing the public housing formula, including using flat rents. If the family later decides to move to a non-OHA unit, the Section 8 formula will be used to determine rent, which may result in a higher or lower rent amount, depending on the family's income and the rent of the new unit.

Question: What will happen to families who are not eligible for Section 8 vouchers?

Response: Any family in good standing (current on their rent and in compliance with their lease) who is not eligible for Section 8, or for whatever reason does not want to participate in the Section 8 program, will be provided the choice of moving to another public housing unit outside of the scattered site inventory or remaining in their current unit with a lease and rent amount determined under the rules of public housing. OHA will work with each family to ensure they understand all their options and make an informed decision.

Question: What are reasons a family may not be eligible for Section 8?

Response: Families in good standing (current on their rent and in compliance with their lease) with income that is at or below the income limit for the Public Housing Program (80% of AMI) will be eligible for the Section 8 Voucher. The Section 8 Program is generally limited to families earning up to 50% of AMI, but because scattered site residents will be treated as "continuing participants" OHA will be able to provide vouchers up to the 80% AMI limit. A family with income above 80% of AMI will not be eligible for Section 8. If this is the case, OHA will provide the family the choice of moving to another public housing unit or remaining in their current unit with a lease and rent utilizing the public housing formula, including using flat rents. Any resident who is not in good standing (not current on their rent or not in compliance with the terms of their lease) will not be eligible for Section 8. OHA encourages any family who is not currently in good standing to work with their property manager to resolve any issues, including entering into a repayment agreement for any back rent owed to OHA.

Question: How will OHA decide who gets the vouchers first? Is there a waiting listfor the residents of the scattered site units for the vouchers?
Response: OHA does not know at this point if HUD will provide vouchers all at once or will provide vouchers over several federal budget years. If vouchers are issued over time, OHA will develop a process for implementing the program property by property, based on the number of vouchers received as well as the physical needs of the property.

Question: How will residents know if and when the disposition application is approved and if and when Section 8 vouchers are awarded by HUD?

Response: OHA will keep residents informed of the status of the application process through notices to all scattered site residents when anything significant occurs. These notices will also be posted on the OHA website.

Question: If a family is given a Section 8 voucher, will it be for the same size unit as the family lives in currently?

Response: Vouchers are issued based on the current size of the household. If you choose to move with your voucher, your new voucher will be issued for your current household size, and any over or under housing of households will be corrected then. Families will be briefed to explain that they may have some flexibility for renting different sized units under Section 8.

Question: What will happen to families who have adult children living in the unit when the vouchers are issued? Will OHA issue more than one voucher per family?

Response: OHA will only receive one voucher per household. The voucher will be available only to the head of household on the current lease.

Question: Once (and if) the vouchers are issued, will families using them have to stay in Oakland?

Response: The vouchers will be like any other Section 8 vouchers. Once received, families will be able to move anyplace where vouchers are accepted (currently, any state in the United States, except Hawaii).

Question: Is the Oakland Housing Authority reopening its waiting list for the Section 8 Program?

Response: OHA is not reopening the Section 8 waiting list at this time.

Question: After disposition, who will be eligible to live in the units once a unit becomes vacant?

Response: Currently the units are available to families earning up to 80% of Area Median Income (AMI) (currently, 80% of AMI is $66,250 for a family of four). After disposition, the units will be further restricted to families earning up to 60% of AMI. Any family currently living in the units and earning over 60% of AMI will be allowed to stay in the unit, or to transfer to another public housing unit. Once units become vacant, any future occupants will be restricted to the 60% of AMI income limit. As units become vacant, OHA will provide first priority to families with Section 8 vouchers and may utilize project-based Section 8 resources to keep the units affordable.

Question: In the long term, what does the Oakland Housing Authority plan to do with the scattered site properties?

Response: Over the next five to ten years, or perhaps longer, OHA will look at each property on an individual basis to determine what options there are to preserve, repair or replace the scattered site units. Any future planning for the scattered site units will be done through a public process and witl resident consultation. In addition, the OHA Board of Commissioners will have a role in approving any plans for the scattered site properties.

Friday, July 11, 2008

OPD proposes surveillance camera system

The Oakland Police Department plans to pilot a new surveillance camera system in West Oakland. But the cameras will be part of a closed network that the community will not be able to access.

