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LOW HANGING FRUIT &

 

THE DOWNTOWN

 

VACANT BUILDING ORDINANCE DISCUSSED AT THE

‘FOCUS ON THE DOWNTOWN MEETING’ ON AUGUST 29th

 

By Hatfield McCoy

9/3/12

 

Approximately thirty-five people showed up for the little advertised third and final overview of the downtown improvement plan. Vallejo’s Economic Development Director, Ms. Ursula Luna-Reynosa, Acting Planning Director, Michelle Hightower, Code Enforcement Director Nimat Shakoor-Grantham, a city staffer from Engineering, representatives of both the Police Dept. along with Public Works, and the Director of the Housing Authority, Ms. Melinda Nestlerode worked together to inform the public of progress being made on the enhancement of downtown at their third and last community forum held on August 29 at the Empress Theatre. “We would like to show you our proposals to fix some immediate concerns of the community, the ‘low hanging fruit,’ if you will,” said Luna-Reynosa. With that she launched into an explanation of projects to be completed within the seven following categories: 1.) Economic Development, 2.) Safety & Cleanliness, 3.) Infrastructure (Repair & improvement of public streets, alleys, etc. 4.) Youth & Education 5.) Organizations/Communication/Partnerships 6.) Housing & Homelessness and 7.) Image & Perception.

 

Luna-Reynosa stated that based on her experiences in “other jurisdictions” it is very difficult to attract larger chain businesses to an historic downtown area. “Typically they want to be near a freeway, have x# of people passing by with potential of even more foot traffic, have a day-time population of x within a one mile radius, things of that nature,” she said. “So we must concentrate on attracting smaller businesses to the downtown.In doing so we decided to redefine fast-food restaurants to permit smaller cafes to go in without planning approval. As it is right now, we have a large number of fast food places in Vallejo, and under our current planning codes, cafes constitute fast foods; so we are going to change that to allow more small cafes. Furthermore, we are going to modify encroachment requirements for outdoor dining to establish more outdoor/sidewalk seating,” she said. In addition to that, city staffers are going to consider special reduced fees for projects that will enhance the image of downtown. They might also reduce fees and/or defer certain public works fees for projects in downtown including earthquake retrofitting for a designated time period. “Also, currently Code Enforcement is ‘reactive’ to complaints, (they do not respond unless someone calls in with a complaint). We are now going to make that department ‘proactive’ and we shall be pursuing more fees for properties not in compliance,” she said.


With respect to safety, Shakoor-Grantham stated that they will now take a collaborative approach and work with other groups such as the new Neighborhood Law Program which will target clean-up of blighted properties, engaging landlords to remove blighted conditions. They also wish to implement an ‘Adopt a Site/Downtown Street Program’ to maintain alleys and streets. Code Enforcement will designate downtown as a priority area, and will work with Recology & Public Works to distribute informational letters to non-compliant property owners, with warnings of potential fines if they do not cooperate. They will also send letters regarding design elements as outlined in CPTED (Crime Prevention through Environmental Designs.)This will help deter crime with such things as more & improved lighting, and public benches with arm rests to deter people from sleeping full length on benches.


With respect to infrastructure, there is a plan in place to place diagonal parking along Georgia St. from Sonoma to Sutter streets to incorporate the “Complete Streets Program of 2008.” Implement downtown directional signs, and public parking signs. The cutting of the ribbon to officially unveil the downtown garage is set for October 11th. (The garage has been closed due to excessive water in the electrical mechanism of the elevator.) Staffers will also send letters to property owners with respect to alleys and areas in front of their buildings. It was recently learned that a building owner is responsible for the alley near their building up to the half way point of the alley.


As to youth and education – the city wants to provide more opportunity for youth downtown. One of the things in the works is to display art done by the youngsters on the walls of City Hall. The second and third floors will be available for same. The city has some funding from each department to help with this program. They also plan to explore land use for higher education offices and/or classrooms. The city also wants to work with the Downtown Arts & Entertainment committee to develop more venues attractive to college students. It was also mentioned that they will work with GVRD and the Youth Commission to develop a partnership for youth oriented actitivities. Luna-Reynosa said that a new private school with an emphasis on Math & Science will soon be opening on Georgia St. It will try to make headway in helping at risk students who might not otherwise be given enough resources to graduate. (This will bring educators, administrators and parents downtown too.)


On to Communications & Partnerships: The city will soon implement tree lighting on Georgia St. (thanks to the undying efforts of Fred Menard- owner of Indian Alley Antiques on Georgia St.) They are also working on a new web design, and more ‘user friendly’ connectivity with the public. Some of that is witnessed by the new general permit center (the one stop shop at City Hall). (To his credit, former interim City Manager Batchelor implemented this change.) Furthermore, they are sending a monthly newsletter to anyone who submits an email address to facilitate the distribution. The new City Manager, (as of March) Mr. Dan Keen, has implemented increased customer service training.


