City Hall Brings Drama to Downtown Empress
By Hatfield McCoy
Dozens of people convened at the Empress Theatre on Wednesday evening, June 20th to hear what the latest Vallejo City Manager and his current team have in store for Vallejo’s historic downtown. For those of you who may not know, Vallejo is a ‘City Manager’ based town which means that the City Manager has jurisdiction over most staff members. The evening unfolded like a two act play. The drama included a widely diverse cast of characters who delivered everything from emotionally driven outcries, to poetry and tears. The play was brought to us by the already proven producer, Vallejo’s own City Manager: Mr. Dan Keen. It was directed and choreographed by his capable Economic Development Director: Ms. Ursula Luna-Reynosa; the Assistant Director was none other than Economic Development Analyst, Ms. Annette Taylor. The evening’s performance began with Mr. Keen’s introduction of his current staff. His first introduction was of Ursula Luna-Reynosa, he then introduced Ms. Taylor, and proceeded to introduce the manager of Code Enforcement: Nimat Shakoor-Grantham, Acting Planning Manager: Michelle Hightower, Fire Prevention: Charles Rivera, and Chief Building official: Mr. Gary West among other front line support staff.
Mr. Keen began his remarks by stating that the purpose of the evening’s event was to receive “input from the residents.” He went on to say that he thinks the downtown is “one of the most important historical aspects of the city,” calling it a “focal point for great things.” He then used the dreaded ‘P’ word which many residents are entirely too tired of hearing: Potential. Mr. Keen said that the city would like to identify some priority issues so that “we may move forward with our plans.” He then indentified Ms. Luna-Reynosa as the evening’s facilitator. Ms. Luna-Reynosa began the forum with an immediate apology for the conflicted timing with the simultaneous meeting of the ‘Public Safety Review Committee’ a block away at City Hall. She profusely stated that it was “certainly not intentional as some might suspect.” She went on to state that they would like to have a three separate meetings and take to heart the public’s input as to what should happen in downtown moving forward. The three parts would include: 1.) Assets of downtown, 2.) Challenges – both immediate and long term, and 3.) Goals to proceed with changes: A plan of action. Ursula further identified catalysts for change which could include Code Enforcement, street beautification, public safety, and Economic Development, among other things. She went on to explain that the ‘Downtown Development Plan includes some influences of ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments) in view of the fact that the downtown is considered a ‘’transportation development regional designation’. After a power point overview of the map of downtown, she referenced the areas adjacent to the downtown including the waterfront, and the Sonoma Blvd. corridor. She then informed the public about some of the city’s investments: The Empress Theatre was given $2.8 million; Street Scapes: $2.8 million; Intermodal Transit Facility (Garage, and bus transfer, etc.): $53.5 million. “We have also improved things at City Hall with our ‘One Stop Permit’ process, our ‘Grow Vallejo Fund’ (a loan funding to help downtown small businesses) - our ‘Downtown Commercial Enhancement program,’ and the ‘Statewide Commercial Infrastructure program.’
“But tonight we want to focus on downtown, so we would like to begin with your input as to the assets of downtown,” Luna said. The public was then invited to come forward to the microphones – two of which were placed on both sides of the stage. People were more than willing to give ideas and opinions, but the idea of keeping it to ‘assets only’ quickly deteriorated. Mario Salzaro (Solano Aids Coalition) was among the first speakers stating that he is going to begin a ‘Flea Market’ at the rear of the Aids Thrift store on Georgia St. “That should bring more people to the downtown,” he said. A speaker named Jason Robley said: “We have a crisis in this town which is the homeless situation. We should treat them with respect and humanity.” To that Luna – Reynosa replied that Mr. Keen ordered “trees and bushes to be cut down so that the homeless could not hide near City Hall.” Whether this is humane or not remains to be seen. Vallejo resident DeAnna Lang spoke regarding the waterfront stating “We have 92 acres of public land and a waterfront. Callahan-DeSilva has had it tied up for years as the city designated exclusive developer, Triad tied up much of downtown for years. And now we have some 67% of subsidized housing, so in my opinion, we are going to need one big economic engine to counterweight that fact.” Corliss Mucker (owner of the Class Act Boutique) said: “We should join the waterfront with downtown in development. There should be some type of theme such as a nautical theme, a Neptune statue or something. We should commission our local artists to create some nautical art and capitalize on our former Navy, the pier fishing boats, other yachts and our marina.” Long time Vallejoan, and downtown investor Jerry Grulke had this to say: “As former president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, I have been to many of these meetings. I can remember one in 1962, in 1967, in 1974, etc. I hope these plans do not end up with the rest of them throughout history – on some shelf. As to assets, we are the gateway to the wine country, we have wonderful homes and architecture, a Mediterranean climate, a great central location and a waterfront. What we need is more community here, we need to all pick up trash when we see it, we need to know our neighbors, and to speak to our neighbors as we pass them on the street. We need to look at one another and recognize them by name,” he continued. The chair of the Vallejo Human Relations Commission, Mustafa Abdul-Ghanee spoke with passion: “One of our assets is the people of Vallejo. There are many great people here in downtown who are at their lowest point in life. We need to recognize them as human beings, and treat them as assets,” he said. A colorful speaker and artist named Shannon O’Hare (owner of Obtanium Works) spoke with enthusiasm about his art and the ‘Art Cars’ which exist in Vallejo. “I put my art cars in the Mad Hatter parade which is put on by Frank Malafrando. There are many art car artists who produce wonderful works, and much of the art is sitting in warehouses both here in Vallejo, and in San Francisco. We need to put them on display. It would be a tourist attraction. These are world acclaimed art pieces and we could get them here for free. I could help make that happen. Many artists want to bring their art to Vallejo. Let’s open up Vallejo as a bigger artist community,” he said.