Nearly a year ago, the West Oakland Project Area Committee (“WOPAC”), an elected body of community volunteers who advise the city on redevelopment matters, recommended the City fund ten cameras for a year with $200,000 of redevelopment funds. The cameras, which had been requested by police lieutenant Paul Berlin, were envisioned as being movable cameras that could be used by both the police and civilians to view “hot-spot” intersections within the West Oakland project area and monitor possible criminal activity there. Lt. Berlin subsequently retired, the proposal disappeared into the bureaucracy for “evaluation,” and the funding remained earmarked but not approved by the City Council.

On July 9, 2008, Lt. Freddie Hamilton and Sgt. Ron Elders of OPD, Andrew Hopkins of Finance & Management and an OPD technician approached the WOPAC to present OPD’s new vision for use of security cameras. Declaring the previously proposed system as ineffective due to the lack of funding for staff to monitor the cameras, poor resolution on the cameras that had been proposed, and experiences in other communities, the team proposed an alternate system modeled on systems used in Philadelphia, New York and Chicago. The proposed system would use very high resolution cameras to facilitate identification of suspects, ability to read license plates, and positive recognition of drugs and weapons. The cameras would be able to be controlled by police officers remotely, without lag or delay. Two types of cameras would be used: some fixed, others easily moveable. The cameras would record images that would be stored for seven to 14 days. Four staff members would be funded who would be dedicated to monitoring the cameras. The goal is to implement the pilot by March 2009.

The cameras, however, would not be accessible by community groups or the general public. They would be part of a dedicated wireless network, not the internet. In Sgt. Elders’ words, “DOJ would cut us off” if the public had access to the cameras. Merchants would be encouraged to sponsor other cameras, but could not control them.

If the pilot is successful and the program is implemented city-wide, the cost will be $5.8MM, with $800,000 in annual recurring costs. $2.5MM would be spent to turn the Eastmont Police Station into an electronic monitoring center. A WiMax network would be built to transmit the video at an initial cost of $3.0MM and an annual cost of $300,000. The four new staff required to monitor the system would cost $330,189 per year.

WOPAC members expressed concern that public input should be encouraged to determine placement of the security cameras. The proposed locations, marked by yellow “C”s, appear on a map provided by OPD. Lt. Hamilton volunteered to return to the WOPAC regularly with updates on the camera deployment, location and effectiveness. Evaluation of the effectiveness of the system would be formally conducted a year following implementation.

On a motion by Bruce Beasley, the WOPAC voted unanimously to support OPD’s proposal, with an invitation to OPD to return quarterly or as needed to report on progress of the initiative.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Is housing really becoming less affordable?

Is housing in JAMMI less affordable than it used to be?

No-one questions how unaffordable housing has become, and now food prices are skyrocketing. We are told that people are being priced out of Oakland. But is life really less affordable than it was, say, 25 years ago?

The US census tells us that, in 1979, the median income in Oakland for a household was $13,780. The City’s official median income in 2006, for a family of four, was $82,200. If we trust these figures, incomes are now six times what they were 27 years ago.

To see if prices have really outpaced incomes, I checked locally advertised food prices, rental listings, and property sales in Oakland in May of 2008 compared to 1983. To get the 1983 figures, I reviewed microfilm of the Oakland Tribune for various weeks in 1983. For the 2008 prices, I scoured the Oakland Tribune as well as online sources. Here’s what I found:

For-sale property: prices of residential property, prices have risen 5 to 6 times in 25 years.

Rental property: rents are three times what they were 25 years ago.

Food: Groceries are about double what they were back then.

The obvious conclusion is that we are living better and more cheaply now than we did in 1983. Prices in all categories have risen less than incomes!

Don’t believe me? I could hardly believe it myself. No wonder, the media and politicians have been beating the drum of affordable housing for so long, we forget to say “show me.” Well, here are the details from my own little study.

For housing, I concentrated on North Oakland and West Oakland, to the extent possible. Back in 1983, the Tribune was the place to look for previously occupied houses for sale, and North and West Oakland were lumped into the category “west of Broadway.”

For Sale................. 1983........... 2008...... Increase
2 bdrm (avg of 5) $82,100... $416,970...... 508%
Duplex (avg of 4) $96,875... $560,000...... 578%

For rental units, a good current source is the OHA website listings for Section 8, where “market rate” rents are shown. I was able to easily identify properties in our neighborhood. The source for 1983 rents, again, was the Tribune.