Housing & Homelessness: Make an attempt to establish more market rate housing downtown. Currently the downtown is comprised of 57% subsidized/government assisted housing. “Most of this was introduced with government funding in the mid & late 1960’s in a push to help the poor and homeless,” Housing Authority Mgr. Nestlerode said. “Do all cities have a housing authority?” an audience member asked. “No,” she said. The city would like to partner with non-profit partners to open ‘day-care’ centers where the homeless could go for rest and regrouping.


(Empty Building Ordinance and downtown empty building codes: A hot topic.)


The last topic drew the most controversy and uncovered little known tidbits and facts about the downtown. Image & Perception: LaVonne Salle (almost in tears) said that she had met with almost everyone at City Hall to implement the ‘Vacant Building codes.’ Code Enforcement Director Nimat then took center stage. “What folks don’t understand is that we have property maintenance codes # 7.54 and 7.62 or maybe it’s 7.60 – whatever it is, these codes state important things.” she offered. “We found out that owners with alleys behind their property are responsible to clean up to the middle of the alley. Before we had Public Works doing this job. Now we can ask the owners to become responsible,” she said. (Our question is, this woman has been Code Enforcement Director for many years in Vallejo, has she been hiding under a rock?) “We also have an ordinance in place that states that if you own a property downtown and have a pending work permit, even if that permit has been out for 10 years, you do not have to rent or make an attempt to rent your property. I did not make these rules up for these ordinances. That would be up to a City Council body to change these things. But that is what they currently say,” she said.

 

B.J. Lipari, Manager of the Empress Theatre, asked the following question: “There is a property right now on Georgia Street that has been boarded up for the last ten months that I have been here. Why aren’t you in Code Enforcement citing them or fining them?” he queried. (That would be 315 Georgia Street, and the guy has had an interior work permit for several years now) “There is language in the current ordinance that separates two words: ‘Blight’ vs. ‘Nuisance.’ If you read it you will see that boarded windows are blight, but not a nuisance. A nuisance would be drug activity, torn awnings, broken windows where someone can get hurt, etc. For example, there are two properties that are a big problem for me right now,” Grantham continued. “They are on Branciforte St. They have broken walls and broken windows. The owner read the ordinance and learned that as long as he boarded things over, he was good to go. So that is what he did, and I can do nothing more. If he did not do so, once noticed, I could drastically fine him, but he carefully read the material in the codes, and any court would agree,” she said. “We have a court vs. stick approach concerning codes. There are rules and incentives, and the court follows city code religiously,” she said.


Some have suggested that Code Enforcement Director, Nimat Shakoor Grantham has been actively conducting ‘Malicious Prosecution,’ Natasha Clark was charged and fined $400 a day for trumped up violations in her business. (Natasha is a very forthright, assertive European who can easily be misinterpreted). Also, long-time activist Myrna Hayes has been fine exorbitantly because Nimat is a good friend of her neighbor. There are many other examples of this selective prosecution out there.


The police representative once again reminded the audience that loitering, per se, is not a crime.

But if you see active prostitution, drinking in public, playing dice, or something of a criminal nature, by all means call us and we’ll cite the person,” he said. The owner of Ozcat radio said that he was shut down from his business on Georgia St. because the city demanded that his business be residential. He had to leave and announced that he would be opening up soon at 600 Marin Street. “I am here tonight to ask the city to cooperate with me and give me no further hassles with my business here in Vallejo. I like Vallejo, and like being here, but if I am given a lot of grief again, I will have to think twice,” he said. (The city has been known to bother people they take issue with – again ‘Malicious Prosecution). Longtime downtown property owner Jerry Grulke implored people to have a good attitude and get involved with their town. His message was delivered quite nicely through a poem he read. (Singing to the choir there, aren’t you Jerry?) Vallejo activist Kristina Naughton asked that the downtown area have consistency in what is placed downtown, similar lights, similar benches, etc.


We need to see a cohesive, unified look throughout downtown,” Naughton said. Long-time educator Vallejoan Monica Tipton praised city staff for their tremendous caring, work and involvement. (We have the new City Manager, Mr. Keen, to thank for their concerted efforts Miss Monica). Omar Latorre of the Vallejo Historical Museum spoke boldly, correctly and passionately about the many indigent souls who defecate throughout the downtown on a daily basis. “I have to clean it up around the museum everyday,” he said. “Also is there some kind of directory that will give vital stats, and information about an area before people open a business here?” The Economic Development Director told him that she was implementing a new web device which would facilitate that. (Let’s just hope that the 57% subsidized residents don’t scare them all away before they give Vallejo a chance.) Downtown business owner Lavonne LaSalle once again announced her imminent departure due to lack of business downtown. “I am leaving for Oregon soon,” she said. (Jerry Grulke who sold most of his Vallejo property to literally buy a little town in Oregon, gave Lavonne a deal she cannot refuse. She will be moving to his little northern Utopia.)


The new Planning Commissioner Tony Adams was the only city appointed official spotted in the audience; no current city council members were present. Convention & Visitors Center Director Mr. Mike Browne was also in attendance. Timelines from three to six months were given in order to implement some of the above stated plans of improvement. The jury is still out, but we’ll keep you posted as things hopefully progress.

 

9/3/12 correction courtesy know vallejo: Tony Adams is an appointed official, not elected