Natasha Clark, owner of Dance Unlimited told the audience that she and her husband have invested a “lifetime of savings” to invest here ten years ago. But they have learned that “people are afraid to come downtown.” Luna-Reynosa then graciously asked her what had enticed her to invest in Vallejo in the first place, to which she said: “The beautiful architecture, the waterfront, the marina, the historic downtown, but I had no idea of the problems here, or I never would have come. I have had one problem after another with City Hall, it has been an absolute nightmare.” For that comment she received a resounding applause from the crowd.
On a more positive note, Susan MacDonald, Executive Board Member of the Empress Theatre, stated that she likes the idea of the ‘Arts & Entertainment Center,’ and that the Empress is doing all it can to bring entertainment downtown. “I would like to remind people that the almost $3million the city put into this building, does not even begin to touch its maintenance and upkeep. I would also like to count other artists as assets. We are proud to have the art studios known as the Coal Shed on Mare Island, and the Vallejo Community Arts Foundation. I also want to note that we have a Fiberoptics Co. here which is far better than that of Palo Alto, many people may not even know that. And finally I would like to urge people not to keep calling Vallejo a ‘gateway,’ let’s work on making it a ‘destination place’ for a change,” she said. To that she also received resounding applause. A very emotional Fred Menard, owner of the Indian Alley Antiques shop had this to say: “Let’s celebrate our diversity, and accept all people. One of Vallejo’s assets is the people here, they are wonderful and supportive. We do have a strong community. I also want to discuss the high vacancy challenge in downtown. There is an ordinance which states that we should be fining landlords who do not attempt to rent their buildings, and we just are not doing that, it’s frustrating,” he said choking back tears. Menard went on to say that he had created a cookbook celebrating the diversity of downtown: “The proceeds of its sale are going to light up the trees as you see in the pretty pictures there on the (power point) screen,” he said. Vallejo resident Monica Tipton had this to say: “The downtown is the front parlor of our town. I moved to the Bay Terrace neighborhood five years ago, and I have always considered the downtown an important area to meet, greet and shop. As an educator, I feel also that one of our greatest assets is our kids. We need to pursue a multi-agency grant which would work with the school district to provide summer employment for our kids by participating in the community. That is one of the ways young people can learn about their community. It gives them respect for the town, and increases pride. Kids need work, and they need a work ethic. A grant to employ them to help clean up the downtown would be a perfect answer. Everyone else has stated tonight about the city’s many qualities, and my house has a wonderful water view, so I am happy about that,” she said. Lavonne Salle, aka ‘the Barbie Lady’ – (owner of the One of a Kind Barbie Doll shop on Georgia Street) stated: “Assets: The Empress Theatre, the new Transit Station, the waterfront. But there is no foot traffic downtown (she repeated this fact at least four times), and there is no attention given to the empty, boarded up buildings. I have come to learn that there are just a few landlords downtown. I am not sure what this monopoly means. Maybe they will sell the whole of downtown to one big developer, but I hope the city does not let that happen. Why isn’t the city making more demands on them? I have spent a great deal of my personal money, and have depleted most of my savings here. If something does not happen pretty quickly, I will be forced to leave. And I am not sure I want to do that, but this is a desperate situation down here. Let me say also that, in my experience, there is really little crime downtown. Most of the crime happens in the middle of the night, and it often includes a smashed car window. The challenge for merchants downtown is simple: No foot traffic.” To tell her plight more explicitly, Ms. Salle read a well constructed and entertaining poem she had written for the occasion.