Rental Units..................... 1983.......... 2008....... Increase
studio rental (avg of 5) $268.00..... $701.00....... 262%
1 bdrm rental (avg of 7) $302.86.... $812.00....... 268%
2 bdrm rental (avg of 5) $433.00. $1,234.50 .......285%

Groceries were fun because I compared the advertised sale prices in newspaper inserts from 1983 and 2008. In many cases, the identical item was shown. One glaring example: Safeway recently had Yoplait yoghurt on sale for 50 cents each. In 1983, a sale advertised the same product for 49 cents each. Yoghurt lovers are doing well these days.

Item ..................................................1983.......... 2008...... Increase
Tomatoes, 1 lb............................ $0.59........... $0.77...... 131%
Navel oranges, 1 lb..................... $0.40........... $0.69..... 173%
Crest toothpaste, per ounce...... $0.18............ $0.71...... 393%
AA Energizer batteries, 4 pack.. $2.19.... ....$2.90..... 132%
Kingsford charcoal, per pound. $0.28.......... $0.59...... 212%
Bacon (1 lb)................................ $1.59........... $3.00 ......189%
Yoplait yoghurt (6 oz).............. $0.49........... $0.50 .......102%
Pineapple................................. $1.69 .............$2.99 .......177%
Doritos Tortilla chips (per oz). $0.12 ...........$0.24...... 194%
Ground chuck (per pound)...... $1.89........... $1.60 ........85% (a decrease!)
Welch's grape juice (64 oz)...... $2.38........... $3.00..... 126%
MJB coffee (1 lb)....................... $1.99........... $5.99..... 301%
Post cereal ....................................$1.57........... $4.99 ........318%

Yes, my survey was unscientific and the housing samples were small. But I made no attempt to skew the numbers. I was as surprised as you are!

So, the next time someone tells you how unaffordable anything is these days, ask for corroboration. Yes, prices have shot up in recent years. But maybe that is just a correction because we had it so good in the Clinton era.

Friday, June 13, 2008

WOPAC goes "all in" with millions for empty lot

In a local version of funding the Bridge to Nowhere, the WOPAC approved spending $3,900,000 of your tax dollars to support a project many believe will never be built.

The project in question would erect 109 units of housing for persons of moderate income at 1396 5th Street, near the West Oakland BART station. The project site is significant to some WOPAC members because it is the former site of Red Star Yeast, a business that emitted foul odors for decades, limiting development possibilities nearby. It is a small patch of dirt – less than one acre – next to the freeway, and is known to have toxic issues. But additional funding for the $48MM project, while essential, is extremely problematic. The plan calls for an additional $18MM from the City’s NOFA funds. Marge Gladman of the Housing Department informed the WOPAC prior to their vote that total Notice of Funding Availability (“NOFA”) funds available in the coming year, for all housing projects citywide, would total only $16MM. $18MM for this one project will not be available from that source.

The project has already failed to win funding from the State of California’s Transit-Oriented Development Housing Program, on May 9th, and also was turned down by the State’s Infill Infrastructure Grant Program on May 23rd. While the developer has positioned his request for WOPAC support as necessary for appealing those decisions, the deadlines for filing documented appeals has passed, and the NOFA was heavily oversubscribed and highly competitive. The LLC that owns the land has gone bankrupt, and their former plan to build market-rate housing has been shelved. A new LLC was created to rescue the developers’ investments by constructing affordable housing at public expense. Few on the WOPAC expect, or even want, this affordable housing to be built. The WOPAC’s underlying intent is to purchase the site in order to control whatever eventually is constructed there. But there is no actual plan other than the affordable housing currently on the table.

A key motivation for several WOPAC members was the developer’s assertion that a builder from L.A. had offered $3.9MM for the property, with the intention of building low-income senior housing on the site. Members felt a site near a BART station was more suited to market-rate housing. WOPAC member Jabari Herbert stated that, as a developer, he had interests in multiple projects in the vicinity of the project site, and that a low-income housing project would have an adverse effect on those other projects. Mr. Herbert did not recuse himself, however, due to conflict of interest. Instead, Mr. Herbert voted with the WOPAC to purchase the property.

WOPAC co-chair Larry Rice was the only member to vote against the proposal.

The WOPAC currently has only $1,246,805 at their disposal. The bulk of the $3,900,000 would come from anticipated tax revenues for the 2008-2009 fiscal year. In other words, the WOPAC is going “all in” and committing most of your available redevelopment tax dollars for the coming year to purchase a Brownfields site for housing that won’t be built.

The land must be appraised and the City Council must approve the funding before money is actually spent.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

ProArts Open Studios event spotlights local artists

For the annual ProArts “Open Studio” event, several JAMMI artists have opened their doors and let the public in to view their work. The event continues Saturdays and Sundays through June 15th.

Jamie Treacy, at 733 37th Street near West, works in acrylic and watercolor. I was confused at first how to enter—it’s the ground level apartment with door in front, not up the stairs. Jamie graciously welcomed me into his apartment and studio. Originally from Michigan, Jamie came to Oakland to get his Master’s at California College of the Arts. Following that, he spent six months in Oaxaca, Mexico, an experience which has influenced his work. His paintings are dense gardens of images derived from settings captured digitally, then embellished with fanciful additions. One series presents objects and arrangements found in junkyards, again filtered through his imagination. Jamie teaches art at Unity High School near Seminary Avenue in East Oakland.

A visit to Alba Studios, at 4219 Martin Luther King Jr Way, was a potpourri of different presentations. Upon entering through the big wooden door, I was greeted by the voice of Benny Alba behind a wall of black plastic dropcloth. By the time I had signed in, Jennifer Downey had emerged to show me her self-portraits in acrylic against vague, foggy landscapes from Point Reyes. Jennifer is from Sonoma originally, which was reflected in the golden hills and foggy trees that formed a backdrop to repeated perspectives of a woman’s head (usually her own). Jennifer takes figure drawing classes, which helps to explain the focus of her work.

I entered the next area through a slit in the black plastic dropcloth and found myself in a pitch-black space with Benny Alba and someone else. Benny handed me a flashlight and instructed me to shine it around the walls. Doing so revealed various quotations under murky paintings of trees and moonlit nights. Benny offered that the exhibit was really meant to be seen with the lights on, but I did not take her up on her offer, instead moving on to a lit area where a display case contained glass enamel-on-copper doubloons and pieces of 8.

The studio then opened up into a cavernous area with huge, unpainted wooden beams and some natural light. To the right were bright-eyed, colorful paintings by Lynda Hickox Robinson. Toward the back were more examples of glass enamel on copper by Benny Alba, this time squares and rectangles with depictions of birds or abstracts. Up a solidly constructed wooden stairs, I found delicate jewelry, glass beads and colorful glass-enameled copper dishes by Miriam Jewell.

Many other artists have exhibits during this time. Read the full listing at the ProArts website.

MacArthur BART Transit Village developers bow to neighborhood concerns

As recently proposed, the MacArthur BART Transit Village would have eliminated 300 of the 600 parking spaces currently available to BART patrons. Neighbors feared that commuters would park in surrounding neighborhoods, reducing available parking for residents and increasing traffic congestion.

In response to those concerns, the plan has been modified to construct at least 100 additional parking spaces in the planned BART garage. Additionally, parking in one of the four residential structures will be “unbundled” freeing 30 spaces for use by BART patrons. And, for up to five years, valet parking to an offsite location will be offered for an additional 50 vehicles.

The number of parking spaces available to carshare programs will be doubled, from four to eight. The developer will work with local transit agencies to explore providing free shuttle service on the 40th Street corridor to Emeryville.

The developer will commit up to $150,000 to establish a residential parking permit program within a half-mile radius of the transit village. On-street parking by non-residents would be limited to two hours during weekdays.

Bicyclists will benefit from 40 short-term and 160 long-term bicycle parking spaces, as well as an on-site bicycle repair facility. A feasibility study will be conducted to explore creating a long-term bicycle parking facility in the commercial space or the parking garage.

Shown: the MacArthur BART parking lot, where the Transit Village will be built.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

City seeks to bail out fat-cat developer

The City of Oakland is negotiating with a fat-cat developer, who defaulted on an $800,000 city loan, to pay the developer up to $740,000 more to acquire a parcel valued at $950,000.

The City is willing to pay a premium to preserve the land for affordable housing. Neighborhood residents are not all thrilled with the idea. The root problem is that City rules concerning subsidies of affordable housing render viable only projects that are massive, cheaply constructed and high-density. Not many parcels are large enough and cheap enough to support housing under these restrictions; not many neighborhoods welcome such projects.