More speakers weighed in with comments about the tremendous public housing existent in downtown, with one speaker stating: “I have an idea, let’s take all of the HUD and Section 8 Housing from downtown, and put it out in Hiddenbrooke,” to which the audience resounded with hoots, howls and whistles. Another speaker suggested that merchants need a “cornerstone business” like an Academy of Arts, or a college campus downtown. Yet another speaker suggested that Vallejo needs a brand suggesting: “Vallejo – An all American City”. That introduction would be déjà vu because in 1962 Vallejo was actually dubbed “The most all American City,” by Life Magazine (a now defunct magazine). Another speaker stated: “I know for a fact that many people have approached this city’s Planning Department, and have been turned down to open a business downtown. Or they have been given too much hassle by the Building Department because the City staff is just trying to keep their heads down, in order to keep their jobs. I can’t blame them, but I hope that stops,” he said. A man named Albert talked about the pot holes and the poor infrastructure. “This is low hanging fruit which would be easy to pick now. It is a quick fix just to freshen up striping, painting. I have seen a steady decline over the past fifteen years throughout the city, and quite frankly, we are ready to move,” he said. B.J., the manager of the Empress Theatre, had this to say: “I moved here a year ago, and felt this city was beautiful. It ‘speaks’ to me. But now that I have been here, unless things change, I am not sure I will purchase a home here. I am amazed at the many adversarial groups who are persistently against each other. I am amazed that there are three different Chambers of Commerce who seem to be working against one another and not working together. Some merchants have even told me that if too many businesses come downtown, they fear that it will impact their business. If Georgia Street is prosperous, Virginia Street will be also. But with some 67% of Section 8 and HUD downtown, I am not sure things can change fast enough,” he continued. Kristina Naughton, formerly with the State University of Vallejo, aka- Cal Maritime Academy, said that Vallejo should celebrate its three universities here –that of her former employer, Touro University and Sonoma State and Vallejo’s Solano College campus. “We should celebrate and encourage our college communities,” she said. “As other speakers have mentioned, I am also concerned about our vacant buildings downtown, and question why they have been allowed to remain vacant for so many years. I wonder what tax loopholes exist that we don’t know about, or what other considerations these owners are getting. People are doing nothing with these buildings, and we don’t know why,” she said.
To add to some of the complaints, long time business woman and major property owner, Daisy Villaneuva stated: “I have a large inventory of historical buildings, and I market outside of Vallejo to places like Marin and Santa Rosa. But I cannot keep people in my buildings downtown because of the crime, mostly against their vehicles at night. I have thirty-two cameras in one of my buildings. One time I caught a criminal on camera, and invited the police to look at the camera to see if they recognized him. But the police would not come. Why don’t the police show up?” she urged. Tim MacDonald, also a Board Member of the Empress weighed in with the following: “We moved here in 1998 because we could buy a beautiful home that was affordable. We have come to love Vallejo. My wife has a (Graphic Arts) studio on M.I. My question is ‘Why does Vallejo get such bad press?’ We often receive calls from people way across the country telling us that they just saw something horrible about Vallejo,” he lamented. Thelma of ‘Thelma’s African Connection’ complained that there is not enough parking downtown; her customers are often afraid to walk too far, and requested that there be more signage downtown, more lights and more cameras.
Right before the meeting ended, Monica Tipton weighed in again: “There is a theory called the “Attribution Theory” which is used in education, and which psychologists have researched. Basically it is a concept wherein ‘You become what you think you are,’ – it may sound overly simplistic, but if Vallejoans truly think that they live in a great town, the town will get better. Maybe we should try that – we should fake it until we make it. If we all (psychologically) move the boat in one positive direction, we will arrive at a better place faster,” she said. Toward the end of the meeting, the current Superintendant of the Vallejo Unified School District, Ramona Bishop, appeared at the microphone: “I heard there was a party going on down here, and I wanted to come down to be a part of it. Some of tonight’s speakers are right, we need to dance and sing our own song, and celebrate all that we have in Vallejo. I am in the process of changing things in the schools; we have a rapid trajectory toward improving academics which will even include a Performing Arts Academy. We want to partner with the city and move students into employment, all types of employment. I recently took an apartment here in downtown Vallejo. And as someone once said: ‘You can’t sell something you won’t buy.’ We must make the city our ally as in any urban school district, we must partner,” Bishop said.
In final review, the City’s overall presentation experienced a great first act curtain, but it culminated into a disastrous second act when one speaker asked about the Temple Arts Project building now under renovation. This is a building more recently incarnated as a performing arts center, and historically known as the Masonic Hall, now known as the Temple Arts Project. It is an elegant structure strategically situated on the corner of Virginia and Marin Streets. The Vallejo resident wanted to determine whether or not the building was going to be eventually opened to the general public for Section 8 housing. The Vallejo City Council had voted that the Temple Arts Project would be dedicated to low income artists and only artists. “Will that change?” the speaker asked. “Because there is a rumor going around that once the project is opened, it will immediately switch to general Section 8 or HUD housing which means that a non-artist, unemployed woman with three kids will be allowed to live there, is that true?” he queried. To that Luna-Reynosa responded: “You would have to ask Melinda Nestlerode about that; she is the Executive Director of the Vallejo Housing Authority. There are many laws which the City does not govern, through ABAG and other agencies,” she responded. After all of the hue and cries about the inordinate number of low income housing within the downtown corridor, this final comment was an avenue of grave concern for the audience to hear. Indeed, it will take an overwhelmingly large economic engine to counterweight this ultra permissive mentality.
The next production presented by the city executive staff will be about the long and short term challenges facing the historic downtown. It is safe to say that the evening’s cast of characters, (the city residents), have already delivered some of those ‘challenge’ lines for the City to review. The ultimate question remains: Will these scheduled fact finding presentations produced by city staff actually take off in a productive direction? Or will all of this gathered information be permitted to die a sad death and end up being typed and tucked away on a shelf somewhere downtown as Jerry Grulke fears? Nobody knows for sure. But, in the meantime, is anyone out there willing to try the “Attribution Theory”?