Rather than bail out developers who have City Hall contacts, isn’t a better solution to fix the funding restrictions so they support small-scale, well-designed affordable housing in a variety of neighborhoods?

Here’s the story: 3801-3807 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, corner of West MacArthur, used to house “Terry’s Sound House,” a TV repair shop, with apartments above and an old house nearby. Some years back the store closed – a long-time resident states it was because Terry allegedly murdered his wife – and the property lay vacant for awhile.

Along came the Broadway/MacArthur/San Pablo redevelopment area (“BMSP”), created in 2000. In the eyes of housing staff, the site was perfect for affordable housing: the land was relatively cheap, it was on the very edge of the redevelopment area, and in a neglected neighborhood of empty lots, drug dealers and run-down properties. Several iterations of housing proposals targeted the site, in combination with two adjacent empty parcels, one of which was City-owned and the other owned by Larry Taylor’s Community Development Corporation of Oakland ("CDCO").

In 2003, 53 units of senior housing were proposed, but were rejected for funding under the annual Notice of Funding Availability (“NOFA”). Enter Oakland Community Housing Inc. (“OCHI”), a non-profit that the City had previously funded $4,860,000 to for management of the California Hotel (residents of which sued OCHI in 2005 about rats and bedbugs). CDCO and OCHI proposed 33 units of senior housing on the two adjacent empty lots; 3801 MLK was left out of the proposal, which depended upon funding by HUD. The BMSP project area committee (“PAC”) approved the proposal.

The MLK Senior Homes project was denied funding in the 2004 NOFA, despite a letter of support from the PAC. In 2005, City NOFA funding was awarded but HUD would not fund the project.

In September 2006, OCHI and CDCO joined forces with mammoth regional developer AF Evans to form Grove Park LLC. In the red-hot housing market that prevailed at that time, this development team proposed building 60 units of affordable, for-sale housing on the three parcels. The City subsequently loaned the developers $800,000 under the “VHARP” program, to purchase the 3801 MLK site. At that time, the parcel owner was asking over $1,000,000 for the property, but the City did not have enough VHARP funds to cover the entire asking price. In January 2007, the MBSP PAC approved a project of 58 for-sale affordable units. Grove Park LLC borrowed an additional $740,000 from private sources to cover remaining acquisition and predevelopment costs. The City agreed that the private lender would have the first lien on the property and the City would have only a second lien.

By this time, the housing market was in a downward spiral. In March 2007 City staff did not recommend the project for NOFA funding, stating that it did not meet NOFA criteria. On March 20th, 2007, the City Council Rules Committee sweetened the pot by recommending that CDCO get $141,000 as a “forgivable loan” and that the City’s subsidy of the affordable units be increased from 40% to 50%. However, in May it was announced that the City Council did not approve the project for NOFA funding.

Subsequently, Grove Park LLC did not reapply for NOFA funding, and defaulted on the $800,000 City loan they had been given only months earlier. CDCO, meanwhile, stopped making timely payments, according to Housing staff, on a $52,000 site acquisition loan they had been given earlier to purchase the adjacent parcel. OCHI went bankrupt. CDCO is attempting to raise cash by selling a nearby parcel at 3881 MLK.

In January of 2008, the MBSP PAC voted to authorize staff to offer Grove Park LLC up to $740,000 more taxpayer funds to pay off the bank loan and, therefore, allow the City, as second lien holder, to take possession of the 3801-07 MLK parcel. In effect, therefore, taxpayers would be paying as much as $1,540,000 (the $800,000 original loan plus $740,000 more in cash) for a parcel whose market value had fallen to $950,000. The development team would walk with no loss whatsoever from the failed venture. Staff justified this proposal by stating that it was necessary to keep the three parcels assembled in order for future affordable housing at the site to be viable. The individual parcels were “too small to develop as a project on their own but would allow for a feasible project if combined with 3801-3807 MLK.” Staff separately opined that “small-scale affordable housing projects with less than 40 units are not very feasible to finance.”

Even Terry’s TV repair could tell us that there’s something wrong with this picture. Massive, cheaply-built low-income developments have been proven to be a disaster: witness the social problems associated with Acorn, Campbell Village and Cypress Gardens. City policy should be geared toward making small-scale, high-quality, affordable and inclusionary housing a success. Affordable projects should be architecturally noteworthy and built to last, gracing, rather than blemishing, their surrounding communities.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

MacArthur BART Transit Village: Boon or Bane?

The final environmental impact report (“EIR”) for the MacArthur BART Transit Village has just been released. For those recently paroled or emerging from comas, the transit village is expected to be built on the BART parking lot between Telegraph, Highway 24, 40th Street and West MacArthur, in the Temescal neighborhood. It will create some 675 dwelling units as well as commercial space. What the project will not include is any open space or parkland.

Two basic questions emerge: Is increased density beneficial and, if so, whom does it benefit? And, for whom is a transit village a benefit at that location?

The responses to the EIR comprise much of the document. Respondents fall into four categories: public agencies, people directly affected by the project, people from the area not directly affected, and others with an axe to grind. The people directly affected express concern over loss of light, trees, parking. Residents a bit further away, not directly affected, offer support for the project. Several of the responses perpetuate myths that obfuscate honest answers to the two questions posed above.

Is increased density beneficial? Frequently, proponents of inner-city urban density decry the loss of farmland and “greenbelt” open space as urban areas sprawl ever farther from their core. Freeway congestion and resulting pollution, we are told, will be alleviated by developing high-density projects at transit hubs. And the stress on wildlife and natural resources would be lessened if we all just stayed inside the anthill.

I do not know where such proponents live, so I have no justification for my suspicion that they reside in comfortable homes on quiet, low-density side-streets in communities like Berkeley, Piedmont or Palo Alto. But wouldn’t it seem that the main beneficiaries of preventing further development at the edges of suburbia would be the current residents of those suburbs? It is their views that would be paved over, their tranquility that would get ruffled by new construction. If sprawl should be limited, isn’t the obvious place to increase density the least dense urban areas, not the most dense? Shouldn’t the suburbs be re-engineered to carry their weight of the burden of increased population in the Bay Area?

Those attempting to sell the transit village to local residents tell us that the development will “bring the neighborhood up.” The increased density will benefit us, they claim, by changing the economic base of the neighborhood. The new residents will, by their critical mass, attract neighborhood-serving businesses, somehow drive out drug dealers and criminals, and result in a more upscale community.

As is frequently the case in such assertions, there is some truth there, but it is overstated. Transit village residents are unlikely to mix into the surrounding community to a high degree. Many of their needs will be met onsite. A transit village, by its nature, draws singles, not families who would mix at PTA functions. We currently have thousands of honest, hard-working people living in the community, and their presence has not driven away the criminal element. People from new developments in Emeryville walk constantly up and down 40th Street now, unlike years ago, but no drug dealers have fled as a result. Telegraph Avenue already has many businesses; there are not many empty storefronts. The new development will simply mean more people in our neighborhood.

The new units are not being built to house local families. They will house singles and couples from other communities, who have a need, and the resources, to travel to and from San Francisco on a daily basis. The beneficiaries of the project will be the developers, yuppies who can’t quite afford to live in San Francisco condos, and the owners of commercial properties close to the project site.

Project proponents also embrace a fantasy that transit village occupants will have little need for cars; some even suggest that parking spaces be eliminated, or be sold separately, to force residents to abandon the motor vehicle. Again, there is some truth here, but not enough. If one wants to commute to San Francisco, or go to the airport, BART is an efficient, convenient and cost-effective method. The Emery-go-round will take you to the movies in Emeryville and back, for free. But what if you need to buy groceries? BART does not service any large grocery stores. What if you need to pick up one child from school, take another to baseball practice, get the dog to the vet, see your doctor or just plain want to go to a park? What if you need to bring home plywood from Home Depot, or a dresser from IKEA?

The nearest grocery to a BART station is the Trader Joe’s in Rockridge. To my knowledge, there is no other grocery store near a BART station in Oakland. A typical local resident might be a single mother with two children. Okay, let's assume the mother takes her two kids from MacArthur to Rockridge and back (can’t leave them alone at home), and somehow they manage to lug a week’s worth of groceries on BART, in those tiny plastic bags that always tear, or in paper bags that get soaked in the rain. (Have you EVER seen anyone carrying groceries on BART? I have ridden BART frequently for 24 years. I never see anyone with groceries on BART). How much did it cost our hypothetical family to ride BART? $9.00 round trip. Just to go to Rockridge and back. Not too many will plunk down nine bucks for the opportunity to visit a Trader Joe's.

At one time JAMMI was farmland. Then, it became a “garden apartment” community of modest bungalows with beautiful back yards. More recently, the back yards have dwindled as speculators built additional “in-fill” units. The newest paradigm is to pile people on top of each other in condos with no open space at all.

If one listens to recordings of old Italian residents telling what the community was like 80 or 100 years ago, one finds there was a strong sense of community. Everyone knew each other. Children played in Temescal Creek. People sat on front porches in the evening. Neighbors would play accordions, drink homemade wine, and dance in the street until dark. The tiny bungalows were bearable to large families because people lived outside. The street, the yard, the sidewalk were part of the living space.

Today’s society is different. People hunch in front of computers instead of sitting on porches. To socialize, people go to online communities like FaceBook or MySpace. We may not know who lives next door. Temescal Creek has been buried underground. The neighborhood has been scarred by a huge, concrete freeway. Open space has dwindled.

But things always change. Tomorrow’s generation may value parks and open space even more than we do. What will they do? Once open space is gone, how do you get it back? Wouldn’t it be great if the MacArthur BART parking lot became a huge, beautiful park? We have plenty of housing in this neighborhood already. Is more housing for displaced San Franciscans the “highest and best use” of one of the few large parcels left here? We have as much density as we can bear. What don’t we have?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

What blight ordinance?

Why does the City of Oakland allow developers and government agencies to buy land, then leave it vacant, crumbling, blighted, litter-strewn for months, even years?

Take 989 41st Street, for example. From the 1850’s until 1888, this was likely part of the Lusk farm. Then, according to the Sanborn map of 1903, it became a large greenhouse. More recently, it was the California Linen Supply, founded circa 1920, which employed 112 people. California Linen was run by Don Miller until the boom in neighboring Emeryville made the property too valuable. In June 2006 Charles Miller, trustee, planned to build 48 town homes on the site. The real estate market crashed and, two project proposals later, the building lies vacant, with the windows smashed out; the jobs are gone. The California Linen website, like a ghost, is still up and running ( but the phone number is disconnected.

This developer has cost the community over a hundred jobs and left us with an eyesore. Why should this be tolerated?

How about 1025 West MacArthur. It housed a martial arts studio until, again, the Emeryville boom made developers see green. On January 16, 2008, owners Mark Migdal and Marsha Levinson went before the Oakland Planning Commission with a proposal to turn this and an adjoining parcel in Emeryville into 94 units of housing, of which 29 would be on the Oakland side. Now, the building is covered with graffiti, a dumping ground for trash, and weed-strewn. On a recent weekend I saw six workers cleaning the Emeryville side, which now looks tidy. What about the Oakland side? The developers stand to make millions, eventually. Why is this blight tolerated?

Private parties are not the only ones contributing to neighborhood decline. Let’s look at 3924 Martin Luther King, and the adjacent parcel at 645 40th Street. In the 1980’s, an independent service station stood on the corner, with a duplex behind it. BART bought the property, which is next to the MacArthur BART station, demolished the service station, and dug up the tank. The duplex stood vacant for several years, gathering trash, until squatters took it over and eventually set it on fire. Then it too was torn down. The lot has sat vacant and weed-strewn for a decade now, occupying a corner lot next to a major transit center. BART is supposedly saving it to use as a staging area for the proposed transit village. Is this the highest and best use of the property?

Blighted property defined (excerpt from the blight ordinance):
3. Buildings or structures with broken or missing windows or doors which constitute a hazardous condition or a potential attraction to trespassers. For purposes of this chapter “window” shall include any glazed opening, including glazed doors, which upon a yard, court, or vent shaft open unobstructed to the sky,4. Buildings or structures including, but not limited to, walls, windows, fences, signs, retaining walls, driveways, or walkways which are obsolete, broken, deteriorated, or substantially defaced to the extent that the disrepair visually impacts on neighboring property or presents a risk to public safety. For purposes of this chapter “defaced” includes, but is not limited to, writings, inscriptions, figures, scratches, or other markings commonly referred to as “graffiti” and peeling, flaking, blistering, or otherwise deteriorated paint.

Monday, May 12, 2008

A JAMMI resident reflects on the history of his house

JAMMI resident Kevin Dwyer asked to have posted here his discoveries about the history and condition of the home he purchased in JAMMI. Read his reflections at

Rockridge envy? Kevin elaborates further at

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Our Local Treasures -- and how they were squandered

JAMMI is easily defined on three sides by man-made boundaries: the Emeryville city line, highway 580 and highway 24. The northern boundary, Temescal Creek, is not as obvious. Many people don’t even realize it is there, but they can be forgiven, because our predecessors decided to bury the creek in a culvert 30 feet below the surface.

Once a beautiful seasonal stream, lined by huge trees and fed by run-off from the East Bay hills, Temescal Creek was a defining local landmark where the Ohlone Indians built a sweat lodge, so they could bathe in the cool creek after taking their sauna. Vicente Peralta, son of the original Spanish land grantee, built his adobe near its banks. The creek was an important local water source for early settlers, and was dammed in 1868 by Anthony Chabot to form Oakland’s first municipal water supply (Lake Temescal). Renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead urged Oaklanders in 1863 to preserve the creek banks as public parklands; his suggestions were ignored.

But the creek also acted as the sewer for early settlers. The roaring waters of the rainy season dry to a trickle in the dry season, and there was quite a stench in the later 1800’s from the raw sewage of private dwellings and from the waste dumped by major industry (Lusk Cannery). The creek became an embarrassing eyesore because, like many of Oakland’s parks today, it was not properly maintained.

A flood in 1962 sealed the fate of the creek. A deep trench was dug and the creek was entombed in a concrete culvert far below ground level, where it runs today. The stretch of the creek through JAMMI was the last to be covered, in the 1980’s. But you can still glimpse its waters 30 feet down through a metal grating in the Temescal Creek Park off of 47th Street west of Adeline, on the Oakland/Emeryville border. I occasionally go there to reflect. To me, it’s like visiting a shrine, where someone prominent in the area now lies buried. I always feel sad when I see the ugly asphalt and concrete, and even buildings, covering what was once a sparkling jewel of fresh water and green trees.

A second treasure that was lost is open space. The Sanborn map of 1903 suggests that much of the former Lusk farm, south of 44th, was not yet subdivided by that date. We could have had a beautiful park, had anyone in office cared to act. But the 1906 earthquake brought an influx of residents and now all we have is Marcus Garvey Park, under the roar of the freeway, Linden Park, the Temescal Community Garden on 47th, and the Temescal Creek Park, which appears to be maintained by Emeryville.

The lesson to be learned is that, once land is subdivided and residences built, it is lost forever to any common use. Eminent domain has been too often misused, is too expensive, and is politically on the outs. And small parcels are too hard to assemble, even if anyone had the money to try.

Not only has public open space been lost, but private open space is rapidly shrinking. In the 1940’s and ‘50s, the Metropolitan Oakland Area Plan advertised Oakland nationwide as an “industrial garden,” whose idealistic vision was one where contented workers lived in modest bungalows with backyard gardens, conveniently close to jobs provided by small and medium sized industry. JAMMI would have been a poster child for working class bungalows with back yards and beautiful weather. Over the years, however, owners have build second units in the back yards, converted garages to in-law apartments, and owner-occupied properties with gardens are now the exception, not the norm.

Density, density, density. We have heard the mantra that “we need affordable housing” so much, we forget to question it anymore. But, as Bob B. recently put it, “isn’t 400,000 enough?” How many people can crowd into Motel Oakland before we turn on the “No Vacancy” sign? How many dry winters must we have before we realize there isn’t enough water for a limitless population? As we crowd closer and closer together, our quality of life erodes.

The third local treasure that is soon to be lost is adequate parking. We have come to assume that, if we drive to the store and back, we will find street parking near our residence. But, with each illegal in-law apartment that is built without an additional parking space, our pool of available parking gets tapped. Now, the MacArthur BART transit village is going to replace a 600-car parking lot with a 300-car garage. The community is expected to absorb the additional parking demand. The reality will be that BART patrons will grab spots in the neighborhood around the station and local residents will have to park farther away, lugging their groceries home through the rain.

Can we agree that our small single-family bungalows and low-rise ambiance is a treasure that we should not trade for cheaply built low-income rental high-rises and (Jane Brunner’s latest suggestion) more triplexes?